Sabotage, Chapter 15

“I can’t believe it’s finished!” Carmen exclaimed as they walked down a rustic neighborhood lane with historic shops that still got used in modern times. They still, technically, were in Reno, but as they headed closer to the mountains, the area began to look more like a small town. Actually, Carmen got a small town vibe from the way everyone stared at them-incredulously as if they didn’t understand what was happening. Everyone probably knew everyone, and, more than likely, the three of them would be the source of gossip around here. Luckily, they just needed to get provisions for the night. In the morning, they would take a charter bus to Roseville, California. As long as this journey felt, it also felt like it went by so fast! They just had to survive a night in Reno, then Sacramento, and then they’d be back in the Bay Area! She didn’t let herself get too hopeful yet though-a lot could happen between now and then!

Garith seemed to share her sentiments. “I’m glad we finished the article! It doesn’t seem that long ago that I was just soliciting people involved with Mirage. I began to give up hope that I would ever get to do this story. The last step will be the hardest though. Nowadays, it isn’t easy to publish anything without electronics.”

“I like this place!” Zartex randomly commented. “It reminds me of a town I was assigned to years ago! I didn’t get to stay there long enough to stay long though because my subject died of cholera.”

“Cholera?” Garith questioned. “How old are you?”

Before Zartex could reply, they heard a man cry out, “Yep, I think we found an alien!”

The three of them froze immediately. They turned to see a scruffy man whose scraggly appearance could have fit in naturally as a scalawag in the Old West. He marched over with a slight limp and ogled them blatantly. Carmen spent so much time worrying about someone turning them into the police that she forgot that Zartex’s true identity could be detrimental if revealed. Zartex stammered, “What? Me? You’re quite mistaken!”

“Not you!” He pointed to Carmen, whose heart skipped a beat from shock. She couldn’t believe that he thought she was extraterrestrial! She thought he was utterly mad and was ready to dismiss him until he probed, “Do you have your papers?”

Carmen’s temper flared up. It seldom came up anymore, but occasionally people discriminated against her for being biracial or for her Hispanic heritage. It incensed her! She firmly believed in not judging people based on their ethnicity but their actions and character, and she grew very defensive to see discrimination against her family or anyone else. It didn’t make it easier when it happened to her though. She seethed, “I am a citizen! I was born here!”

“I wasn’t!” Zartex jumped in.

The man ignored him and focused on Carmen. “You’re legal, fine. Prove it!”

Carmen’s blood began to boil. Before she could let her steam out on him, Garith stepped in, “Why don’t you ask her mother, Sergeant First Class Greta Alvaro?”

“Greta? Oh, you’re white! My apologies!” He scuffled away.

Carmen still burned inside and marched towards him, but Garith stopped her. “Fools don’t listen to reason, and we can’t afford his hospital bills! Let that asshole think what he wants, he’s not worth it!” Carmen realized that he was right, but she still felt amped up. Garith directed, “Zartex, take her to our home base. I’ll grab the supplies.”

Zartex agreed, but Carmen couldn’t move. She was still fuming. “Come on, Carmen!” He physically had to steer her before she found her footing and began to recover from that emotional upheaval.

That night, Carmen and Garith laid on a cave floor while Zartex sat by the cave entrance, gazing at the expansive view. Carmen opened her eyes, too wrapped up in thought to really sleep. She still hadn’t fully absorbed everything that happened in the last couple of weeks. This all felt like a strange dream, and she wasn’t sure where it was heading. She couldn’t help but worry about what would happen in California. If they didn’t get killed by anyone in Mirage, they still could get captured by police, especially as they distributed the article. She scolded herself for being so pessimistic, but she realized that this was THE VOBS talking. She got taught to dismiss negative feelings, but that isn’t healthy for anyone, spiritually or mentally. Negative feelings should be felt! She needed to go through the motions and find a way to release the negativity. Having Zartex around during this process actually seemed to really help her because he could read her emotions and she couldn’t lie about her feelings. She found it funny that an alien had taught her how to be human again!

She decided to search deep inside herself and really delve into what she felt right now. First off, this cave floor was totally uncomfortable and the entrance let in too much light for her to sleep soundly. She was nervous about completing the journey, and she was afraid of what would happen afterwards. She felt really low. She used to feel like she was working towards a higher goal and got accepted by a higher class of people-alphas who were at the top of their game. She wanted to get to an elevated place socially so that she could build others up, but she didn’t know where to go for comfort or guidance as she took the first steps towards her new goals. She saw Garith shuffle in his sleep, which reminded her that one person had been helping her. He did benefit by having the groundbreaking exclusive on a dangerous cult, but no one had to go through all that he had. He could easily walk away-he could go back to San Francisco, beg for forgiveness, and get famous from the article, but he chose to stick around until the end. It took a really selfless person to show such loyalty! She felt a rush of admiration towards him now.

Garith peeked behind him and inquired, “Still awake?”

“No, I sleep with my eyes open,” Carmen kidded.

Garith glanced at his watch and then conversed, “A penny for your thoughts?”

“I don’t have a penny,” Carmen lamented. “I don’t have a dime to my name.” She realized the truth of these words as she said it, which made her feel a little shame. “I know money isn’t everything in our society, but you gotta have a little to be normal.”

“No you don’t,” Garith debated.

Carmen groaned, “Don’t tell me it doesn’t matter how much money you have, it’s what on the inside that counts! I know I’m a good person, but it doesn’t really fill the void.”

“Actually,” Garith checked his watch again and told her, “I was gonna say a lot of people are satisfied being dependent on others for their whole life. Some kids choose to live in their parents’ house, even when they’re middle aged. Or, some women find a sugar daddy who dotes on them like a child. You chose to leave a man with money and make it on your own. You would rather be penniless than be dependent on a man you didn’t love. You are strong enough to leave a life of comfort to start over on your own! A lot of people wouldn’t have the courage that you have!” His words really heartened Carmen. It was true that she actually wanted to be independent, and that was a trait she could be proud of. And, obviously he didn’t think less of her for having no job and no place of her own. He concluded, “You got a lot of hoo-eh-vos!”

Carmen giggled, “I’ts pronounced huevos! You don’t pronounce the h in Spanish.”

Garith puzzled, “Then why did your father’s immigrant parents name their son Hank?”

Carmen reminisced, “Right before my dad was born, literally right before my grandmother went into labor, they got their green cards. A lot of people thought they couldn’t assimilate to American culture. They couldn’t even speak properly! Hank Aaron was the all-American player of the moment, so they named their son Hank. He kind of symbolized that they decided that they belong here. They didn’t let negative people show them who they should be-they took charge of their life, persevered, and made the life they wanted!”

“That’s great!” Garith fiddled with something and tried to hide it from Carmen.

Carmen caught on that he was concealing something. “You better not be doing anything nasty over there!” Garith laughed as he tried to flick on a flame to a lighter. “What on Earth are you doing?” He didn’t answer. The flame lit up, and he set it up to something. Carmen sat up as he put out the flame. “What are you-?”

The wind escaped from her lungs from total surprise. He held up a brown little cupcake with a birthday cake candle lit up on top. “Make a wish!” he invited.

“Wha…?” Carmen’s brain couldn’t comprehend what was happening right now. It felt exciting but she couldn’t totally accept that something amazing was happening right now before her eyes!

Garith showed Carmen his watch. “It’s after midnight, which means now it’s the twenty-seventh!”

“Oh my god, it’s my birthday!” Carmen gasped.

“I don’t blame you for forgetting,” Garith remarked. “It’s not much of a birthday stuck in a cold cave with none of your friends here. I know it’s not much, but…” Garith trailed off, his face looking a little crestfallen.

“Are you kidding?” Carmen’s heart practically exploded from mirth. “This is the sweetest thing anyone has ever done for me!”

“Really?” He perked up.

“Given our circumstances, it’s a treasure! I’ve had years of half-baked gestures that had no thoughts behind them, but this…this!” Carmen started to tear up. No one had ever done anything so sweet! She could still hardly believe that it happened. She closed her eyes an thought of a wish. She decided to wish for more moments like this in the future. She opened her eyes and blew out the candle. He took out the candle and handed her the cupcake. She felt herself smile. Literally, she had to put her hands on her mouth to see that it was true. She couldn’t remember the last time anything made her genuinely grin from ear to ear! Garith beamed warmly. Words couldn’t express how much it meant to Carmen to have someone actually and honestly care about her like this! She flung her arms around him and hugged him tight. He hugged back very willingly. They lingered for a moment, and Carmen felt as if her heart radiated with light. She realized that she didn’t want to let go! How strang it was to have such a feeling!

All of a sudden, Zartex ran up and scooped them both up. Utterly bewildered, they looked to him for clarification. “Sorry guys, we have company!” They assumed that he meant an assassin or a police officer, but they heard large footsteps and growling. They screamed, which alerted the bear to their presence! Zartex raced to the back of the cave, where there was an opening in the ceiling. “Meet you outside!” He tossed up Carmen then Garith and then he used his teleportation device to beam himself out, leaving the bear totally confused.

In the morning, by a small creek, a figure found Zartex, Carmen, and Garith huddled together, asleep. The figure pulled out a gun and used it to poke Carmen awake. She opened her eyes and gasped, which woke up the other two. They jolted up out of fright. Carmen probed, “Teddy?”

Teddy, who kept his gun pointed at them, greeted her coldly, “Hello, darling.”

This is Teddy?” Garith surveyed him in disgust. Carmen thought she detected a hint of jealousy, but the situation warranted no time to acknowledge it.

“I’ve got a job to do,” he stated firmly.

“So, kill us and get it over with, ” Carmen dared him.

“He won’t kill us,” Zartex remarked. “If he wanted to, he would’ve done it when we were unconscious.”

“You’re right,” Teddy acknowledged. “They want me to, but I can’t! I miss you, Carmen. Come back with me! I’ll protect you. We could have a nice life together.”

Carmen stood up and enspeeched, “Teddy, I don’t love you. It took me a while to realize…I never did! I’m a new person now. Even though the circumstances suck big time, I’m glad that I left my old life behind. I can finally be myself again! I can never go back. I don’t know where I’ll end up, but I don’t belong in your world. Sorry, but I have to be true to myself.”

Teddy obviously tried to hide his hurt at her rejection. “Where are you going?”

“To the girl I was the night before Mirage found me,” she replied.

“I’ll figure it out.” He looked around and observed, “You left your stuff somewhere.”

“It’s in that cave.” She tried to warn him, “Don’t go in there!”

“I’m going!” he defied her. “I can’t bring myself to kill you, but I can at least get that article for Mirage!”

As he started scale the ridge the cave was on, Carmen shouted at him, “The article isn’t in there!”

“You’re hiding something there!” Teddy said defiantly.

Zartex yelled, “Yeah, a bear!”

“Yeah right!” He ignored their warnings and cries to stop as he entered the cave. After a moment, they heard him scream.

Carmen immediately sprinted towards the village. Garith caught up with her. “What are you doing?”

“I may not like him, but nothing he’s done deserves him the death penalty!” she exclaimed.

They got back to the shops and ran into the same man that accosted them before. “Help!” Carmen cried out. “There’s a man getting attacked by a bear!”

The man sprang into action. “Ya hear that, boys? Gear up!” A few men came out with rifles.

“You’re not calling the police?” Garith asked.

The man answered, “Listen, it’ll take twenty minutes for the police to come to our neck of the woods. If y’all really wanna see results, always go with a bunch of rednecks with guns!” They hollered to bolster their spirits and ran into the woods.

Carmen stood there looking very shocked. Garith tapped her shoulders. “Teddy has a whole posse to look after him. We have a bus to catch!” She still felt surreal about running into her ex, but she knew Garith was probably right about the townsmen protecting him. Either way, she did all that she could. She very willingly walked off with Garith and Zartex.

 

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Sabotage, Chapter 9

Seth hovered over Elden’s shoulder as he scrolled through the Dropbox system on a company computer. Elden concluded, “It is no use, sir. Colt erased all of the company’s records on Carmen’s background!”

Seth raged, “Damn you, Colt!” Arius, who stood in the doorway with his arms folded, shook his head in disappointment.

Lilith silkily walked across the dark computer lab and nudged Elden out of his seat with her hip. “Amateurs! Scoot over!”

As she took his spot, she quickly typed in a web address. Seth scoffed, “You won’t find anything in Dropbox. That prick erased everything!”

Lilith leered, “Good thing I’m not looking in Dropbox!”

Seth, with his curiousity peaked, glanced over her shoulder. “Facebook?”

Without losing her concentration, Lilith explained, “People put their whole life on social media. Let’s see, she has a mother stationed in Afghanistan, so she wouldn’t be going there. Her father lives in Santa Cruz, California, which is where she listed as her hometown. Two of her featured photos have her father in it. She’s going to Santa Cruz.”

Seth appeared impressed but did not outwardly admit it. “She was spotted at an Amtrak station. She could have gone to Denver and flew to California. She may also be on the train. We need to figure out which route she went.”

Elden volunteered, “I’ll send recovery agents to Santa Cruz to scope out her father.”

“Thank you!” Seth turned to Arius. “Can you have men check out train stations that could get visited on the way to California?”

“You got it!” Arius winked and left the room.

Elden dialed a number on his cell phone. “Jorden Kasper? This is Elden Gundulf, head of security for Mirage.” He paused while the lady on the other line spoke. “Yes, you are right. This is about Carmen’s disappearance. She has secrets tthat cannot get revealed, and we have reason to believe that she may be heading to, or may already be at, Santa Cruz, California. Please send recovery agents to investigate.” The lady on the other end agreed and sounded like she had a lot of angry opinions on the subject.

Lilith cackled, “That’s right, you little bitch, you can run but you can’t hide!” Seth grinned maliciously.

On a construction site, Hank gave directions to some contractors. From the corner of his eye, he saw a flash of light. “What the hell?” He scanned the area but could not see a thing. He shook his head and continued his work.

Later that day, Hank played pool in a small bar with one of his buddies. They had a pint of beer and had a good chat as they played pool. His friend said jovially, “I don’t have a team! The Raiders lost my loyalty by moving to Vegas. They betrayed their fans who grew up watching them in Oakland.”

As he put chalk on the end of his cue stick, Hank argued, “They were in LA before they were in Oakland. If you’re a real fan, you’ll support them no matter where-” He stopped mid-sentence as he saw the same flash of light again. He abandoned his conversation and visually searched the side of the bar that the flash came from. He saw a young, stocky man in a suit staring at him in a cocky way. He knew it must have been him, but he could not prove it. He continued playing pool but had considerably less fun since he felt eyes constantly on him.

The next day, he was unloading groceries from his SUV when he saw a dark figure out of the corner of his eye. He gave an exasperated sigh and shouted, “She isn’t here!”

He turned around. At first, no one seemed to be there. Eventually, once he realized his cover was blown, the same man he saw in the bar emerged. Totally devoid of emotion, the man told Hank, “If you’ve truly done nothing wrong, then you have nothing to worry about.” Hank rolled his eyes and angrily shut his trunk. As he stormed into the house, the man across the street snickered.

Carmen, Zartex, and Garith sat on some rocks that rested next to a small, Old West building remake. In the distance, they could hear an actor portraying an old miner while giving a tour of the historic district. Zartex handed Garith his clipboard and clicked his pen open for him. Garith turned to Carmen and instructed, “Okay, let’s start from the beginning.”

“The beginning…” Carmen felt a flurry of mixed emotions. Before she started working for Mirage, she went through a lot of stress. Now that a little time had passed, she started to feel the emotions that she had buried. That line of work required a lot of focus on numbers and not feelings, and now she realized they went too far with that idea. She had to internally search for when her time with Mirage truly began, which was painful. If she had to go back in time, she wished she never came across them. Perhaps she could be leading a normal life right now! That thought gave her a proper starting point though. “Well, I guess it began before I even knew Mirage existed. I graduated college right after the stock market crashed, so it was hard to find steady work. Instead of going back to Santa Cruz, I stayed in Las Vegas to find work in my field. It was the entertainment capital of the world, so where better to find a theatre job, right? The best I could do was retail, and since the recession hit the city’s economy hard, lots of stores closed down. I gave up after a few years and tried my luck in Florida. I got a job at a community center teaching theatre. Things were okay for a while, but then the hurricane destroyed my aunt’s house. My aunt and uncle didn’t want me to live in the shelter with them because rebuilding their house would take a while. I couldn’t live on my own out there, not with the lousy hours I got at work. I had no choice, I had to go back to Santa Cruz. I was tired of moving around and changing jobs, so I vowed to find something I could stick with. That’s when I saw this ad on Craigslist…”

“You weren’t at all skeptical of a job advertising on Craigslist?” Garith questioned.

“That’s not fair!” Carmen defended herself. “You have the foresight and know how the story ends. I found jobs and roommates on that site before, so I had no reason to doubt it. I saw a place saying that they were looking to train a high amount of managers and didn’t require a lot of experience. Everything they promised seemed so appetizing to me.”

“They offered food to bribe you to work?” Zartex asked.

Garith answered him, “She didn’t mean a literal hunger.” He paused because he had just thought of something. “How come you never eat?”

“I only need to eat once a month,” he replied. “I ate enough to survive while I’m here.”

Garith seemed skeptical of this information but shrugged and went back to his notes. “So, they advertised management and promotions. What else?”

Carmen had to practically rewind her brain to remember the ad. “Training from a peer mentor. They said there was the ability to make a six figure income. Coworkers offered a family-like environment…”

Garith surmised, “In a weak economy, they took advantage of the people who were victims of all the financial setbacks. I can see why a lot of people may be attracted to that. It’s not often people with no experience can make a lot of money.”

That sparked a connection in Carmen’s mind. “Voracity. They applied THE VOBS to recruit! That’s the key to this all! It’s what they’re trying to prevent me from leaking!”

Garith and Zartex stared at her in confusion, but before Carmen could explain, they heard the sound of spurs clinking onto the desert floor. Garith whispered, “Part of the tourist attraction?”

“A miner is giving the tour, and they’re heading in the opposite direction,” Carmen said quietly.

They heard the footsteps getting closer. Zartex quickly transported the paper in Garith’s hand through a program on his phone. Garith stood up and blocked him to protect the view of what he was doing. Zartex made the paper disappear just in time because before they knew it, an unfriendly-looking man stood before them in a black cowboy outfit. He leered, “What are y’all doing away from the tour group? Hmm? It’s like you don’t wanna be seen…”

Zartex sprung up at that moment. “We were doing drugs! You know, illegal stuff…” Carmen and Garith nodded vigorously in agreement.

The man seemed suspicious of this response. “You mind if I take a look?”

“Sure, we have the drugs right…” Carmen bent down to the ground. “…here!” She threw a fistful of sand in his eyes. The three of them ran away, which incidentally took them towards the tourists. The man, now visible to the crowd, fired a gun at them. The crowd gasped and awed as if they were watching a play. Garith shouted, “Not part of the show, people!”

They pushed past the crowd, and the man chased them. They came across a fake gold mine with a cart on a real track. Garith and Zartex hid around the corner while Carmen hid closer to the cave. When the man came into their vicinity, Zartex quickly stretched out his leg, tripping the man. Garith pushed him into the cart, and Carmen pushed the cart, sending him flying into the makeshift cave. As they ran away, they heard a crash come from the cave. They knew this bought them some time, so they ran away to get a head start.

When they came back to the fake Old West town, the tourists clapped politely. “Good show!” one woman cheered.

A man complained, “That was an unsatisfying chase scene! You hardly ran far, and it was over way too quick. You could’ve done more to make it more exciting!”

Garith seethed, “Sorry that our desire to live got in the way of your entertainment!”

As they continued to retreat, a young boy asked, “Why is she wearing a tutu? They didn’t have that in the Old West!” The three ignored the tourists as they continued to escape.

They retreated to a Catholic cathedral and shut the door behind them. They breathed heavily but felt relieved to get a break. A couple of old nuns gazed at them curiously. The three of them waved hello as cheerily as they could portray themselves to be. The nuns raised an eyebrow but decided not to ask questions. As they got back to their busywork, Garith asked Carmen, “Who was that?”

“Probably a recovery agent,” Carmen replied breathily. “They get called when someone goes missing in each region.”

Garith probed, “Seriously, that didn’t raise any red flags for you?”

Carmen hissed “I thought they were helping! I got duped, okay? I get it. Can stop rubbing it in? Don’t you think I’ve feel bad enough?”

Zartex butt in, “It’s scary how the things about Mirage that you thought were designed to help you were actually hurting you!”

Carmen couldn’t help but agree, but she didn’t say it outwardly. She went to a pew and braced herself. She felt so much rage burning inside her. She couldn’t believe that she allowed herself to get fooled. She hated that they used her for their own ill gain. She loathed the fact they made her homeless and an outlaw. She had to walk across two states in a ridiculous outfit with people that got on her nerves. Nothing about this journey would be easy, and she had a hard time believing that their struggles would lessen anytime soon. The fact that made her the most angry was that while she had escaped, there were thousands of people still out there still going through all of that. They were all brainwashed into thinking their misery meant something and that they had no choice but to go forward with the cult’s program. People signed up for this not knowing what they were getting into. That really incensed her and motivated her to proceed with the article. She turned to Zartex and asked seriously, “Did you send it to him?”

“Yes,” Zartex answered. “Are you sure that he can hide it from them?”

“Yes!” Carmen asserted with absolute certainty. “They will go after him, but he’s clever enough to keep it hidden. He will have tons of questions later though!”

“I should hope so!” Garith remarked. “A paper appears out of nowhere with bits of random information, any rational person would have questions! Speaking of questions, if your paper isn’t carbon based, what is it made of?”

Zartex laughed, “Material from a plant on my planet, both of which you’ve never heard of!”

All of a sudden, they heard a gun cock behind them. Fear flooded their bodies as they turned to see the recover agent, thoroughly roughed up and holding a gun. They didn’t see a way out of this situation and started to panic as if they were done for. At that moment, the two nuns appeared behind him, and one of them hit him on the head with a candelabra! He dropped his gun out of surprise but could not recover it as the two old nuns beat him with candelabras. They scolded him, “How dare you soil our sacred grounds! This is the Lord’s house! You don’t sin in our holy place! Especially against those who seek sanctuary!” They continued to beat him as they chased him out the door. Zartex, Carmen, and Garith watched in both impressed and humorous views.

Zartex was the first to break their silence, “So, now what?” Carmen and Garith simply shurgged.

Sabotage, Chapter 6

“Dangerous?” Carmen suspected as much, but the reality of it all still didn’t feel true yet.

“You knew that Mirage was a cult?” Garith asked, slightly surprised.

They came to a main road, which was devoid of landmarks save for a mini mart across the street and a bus stop next to them. Carmen remarked, “Oh good! We can take this bus to the transfer station and then take another one to the Amtrak station. I can leave town and figure it out from there. Oh no! I don’t have my purse or phone, so I can’t pay for it! Zartex, I guess you just teleport. Maybe someone on the bus will feel sorry for me…”

“I have cash!” Garith pulled out his wallet and gave her a couple of dollars.

“Oh thank you!” Carmen gushed. “Thanks for getting me out of that situation! I’ll let you know how I’m doing once I get…” After he gave Zartex a couple of ones, and she got a jolt of surprise when he pulled out a couple of ones for himself too. “You’re going too?”

“Well, yeah,” he replied. “You still need me!”

Carmen felt a little skeptical after this statement. “Why? Do you have a weapon?”

“No, but-”

“Are you a skilled fighter?”

“No, but-”

“Ah, well, you’re a reporter, so you must have some skills in hiding, right?”

“I’m not a paparazzi!”

“Then why do you wanna come?” Carmen felt a little bad for raising her voice. He did save her neck back there. “Sorry, I’m just a little stressed!”

“I can’t imagine why,” Garith chuckled.

Zartex opened his mouth to explain, but Carmen held up her hand to stop him. “That was sarcasm!”

Garith divulged, “There’s a story here…”

“Oh, I see!” Carmen fumed. “You don’t really wanna help me! You’re just using me! Just like them!”

“No!” Garith gently argued. “I want to to help too!”

Carmen disputed, “I already have an annoying man asking a bunch of questions about my life for his line of work, and that’s him!” She pointed to Zartex.

Zartex waved jollily. “That position is filled! Although technically I’m not a man.” He turned to Carmen. “He did save your life. You could let him tag along at least for a while.”

As the bus approached, Carmen pouted, “Fine!”

Zartex got excited. “Oh boy! I’ve never ridden the bus before!”

“Seriously?” Garith reacted.

“Yeah,” Carmen confirmed. “He’s an alien. There’s your story!”

Carmen got on the bus first. The bus driver gave her a particular look. Carmen had forgotten that she was wearing a wet, torn wedding dress! “Don’t ask!” She went to the middle of the bus where there were three open seats.

Zartex went on next. “Hello Mister Bus Driver! How are you today?” The bus driver, who was taken aback by his high level of enthusiasm, didn’t answer. Zartex couldn’t figure out where to put the money, so Garith showed him. As the fare machine sucked in his first dollar, Zartex exclaimed, “Oooh! Neat!” It sucked in his second dollar, and he clapped. “Oh, what fun!” The bus driver still looked weirded out, so Zartex went to take his seat. Carmen couldn’t believe that he was getting more strange looks than her! Zartex told an old man sitting across from him, “I’m on a bus!” The old man scooted far away from him. Garith sat on the other side of Zartex and handed both of them a transfer ticket. The bus driver started the ride, making Zartex lurch sideways into Garith, who promptly pushed him back upwards. “Woah, this a bumpy ride!”

Carmen and Garith chose to leave that comment alone. Carmen asked Garith, “So, what else can you tell me about Mirage?”

Garith tried to make eye contact with her but found it difficult because Zartex, who sat between them, had trouble keeping his balance. “I don’t know much about them.”

“What?” Carmen found that information troubling. “You told me that they were dangerous! You lied?”

“No!” Garith refuted. “Mirage is dangerous! Worse than the Manson family! They have been getting away with slavery for over twenty years! People who wanna quit either mysteriously disappear or their memory seems to get erased. We know the breadth is enormous-spanning across the United States, Canada, and maybe even Europe. Their lust for power knows no end, and right now, it’s all legal!”

The bus reached its next stop, so Zartex asked, “Does that mean we’re there?”

“No, not even close! It’s gonna stop a lot, so try to get comfortable!” Carmen informed him. Then, she turned back to Garith. “How can any of that be legal?”

Garith explained, “They’re masters at covering their tracks. We have suspicions but no solid proof. We can’t even prove what organizations Mirage actually owns. They claim to provide back end support to other businesses, and that’s all we got!”

Carmen remembered, “Every time we get promoted, we open up our own branch and it becomes our own business, so we get to call it what we want and everything. It’s like a franchise, but they call it an Independent Syndicated Chapter, or ISC.”

Zartex randomly put in, “So, they gleam from the profits, but if one branch gets caught doing something immoral or illegal, they can throw up their hands and claim no ties.” He paused and commented, “Another stop? Why didn’t you guys tell me how slow it is to take the bus?”

Garith told Carmen, “See, we need this kind of evidence to sabotage their work! This is the proof, the link that we’re missing! If you tell me everything you learned while working there, I’ll write a huge article online to expose them! We can finally connect the dots and stop these guys!”

Carmen hesitated. She was still fresh on the other side of society, so some of her old instincts to protect her old company lingered. She still felt guilty for running out on them like that. This whole escape still felt like a dream, and she wasn’t totally sure she could trust her own judgment. She briefly wondered if she was the ungrateful wrongdoer and totally misjudged the situation. “I don’t know…”

“Think of everything you’ve been through!” Garith urged. “They took your life, and you’re just one of thousands. If you say nothing, they win. They get away with slavery and murder, and they’ll grow all over the world. If you tell your story, you can put a stop to a lot of suffering. Think of how many lives you can help!”

Carmen closed her eyes. She knew that he was completely right, but it was still hard to cut the final thread. She opened her eyes and thought out loud, “Until this article gets out, my life is at risk. You’re putting you’re own life on the line!”

“I’m okay with that!” Garith avowed.

Carmen wanted to press her point to him. “No, don’t just say it like it’s nothing. It’s not like going on a scary roller coaster or crossing the freeway. These guys have access to resources that you wouldn’t believe! They have a whole department dedicated to security. They always told us it was for our protection, but now that I know it’s for theirs, it’s scary! They’ve gone to the ends of the earth to find people! These people that you talked about-the ones who got their memories erased and the missing-that’s not a coincidence! The face that no one has exposed these secrets after over twenty years should tell you how many people have tried and failed! ‘Cause I will do it, but only if you understand just what a sacrifice it would mean on your part…”

Garith affirmed, “I understand. This is too important to ignore. The truth must be told! I can’t pass the opportunity to save countless lives! I’m all in!”

Carmen still felt a little skeptical but she accepted his answer. Before they could say anything else, Zartex noted, “Goodness! I think that vagrant is living on the bus!” Carmen and Garith silently snickered.

On a woody knoll, Carmen marched determinedly closely followed by Garith and Zartex. “Is this really necessary?” Garith tried not to sound like he was worried.

“You can leave!” Carmen replied coolly.

Garith did not object anymore. They came to the rushing Colorado River.  In the past, Carmen often sat here on a bad day because she found the quiet babble of the stream comforting. She found it strange to come to it under these circumstances! She instructed, “Alright, anything that can get tied to you-your ID, debit card, car keys-dump them here!”

Garith held back a little. “All of the important things.”

Carmen told him brusquely, “All of those things can get replaced. On our journey, you can’t use any of them! It’s best to get rid of the temptation. If they figure out who you are, they’ll use it to find us. Plus, if any of the townspeople stumble across them, Mirage will get to them. We have to be untraceable!”

Garith took a deep breath and flung each card in his wallet into the river. After it was all gone, he watched them float away forlornly. “Okay, it’s done! Let’s go! We got a train to catch.” Garith and Zartex turned around to leave.

“Wait!” Carmen said. Garith and Zartex turned back around and gave her their utmost attention. “I still have to get rid of the only thing that I brought with me that can traced.” She took off her engagement ring. “We can’t pawn it, though I wish we could, it’s worth hundreds! It has to go!” Before she moved a muscle, her heart grew heavy. “It’s gonna be tough to say goodbye to this!”

“Because it’s so expensive?” Zartex inquired.

“No.” Carmen stared at it wistfully. “Colorado took me away from my family, and Teddy made me feel less alone. He wasn’t much company, in fact, it was hard to coordinate time to spend together, but no matter how lonely I felt, this made me believe someone close by loved me.” After a moment, she softly laughed. “I just realized that I loved this symbol more than I loved Teddy. Actually, I never liked the ring itself, too gaudy! I always pictured my future husband giving me something simpler but meaningful. I have always believed that it’s the thought that counts, I really mean that! I would rather have something cheap that had a lot of thought behind it rather than something random but expensive. Teddy was important because I needed to feel like I belonged, but I liked the idea of a boyfriend more than I liked him. Or Colorado! I don’t belong here!” She willingly threw it into the river and watched it until it disappeared from her sight. She told Garith and Zartex, “Come on guys, let’s go make some memories that are actually real!” The three left the river without looking back.

Sabotage, Chapter 4

Just keep smiling, Carmen told herself as she unlocked the front door. Two of her roommates, Mario and Thomas, were playing video games, so their backs were towards the entry way. Carmen hoped she could pass the couch and slip into the hallway without speaking to them. They were two people who struggled in the company, and thanks to her advice, they were swimming in sales. Now she wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or bad thing. As soon as she shut the door behind her, Mario grunted, “Tucker?”

She steeled herself up and answered, “Nope, just me.”

“Oh hey.” Neither of them looked away from their game, which Carmen was grateful for. Without saying another word, she slipped into the hallway and darted into her room.

Zartex sat criss-crossed at the foot of her bed. “I hope you don’t mind that I sat on your bed. There isn’t anywhere else to sit in your room.”

“No, that’s perfect actually,” Carmen responded. “The floors in these mobile homes creak a lot. My roommates and I can’t hide anything from each other.” She started to take off her winter gear and a thought occurred to her. “You…aren’t gonna watch me sleep too, are you?”

“No, of course not!” Zartex replied hastily. “I won’t learn much by watching your private moments like that. Are you changing? I could step out.”

“How would you know when I’m done?” Carmen could just imagine shouting ‘I’m done!’ after every she changed, went to the bathroom, showered, etc. Or worse, he could close his eyes and accidentally catch a glimpse every now and then.

Zartex pulled up his floating screen and pulled up a heart app. “It’s called an Emotional Reader. It reads a measure of energy my subject and I feel. If you’re sleeping, for example, it would show me your mood-unconscious, and mine, probably bored. I usually have an even keel. Only one things really stirs my emotions-music. Only certain music though, stuff with high energy. Try not to play music like that or I’ll go into an emotional overload. You wouldn’t like it when I go into an emotional overload!”

“Well, I can’t control what a customer might listen to in the field.” Carmen felt insanely curious yet dreaded what obstacle that this might prevent. “What happens during an emotional overload?”

Zartex revealed, “My energy beams into the atmosphere around me and everyone gets pulled into my thoughts. Whatever image the song pours into my heart basically broadcasts out and everyone gets transported into a music video-like experience.” Carmen gazed at him in utter disbelief. “You want me to show you?”

“No!” Carmen’s bewilderment of this fact was more unbelievable than the fact an alien was sent to Earth to observe her behavior. “How is it that you’ve never been discovered on our planet before?”

“Oh, only people who I’ve told about the E.O. effect actually remember it,” he explained. “Everyone else just blacks out a little.”

Carmen felt a jolt of excitement. “So, since you told me about teleportation, that means you can use it on me right? This solves so many of my transportation issues!”

Slightly guilty, Zartex informed her, “I can alter the area around me, but to actually make physical matter move from one place to another is different. It doesn’t work on carbon-based life forms.”

Disappointment washed over her. She sighed, “I’m going to get my jammies on in the bathroom.” Zartex twiddled his thumbs for a few minutes while she changed. She came back, threw her work clothes into the hamper, and grabbed her very square laptop. She sat on her bed like it was a sofa. “I catch up with my friends and family on social media after work.” She didn’t know why she was narrating her life to him except it felt awkward to sit in silence with someone else in the room. “Let’s see…a friend request from…ew, Garith Kendric!”

“Who’s that?” Zartex asked.

She replied, “A reporter from San Francisco. Reporters are always trying to talk to us and gain our secrets. I’m not a traitor though!” She paused as a flurry of ill feelings stirred inside her. “I don’t think so anyways. I mean, maybe I should. Maybe the world should know what’s going on. But what if I’m not being fair to Mirage? Okay, they’re kind of a cult, but are all cults bad? I have a future set up here-I just can’t imagine doing anything else! Oh, I don’t know! I don’t know how I feel! Zartex, how am I feeling?”

Zartex glanced at his watch. “Uncertain.”

“You don’t know?”

“No, that’s how you feel.”

“Oh!” Zartex was right, she thought. She kept cruising the internet, trying to distract herself enough to relax. If she didn’t know how she felt, she knew she couldn’t pressure herself to figure it out tonight. She could be on the verge of making a major decision, and that wasn’t something to do hastily. She had no other choice but to live her life normally until she figured it out.

The next day, a group of thirty professionally dressed people in their late teens to early thirties stood in a circle in an empty meeting room. Motivational posters lined up around two walls, a window laid on the third, and a giant white board roosted on the side opposite of the door where a bell hung. The people in the room stood with a pen and notebook in hand and wide smiles on their faces. Bob stood next to Carmen, who really hoped she had succeeded in fooling the room of her current mood. Bob whispered, “What’s wrong?”

Of course Bob would figure it out, she reasoned, he’s been her team leader/coach for years now. “Nothing. Just tired,” she fibbed.

Bob advised, “Don’t forget our treat-Arius Delaynie is here! Let his meeting jazz you up for the field today!” Carmen but said nothing.

Suddenly, a man with a fine Italian suit burst into the room. He had hair styled with gel, a five o’clock shadow that somehow made him look gruffly handsome, and the build of a former football player. His brown hair matched his eyes, except for the redness. Even though everyone figured he must always feel tired, he hid it extremely well and practically bounced off the walls. He had to-managers set the tone of the whole company. He exclaimed, “Hiiiii yaaaaa!”

“Hi ya!” the room chanted back.

“Hi ya!” he exclaimed again as he pranced over to the white board.

“Hi ya!” the room chanted again. Carmen briefly wondered what Zartex would think of their morning meetings’ rituals.

“Who’s ready to learn?” Arius shouted enthusiastically.

“Ohhhh yeahhhh!” they shouted back.

Arius concluded, “Great! Pens out, and get ready to gleam some knowledge!” Everyone eagerly awaited his presentation. Arius wrote on the board as he spoke, “Back to basics. We have some new people in the room who may not have heard this before, but old hats in the room, take notes too. Numbers are down, so I need to remind everyone the System of Success! THE VOBS! T-turn every corner! Leave no stone unturned! Search high and low-sales can hide anywhere and if you don’t check everywhere, you’ll miss some. H-hustle! Move quick; procrastination gets you nowhere. The faster you move, the quicker you find sales and complete personal goals. E-envy. Customers are people, and people want what they can’t have. Play on that! Remind them others have it and they don’t. V-voracity. People always want more-more bang for their buck and more things in their life! They love upgrades for a reason, remind them! O-optimism. Gloomy gusses don’t gain greatness. Focus on the positive and you’ll attract the positive. Any negative thought should get washed away! Your vibe attracts your tribe! B-big picture. When you’re out there and things get rough, don’t forget about the light at the end of the tunnel. Delayed gratification-we pay now so we can play later. Let your goals be the torch that burns brightly in the dark cave and let it comfort you when you need motivation. Lastly S-seize control! You are in charge! You dictate the conversation! You decide what you want the customer to do and accept nothing less!”

Carmen’s leg started to ache. She wished that they would sit down for these meetings. Actually, she really didn’t need to hear this meeting at all. They reused the same meetings every few months or so and just reworded it slightly to sound original. It was drilled so hard in her head that she could never forget them. Arius concluded the meeting, “The vobs! Never forget the vobs! The vobs will take you to success and…”

“Beyond!” Everyone but Carmen shouted. As Arius started talking about pricing changes, Carmen found her mind wandering. The giant blister from her frostbite must have been healing, but it still hurt. She tried to be a good worker and pay attention, but she found the subject to be dry. The sales tablet automatically updated pricing changes, but some people always get confused when this happened. She realized at this moment that she told herself that she loved morning meetings because she wanted to gain knowledge and help her future, but now she wasn’t gaining any knowledge. Morning meetings had become quite dull!

Colt stuck his big head in the room. Carmen admonished herself for thinking so, but all of his features just seemed larger than normal. He had big ears, big black eyes, and a big nose. His black hair clashed terribly with his pale skin. Carmen wondered why she criticized him so much in this moment. Incidentally, Colt pointed to her and motioned for her to come over. Carmen slipped behind everyone without their concentration and left the room.

At first glance, Colt’s office looked impressive. He had a big, dark stained oak desk that faced the door. The windows opposite of the door, which rested behind the desk, showed off a gorgeous view of the mountains. One corner by the door had a steel cabinet and the other had a trophy case. Carmen could understand how this exhibit of grandeur could intimidate yet amaze prospective employees, but interviewees probably never noticed the details that she saw after a few years-the various knicks and scuffs on the wood, the dust on the trophy case, and the files stacked so high that his picture frames could barely be seen. Carmen sat in one of the weathered leather chairs expecting bad news from him. He pushed over a form and simply instructed, “Can you verify that this information about your injury is correct for the workman’s comp insurance so they can pay your medical bills?”

“Oh!” Carmen felt a little relieved and a bit silly for fearing ill will.

Colt laughed warmly as if he could read her thoughts. He pushed his pen to her, but Carmen missed it causing it to fall to the floor. As Carmen bent to pick it up, Arius burst into the room. “Whoo! I love visiting the Grand Junction office! You totally suck at promoting people, but you keep ’em happy! Is my beer still in here?” Carmen stayed hidden from his view because she had a funny feeling that he was divulging information that would otherwise not be privy to her. Arius went into the cabinet, opened up a mini fridge, and cracked open a beer. He guzzled as much as he could and took a refreshed sigh. “I have them playing a game for ‘team work.’ I’m gonna go join them!” He laughed boisterously as he put the rest of the beer in the fridge. “Hey, keep up the cancellation rate! We’re racking in the dough!” He guffawed and left the room.

Carmen sat up and stared at Colt for an explanation. “He was joking!” Colt quickly countered. “He’s a kidder! Deep down, he’s a good guy. You should reach out to him. You’ve been here three and a half years, but it took him eight!”

“But, since our business model said that the average promotion takes a year or two,” Carmen mused, “Why would his manager keep him around for so long?”

“For the same reason I keep you around-you’re too nice of a person, too sweet and kind, for you to face the reality of quitting Mirage.” Colt suddenly had a look as if he just said too much and casually tried to cover it up. “Anyways, we’re good. Go back to the Semblance Room and remember to have a good day. I wanna start giving you interviews again!”

Later that day, Carmen laid flat on a twin bed that was not her own. The room matched hers except that it was blue and more bare. The lights were out, and a man with a somewhat husky body laid on top of her. Although he seemed pretty motionless, he grunted mightily. Carmen gazed vaguely off to the distance. He rolled off of her and sighed happily. Even though she called him her teddy bear, Carmen always found him to be very square. He had a square jawline, a flat top hair cut, and even somewhat square glasses. His glossy brown eyes sprinkled for a moment but suddenly darted to her. “What’s wrong, sweetie?”

“Nothing,” she automatically responded.

He turned over to see her better. “You’re lying. You usually make way more noise when we make love.”

“Teddy,” Carmen decided to try some emotional honesty, “do you ever feel like you’re telling yourself that you enjoy our sex or do you seriously get satisfied?”

“What’s the difference?” Teddy chuckled.

“Oh, never mind,” Carmen relented. She turned away from him. “I think I’m just having wedding day jitters.”

“Ah, that’s normal.” Teddy wrapped his arms around her. “Plus, you’ll be away from the field for a whole week! I don’t think you’ve ever taken this much time off! It’s been a while for me too. It’ll be weird to have Lilith take over our accounting for a week. That makes me a little nervous.”

“I won’t earn any money during my time off, that’s scary!” Carmen tilted her head towards him and probed, “Teddy, do the managers make money even if the customers cancel?”

“The clients pay each branch a bonus for the initial sign up but get more if if the customers get it installed,” Teddy explained. “That’s why we gotta get you promoted! That way you won’t stress on sales or worry if a customer cancels. You’ll get paid no matter what happens!”

Carmen felt uneasy about this. She didn’t understand why the managers didn’t tell them this. Why didn’t they get a piece of the sign on bonus? What more secrets would she learn as manager? It started to be harder to even picture herself as manager. She half joked, “Since you’re a big shot regional accountant, couldn’t I just be your darling little housewife?”

Teddy laughed heartily. “Nonsense! You’ll be a great wife and a great manager! Now get some rest.”

Teddy kissed her cheek and fell asleep. Carmen couldn’t sleep. She stared at her ring. Teddy gave her a round cut diamond with more diamonds embedded in the band. She initially hated it-it seemed so garish! She learned to love it because of the sentimental value. Teddy really marked her as his trophy wife. She knew that they would be a power couple- Western Colorado’s head accountant and a soon to be regional manager. Her future spelled out simply before her, and a life of luxury awaited. It was the life that most people dreamed of, and many of her goals aligned with this vision. Simplicity was a treasure that everyone sought, so predictability was a good thing, right? One week and she would be a lucky wife. And how nice was it that her manager wouldn’t give up on her getting promoted! So, she now wondered…with all this before her, why didn’t she feel more excited?

Sabotage, Chapter 3

Carmen reminded herself to concentrate as she approached the first house. This was an upper middle class neighborhood, so they would care more about quality than price. She took a deep breath and knocked on the door. A man in a polo shirt and a blue tooth in his ear opened the door clearly expecting someone else. When he saw Carmen, his face soured. Carmen greeted him, “Happy Tuesday! My name is Carmen, and and I’m from Aeon Purl. Are-?”

“I’m busy,” he grumped.

“This will only take a moment,” Carmen countered. “Are you-?”

The man slammed the door in her face. She turned around and marked him off the list on her sales tablet. As they walked away, Zartex noted, “He didn’t seem happy to see you.”

Carmen gritted her teeth. “Not everyone is happy in her life.”

“But he told you that he was busy,” Zartex argued. “Why did you keep talking?”

“If they hear me out, often times they suddenly find the time to talk to me.” Carmen inwardly wondered if he would commentate on every interaction she had. They walked up to the next door, and a snobby-looking woman answered. “Hi! My name is Carmen and-”

She pointed avidly at a sign next to her door. “Can’t you see the sign? No soliciting!”

“I’m not soliciting, I’m canvassing the neighborhood to see if we can get you a better deal on…” Carmen kept talking until the lady shut the door. Before Zartex even asked, Carmen told him, “I’ve signed people up with these signs before. Most people don’t think we count as solicitors since we aren’t actually selling a physical item or taking money, we’re just signing them up for a service.”

“But you are soliciting!” Zartex pulled up a screen that floated above his watch and opened up a dictionary app. “See, the definition of solicit is to seek for something by entreaty, earnest or respectful request. It can also mean to entreat or petition, so canvassing counts there. The third definition is to offer to have sex on exchange for money. Well, you don’t do that last part but the other definitions fit you to a tee!”

Carmen stopped on the sidewalk out of shock. The whole time at this company she firmly believed that her work was a higher pedigree than what society called solicitors, but she could not argue with the cold hard facts in front of her. She decided not to think about it right now. “Well, solicitor or not, I still gotta pay rent.” They kept walking.

At the next house that answered the door, an elderly woman came out and gazed at them curiously. Carmen felt a little better because this was a sign of a potential buyer. The woman asked, “Can I help you?”

“Hi, my name is Carmen…” she began.

The old woman pointed to Zartex. “Who’s this?”

Carmen forgot about him. Actually, she honestly wondered if he was a figment of her imagination. She didn’t know how to explain why a seven foot tall man in a white linen suit was following her around. She lied, “This is my, uh, bodyguard, Zartex.”

“Zartex?” the old woman pondered.

“Zartex is an eastern European name,” Carmen fibbed. She felt surprised by her improv skills. She studied theatre most of her life, so she supposed she she expect that kind of talent from herself. “Anyways, we’re from Aeon Purl. Are you the person in charge of your utility bills?” The old lady nodded. “Perfect! Aeon Purl just installed new gas lines in your area, so an alternative to your gas and heating bill is finally available here. We offer a cleaner, more efficient gas formula, and some of your neighbors have been able to save money too. How often do you use your heater?”

“All the time!” the old lady chuckled. “It’s Colorado-we can get a cold snap any time of the year!”

“I hear that a lot,” Carmen half laughed. “Do you use a gas or electric stove?”

“Gas,” she answered.

“Great,” Carmen said in a falsely cheerful voice. “When was the last time you replaced your water heater?”

The old lady thought about it for a moment. “I don’t know!”

Caremen felt like this could be a sale. Not just any sale either. She got money for upgraded existing customers, but this would be a brand new sign up! It had been a long time since she got a new customer and it was such a huge relief! Actually, it had been a few days since she got a sale at all and she was starting to doubt her skill. “With Aeon Purl, we enhance our natural gas, so you get the benefits of a fast and clean burning fuel with the added perk of lasting longer. It’s never good to risk having your gas run out when you depend on it so much for heating and cooking. In addition to that, we regularly inspect our equipment to prevent leaks or other disasters. Tell me, how much is your current bill?”

“I don’t remember” she replied. “Let me go get my bill!”

After she went inside, Carmen silently celebrated. When customers got their bills, it was pretty much a done deal. Her bubble burst, however, when Zartex interjected with, “You lied to her!”

“What?” Carmen felt baffled as to the motive of him even thinking that. “No I didn’t! Everything I said about Aeon Purl is true.”

“Actually,” Zartex pointed out, “You said that they just installed new lines in the area, but your company reuses old territory, so nothing here is new. Your pitch makes it sound brand new, but it can’t be accurate.”

Carmen hadn’t thought of that. Before she could respond, the old lady came back out and handed her the bill. “Can you lower this at all?”

Carmen furiously looked over her pricing sheet and made some calculations. “Well, we can get you a much better service for the same price! Not a penny more and you got all those extra benefits!”

The old lady looked crestfallen. “Oh! I was really hoping to lower my bills. I just retired and now I live on a fixed income. I can barely scrape by as it is! Well, thanks anyway.” She took her bill back and went inside.

Carmen felt deflated. This always happened when she lost out on a deal. She was so close! She looked at the clock and sadly said, “Bob will be here soon. It’s almost time for the Winners’ Parade.”

“What’s that?” Zartex queried.

She explained, “After we turn in our numbers, we gather in the semblance room and form a circle. When someone makes a sale, they ring the bell in the corner and everyone walks around getting high fives from the rest of the group. It sounds silly, but it’s nice to get acknowledgement from your peers.”

“It’s not nice for the people who didn’t sell,” Zartex pointed out. “It sounds like the sellers really rub it in your face when you lose. Oh well, I guess it’s not so bad if all you earn for the day is your hourly pay instead of the extra commission. By the way, how much is your hourly rate?”

“I don’t have one,” she answered with reservation. She knew that he would find fault with that.

Sure enough, he did. “Seriously? So, after all that work, you made no money? Like, if you you don’t make a sale all week, you make zero dollars on your paycheck?” He paused for a moment. Carmen always hated it when people freaked out about being on a hundred percent commission. Up until lately, she got by without an hourly pay. She was going defend herself, but before she could, Zartex asked her, “You have to go to mandatory meetings?”

“Morning meeting and the Winners’ Parade,” Carmen affirmed.

“Including your meetings and parades, how many hours do you work?”

“Uh, I guess sixty.”

“And they tell you where to go?”

“Yes.”

“So, let me get this straight. You’re not self employed. You work for this company, not yourself. They tell you where to go and what to say, but if you still can’t sell, you get penalized? But, if you do well, they get some kind of perk, right?” Blushing, Carmen stiffly nodded. “That sounds illegal!”

Carmen felt so flushed. So far his logic was on point, but she couldn’t bring herself to believe the criticism of her company, not from him or anyone else. She had a fierce loyalty that prevailed consistently, and she wouldn’t let him or anyone else believe ill of her life’s work. She dedicated herself to this lifestyle, after all, and she wasn’t about to let anyone sway her. “Sometimes it stinks in pay, but we still have a better future!” She felt herself hearten by remembering this information. “We teach people without experience to become managers. I mean, before I worked for Mirage, I was just an actress. It was hard to find a job that paid enough to live on my own, and now I’m on my way to running a regional sales branch! See, once we prove that we can hit our sales goal of four hundred dollars a week, we get promoted to team leader. The team leader personally interviews people to be on their team and helps them reach their sales goal. Once you get eight people on your team, with at least two members that are building teams too, once the team meets their goals, you get promoted to a manager’s apprentice. The apprentice learns the nitty-gritty details, like back end paperwork, of running an office. Once I get that, I’ll be promoted to manager! I can open up a branch anywhere! I can move back to California, make lots of money, and give back to my family, who has helped me out so much. How could I learn all of those skills without Mirage? Thanks to them, I’ll learn valuable skills that I can carry with me my whole life. I may not make money now, but you can’t put a price on knowledge or a valuable future!”

Zartex nodded in a way where he saw her point but didn’t totally agree. He commented, “But now is important too. You don’t think happiness is important in the present too?”

Once again, Zartex stunned her with his logic, but this really hit her heart. She couldn’t deny that she was unhappy right now. Lately, this job has been quite a struggle, which was unusual. She had a lot of obstacles to overcome at the moment. But she had to keep moving forward. Before Mirage, she struggled so much to get work, and finally, now that she was close to thirty years old, she had a place of her own. She couldn’t go back to struggling for work and living with her parents. It was out of the question! “I spent all of my adult life moving from place to place looking for work. I would get hired and began to build up funds for my own place, vacations, things I wanted..Then, I would lose the job through no fault of my own. I have been here for over three years. It’s the longest I’ve ever held a job. I’m not a gypsy anymore-I finally have some stability! They even introduced me to my fiance’, Teddy! They’ve been real good to me, and I can’t turn my back on them!”

Zartex shrugged. “Well, at least you got one thing you wanted-your own place. Oh, speaking of which, I’ll need your address. I can meet you at your house while you’re at the so called Winners’ Parade. Type it in here.” He pointed his watch at her.

Carmen typed in her address promptly, and then suddenly, a thought occurred to her. “Wait, you can’t just roll into Pikes’ Oasis on your space ship! It’s a gated community-they check IDs and license plates…do you even have one on yours?”

“On my what? Space ship?” Zartex laughed heartily. “That’s science-fiction mumbo-jumbo! I teleport.”

“Wow!” Carmen reacted. “So, can you make sure you teleport into my room? I work with my roommates, but you never know if someone went home early.”

“You all live together?” Zartex probed.

“Well, yeah,” Carmen stated. “We surround ourselves with like-minded people. You know, you absorb the habits from the five people you spend the most time with, so we spend time with people who are where we wanna be. We learn from each other and give each other support. Plus, Mirage runs a housing assistance program, so they rent out rooms for a huge discount. I save at least three hundred dollars by going through them.”

“I see…” Zartex typed something privately onto his watch. “Ah…Often unorthodox, a group of like-minded people bound togther by veneration of the same thing, person, ideal, etc.”

“Yes!” Carmen exclaimed. “Now you understand the Mirage family!”

Zartex made some notes on his clipboard. “This is a fascinating discovery! You probably had no idea that you belong to a cult!”

As Bob approached in his ratty, decade-old car, Carmen felt her heart explode. “What?” She turned around and Zartex was already gone. Carmen felt more shock now than when he showed up in his alien face. Did he just read the definition of a cult? Bob veered close to her and beamed a toothy grin. “Mornin’!” he joked. Carmen didn’t respond. She couldn’t think. She got into his car, and they drove off.