Rebels of Darkness, Chapter 14

What are you talking about?” Alarm bells went off in Gwynivara’s head after Riley announced such an ominous predicament, but the details were too vague for her to take any immediate action. She needed more details, but Riley seemed too rattled to speak. After his instincts got the words out, he started to shut down. Gwynivara could tell that something traumatic had happened, so it was imperative that Riley got the words out. “Riley, what happened?” Riley couldn’t speak; he just shook his head. “Are people hurt?” Riley was practically shaking. “Who’s attacking them?” Riley tried to utter an answer but couldn’t. Gwynivara knew time could be of the essence, so she lost her patience with him and shouted, “Riley, talk to me now!”

Riley’s common sense snapped into place. The Rebel officers were all rapt with attention as he revealed, “The policemen! They set the quarantine on fire! I hid in the bushes until it was safe. As soon as I knew they couldn’t see me, I ran here. Half the building was in flames! Before I got too far though, I heard…”

He had trouble finishing his account, so Gwynivara leveled with him, “Riley, I know it’s tough, but if you really believe we need to go help, you gotta keep talking! So far, I’m inclined to let the fire department handle it.”

“The firemen said…” Riley exclaimed, “There were too many victims escaping for them to contain them all. Dozens of quarantine residents are missing, but someone said Chief Forsythe considered them a threat to public safety! The police were ordered to bring them back dead or alive! But they were laughing- like ‘Why would we bring them back alive?’ They’re offering a reward for their capture, so even the public is looking for them!”

“Wait, wait, wait!” Gwynivara reacted. “Chief Forsythe ordered the quarantine victims to be found dead or alive, and then they ask for the public’s help?”

“My god!” Bernadette commented. “They just gave the whole city a license to kill!”

“Let’s go find them before they do!” one officer declared. Most of his colleagues agreed and were ready to go.

“Wait!” Kierram called out to them. “We can’t just run out there while everyone has a blood lust! Do you forget that we’re all on a list of quarantine evaders? Then me, Bernadette, and Gwyn are on a most wanted list! They’re probably expecting us to go help the escapees! This is probably a trap!”

Kennith sneered, “So, we’re supposed to just let them die? What kind of marine were you?”

This cut deep for Kierram, and he chested up to Kennith, who didn’t back down. Gwynivara stood between them and yelled, “Hey! Hey! Hey! Stop it! This isn’t helping!” Kierram and Kennith begrudgingly stepped away from each other. Once they separated, Gwynivara addressed everyone, “Kennith did bring up a good point- Kierram was a marine.” She turned to Kierram and asked, “What would you guys have done if a unit was in trouble?”

Kierram looked surprised to get asked this. Gwynivara knew that his past, especially his military experience, was a touchy subject for him. She hoped that he wouldn’t explode from her asking him to share some of his memories, but she genuinely felt he was the best person to get advice from at this moment. Without Emorick’s keen insight, Kierram probably had the most knowledge of how to survive in a crisis of this level. Kierram thought back to his days as a soldier and after a moment, he told them, “We would look at the maps and pinpoint areas where the enemy might ambush us.”

One officer mused, “We don’t really know where they would all go, but anywhere we could think of, they will too. Maybe we should take a look at the maps and figure some back routes.”

Another officer added, “We also need to figure out a way to smuggle dozens of people to our headquarters without anyone seeing where we’re going.”

“Do we have any maps?” Gwynivara asked the officers.

“Tons!” Kennith ran to a small closet and retrieved half a dozen different maps. Gwynivara felt grateful for his change of attitude, but she still detected a sense of urgency in his manners. He quickly plopped the maps in front of her as if he wanted to plan this out as fast as possible. Something about this incident really rattled him! He had always had an abrasive attitude, so to see his swagger disappear like that actually worried her. She paid astute attention to him as he explained, “We were marking down where we found Venenatus Sanguis attack victims to see if we could triangulate an area for the origin, but it got to be too much, so we haven’t been keeping up with it.”

Gwynivara unfurled each map one at a time to see which one would be most helpful. She came across one map that had various factories, stores, and charitable organizations with footnotes on what was there and how to get it. Bernadette explained, “That’s a resource guide. It’s how we got supplies for the Rebel Headquarters.”

“Makes sense.” Gwynivara had always been curious about that, and although it felt satisfying to get that question answered, she didn’t think any of this would help at the moment. Before she put it away, something caught her eye. She noticed a bakery factory with a label that read: ‘Trucks, easy to hot wire.’ Suddenly, inspiration struck her. “I’ve got an idea!”

A young woman ran down the street paying no mind to the puddles she had been sloshing through. She paused to catch her breath, and in the distance, she could hear splashing behind her, which made her cringe. She knew they weren’t far behind her! If she could hear them, they could hear her, so she knew she had to get out of the rain. She spotted an alleyway between two restaurants, and the one on the left-hand side had a fire escape staircase whose landing was solid enough to provide some cover. She dashed to it and hid amongst the trash bags next to a dumpster bin. She didn’t move a muscle or make a sound hoping they would just overlook this area and continue their hunt somewhere else. She sat still and listened, ready to hear them pass by. She knew then she would have mere seconds to run…

But run to where? she wondered. She couldn’t stay in Great Dismal Falls with her father being who he was. She was too recognizable, especially with the red hair. It mirrored his image too closely to be a coincidence. Going back to quarantine wasn’t an option, she refused that idea! But if she kept running, sooner or later, she would get caught, and she didn’t think she would survive this time. She heard footsteps drawing closer, and dread began to fill her body. Then, she heard footsteps coming from the opposite direction. At first, she thought danger would seek her out from both directions, but as the second set of footprints grew closer, she sensed something different about them. They were softer, slower, and something else that she couldn’t quite put her finger on…

She heard the second set of footprints stop close by, and she dared to take a peak. She saw two women in delivery uniforms searching the alley with a tall, empty crate. The pale skinned woman pointed directly at her hiding spot just as she heard the dangerous footsteps grow closer. The two ladies tipped the crate down, and one of them hissed, “Get in!” She didn’t know why, but her instincts told her to trust them. She sped to the crate and slid inside in a flash. The two women tipped the crate back up and quickly sealed it up. She could hear her hunters approach just as the women finished, so she held her breath and silently prayed that the two ladies would drive them away.

Gwynivara could see who the girl was running from out of the corner of her eye. She could see that they were policemen, but the uniforms were different than the normal ones. They were lighter colored and more of a thinner material. They also had a much smaller utility belt, and if it wasn’t for their badge, she would’ve guessed they were security guards! Gwynivara and Bernadette lifted up the crate and ignored them as the two policemen approached. One of them bellowed, “Excuse me!”

Gwynivara and Bernadette continued to work, but Bernadette responded gruffly, “Little busy here, boys!”

The policeman who spoke before told her cordially, “And what kind of gentlemen would we be if we let two ladies do such heavy lifting on their own? May we?”

Bernadette and Gwynivara shrugged and let them help load the crate onto the truck. The other policeman grunted, “Oof! What’s in these things?”

“Fresh fruit for the pies,” Gwynivara fibbed.

They opened the back of the truck, and the four of them wedged this crate between the others. Bernadette remarked, “Well, thanks for the help.”

The first officer handed Gwynivara a business card. “We’re looking for some fugitives who escaped from quarantine. Give us a call if you see anything.”

“Hard to believe anyone with Venenatus Sanguis could get past you!” She hid her grin as she tucked the business card into her pocket.

The second policeman proudly assured her, “Don’t worry! We have special training and can spot them from a mile away!” Gwynivara could tell it took all of Bernadette’s will power to not bust out laughing. They simply tipped their caps at the policemen, who said goodbye to them as they got into the truck. After the policemen left, Bernadette hot wired the truck, and they drove off.

Bernadette parked the truck in the back of the factory with a few others. When Bernadette and Gwynivara opened the back of the truck, Kierram, dressed as a dock worker, helped them carry three crates off of the truck. He took a crowbar and opened each one up. Two men and the red haired girl crawled out. They seemed scared and very confused, but there wasn’t time to explain anything. Kierram opened up a manhole cover and directed, “Get in.” The three quarantine fugitives had no choice but to trust them and followed him down.

The young girl followed the others through the dank and watery sewer tunnels. The journey seemed to go on forever, and she didn’t have the faintest idea where they were going. She desperately wanted to ask, but she didn’t want to disturb the quiet, figuring it was part of their cover. Finally, the three people in uniform stopped at a point they recognized. They climbed a metal ladder, and she was surprised to see that they were outside of a graveyard. The three uniformed people looked all around, and the man concluded, “It’s clear! Let’s go!”

Gwynivara, Bernadette, and Kierram led the three people they rescued through the graveyard, which Gwynivara knew made them nervous. “Don’t worry,” she assured them, “we’re going to a safe place for people like us! We’ll explain everything when we get there.” She knew that wasn’t much information, but she hoped that it quelled their curiosity for the moment. She very much wished she could start explaining everything just as Emorick had done for her, but the air was still buzzing from the mass quarantine evacuation. Even though the area they were in seemed empty, everyone agreed that the smartest course of action would be to get everyone to Headquarters where they knew for sure they were safe and then explain it all. She felt bad for being so cryptic and quiet, but she knew what waited for them on the other side would make it all worth it.

The three quarantine victims seemed very nervous as they entered the crypt. In fact, one of the quarantine victims whispered, “Are you sure this is a good idea?”

Gwynivara could understand his concern. It seemed like a dead end from their vantage point. She was surprised to hear the girl retort, “If they wanted to kill us, they’d be better off sending us back to quarantine!” Gwynivara, Bernadette, and Kierram chuckled, and the two men relaxed a little more. As they headed towards the back of the crypt, Gwynivara was proud of the teen for her tenacity, although she vaguely wondered where she got her sharp mentality from at such a young age.

The three quarantine victims were sort of impressed by the secret door, but they grew nervous again when Kierram shut the door behind them. Their only light was from a torch, and the old, stone staircase didn’t offer much comfort. Bernadette shouted the Celtic protocol, and Gwynivara could tell that the three quarantine victims didn’t feel at ease when Riley answered back. No one said anything as they descended down the staircase. The three newcomers clearly didn’t know what to expect when they reached the bottom, but Gwynivara smiled as they reached the curtains. She knew the look on their faces would be priceless, and she wasn’t disappointed. When she pulled the drapes, a mix of current rebels and newly rescued ones greeted them with applause and cheers! Gwynivara beamed, “Welcome to the Rebellion!”

Everyone could see the relief flood the newcomers’ bodies upon their reception. Whatever they had been expecting, it certainly was a warmly lit hall with dozens of friendly faces! Although they knew they were safe, they weren’t sure how to react next. Riley helped break the ice by grabbing his clipboard and asking them, “Can I get your names?”

“Jerry Kwan,” the first man replied.

“Max Magnar,” the other man replied.

The girl replied, “Rebekah Forsythe.”

The people who heard her gasped, and Riley seemed so shocked that he almost dropped his clipboard. Gwynivara didn’t want to believe it at first, so she decided to clarify what they all suspected. “Forsythe? As in Chief Forsythe?”

“Yeah,” Rebekah confirmed. “He’s my father.”

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Rebels of Darkness, Chapter 9

Gwynivara knew that Bernadette didn’t scream out of fear. If an attacker ever scared her, she wouldn’t give that person the satisfaction of seeing the torment he or she had caused. The fact that she did meant only one thing to her- Bernadette had tried to warn her about the danger she currently faced so that she could escape. Unfortunately, Bernadette didn’t realize that her forewarning came a split second too late-Gywynivara had already opened the basement door! She stopped dead in her tracks when she saw one well dressed man holding a chained leash which harnessed a beast watching another fashionable male stab Bernadette in the back! Her heart stopped as Bernadette fell to the floor!

Gwynivara stiffled the sense of outrage that burned inside her, but she couldn’t contain all of it. The two men saw her, and the one with the creature lumbered towards the door. She slammed it shut and ran through the kitchen, heading towards the living room where the front door was located. She didn’t make it far when the fiend burst through the door! The man unleashed it, and it scurried towards her. Gwynivara eyed a knife holder on the counter next to her and grabbed a weapon just as it reached her. As it lunged, she stabbed it in the stomach. It fell to the floor and writhed in pain. Gwynivara thought about Bernadette lying in the basement, and she used her fury to spawn a ball of light. As the creature regained its composure, Gwynivara threw the ball of light at it. The creature disintegrated into the air! The man inquired incredulously, “How did you do that?”

She almost answered him, but her instincts pointed out that he was an enemy. She inwardly debated whether to fight him or questions him, and her answer came by him reaching into his pocket. She was prepared to combat, but before he could grab his weapon, someone from behind him put a knife to his throat! Disbelief flooded every inch of her body as she heard Bernadette snap, “Don’t even think about it!”

“Impossible!” the man blurted out as he put his hands up.

Bernadette retorted, “Your partner tried to stab my spine. He didn’t know that I have scoliosis!” The man cringed at his partner’s ill luck. “So, here’s what’s gonna happen. You’re gonna-”

Before Bernadette could finish her sentence, the front door busted open, and a barrage of policemen poured into the home, pointing their guns at the two women. Bernadette dropped the knife and threw her arms up. Gwynivara did the same, and her mind started racing. There was nowhere to run, and her conjuring skills weren’t potent enough to take on this many people at once. Her only hope was to tell the truth and hope that the policemen would listen and believe her, but she had a nasty feeling that they had already sentenced them in their minds. She exclaimed, “We were only defending ourselves!”

“Yeah right!” one policeman responded. “It looks like you two have the upper hand here!”

The man in the kitchen tattled, “They killed my friend!”

“They tried to kill us first! Look!” Bernadette turned around to show them her bloody back.

Smirking slightly, the man informed them, “It was self defense! Oh, did I mention that we’re in the police academy?”

Gwynivara and Bernadette’s stomachs dropped upon hearing this. One police officer asked him, “No kidding! What division?”

“Venenatus Sanguis,” he answered solidly Gwynivara knew if that creature hadn’t disintegrated that they would have gotten accused of having the disease and get thrown into quarantine, which would be a death sentence for them. She knew he knew something was up with her, but she could tell that he didn’t know that Venenatus Sanguis could get used in this way. She didn’t want to get arrested, but at least it had more of an opportunity for escape compared to other options.

Another officer regarded the girls, “Sorry, ladies. We have sufficient evidence to have you both arrested.” As the police handcuffed them, Bernadette and Gwynivara glanced at each other, clearly both thinking the same thing- how were they going to get out of this?

Gwynivara arrived at the police station with her hands cuffed in the front of her. She hoped that while Bernadette was in the hospital that she would hatch a way to escape. The rebel headquarters had no phone line, so she figured that the patrol officers check the hospital and jail to check on missing members. Actually, she realized that she had never gone on a patrol before today and didn’t know the procedure for it. Just like herself, Bernadette were too preoccupied with Riley’s fate to discuss training or protocol. She had to use her best judgment and pray that she actually picked the best option. A female officer, without looking up from her clipboard, asked her, “Name?”

Ann Smith.” Gwynivara knew there had to be tons of different Ann Smith’s in the world, so it would take quite a bit of research before they realized she had lied about her identity. She could do nothing else but helplessly hope that she had given the other rebels enough time to find her.

The clipboard officer listlessly instructed, “Put your fingers on the ink pad and print them here.”

Gwynivara’s first instinct was to comply, but then it occurred to her that they may not have been able to recognize her by name, but but everyone’s fingerprints were unique, very distinguishable and traceable! For a moment, she panicked. But, at that moment, a figure walked into the police station. He wore a black trench coat and a matching fedora, which was attraction enough, but Gwynivara had a feeling she knew who that person was. Intuitively, she knew she had to stall for time. She put ink on her middle finger first. Most people didn’t know she had a double-jointed middle finger, and it curved slightly up when she wanted it to. She pressed it to the fingerprint sheet, which only produced a partial. The lady probed, “What’s wrong with your finger?”

“It didn’t look like that this morning!” Gwynivara fibbed.

“Did it happen during your arrest?” she questioned. Gwynivara shrugged, so the woman told her, “I’m gonna have you talk to our medic over-”

The female officer physically pointed her in the direction of the medic, but before she could finish her sentence, the earth began to quake! The tremors were so violent that the furniture got knocked over! Everyone got under some cover as the ceiling began to grumble, but Gwynivara was not near any furniture, so she couldn’t hide. Fortunately, she didn’t have to. The man with dark fedora scooped her up and ran out of the police station just in time!

Once outside, the man held onto her to keep her from falling with one hand and made some strange gestures with the other. Suddenly, the quakes stopped. “Maybe if you’re nice to me, I’ll teach you how to do that.” He turned to look her in the eye, revealing himself to be Kierram! He grinned, linked arms with her, and took off running.

Once they were at a safe distance, Kierram and Gwynivara ducked into an alleyway, and Kierram produced a key to unlock the cuffs. Gwynvara had to ask, “How did you know?”

As she uncuffed her, he answered, “Blake and I were on patrol and heard a policeman listening to a page where they called all units to an address. When we got there, you were getting hauled away.”

“Is Blake at the hospital with Bernadette?” Gwynivara questioned.

Kierram replied, “I hope so!” They exchanged grim glances and dashed away.

At the hospital, the emergency room staff clearly were over-occupied and understaffed, so no one bat an eye when Kierram and Gwynivara entered. They went down the hall, peaking into each room. They found the operating room and lingered a little. Since Bernadette got stabbed, there was a good chance she could have been in there. What they saw was a group of surgeons gazing down at the patient on the table with very solemn looks on their faces. One surgeon stated, “We lost him.”

“Him? Oh good!” Gwynivara started to walk away.

Kierram stopped her by saying, “No wait!” As they covered the patient with the blanket, he revealed, “That’s Blake!”

Gwynivara felt stunned. They had just talked to him not that long ago, so it just didn’t seem possible for him to be dead. “Are you sure?”

“Positive,” Kierram confirmed. “Come on, we gotta find-”

Taylor?” a nurse called out. Gwynivara responded automatically, but it felt strange, almost as though she stepped into a world she thought she left behind. “What are you doing here?”

“Oh, I got my job back,” she improvised.

“No,” the nurse responded, “Why aren’t you looking for the missing patient? Every available staff member is supposed to help find her! Come on!”

“I’m on it!” Gwynivara gladly volunteered.

As the nurse went in the other direction, Kierram whispered, “Where could she be?” They heard a loud bang coming from above them, which they were fairly sure had been the answer to their question. They bolted to the nearest set of stairs.

As they ran up, they saw Bernadette, who now wore a doctor’s lab coat, hurrying down towards their direction. Bernadette inquired, “How are we gonna get out of here alive?”

When they got to a landing, Gwynivara spotted a trash cart and pointed to it. “That’s how! Get in!” Bernadette climbed in, and Gwynivara put a small trash bag on top of her to cover her up. The hospital staff didn’t pay them any mind, that is until they reached the five doctors from the hiring panel! Clearly puzzled, they were about to say something, but Gwynivara cut them off, “I don’t get paid to clean, but no one said I couldn’t volunteer!”

The doctors looked as though they wanted to object but couldn’t find any reason to…until they were almost out the door. Doctor Richards blurted out, “Why are you bringing the trash outside?”

For a moment, they thought they were done for, after all, there wasn’t any reasonable explanation to do so. Kierram and Gwynivara wracked their brains to think of something, but fortunately, they didn’t have to. Three creatures that resembled wingless birds skulked towards them. Gwynivara smirked and told them, “No offense, but you got bigger problems to deal with right now!” She pointed behind them, and the doctors turned around, screaming at what they saw. Gwynivara and Kierram rolled Bernadette out of sight!

Searching for a good read?

Sabotage by Dana Lee Burton

What would you do if you discovered that you belonged to a cult? Carmen faced that decision right before her 30th birthday. She devoted her life to a company called Mirage, which promised a luxurious lifestyle in a exchange for some hard work. After spending her twenties bouncing between jobs, this seemed so stable, but it took an alien, Zartex, assigned to observe her to show her the truth. Once she did, she vowed to expose their misdeeds to the world. So, together with a dashing reporter named Garith, Carmen creates an expose’ to sabotage Mirage’s plans. Trouble wreaks havoc though once Mirage discovers her plans, so they send dangerous people to stop them at all costs. Carmen, Garith, and Zartex must flee for their lives, but they will do whatever it takes to get the truth out there before more lives get ruined. Can they thwart Mirage in time, or will they also become the victims of sabotage?

Sabotage, Chapter 19

Carmen’s mind stood still in a dream-like trance. None of this felt real. Seth wasn’t supposed to be here! She wasn’t supposed to be facing a gun! People always said that before a person dies, their life flashes before their eyes. That didn’t happen to her. It was more like the effect one has at the end of an epic film-everything came together like a puzzle that was now complete. She couldn’t believe that this was it. She had a hard time accepting that her life didn’t mean more than this; she had goals, dreams, she wanted to make a difference in the world! She searched for a solution, a way out, but she drew a blank. This really felt like the end.

A simple question drew them back into reality. Zartex asked, “How did you get in here?”

Seth answered, “The door in the back was unlocked.”

“There was a door?” Zartex cried out incredulously. “We sure did it the hard way!”

Jorden used Seth befuddlement over that interaction to her advantage. She took out a gun and gently pushed it to Carmen, who quickly scooped it up. Arius reacted vehemently, “What are you doing?”

“Traitor!” Elden declared.

“She saved my life,” Jorden pouted. “I can’t do it! She has a fighting chance now. My conscious is clear.” She folded her arms, clearly upset that she couldn’t stomach her duties to Mirage.

Carmen pointed the gun at Seth, who turned his attention away from Jorden and finally realized what the situation was. Carmen felt uncomfortable toeing the thin line between taking a life and protecting herself. She had no experience with guns, so she really didn’t feel confident at her shooting ability at the moment. If she missed, she would get killed. Or worse, she could get an innocent bystander hurt. She concentrated as much as possible, going over every fact she knew about a gun based on the handful of times her mom took her to the shooting range. She really hoped the police would interrupt this standoff so that she wouldn’t have to make this difficult decision. Inwardly, she knew she couldn’t show fear to Seth right now, so she sarcastically said, “By the way, I’m declining your Head of Security job offer!”

Lilith made an almost hissing noise, but Seth just laughed, “Look at you, pretending to be brave! You never were good at hiding your emotions. You were always scared to go to the field, everyone knew that. I kept waiting for the day it would snap together for you, but you never got it. Truth is you didn’t have the guts to be a manager!”

“She didn’t need to be fearless!” Garith couldn’t refrain from shouting passionately. Zartex had to physically hold Garith back, who was basically shaking from anger. “Each day, she faced her fears! She was braver than you’ll ever be! She walked away from Mirage! She rejected you, not the other way around! She walked away because she was too good of a person to ever rank up! Don’t you dare try to make her feel inferior!”

Arius and Elden pulled out their guns, but Seth just chuckled. “Give them to me!” Even though they were confused, Arius and Elden handed over their guns. “Yours too, Lilith.” Scowling, Lilith reluctantly gave Seth her gun. “Guys, she’s not gonna shoot me!” He put down his own gun and put his hands up. Carmen wasn’t sure what his intentions were, but she didn’t trust him, so she refused to stand down. “Go ahead, shoot me!” Everyone at the scene looked from Seth to Carmen, back and forth. Seth, totally cocky, taunted Carmen, who concentrated only on his movements and fixing her gun at him. “You’re too goody-two-shoes to pull the trigger. That’s the difference between you and us-we do we gotta do to succeed. You have the upper hand! You can solve your problems right now by eliminating me! But you won’t! You’re too weak!” Carmen was starting to get irritated and hoped that it wasn’t apparent. Seth did notice and did a little dance to egg her on. “Shoot me, bitch! Shoot me! Go on, shoot me! Do it! Come on, do it!”

Carmen’s scowl deepened. It was too tempting to pull the trigger. That SOB would deserve it! He was evil and hurt a lot of people! She would but doing the world a favor…Ultimately, she knew she couldn’t hurt anyone unless she absolutely had to. She kept thinking of solutions that didn’t involve anyone dying, including herself. She tried to think of ways to subdue him without killing him. He kept mocking her, which made it hard to concentrate. The situation was tense, no one knew what would happen. If Seth reached for his gun again, she knew she would have to hit him before he could shoot her. But where could she shoot him that would stop him physically but not fatally? Seth saw her arms grew weaker, so he remarked, “That’s what I thought!” He bent down slightly to the left where his gun laid. Instinctively, she aimed her gun and pulled the trigger!

The girls shrieked, and the guys moaned in sympathetic pain. Seth screeched louder than anything Carmen had ever heard. He rolled and writhed in pain as blood flowed from…his groin! Lilith, Jorden, Arius, and Elden timidly turned to Carmen, who still held up her gun. “Get down on the ground!” The four got onto their bellies, peeking at Carmen as she spoke to Seth, “You’re right-I’m not like you. I don’t need to kill people to reach my goals! No, I didn’t spare your life out of pity or remorse. The thing I realized was that upon your death, your body would be at peace. You don’t deserve that! There are things so much worse than death!”

“That’s so cliche’!” Seth groaned. He felt some sharp pain, which made him cry out. “Ugh! You bitch! You bitch!”

“I’m the bitch? I got your balls! You don’t!” Carmen mocked him. She put down her gun and turned to Garith and Zartex, who had a mixed look of sheer terror and utter admiration.

Before anyone could say anything, a group of police swarmed in and surrounded the Mirage executives. “You’re all under arrest!”

“What?” Seth roared out. “She tried to kill me!”

The police informed him, “The amusement park caught you guys breaking in and ambushing them. Thought they were trespassing, we’re gonna let that go ’cause clearly you attacked them!”

Seth argued, “She killed Colt Duncan! We were trying to apprehend her so she could go to jail-where she belongs!”

At that moment, a man in a nice suit flashed his police badge at them. “Detective Disung. I’ve been in touch with the Grand Junction police. Colt’s autopsy showed that he got killed by someone who’s left handed. Carmen is holding a gun with her right hand. We are starting to doubt that she did it.”

Still writhing in pain, Seth pointed out, “So, she shot with her left hand to cover her tracks!”

Detective Disung took out his phone, where he read his notes, “She had the opportunity to let one Teddy Amsan die, but she risked her own freedom to get him help. That just doesn’t seem like the behavior of a guilty person.”

Crying in anguish, Seth yelled, “She wants you to think that! I demand that you arrest her!”

As an ambulance came and began to render him first aid, the police all shrugged at each other. Garith stepped forward and asked, “When was Colt’s time of death?”

Detective Disung gazed at his notes answered, “Colt’s time and date of death: October thirteenth at seven-o-three p.m. Unless you guys have proof of your whereabouts at that date and time, we’ll have to arrest Carmen too.”

Carmen’s heart sunk. She couldn’t believe after everything she went through that it would end this way. As a police officer approached her, Zartex unexpectedly interjected, “Wait, I have proof!” This statement stunned everyone, who watched him with total anticipation as he dug through his pocket and gave something to Detective Disung.

Carmen glanced over the detective’s shoulders, and her sunken heart reinflated. Zartex gave him the photo that they took with the cardboard cutouts at the Green River railroad station! She finally broke her silence, “Look, there’s the receipt stapled to it with the date and time of the transaction! I wasn’t even in the same state as him when he died! I’m innocent! This is proof!”

As Seth got strapped to the gurney, he insisted, “Anyone can fake that! She did it!”

Detective Disung suggested, “Watch what you say-just ’cause you’re going to the hospital doesn’t mean we won’t use what you say in the court of law! Plus, you should be grateful to be alive right now. She could have killed you! I would have!”

As the ambulance wheeled him away, he shouted, “No, she did it! She went into his office and shot him in cold blood! She left him there to bleed all over his family’s picture!”

Detective Disung grinned. “Funny, that detail wasn’t released to any public records!” Seth realized his mistake and cringed as the ambulance loaded him in.

Carmen stood in disbelief. Was it really over? What just happened? What will happen now? The park manager stood before his crew and scolded them, “You guys have GOT to start locking the doors!” Suddenly, it clicked for her-she didn’t have to run anymore! Everyone knew the truth! She was free!

At that moment, something caught her eye that made her beam from ear to ear! She ran in pure joy. She never thought she would ever see…

Sabotage, Chapter 18

“Whooooo-hooooo!” Zartex cried out in jubilee as the dragon roller coaster cascaded down the tracks. He appeared to be more animated about the experience than the kids that were also on the ride, which the park manager was quick to notice. Carmen simply explained, “He’s European.” The park manager seemed to take that as a justifiable explanation and walked away.

As he walked away, Garith slipped a newspaper in his tool belt. Garith told Carmen, “That was my last one. They’re all out!”

“Great!” Carmen responded listlessly. She joined the crowd of parents watching the roller coaster to watch Zartex enjoying himself. All the newspapers were out. The bombshell information about Mirage now could be seen by people outside the cult. Their secrets were now out, which is what Carmen had been waiting to do for a long time. And yet, now that this moment was here, she actually felt pretty depressed.

Garith seemed to notice this and joined her in watching the ride. “It’s not exactly happily ever after, is it?”

“I guess I was hoping that once the article got out that people would get outraged by the truth and that Mirage would go down immediately. It would set me free from sneaking around and I wouldn’t have to survive assassination attempts anymore. But people aren’t reading it. I know they gotta look after their kids, but not one person has read it! So, that means we gotta keep living like criminal nomads for a little longer. Or a lot longer, who knows! I just wanted this nightmare to end!” Carmen sighed.

Garith assured her, “These things take time. At some point on our way back to the Bay Area, the right person will read the article and spread the news. It doesn’t end here, trust me!” He pat her back, which made her feel a little better. She couldn’t shake the surge of disappointment, but it was nice to have someone who had faith in her.

Zartex surfaced by them with an exhilarated expression and slightly staggered walk. “I’m a little dizzy and a little nauseous, but I would do it again in a heartbeat! These machines are awesome!”

“So, now what?” Carmen asked.

“How about the teacups?” Zartex suggested.

Garith pointed out to him, “I think she meant travel-wise. Besides, you were lucky enough finding one ticket, good luck finding three more!” Zartex took him literally and began to search the grounds. Garith talked to Carmen, “We don’t have much money left, but I do remember that there’s a charter bus that goes to San Francisco for a discount. If we leave at six a.m., our tickets would only be a dollar. I think people would be too groggy that early in the morning to pay to us. What do you think?”

“I think I would pick a green teacup,” Zartex remarked.

Carmen noted, “We’ll have to spend the night here again. But yes, I think you have a good idea. I don’t feel much like walking long distances again! Once we get there, I could take the BART to…wait, I don’t have any money. I could borrow a phone to call my dad to come get me. Oh, but they’re probably monitoring his phone calls. I don’t know! Ugh!”

Garith put his hand on her arm, “You’ll figure it out. You always do.”

Carmen smiled. Even though she didn’t quite believe it, she found comfort not necessarily in his words but for the fact that he really cared. Before she could respond, Zartex showed them something. “Hey guys! I found three tickets! Isn’t that great?”

“Yeah…” Garith and Carmen said unison.

Zartex didn’t catch their tone and grabbed their hands. “Yes, let’s go!” Zartex dragged them towards the teacup ride. “Garith, I thought you wanted to have more fun?”

“You know what sounds fun right now?” Garith responded, “A stiff drink!”

As they stood in line, Carmen inquired to Zartex, “You steal these tickets, did you?”

Zartex handed them each a ticket and revealed, “Of course not! I found them in a puddle!” As soon as it hit their hands, they felt the wetness of the paper and grimaced.

Jayesh Chakrabarti brought up the last of their belongings from their day trip to their apartment. He took a deep breath to decompress from all of the exercise he just did. For a moment, everything was peaceful. Suddenly, a teapot whistled and his toddler came out of the kitchen, bawling. His wife, carrying their six month old, chased after the screaming child. “Oh good, you’re finished! Change his diaper!” She handed the baby to him.

Jayesh groaned, “Sweetheart, can’t I rest a moment?”

“Do I get to rest? she snapped. “It’s hard enough to cook dinner with a child who won’t-!”

“Alright, alright!” he relented. His wife gave him the stink eye but quickly got back to what she was doing before.

As Jayesh reached for a diaper on the changing table shelf, he realized that the shelf was empty. He grumbled a little and grabbed the diaper bag. After he unzipped it, he saw a map from the amusement park they were just at. He did not want to remember that chaotic experience at the moment and threw it to the ground. As he reached for a diaper, he felt a newspaper. That was strange since he typically didn’t read a newspaper let alone pack one for a family outing! He unfurled it and began to read out of sheer curiosity. Something caught his attention out of the corner of his eye, and he dodged out of the way just in time to avoid getting sprayed by his son.

After he quickly changed his son’s diaper, he went to the third bedroom where his home office stood. He had several shelves of law books behind his desk, which had a computer and a few case files on it. He sat down and red the entire article, growing more agitated the more he read. When he finished, he set the paper down and looked up a phone number on the computer. He got on his office phone and waited for someone to pick up. When someone did pick up, he immediately jumped in, “Hi, this is attorney Jayesh Chakrabarti. We need to take immediate action against Mirage…”

“Noooo!” Lilith growled. Limping quite a bit, she hobbled over to Seth, who was asleep at his desk. She shook him, but he did not budge. She turned on the light, revealing his decadent space with ebony walls, tabriz carpet, oil paintings, a marble fountain, and yew desk. As he groggily sat up, she turned her laptop towards him. “They got the article out!”

Rubbing his eyes, Seth told her, “So? Just delete the article from whatever site they published it on. It’s not like the first time someone has tried that.”

“The article isn’t online,” she informed him, growing more and more angry by the minute. “Our tech caught an email conversation between a lawyer and a government official! They want to find Carmen and this reporter so they can testify against us! How do we stop them?”

Seth, finally awake, read everything on her screen and concluded, “Their article isn’t a nail in the coffin. They want to talk to get more details. Well, they can’t prove anything if they don’t have their witnesses! We’ll have to get to them first.”

Lilith thought for a moment. “If they didn’t publish their article online or on television, they must have distributed it on paper. So, this lawyer must have visited wherever they are hiding! I’ll have our tech look at his credit and debit purchase history.”

“While you do that, I’m gonna start packing!” Seth took his gun out and cocked it.

Meanwhile, Hank couldn’t sleep. He got out of bed and started pacing. He often got inklings that Carmen was in trouble, and he did his best to figure out where she was. He turned on his newly purchased police scanner and opened up his laptop. He searched crime news from various stations in Northern California. Orlando jumped onto the bed and rubbed his head on the police scanner. Keeping his eye on the screen, he spoke to the cat, “I haven’t seen any articles about spotting her. I lost track of her after she left Reno. I know she was in Reno ’cause a man named Teddy got attacked by a bear. That isn’t a coincidence! But where is she now?” Orlando began meowing, but Hank ignored him. “I just need some clue or sign where she might be!” He couldn’t ignore Orlando’s meows anymore and snapped, “What?”

When he turned to the cat, he noticed the police radio next to him. That’s when he heard an officer report, “That’s a negative. Truck was clear. Suspects are likely still in Sacramento.” Orlando was now silent but stared at him expectantly.

“How did you…? Oh, whatever!” Hank bolted out of bed and grabbed his jacket as he ran out the door.

Carmen opened her eyes, but she had not slept. She feigned sleep for the sake of normalcy, but she couldn’t relax. Something about this part of the journey made her incredibly nervous. She reasoned that perhaps it stemmed from the increase in police presence. She felt like a mouse getting chased by a cat; the moment she got caught, her life was over. “You could just get a lawyer,” Garith suggested.

Carmen jumped slightly. She thought she was alone in not being able to sleep. “Can you read my mind?”

Garith chuckled, “It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what you’re thinking. You’re innocent. How can they convict you?”

“Because Mirage executives are professional liars!” Carmen told him. “Besides, do you think that they would get a conviction out of me and leave it at that? There’s nothing to prevent me from talking in prison. And I’m willing to bet they have connections on the inside. No, they didn’t involve the police to put me away. They used them to make it more difficult to get away from Mirage! They used them to trap me.” The thought hadn’t occurred to her until now, and it completely creeped her out.

“They also probably wanted to discredit her,” Zartex chimed in. At that moment, a notification sounded on his watch. He viewed it and frowned, “Uh, guys…”

“We know, it’s time for us to go,” Garith responded. He hopped out of their hiding spot and began to help Carmen down.

“Well, it’s time for you to go,” Zartex said sadly, “I’ll be going home in a few hours.”

“What?” Carmen and Garith replied in unison. Out of shock, Garith stood still, and Carmen was so stunned that she didn’t realize she was dangling off the pergola.

“No!” Garith lamented. “You gotta leave the planet today?”

“Why didn’t you tell us?” Carmen asked ruefully. Her arms began to feel sore. “Uh, a little help?”

As Garith’s attention snapped to her, Zartex also climbed down and explained, “I requested an extension, and since my subject was in mortal peril, I really thought they would grant it. I got denied, so they’re going to beam me back today.”

“Wow, this really sucks,” Carmen said forlornly.

“We’ll miss you!” Garith remarked. “I can’t imagine going on without you!”

“Guys,” Zartex related to them, “I still have a little while. It’s not time to say goodbye yet!”

“I disagree!” Seth seethed. With the utmost horror, Zartex, Carmen, and Garith turned to see Seth, Lilith, Elden, Jorden, and Arius all smirking as one does when they catch their prey. Seth cocked his gun.

Sabotage, Chapter 17

“I think this would be a good spot,” Zartex declared as they rowed down the river. It was still dark, but Zartex had been navigating with the map on his watch to pinpoint a good spot to land the canoe. They rowed towards the shore, but when they police lights, he revoked his previous opinion, “Never mind!”

“Duck!” Carmen instructed. Gartith, Zartex, and Carmen got low as the police searched the river. Zartex, with a little stealth, stuck his hand outside of the canoe and pushed it away from the land so they could get out of the police’s eye.

After they felt it was safe enough, they brought the canoe to the shore. Garith asked Zartex, “Are we still downtown?”

Zartex checked the map on his watch. “Yes. If we go down Sutterville and turn left on Land Park, we’ll be there…unless we run into more police!”

“I’m gonna be optimistic,” Carmen asserted. “We won’t run into anymore police for a while.” They heard sirens in the distance. “And I’m done with optimism!”

They ran down the road, but they heard the sirens coming from the street they were supposed to turn on. Instead, they ran straight, coming to a concrete wall. Zartex grabbed Carmen and said, “I’ll see you inside!”

“What?” Carmen responded. “We don’t know what’s in there!” She saw flashing lights coming closer. “Ah, who cares?”

Zartex tossed her over the wall. She landed on some gravel. Garith landed next to her, and Zartex teleported in front of them. They stood still as the flashing lights and sirens passed them. Afterwards, they gave a sigh of relief. “Well, whatever place this is, there’s no vicious dogs coming after us, so I think we’re okay!” Garith commented.

“I’m not so sure!” Carmen pointed to the black box on the wall behind them. “Whoever owns this place is practically watching us right now!”

“They might have caught a glimpse of you,” Zartex stated, “But as long as you stay with me, they can’t catch you on video tape.” The other two stared at him quizzically. “If I push a button on my watch, I can temporarily suspend the program, but the Universal Coalition put in a security measure to block me from appearing on film. Our identity is top secret, so we can’t risk anything leaking to the media.”

Carmen found this information suprising, but Garith seemed to be a little vexed. “So, you’re telling me all this time we could have stayed in vacant hotel rooms?”

“I thought you wanted to sleep outside!” Zartex defended himself, looking slightly guilty.

“We avoided hotels to avoid being seen on camera!” Garith admonished him.

“Shh!” Carmen put her hand on his mouth. “Hold onto your anger until we’re safe!”

She removed her hand, and Garith admitted, “I guess I deserved that.” He paused, mentally collected himself, and inquired, “Where are we?”

Carmen dared to step forward and felt something on the ground. She stooped down and grazed the object since she couldn’t totally see it in the dark. When she realized what it was, she was puzzled. “They’re train tracks! Small ones though. How strange!”

The three of them followed the track until they saw something glimmering in the moonlight next to the track. They took a closer look and saw twisted metal. Carmen’s mind couldn’t comprehend this place. They stood on tracks, but there were different tracks above them. She didn’t know what to think until Garith snapped his fingers. “It’s an amusement park!”

Carmen chuckled, “An amusement park in the middle of a city park? That’s so random!”

“Well, odds are no one would think to look for you here,” Zartex surmised. “And with no lights, this place can’t function ’til daylight. Shall we find a place to sleep here?” Carmen and Garith shrugged but agreed.

They followed the train tracks until they came to a couple of towers that supported a pergola, which rested above some wooden picnic benches. Garith noticed, “It looks like there’s a small platform between the towers. We can probably hide in there.”

Zartex lifted Garith and Carmen up, and then he climbed up after them. They had a good view of the amusement park from up there, but they couldn’t see much in the dark. They did see large shadows lurking where the rides must have been located. Carmen opinionated, “Amusement parks are kind of creepy at night!”

“So, people pay money to go on these machines?” Zartex said judgmentally.

As Garith got comfortable, he told Zartex, “You would probably love it! I’d buy you a ticket, but the last thing we need is for you to go on an emotional overload.”

Carmen situated herself next to Garith and Zartex so she could comfortably sleep. “Zartex, you love machines. You spent all night reading instructions on how to use the printing press, remember?”

Garith, who was half asleep, remarked, “I’m sure he was just killing time since he doesn’t need to sleep. He’s gotta do something to pass the time!”

“Actually,” Zartex informed them, “I do require daily sleep. I just haven’t been able to.” Garith and Carmen’s eyes flew open and looked greatly concerned. “It’s okay. It’ll be worth it in the end. Plus, I’m due for vacation time anyway.” He surveyed the area directly by them. “There aren’t any cameras pointing over here, and you guys won’t move much if you are sleeping. I will be back before you wake.”

Carmen bolted up. “You’re doing it tonight?”

“With the police so intent on finding you,” Zartex reasoned, “I think it’s now or never.”

Garith sat up and put his hand on Zartex’s shoulder. “You have no idea how much we appreciate this!”

“Yes I do!” Zartex pointed to his emotional reader. “I only have one question-why is it called the Sacramento Bee?” Carmen and Garith shrugged. “Oh well. Just don’t move until I get back!”

Zartex teleported out of the park, and Carmen laid still for a moment. The three of them had been inseparable for two weeks, so it felt strange for one of them to leave. They knew it would be temporary, but it felt oddly lonely with their buddy missing. They both laid down, but neither of them could fall asleep. Suddenly, Garith exclaimed, “Uh oh!” Carmen sat up, looking concerned. “How are we going to go to the bathroom?” Carmen wanted to roll her eyes, but she realized he had a point, so she pondered it for a moment.

Zartex appeared in Hank’s living room, which was totally dark. He wondered aloud, “How am I supposed to find a black cat in the dark?” Orlando jumped onto the coach and mewed. “Oh, hi!” He lifted the cat’s sweater, but before he could get the article, Orlando hopped down. “No, don’t do that!” He went a couple of steps to find him, but he didn’t realize that the cat went in front of his feet, so he tripped. Zartex managed to catch himself by holding on to the couch, but he knocked over a lamp in the process. The lamp did not shatter, but it scared Orlando, causing him to howl and scurry upstairs. “Oh great!” Zartex muttered. At that moment,  the lights flickered on. Automatically, Zartex put his hands in the air and spouted, “I’m not Mirage!”

“I know,” Hank replied. Clearly, Zartex had woken him up because he was still in his pajamas and had a woozy stance. He did not give off an angry vibe but instead looked a little concerned. “Those s.o.b.’s would be a lot more sneaky and quiet if they broke into my house. Plus, I got your message that a tall stranger would come by to get the article, though I didn’t expect you until tomorrow.”

“We had to speed things up,” Zartex explained. “So, you’re probably wondering how I’ve been able to teleport all this time. The thing is-”

Hank interrupted him, “You’re an alien.”

Zartex’s jaw dropped. “How did you know?”

“Well, no one on Earth can teleport objects or beings,” Hank rationalized. “My wife has access to the best technology on the planet and has yet to find anything remotely like this. Plus, there was Universal Coalition emblem stamped on the bottom of the papers. I put two and two together.” He paused for a moment, and then he commanded, “Orlando, come!”

He sat down on the stairs, and the cat hopped onto his lap. As he retrieved the rolled up papers, Zartex observed, “Your personality is so much like Carmen’s!”

Hank’s head jolted up,and his eyes glistened a little. “How is my daughter?”

Zartex mulled over the best way to answer that question. “She is safe and sound, all things considered. Once we get the article out, it won’t take long for her to come home.”

Hank got the last paper out and handed it to Zartex. “Watch over her, please!”

“That’s literally my job!” After Zartex said that, he saw tears well up in Hank’s eyes. “She’s in good hands.” He put a sympathetic hand on his shoulders, and then he teleported out. Hank listlessly turned off the lights and slowly trotted upstairs.

When she heard a scream, Carmen jolted awake. For a moment, she had forgotten where she was, and she didn’t even remember falling asleep. She glanced over and saw the scream had come from a child on a roller coaster, and her heart rate began to slow back down. Garith, apparently, had also worried that the scream came from a place of danger and now looked relieved. “Where’s Zartex?” Garith wondered.

“I wish I knew,” Carmen told him. “We will have to get down though or eventually someone will see us up here.” Garith and Carmen used the pergola and a small, concrete wall to carefully climb down. Thankfully, no one had noticed them. They half hid in the picnic bench area, surveying their surroundings. Just ahead of them, a very bored teenage boy blew a bubble with his gum as he watched his ride spin fast. A mother desperately tried to convince her toddler to climb down from a giant, ceramic airplane. One of the teenage girls that worked there casually answered a text message as her ride began to gather a group of impatient children. A woman hurried off the carousel ride carrying a small child, who was throwing a tantrum. A worker grumpily swept up a puddle of popcorn as a kid inadvertently kept spilling his food as he walked. “This is great!” Carmen commented. “Everyone here is too distracted to notice or care what we’re up to!”

“I agree!’ Zartex, who carried a hefty satchel of newspapers on his back, sauntered up them looking tired but satisfied.

“There you are!” Garith said happily. Carmen, too, felt a surge of relief. They didn’t totally believe that he was in any kind of peril, but it was good to verify any inkling of doubt. “Where have you been?”

“I had to walk back here,” Zartex informed them. “Unfortunately, these papers don’t teleport even if I’m wearing them. I should have foreseen this complication. But, in any case, I got it done before they opened up for the day and made it back here without incident…unless you count my interaction with a vagrant man. He asked if I had a quarter, and I asked ‘a quarter of what?’ Then we were both confused. Anyway, to distribute these, we’ll need to find a very public place where people are too busy to care what we’re doing but plentiful enough to have a few people actually take this home and read it. Can you guys think of anywhere like that?”

After he said that, a small child asked loudly, “Mommy! Where’s the bathroom?” She looked down at her dress and said, “Never mind!” A bunch of little kids screamed and ran away from her. The workers all pretended like they didn’t see it happen until the manager came over to see what happened and demanded an explanation. Carmen remarked, “I don’t think we’ll have to look far!”

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.