Rebels of Darkness, Chapter 2

Across the field, Gwynivara and the mysterious man fled to the woods. The gnarled branches bent low enough to hide them, but they kept moving as swiftly as possible. As they reached the heart of the grove, they saw flashlights beaming through the trees, so they ran off the narrow pathway and hid against two large trunks, laying as flat as they could. Standing still, hardly breathing, they sensed the police were close to them. Gwynivara still had her sword, but she silently prayed that she wouldn’t have to use it. They heard one of them conclude, “I don’t see anything. Let’s go!” They heard the police head in one direction, and so they took off in the opposite direction.

The forest soon became quiet, which gave Gwynivara and the mysterious man a chance to slow down. The man walked with purpose, so she inferred that he intended to take her somewhere safe. Now that they were out of danger, her curiosity started to peak. So many questions raced through her mind, but she felt hesitant to speak yet. They were most likely out of harm’s way, but she didn’t know how cautious her accomplice would want to remain. As they reached the edge of the woods, she couldn’t help herself. She had to have some idea of what was going on, and her impulses only gave her a split second to choose between the myriad of urgent inquiries. She ended up going with, “What’s the plan?”

“Not here,” he replied softly. “Too many chances for interference. I’ll explain everything when we get there, I promise.” That satisfied Gwynivara’s thirst for knowledge, at least for the moment, so she followed him silently for a spell.

At the other side of the forest, Gwynivara saw that they came to an empty, two lane road. On the other side, overlooking a dirt path, was a rod-iron fence with a wiry archway that read: Talamh de Suaimhneas. The pathway divided two vast fields of tombstones, which prompted Gwynivara to ask, “A graveyard?”

“Yes,” he confirmed. “Are you afraid?”

“No!” she asserted. As they set foot inside, she actually did feel a little on edge, but with his confident demeanor, she convinced herself to push past her insecurities. After a while, she noticed a low mist hovering close to the grounds, and the moonlight beamed off of the tombs. She thought out loud, “This place is oddly beautiful!”

“Glad you think so!” the man remarked. “It’s the perfect place for a hideout. No one ever comes in here.”

“Because most people are scared of death?” Gwynivara surmised.

“That, and the fact it’s considered sacred grounds.” He paused for a moment, and then he probed, “Who are you?”

“I’m Gwynivara.” Gwynivara felt a wave of relief. Since he was asking questions, she knew she would get the answers that she longed for. “You can call me Gwyn.”

“Gwyn, huh?” He inquired, “Who are you, Gwyn?”

She hadn’t mentally prepared herself for that response. “Well, I…Uh, I’m a janitor at…no, I just got fired. So…I guess I’m nobody.”

“That can’t be true!” he objected. He decided to change tactics. “How long have you had Venenatus Sanguis?”

It felt strange to talk about the disease since she had gotten so used to hiding it, but she didn’t think there was any point in denying it to him. Besides, if he wanted to do her harm, he would’ve been better off turning her into the police! She figured she may as well tell the truth. “I’ve had it for almost ten years actually.”

“So, I was right, it did begin in Great Dismal Falls!” When he saw Gwynivara’s puzzled expression, he explained, “I’m Lieutenant General Emorick Conley of the U.S. Marines. A few years ago, I heard a man in the barracks screaming, so we rushed in to assist. When we got there, it was too late; the man laid in a pool of blood. I knelt down to check his pulse, just in case, and as I attended to him, a scaly, wolf-like creature snuck up and bit me in the leg! We killed it, but I lost a lot of blood from my injury, so they rushed me to the field hospital. When I started to come to, I heard my doctor talking to some civilian medical personnel, and they not only said I had Venenatus Sanguis, but they said as soon as I came to, they planned to send me to a quarantine zone! I only knew two things about quarantine zones: one, they have a high mortality rate and two, the survivors never came out. After surviving three wars, I wasn’t gonna let this end my life! When they weren’t looking, I hid a gun in my pants, and when they brought me to that so called hospital, I shot my way out! Even though I became a fugitive, I knew I could do more good on the outside. I vowed to find a cure! In order to do that, I figured out that I needed to find the origin. From the newspapers that I obtained from across the country, I found that the oldest cases that were reported came from…”

“Great Dismal Falls,” Gwynivara finished his sentence. “So, that’s why you want to help me? Since I was one of the first to contract it, you want to question me?”

Emorick disagreed, “No, that’s not why. If you got it directly from the source, then maybe. But no, that’s not why I brought you here…”

They stopped in front of a catacomb mausoleum, which, from far away, simply had the appearance of a giant block of cement, but up close, Gwynivara could see columns and gargoyle carvings. Initially, Gwynivara had reservations about entering a room of easily accessible coffins, but behind the stone slab door, she could see a faint, amber glow, so she decided to hear his explanation. Emorick questioned her, “You fought them?”

“Fought who?” Gwynivara answered his question with another question.

“The monsters formed from your emotions. You fought them?” He gazed at her with his own curiosity starting to surmount.

Gwynivara felt a little surprised by his inquiry. “Well, yeah…”

“For ten years?” He seemed to know the answer but needed the confirmation.

Gwynivara now felt a surge of confusion. She couldn’t figure out why would ask so many questions on something that seemed so obvious to her. “Yes, of course! I didn’t have a choice!”

“But you did have a choice,” he pointed out.

Gwynivara initially dismissed this notion. “No I didn’t! They were trying to kill me! What choice did I have? Let them kill me?” Emorick nodded, and then it clicked for her. “Oh! Okay, so I chose life. Is that so unusual?”

“Yes!” Emorick reacted in admiration and wonder. “Considering there’s no cure, which means the person who contracts Venenatus Sanguis has a choice-risk a life of pain or end their suffering. Not a lot of people have the courage to stay strong for that long. You fought back! Almost ten years of suffering, but you haven’t given up! That’s quite a feat!”

Gwynivara accepted the sentiments, it was quite flattering, but she didn’t quite believe her actions were remarkable. “I didn’t realize survival was considered a feat!”

Emorick emphasized, “It is! Which is why I need your help.” This immediately captured Gwynivara’s interest. Rarely did anyone need her help, let alone a high ranking military officer! However, she didn’t let that deter her. Something deep inside her felt passionate about serving those most in need of help, so she listened to him with the utmost attention. Emorick went on, “I’ve made it my mission to not only save people who want to survive but to train a select few for combat. I don’t know who’s responsible for creating this disease, but this has all the signs of biological warfare. My gut says when we get close to the origin, the person responsible will retaliate. I need troops to back me up. You’ve already proven that you have the aptitude to fight this, and I need as many soldiers as I can get to grow our numbers and build up a true rebellion to this injustice! What do you say?”

The opportunity sounded amazing, but Gwynivara did not feel worthy of this honorable position. Truthfully, she wanted to say yes, but she had so much self doubt. She deemed herself fortunate to have eked out of so many dangerous situations, but she didn’t know how much longer her luck would run. The idea of people relying her was terrifying! She uttered, “I mean…wow! I don’t know what to say! I don’t have any experience as a solider…”

Emorick enspeeched, “What is a soldier? What they always were to me were people who dedicated themselves to serve for a vital cause. They commit to selflessly working to help the community and to save lives. They’re willing to sacrifice what’s personally convenient to them in order to help those in need. That’s a soldier to me, and anyone with the drive to do that noble work can serve in this battalion!” Gwynivara still seemed unsure, so he added, “Of course, I’ll make sure you’re trained. Actually, one of the reasons you’ll be an asset to our cause is your Venenatus Sanguis! It creates monsters from the energy we emit when we experience strong, stressful emotions, but do you know what happens when you experience powerful, positive feelings?”

This idea both intrigued and perplexed her. She shook her head, and she asked, “What happens?”

He explained, “You can create anything! A powerful force gets created, and you decide where it goes and what it does. Venenatus Sanguis has the potential to be overwhelmingly deadly, but those who can manipulate it like this can do so much good for the world! Yes, I want to eradicate it still, but until then, for those who have it may as well use it as a powerful tool. Combining this with the intrinsic desire to defend the innocent, a soldier with Venenatus Sanguis has the potential to defeat the true enemy! I can see a lot of fight in you, and with a little honing of your abilities, you’re truly an asset to the rebellion!”

Gwynivara relished this new insight into the disease she had. She had no idea that she had that kind of potential inside her! However, she still had some lingering doubts, “Listen, I wanna help, but we don’t know for sure that I’ll make a good rebel. Okay, I fought for my own survival, but does that really separate me from the hundreds of other people who have it? What if I fail? What if I do more harm than good? I appreciate the idea you have of me, but are you sure you have the right person? I mean, I’ve failed over and over again in the last decade! I don’t think I’ve had enough success to help anyone! When it comes down down to it, what makes you think I’d be good at the fight?”

Emorick didn’t say anything at first. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small, glass orb with purple smoke swirling inside it. Gwynivara got entranced by its beauty and mysterious nature. Emorick divulged, “This can store all of the data I’ve collected and play it back at my will. Let me show you a video I obtained from one of the quarantine hospitals…”

Gwynivara peered into the orb, and she saw a small living room with a couch that sat against the kitchen wall. A sword rested on the coffee table while a woman with an athletic body, a long nightgown, and sullen eyes propped her legs up on the sofa. At that moment, a large, snake-like creature that had four legs crawled into view. The woman didn’t move, she didn’t even blink! “What isn’t she grabbing her sword?” The creature crawled onto the foot of her couch and the woman remained motionless. “Get your sword! It’s not too late!” The creature unhinged its jaws and clamped onto her feet. “Come on, don’t give up!” It swallowed her feet and moved up to her shins. “No! Don’t do this! You can fight it!” It moved up to her pelvis. “Fight it! Come on! Your sword is right there! Fight it!” Gwynivara grew hysterical as it inched its way up and more of the woman disappeared. “No! No!” As it swallowed her head, Gwynivara howled and started to bawl. “You could have fought it! Why did you give up?”

Emorick handed her a cloth handkerchief, and as she dried her eyes, he told her, “Gwyn, what just happened, everything you just said, that’s what I saw in you! Tell me now you don’t want to at least try to fight!”

With one last sniffle, Gwynivara took a deep breath and removed her hands from her face. She couldn’t stand the idea of so many people succumbing to this! With a brazened star, she asserted, “I’m in!”


Rebels of Darkness, Chapter 1

Rebels of Darkness

“Good morning, Great Dismal Falls!” a wood-grain, plastic clock radio sounded as the digital time flipped over to seven o’ clock. The disc-jockey continued, “You’re listening to K-F-N-U, home to the greatest hits of 1976! A heavy fog still fills the sky but will lift by the afternoon. Don’t get too excited though, dark clouds stretching from the swamplands to the bay will start October off with very gloomy weather. Speaking of gloomy, our friends to the north have reported a road closure near the Chesapeake tunnel, so bad news for those of you who commute northern Virginia! No, it’s not from construction or a car accident this time. Sadly, a man living in the structure was found dead. Police suspect Venenatus Sanguis as two commuters were attacked by-”

A pale hand slammed down on the off button, and a woman’s voice grumbled, “Not today!” A blonde with feathered hair laid face first into her thin pillow. Her twin bed, which took the majority of the space in her room, had a disheveled heap of sheets covering it, and only a small corner rested on the curvy body of the occupant. With a groan, she picked herself up and got out of bed. She yawned as she opened her dingy bedroom door. Across the narrow hall was a cramped bathroom with peeling wood panel walls. She got a glimpse of her face, and her normally fair skin looked a little sallow, and her golden brown eyes were glossy and etched in red lines. She started to sigh, but she stopped herself. “No, not today!” she told herself as she turned on the shower.

After her hair had dried, she put on a ruffled white shirt that matched her white, flared trousers. She put on a pale pink blazer and a matching scarf to break up the color pattern. She felt reasonably pleased with her make up job; it was harder to tell that she didn’t sleep much last night. She grabbed her beige purse and walked to the end of the hall where a linoleum foyer that separated the living room from the front door. She gazed over to see her elderly roommate sitting stiffly in her recliner watching television. She let her roommate know, “I’m off to work! If everything goes well, I might-”

“That’s nice, dear. Have fun.” The roommate had adjusted her shawl, but other than that, she did not take her gaze off the television set. The younger lady stifled a sigh and headed out the door.

In a tiled hallway with florescent lights, she sat in a chair that stood outside an office with a big, wooden door with the words ‘Hiring Board’ etched on it. She had an application on a wooden clipboard that she began to fill out. The first line asked for a name, and, without thinking, she wrote Gwynivara Wallace. She started to fill out her address when she realized what she had done. She scribbled out the name she wrote and thought for a moment. She whispered to herself, “How do I spell my last name again?” The receptionist at the triage desk gave her a funny look, so Gwynivara tried to cover her tracks with a polite smile. The receptionist didn’t say anything and went back to filing her nails, so Gwynivara went back to her paperwork, trying to remain more inconspicuous.

After she turned her paperwork in, she waited silently for them to call her in. Her muscles were tense, so she took a couple of deep breaths to relax more. At that point, a man with large glasses and a lab coat poked his head out into the hallway and called out, “Taylor McCartney?” At first, Gwynivara doesn’t respond, so he called out again, “Taylor McCartney?”

Gwynivara snapped to attention. “Yes, that’s me!” The man, with a slight look of disappointment, beckoned for her to enter, so she complied and went inside.

The room was empty except for a long table where four men in lab coats sat. The doctor who got her from the hallway took the fifth seat and addressed his colleagues, “Gentlemen, this Taylor. She is applying for the head janitor position.”

The other men frowned, and the one in the center regarded her, “I’m afraid there’s been a mistake. Miss McCartney, you can go back to work.”

Gwynivara didn’t move or speak for a moment. She had a vacant stare like she was still trying to process what just happened. Another doctor asked her, “Is there a problem?”

“I don’t understand,” she replied. “My interview was for this day and time, I’m sure of it. What’s the mistake?”

The doctors, who had already gotten up to go on with their day, sat back down grimly. The man in the center explained slowly, “Miss McCartney, I’m very sorry our job board wasn’t clear enough, but this position is for men only.”

“But…!” Gwynivara’s heart sunk. “But I’ve been cleaning for years…!”

Another doctor piped in, “Cleaning up after your family doesn’t count!”

“No!” she objected. “I was a janitor at the library, and before that I cleaned hotel rooms. I’m the best janitor here! I know all the cleaning procedures inside and out! I’ve even trained people to do this job! I have the right experience for the promotion! Why should my sex matter?”

The center doctor responded unsympathetically, “Yes, you have an excellent background, which is why we accepted your application. But with a name like Taylor, we thought you were a guy. Look, I didn’t wanna waste your time, and I certainly don’t wanna hurt your feelings, but we can’t have a woman in a leadership position, especially a woman like you.”

That last comment made her nervous. “What do you mean?”

He clarified further, “I don’t mean that in a callous way! A person in a supervisory role has to be tough and a little intimidating to be taken seriously. You’re so pretty and sweet, I just don’t think any man on your staff would take you seriously.”

At first, Gwynivara seemed relieved that his previous comment didn’t mean what she thought it did, but she came to realize that this was not that much better. The more he talked, the more she pronounced her frown. After he had finished, she scoffed, “So…if I make myself ugly, can I re-apply?”

The five doctors exchanged uncomfortable glances, and the man in the middle talked to her sternly, “Look, women have many strengths, but being tough isn’t one of them. I mean, let’s say you have a man about my size on your team and he broke a major company rule. I’m upset, I’m agitated, could you honestly say you have the strength to fire me?”

Gwynivara leaned in close, stared at him dead in the eye, and stated firmly, “Doctor Richards, I would love to fire you!”

The men all got a jolt of shock at her response, and clearly Doctor Richards was offended. “Well, young lady, if that’s going to be your attitude, then you’re fired!”

For a moment, Gwynivara couldn’t move. Her mind couldn’t absorb what just happened. She wasn’t even aware of the fact that she had picked up her purse and had left the room. She sat on the bus and could care less about the people around her. She tried to wrap her mind around what happened, but she was too dumbstruck to accept it. With her body on autopilot, she managed to get off at the right stop and walked herself home. When she got to the mobile home park she lived in, it started to sink in, but she forced herself to not think about it or show any emotions. As she walked through the complex, she switched from watery eyes to nerves on edge. Every noise and movement made her jump. Finally, at the end of the row, next a chain-link fence, her house came into view. She ran towards the front porch and checked all around her. When she saw nothing precarious, she took a deep breath and went inside.

After she had changed into her pajamas, which were black sweat pants with a black tank top, she sat on her bed and scoured over the classified section of the newspaper. She had a mug of tea next to her on the nightstand, but she ignored it as she poured the job ads. She pushed back more tears as she focused on her search. Her hands started to shake a little, so she set the paper down and took a drink of tea. As she held her cup, she had one of her legs on the floor. At that moment, a rat brushed by her ankle! Instinctively, she pulled her leg up, but as she did, the contents of her mug spilled forward. The tea spread through the newspaper and even soaked into her bed. That was the last straw! Gwynivara finally broke down and cried her eyes out!

After a minute or so, she heard a loud bang outside. She stopped crying and stared outside in fear. “Oh no!” She reached under the bed and grabbed a sword. She watched the entire window-side wall pulsating, so she stood with her weapon at the ready. Soon, the wall gave in and came crashing down. The perpetrator was an eight-foot tall creature whose appearance somewhat resembled a mix of an elephant and a pit bull! It had sharp talons and glowing red eyes that glared fiercely at her. After a split second of assessing the situation, Gwynivara ran across her bed and headed towards the beast’s body. It swiped her away like a bothersome fly, sending her sailing outside!

She landed in the barren field that laid outside where the fence used to stand. She got up in time to avoid getting crushed. It tried to bite here, but she swung her sword at it, scraping off a lot of its mouth. It had a momentary distraction from its pain, so she ran closer to its throat and tried to stab it, but it flung her away. She landed on her back this time, and immediately, she saw its head dive towards her. She stabbed it in the eye, and it roared in pain. She got up and ran to where its heart most likely was located. She stabbed it, but the sword only pierced its skin, which was so thick that she couldn’t get her weapon out. Before it could swipe at her, she dodged its attempt. She kept avoiding its reach as she racked her brain trying to think of a way to defeat him at this point.

Suddenly, a muscular man with a clean cut and deep gray hair style, a slate tank top, and camo pants appeared and fired a spear gun at the beast! The spear had a rope attached to it, which trailed behind it as it hit one of the beast’s knees. Before the creature could react, the man ran around the beast, making the rope bind the creatures legs together and made it fall down. Gwynivara ran to it, and, with one foot on the monster, she used both her arms to pull her sword out. The man instructed, “Get its throat!” She heeded his word and jammed her weapon into its neck. It let out one final shriek as she dragged her sword from one side to the other. They watched as the beast took its final breath.

As her adrenaline started to slow down, Gwynivara realized that her neighbors had come out to witness the chaos. One neighbor observed the destruction and cried out, “What the hell happened?”

Another neighbor answered, “Look at that thing over there!”

A third neighbor exclaimed, “Oh my god! It’s Venenatus Sanguis!”

As everyone rushed to find a phone to call the police, Gwynivara knew she had to escape before they could get her. The man who helped her directed, “Follow me!” Something in his voice had a timbre that conveyed confidence and genuine care, so her instincts told her to trust him. She followed him as he fled the complex.

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.


Sabotage, Chapter 13

“Thank you kind sir!” Zartex waved to a trucker as he left an old gas station. He turned to Carmen and Garith, who had a look of discomfort mixed with surprise. “I don’t know why you were so worried about taking a ride from a stranger!”

Garith noted, “People are rarely that nice without wanting something in return.”

Carmen observed her surroundings and remarked, “Who decided to call this place Oasis? Were they trying to be ironic?”

“So, this is Nevada, huh?” Zartex also looked around. “This doesn’t look that different than Utah!”

“Wait ’til we get to Elko,” Garith responded.

As the three of them walked through the desert alongside the highway, they ate breakfast sandwiches that they got from the gas station they passed. Carmen commented, “I never imagined I’d be in a situation where gas station food would taste amazing!”

Garith nodded in agreement. “Yeah, and I can’t believe how excited I got about using a gas station toilet!”

“I got you guys some of these free samples.” Zartex pulled some beef jerky out of his pocket.

“Those weren’t free!” Garith pointed out. “You’re supposed to bring it to the register.”

Carmen burried her face in her hands and shook her head. “Stop stealing things! Like we need another reason for the police to come after us!”

They all heard a low growl, and Garith joked, “Gee, Carmen, you don’t need to get that mad about it.”

“That wasn’t me!” Carmen stood still and looked around. The other two stopped and joined her in the search. They heard some rustling from a bush with inverted, whip-like branches, so they huddled together in preparation for an attack. The growling grew louder as the perpetrator emerged. “It’s a dog!” Carmen exclaimed as a tan, coyote-looking dog reared its teeth at them.

“Run!” Garith started to flee.

Carmen grabbed his shirt to prevent him from sprinting. “You can’t outrun a dog! Why do you think they have canine units in the police?”

“You want to fight it?” Garith asked incredulously as the dog crept closer to them. Carmen studied the dog closely and saw something the other two didn’t. She slowly approached it, prompting Garith to shout, “Are you crazy?”

Without breaking eye contact with the snarling beast, Carmen informed Garith, “She’s hurt!” After she said that, Zartex and Garith noticed the dog’s limp gait.

The dog let Carmen kneel before her, which made Garith really nervous. “Be careful!”

“Duh!” Carmen gingerly reached for its paw, which made the dog snap at her a little. That didn’t ease Garith’s nerves, so she assured him, “It’s okay. She’s in pain and isn’t sure if she can trust me.” Carmen’s pulse raced as she picked up its paw. Despite her assurances to Garith, she got forcibly reminded of when a dog bit her before. Her instincts made her trust this one though. She really hoped her gut feelings wouldn’t betray her since she just vouched for this dog. She saw a thorn stuck in her paw with some blood caked on around it. “You’ve been hurt for a while! Poor baby!” As she removed the thorn, the dog snapped a little again. Finally, the thorn wriggled out. Carmen felt a wave of relief, and evidently the dog felt the same way as they watched it scamper around and enjoy full use of her paws.

She licked Carmen in the face, which made her cringe a little. “Not the face!” She laughed and pet it. She glanced over at Garith, who appeared to be recovering form a near faint. “You’re not gonna say that’s what she said?”

“Don’t ever do that again!” Garith breathed.

Carmen laughed and stood up. As they continued their journey, Carmen noticed the dog following them. “Go home, doggy!” The dog happily followed them still. “No, no, no! Don’t pick us as your humans! Your life will constantly be in danger! Plus, you wouldn’t even have a home to go to. You’re better off finding someone here. Go on! Shoo!”

Garith laughed, “You can’t reason with an animal!” He grabbed Zartex’s beef jerky and threw it. The dog scampered after it and enjoyed gnawing on it. “That jerky was hard as a rock, that’ll keep her busy for a while!”

Zartex chirped, “Well, we helped her nurse her injury, and she helped us dispose of evidence!” Carmen shook her head but smiled.

Hours later, the town of Wells could be seen in the distance. Carmen conversed, “Wasn’t it uncomfortable working with your ex-wife?”

“She moved to L.A. once I said I wanted a divorce,” Garith told her. “It’s something she always wanted to do but didn’t because of me. It’s not like I ever said I wouldn’t leave San Francisco, but she said I held her back. She accepted a high end position at our headquarters and left me behind. Actually, I was okay with her getting far away from me ’cause it was easier to pick up my life where it was before I met her. The only difference between my old life and my single life was nicer furniture and Phoebe.”

“Phoebe?” Carmen questioned. “You have a daughter? Or is Phoebe one of your ex’s friends that you hooked up with?”

Garith chuckled, “Phoebe was her cat. I didn’t like cats much, but she grew on me. I felt bad for her, actually. I mean, her mom just abandoned her. Who does that?”

Carmen felt a surge of guilt hit her heart. “I left my cat behind when we moved to Colorado. I couldn’t have pets where I lived, so I let my dad take care of Orlando. I didn’t think I’d be gone long. The Grand Junction office was new, and it was supposed to give me more opportunities for building my team and getting promoted quicker. I thought I’d get promoted in like a year ’cause that’s what they told me. I didn’t think I’d be away from him for so long, and once I became a manager, It never occurred to me that they could be wrong or mislead me. I never got that promotion. I just abandoned my poor cat!”

Before Garith could reply, a sheriff’s car pulled up to them. The three of them tried to remain cool, but they were silently praying that this officer wasn’t here to arrest them. They had nowhere to run or hide in the middle of the desert! “Hey! You look like you’ve traveled across this highway for a while. Tell me…” Carmen felt like he could hear her heart pounding because she could feel the tension from the other two. “…have you guys seen my dog?”

Everyone took a breath of relief. Zartex addressed him, “A brown, coyote-looking dog?” The policeman nodded. “Yeah, she was just outside of Oasis. She helped her nurse an injury and he gave her my beef jerky.”

The officer clearly felt overjoyed to hear this news. “I sure do appreciate that! Y’all are decent folks!” He made a quick u-turn and raced towards Oasis.

Sometime later, they came just outside the town of Wells where, once again, all they could see was a gas station. Zartex inquired, “Why are there people gathering here?”

Garith squinted his eyes to get a better look. “It’s a sign for the Red Lion Casino. Oh, they must shuttle people to Elko.” Carmen gave him a glance that non-verbally told him that she wanted to go on the shuttle. Garith objected, “Oh no! Don’t you remember what happened last time we took a shuttle?”

Carmen argued, “There aren’t any mountains going from here to Elko! Plus, after over a week of non-stop walking, it sure would be nice to get a break!”

Garith still seemed weary. “I don’t like the idea of endangering so many people in an enclosed…” He stopped mid-sentence as a nearby bush rustled. The other two also stopped and gazed at directly at it. “Maybe the police dog followed us here.”

Carmen differentiated, “I think there’s a different bitch that’ll emerge from that bush.”

As Carmen predicted, Lilith came out from hiding and pointed a gun at them. They threw up their hands, and she gently told them, “Guys, I’m not here to kill you.” She threw the gun to the floor. They slowly put their arms down, but they did not trust her. Each of them kept an eye on her. “You got me all wrong. I’m here to save your life!”

“A Mirage executive wants to help us?” Garith challenged. “I have a hard time believing you care about anyone but yourself!”

Lilith tried to appear as docile as possible and spoke softly, “Look, they need a high ranking member to watch over people, that’s why I’ll never leave. I don’t like hunting people down like animals. I didn’t come to commit murder! But, I did catch you. If I wanted to, I could turn you over to the police. I’m not gonna do that. Actually, I want to promote you!”

That statement took everyone by surprise. Mirage had spent over a week chasing them down and tried to assassinate them, and now she claimed that they wanted to promote her! Carmen didn’t buy it. “Even if you decide to bypass the rules of building a team, I don’t wanna be a manager!”

“Actually,” Lilith revealed, “We want you to replace Elden Gundulf as head of security.” Zartex and Garith got a jolt of surprise from this, but Carmen did not. She stared at her hard. She wanted her to keep talking to see what game she was trying to play. Lilith continued, “You beat us! You won! We threw every trick in the book at you and you made it through each time. No one has ever gotten this far! Instead of trying to destroy you, we want to use you. You can think like the most clever employee that goes astray, so you can help us humanely rescue them. We need someone like you to make sure what you went through doesn’t happen again. Think about it. You can dedicate you life to saving lives!”

Garith and Zartex looked to Carmen, who did not seem remotely tempted by this offer. In some ways, her argument made sense. If she was head of security, she could stop them from murdering and kidnapping people. Carmen’s gut instincts would not let her consider accepting this offer. Zartex spoke up first, “What about the way you treat your low level employees? Would you expect her to condone that?”

This touched a nerve for Lilith. “We do not mistreat our employees! We have a success plan that has been proven to work! Even our lowest level employees can make over a grand in a week! What other company offers that for people with no experience? We help people get careers and fabulous lifestyles, and that’s supposed to be a bad thing? We’ve also given hundreds to charity-does that sound like an evil, malicious company?”

“Lots of wealthy people do that for tax purposes,” Garith pointed out.

Lilith almost blew a gasket, but she closed her eyes and collected herself. “Carmen, you have a choice. You can choose to believe the lies this reporter has filled in your head and go to prison for the rest of your life. But, if you want a better life, listen up. We’ll get you a lawyer and get that murder charge thrown away at no cost to you. We’ll send you to luxurious training camp at Mirage headquarters. We have the best training! The classes take dull leadership lessons and makes them fun. And, after class, you can get spa treatments, eat fine food, all sorts of stuff! After training, you’ll make a six figure income and live in a nice place all on your own. You can help your whole family out too. Isn’t that what you always wanted? I don’t think I need to ask which life you want-prison or luxury? So, come on, let’s go!”

Lilith turned away and started walking to her car. When she realized that she hadn’t followed her, she turned back around. “What’s the problem? Is it all that walk you did? Don’t worry, I’ll bring the car to you!”

“I’m not going anywhere with you,” Carmen said firmly. “The only thing that you said that I believe is that you wanna use me. A few weeks ago, I was just like you. I defended Mirage like it was my own family. Whenever someone criticized us, I responded exactly like you did. How dare they! How dare they spout such hate and disrespect! I did the same thing as you-I seduced people into Mirage by waving these temptations over their heads. Who doesn’t want to live a life of luxury? Only a few people get that posh lifestyle, and it comes at the price of the lowest level employees’ blood, sweat, and tears! You exploit hundreds to help a few people live well. You keep people in by distracting them with things they want to make them forget what they stand to lose. You got me for over three years, but you’ll get me no more! I won’t by snared by getting shiny things waved at me! How dare you insult my intelligence like that! Believe it or not, I’d rather sit in a prison cell than sell my soul again!”

Lilith’s frown was so pronounced that her lips practically disappeared. “Fine, have it your way!” She bent down as if she was retrieving her gun. Before the three of them could react, she spotted something behind them that made her eyes grow round as dinner plates. She darted off and ran in the opposite direction. They tried to comprehend why, but everything moved so fast that they didn’t have time to question it. A flash of brown brushed past them and made a beeline to Lilith. The flash caught her, and now that it had slowed down, they recognized it as the dog they saw in Oasis!

As the dog continuously bit her, the officer that owned her pulled up. He exclaimed, “Atta girl, Trigger! Good girl, you got a bad guy?”

He got out of his car to get Trigger off of her, but he continued to praise her for a job well done. The other three saw the shuttle for the Red Lion Casino pull up, so they ran to it before Lilith talked to the police. As they boarded, Carmen playfully teased Garith, “See, didn’t I tell you that you can’t outrun a dog?”

Garith rolled his eyes but didn’t look bothered. He smiled as he said, “That’s your favorite phrase, isn’t it?”

“Yes!” Carmen grinned as they took their seat. Garith chuckled as he slumped against the seat, ready to take a nap.

As the shuttle took off, Zartex noted, “We weren’t there to tell the police officer the crimes she committed against you, so she probably won’t get charged with anything.”

“That’s okay,” Carmen responded thoughtfully. “I’ve been bit by a dog before, so, trust me, her injuries will be punishment enough.” Carmen, too, slumped against her seat to take a nap. Zartex shrugged, kicked back, and relaxed as the other two dozed off.

Sabotage, Chapter 12

“What did they do to you?” Seth peered at the scruffy recovery agent, who had googly eyes and, even though he sat in a chair, he swayed to music that no one could hear.

Lilith observed, “Here’s trying to speak!”

Seth, Lilith, Arius, and Elden all leaned in and listened carefully. The recovery agent indeed whispered something unintelligible. The more they listened, the more pins and needles of anticipation grew. Suddenly, he bolted up and sang, “Zephyr in the sky, at night I wonder/do my tears of morning sink beneath sun?”

The other four all deflated. Seth kicked a small table and exclaimed, “Damn it! They broke him!”

She did,” Lilith corrected him. “We taught her how too. Now she’s using it against us!”

Seth concluded, “It’s not safe for us to keep sending out recovery agents after her. They’re good for the entry level who escape. Their minds are weak, and they can get silenced easily. There’ll be no point in trying to get to get to her mind, she’s proven she’s too strong for that…”

“And obviously she’s proven she can outsmart the recovery agents too,” Elden added bitterly.

“Like a ray of light, she’s flying!” the recovery agent crooned enthusiastically.

Lilith sat him down and commented, “Too bad she had a change of heart; she could have been a great asset to Mirage!”

Seth responded, “That’s exactly why she’s so dangerous now! We only have one option-”

Arius stepped in and finished, “We’ll need to go after her ourselves! Since she’s in my region, I volunteer to get her! It’s my region, I have to protect it!”

Seth nodded in approval. Elden looked to his notes and informed him, “The Recovery Agent found her heading towards Provo. The rail heads to Salt Lake City, so, more than likely, she’s heading there.”

“More than likely!” Lilith reacted sourly. “How is it that we can’t get any video of her? They must pass by cameras sometimes!”

Seth and Elden shrugged at each other. Arius disregarded this, “It doesn’t matter! I’ll find her! I’ll go to Salt Lake City and turn every corner!” Everyone but the recovery agent laughed.

As Carmen, Garith, and Zartex walked down a bustling street in downtown Salt Lake City, Garith argued, “Oh come on! We could’ve gotten those tickets for free! It’s not like we have gotten a lot of chances to have fun!”

“Fun?” Carmen questioned. “How is Nightmare on Thirteenth fun? Haven’t we had enough scary people popping out of the corner brandishing weapons?”

“It’s almost Halloween!” Garith pleaded. “Let’s go back and find that guy before someone else grabs those tickets!”

“You really wanna make it easy for them to corner us?” Carmen said wryly.

“Why would they look for us there?” Garith retorted

Zartex opinionated, “I’ve yet to learn why humans enjoy getting scared. How does fear release endorphin?”

“See, we need to go there and find out the answer to his question!” Garith implored.

Carmen shook her head and smiled. She decided to change the subject, “Do you know anyone in San Francisco that’s hiring? You know, in case we make it back…”

“We will make it back!” Garith asserted. “I have no idea what’s happening in San Francisco right now. How can I? I had to ditch my cell phone in Colorado. It has been strange for me, as a reporter, to be so uninformed about what’s happening in the world.”

Zartex pointed out, “Except your involvement in a story that will get broadcast from coast to coast!”

“Thank Captain Obvious,” Garith responded. “I didn’t realize how glued I was to my cell phone until now. I used it all the time for work and communicate with people.”

Carmen inquired, “Is there someone waiting for you back home?”

“Oh no!” Garith replied. “I communicated with my family and friends via text. I hardly had time for them let alone a personal life. I spent so much time in the field interviewing people, but I spent more time doing research in the office. That’s how I ended up with my ex wife. And that’s also why we divorced. Well, one of the reasons.”

“What was the other reason?” Carmen felt compelled to learn more about him. After all this time they spent together, she didn’t know much about him. They had devoted their energy to surviving the journey and writing the article, and now she felt a twinge a guilt for not getting to know him.

Garith blushed a little. “I normally don’t talk about this in front of a lady.”

Whatever response Carmen was expecting, it wasn’t that. “Well…tell Zartex then!”

“Okay, Zartex!” Garith recalled, “She didn’t like having sex. Like, we hardly ever did it, and when we did, she would just lie there like a cold fish. When I love someone, I like to really get into it, like really make her moan and squirm, you know?”

“Do I?” Zartex looked to Carmen, who nodded. “Okay, yes, I know what you mean.”

“I wanted to please her,” Garith explained. “But, get this, she didn’t even like to orgasm!”

“What?” Carmen reacted vehemently. “If Teddy ever gave me a real one, maybe I wouldn’t have ran out on him!”

Garith had no idea she would be so comfortable about the subject, but since now he knew that she was, he abandoned all pretense. “A real one? You mean, you faked it?”

“It’s like we both did,” Carmen divulged. “We were both so convinced we were in love that we believed our lovemaking was passionate and pleasurable. I realize now that I brainwashed myself to loving him as much as I tricked myself into liking that job. I moaned deeply because I thought I was supposed to feel orgasmic. Teddy did too. But really, I felt nothing. I mean, how could I? We were lying perfectly still!” At this point, Garith burst into mirthful laughter. “It’s not funny!”

“Are you kidding me?” Garith howled. “You were both lying still like statues but still shouted in passion? Teddy must’ve looked like a beached whale!” Garith stood perfectly still and let out a huge moan.

“Stop that!” Carmen playfully hit him. Now that she heard, and saw, it out loud, she did realize how comical her relationship was. Everything about it was fake, just like Mirage. They made everything look flashy and prestigious, but it was just theatre. She got so lost in the act that she never realized that she was just playing a role. She had adopted a whole other identity! “We should probably stop talking about sex so loud. Isn’t this the Mormon capitol?”

Garith pointed to a sign in front of them. “There’s a bar! Look around, do these people look like religious fundamentalists? Plus, it’s not like Mormons don’t have sex. How do you think they make so many kids?”

Carmen laughed, “You have a point. Not that all Mormons have a particular ‘look,’ but these people staggering out of the bar definitely don’t look like Mormons!” She had referred to a group of young people dressed up to clubbing.

“That guy definitely isn’t.” Garith pointed to a rabbi that passed by them. The three of them laughed.

Zartex joined in, “Well, we know that guy isn’t Mormon! Not enough morals!” Zartex pointed to the distance and laughed.

Garith and Carmen stopped dead in their tracks. The man he pointed to was Arius! Garith and Carmen hid behind a building around the corner, and Zartex followed. “What is he doing here?” Carmen groaned. She was not mentally prepared to see him again. She was starting to move on with her life, and seeing a person from her past was like seeing a ghost. She figured she would run into nameless henchmen, but she didn’t think she would have to confront him or any of the Mirage executives unless they were in court. At that point, more time would have passed and they would have the barrier of police and legal teams to prevent them from hurting anyone. Now there would be very litte to stop him, especially since Mirage had the police convinced Carmen was a murderer.

Zartex remarked, “They know you can outfox their recovery agents, so they didn’t have a choice but to send their best and brightest.”

Carmen began to panic, so Garith snapped his fingers. “Don’t you give up on me now! Don’t let your fears cloud your mind! Now think…you’ve known him for several years, and you know these executives better than anyone. You know his strengths and his weaknesses, so tell me, what do we do?”

Carmen’s mind raced. Arius always reminded her of a wolf, and when he’s on the hunt, he chased his prey until the bitter end. He rarely made mistakes. Zartex suggested, “That bar is playing music, maybe we can do another song.”

Garith liked that suggested, and the two guys started to head out, but Carmen physically stopped them. Zartex’s suggestion triggered a memory for her. “A bar…he’s a booze hound! That’s how we’ll get him! Zartex, is there any music that won’t give you an emotional overload?”

“Country,” Zartex replied firmly.

“Let’s find a country bar!” Garith directed.

Arius walked down the streets with a determined look on his face. He scanned every person’s face and even read between the lines. His instincts told him she was close by. Suddenly, from across the street, he heard a small crash. He saw Carmen recovering from tripping. When she saw him, she suddenly grew a deer-in-the-headlights look and bolted into a nearby bar. Arius darted after her.

His heart pumped knowing that he was getting close to catching her. When he entered the bar, there was no sign of her. A couple of people in Western wear sat at the bar. The jukebox played a country song that reminded him of home, which made him feel at ease. At the opposite side of the bar stood a beer pong table. After he noticed that, a very tall man came up to him and jovially invited, “You up for a game? I’m losing terribly. You any good?”

“Are you kidding? I’m the best!” Arius boasted. “But I can’t right now. I’m looking for someone important.”

“You mean that girl?” Zartex said as casually as he could. “She got chased out by police.”

“Really?” Arius seemed pleased. “She’s not a very fast runner, so they probably got her. So, yes, I do have some time to play!”

Zartex and Arius played against a couple of strangers, and Arius had not lied aobut his prodigious skills at this game. He helped Zartex win easily. As the evening went on, the bar got different patrons, and since his adrenaline was up, he challenged more people each time they finished a game. After a few hours, Arius had less control of his body and slurred speech. He craned his head to the front door to welcome a new challenger. He saw Carmen, which prompted him to remember his mission. “Youuuu! Y’er supposed to be in ja-il!” Arius uttered.

Carmen ducked away, and Arius clumsily went after her. At that moment, Garith shouted, “Bartender! That man’s trying to run out on his bill!”

Arius stopped and swiveled around. “What bill?”

The bartender informed him, “You said you would cover the tabe from all these beer pong games!”

Arius got a confused expression on his face. “Wha….? No, I gotta go!” Arius ran out and ignored the anger from the people in the bar.

He went out on the street, but everything felt blurred. “Wherrre did you go?” He meandered down the road, glancing at everyone. People could tell he was drunk and felt uneasy by his appearance. He asked multiple people if they were Carmen, but they shook him off.

He came to a statue and saw her from across a plaza. He stumbled, and the next thing he knew, he was being awakened by a police officer poking him with a baton. “Wake up, buddy!”

Totally disoriented, he woke up to see himself on top of the statue buck naked. “It wasn’t me!” he slurred. “It wasss the wanted killller, Carmen!”

“Sure, you lush!” The police clearly didn’t believe him. “You’re wanted on multiple charges: larceny, drunk and disorderly conduct, public nudity…” Arius protested more, trying to get the police to look for Carmen. They ignored him and put him in their squad car.

Just outside of town, Zartex, Carmen, and Garith hiked along a railroad. Carmed buzzed, “Oh, I wish I could see the look on his face as he got arrested!”

Garith wondered, “We are safe from him for a few days. But, do you think he’ll go after us again once he’s released?”

“No,” Zartex stated. “They’ll try again with someone else to solve their problem faster. You know what’s ironic though? He got arrested for stealing, but technically, I’m the only thief here!” Garith and Carmen stared at him in disbelief. “I technically ran up that bar tab. I also stole that food from the dumpster. Oh, and I stole that boat at the lake on your wedding day!”

“That was you?” Carmen was shocked, but she felt a rush of gratitude for him. If Zartex hadn’t done that, she may not have been able to escape. Garith also played a huge role that day too. If weren’t for the two of them, who knows what would have happened to her? She may have escaped one day, she was certainly capable of it. But she realized that no one could do everything alone all the time. She now had powerful allies. She didn’t know if she would be successful, but, thanks to Garith and Zartex, she at least had a chance. She compulsively gave them both a hug. They were surprised by this gesture, but they accepted it and hugged back.

Sabotage, Chapter 11

With a dour face, Hank typed an email on his laptop. He had to pause, take a sip of his hot apple cider, and sigh. Right after that moment, a heavy knock sounded at the door. He set down his computer and prepared to face an ongoing nuisance. He seriously doubted that they came to deliver bad news. sure, it was a possibility, but he had a strong hunch that if Carmen got hurt in any way, they would not have the decency to tell him first. He saw the way they kept trying to discredit her in the media, so they would only revel in her destruction. He knew why they were here, and he was willing to put up with it to help bring justice to Carmen.

He answered the door and came to face a young but short woman with dark blonde hair tied back tightly. She had remarkably plain features except for her dark blues, which had a glare that could scare anyone into attention. Hank couldn’t guess her role in Mirage based on her appearance. Her clothes looked as though they could be expensive, however, she did not fit into them very snuggly as the tightness exposed her muffin top. Regardless of her position, he knew she represented those vile snakes from that evil so-called company, so he took pleasure in telling her, “Sorry, no soliciting!”

He relished in the brief emotion she showed at that insult, but as he tried to slam the front door, she stopped it with her foot and sharply informed him, “Actually, Mister Alvaro, I’m Jorden Kasper, head of the Northern California division of Mirage.”

Hank figured that her titled must usually command respect and obedience, but it did not work on him. After all, he dealt with wealthy and glamorous clients all the time. He saw a flicker of annoyance on her face as her ploy didn’t work. Instead of cowering at her presence, he kept cool. Knowing full well why she was there, he decided to tell her, “If you’re interested in real estate development, you’ll have to come back during business hours.”

Once again, she tried to hide her vexed mood. Jorden motioned behind her, and two police officers approached the front porch. “These guys have a warrant. We believe that you have illegal information that I’m here to recover on behalf of our company.”

Hank, in mock politeness, gestured for them to enter. “The passcode for the safe is five one two two.” Jorden came in, scowling fiercely at his impertinence. “Yes?” Hank grinned.

She leered, “You’re hiding confidential information only privy to our people. You have no right to possess it! We’re far more clever than you think! We’ll find what you’re hiding!”

“By all means, Pintamonas, feel free to look for yourself!” Hank invited.

Jorden took him up on his offer. She searched every end of the living room while one officer searched upstairs and the other searched the kitchen and backyard. Jorden checked each nook and cranny-the entertainment center, the couch cushions, even the rug. When she checked under the couch, she gasped. The cat hissed and ran out of the room. Hank chuckled, and she shook her head and maintained a nonchalant attitude. She pat him down, which prompted him to joke, “Hey, Cabrona, I’m a married man!”

She gave him an evil eye and kept searching. She saw a bowl next to the front door where Hank stored a pile of mail. “Of course!” she deduced. “While we were so busy sifting through your electronic communications to find hidden messages, she slipped under the radar and conveyed her status the old fashioned way!”

“Don’t look through that,” Hank said pleasantly. “It’ll  totally waste your time!”

“Ohhhh, you don’t want me to look here!” Jorden practically cackled. She scanned each letter and examined each detail scrupulously. Hank sat down on a chair that faced the front door, kicking back and not bothering to disguise his amusement at her fury. She turned back to see the cat sitting next to him on the arm of his chair wearing a pumpkin sweater. He pet the cat’s unadorned fur and grinned toothily at her. She gritted her teeth and kept foraging for suspicious letters. finally, something caught her eye. “Since when are you friends with Hermione Granger?”

“Don’t read that.” He pretended to be worried. “You won’t be happy.”

Jorden smiled maliciously as she opened the envelope and took a look at the letter. She read out loud, “Nine, apostrophe, thirteen, space, fifteen, fourteen, space, twenty, eight, five space, eight, nine, seven, eight, twenty-three, one, twenty-five, space, twenty fifteen, space, eight, five, twelve, twelve, period. The bottom of the page says seven, fifteen, space, six, twenty-one, three, eleven, space, twenty-five, fifteen, twenty-one, eighteen, nineteen, five, twelve, six. This is an easy encryption to decipher. She thinks she’s so clever! The numbers clearly correspond to their position in the alphabet.” She took a pen off the table and began to translate. “Nine would be I, and thirteen is M. Yup, that’s what she did. The first word is I’m. Let’s see…I’m…on…the…highway…to…” She eagerly anticipated the answer, fully believing it would reveal important information. “I’m on the highway to…hell? Very funny! I bet the bottom of the page is more serious.” She translated the bottom and stood up in anger. “Go fuck yourself!?!”

Hank roared in laughter. “I told you not to look at that! Didn’t I say it would waste your time?”

“Why you-!” She stepped towards him as if she was going to attack him.

Just then, the police officers returned from the kitchen and upstairs. The cat ran into the kitchen, almost tripping the cop. The other officer reported, “We searched every inch of the house. It’s clear.”

Jorden didn’t like hearing this. she ogled Hank, who simply smiled and shrugged. She reluctantly relented, “We’ll come back again another day. He’s hiding something, I know it!” Giving him an angry face, Jorden stormed out. The police indifferently followed.

The cat returned to the living, staring up at Hank, who praised him, “Good boy, Orlando! They have no respect for your prowess, so they underestimated your worth.” He peeked under the sweater and saw the three pieces of Zartex’s papers rolled up into a fine tube. He put the sweater back into place. “Good boy!” He pat Orlando on the head, and the cat seemed pleased.

As Carmen, Garith, and Zartex gingerly scaled down a sandy, pebble-filled hill, Garith discussed, “Okay, let’s go over it one more time. THE VOBS were the company’s sale system?”

“Yes,” Carmen concurred. “But after we got promoted and began to build our teams, they said it would help us with managing a company too. It wasn’t a sale system-they called it the system.”

“Right. So the T stood for turn every corner,” Garith recited. “In sales, it referred to thoroughly working your territory.”

“And in management, it referred to recruiting people from high and low,” Carmen explained. “Sales are a numbers game, but so is recruitment, especially for a job people generally aren’t willing to do.”

Zartex added, “On a corporate level, they turn every corner to find people who escape, as we’ve seen.”

“That’s true!” Garith agreed. “H stood for haste. The quicker you move, the quicker you reach your goals. People forget about a deal if you don’t nab it quickly. And managers will lose recruits to other jobs if they don’t act fast. And corporate wants to grow quickly, of course. If they can get ahead enough, one failure won’t mean that much of a loss. That’s why they were so fast to kill off one of their managers. Find the problems quick. Like escapees, find them fast!”

“E is for envy,” Carmen continued. “They turn sales people into the cool kids on campus so everyone will get jealous of their life. It gets recruits excited for a chance to share the spotlight. They dress sharply and make it look like we did all these fun things to create that insatiable desire to be trendy and fabulous. That’s how they motivated people to stay.”

Zartex stated, “That goes along with V for voracity. They play on people’s greed to get sales and to trick people into thinking they want to get promoted. They got so focused on making lots of money and doing flashy things that their voracity clouded their judgment, which allowed them to heinous things like murder.”

Carmen bitterly commented, “O is optimism. They claim it was to attract positive things by thinking positive. They didn’t want us to think any negative thoughts. So, any negative impulse we had about the job we had to ignore or destroy. They brainwashed us into thinking we were happy. It made us compliant to their whims.”

“B, big picture, did the same sort of thing,” Garith appended. “They talked about delayed gratification, paying now so you can play later. Forget about how miserable you are now, focus on the goals we made for you stemming from greed and envy! It made you forget your identity.”

Zartex finished with, “S is for seize control. That’s the obvious end goal.”

At the bottom of the hill, they came to an expansive lake with a clear view of the mountains on the opposite side. Carmen breathed, “It’s beautiful!”

“Didn’t I tell you that Utah Lake would be a great place to camp out?” Garith remarked.

“I won’t say you were right,” Carmen bickered.

“You don’t have to,” Garith gloated, “not wehen it’s obvious.”

“Who are you bragging to?” Carmen retorted. “There’s no one here that cares.”

“I’m sorry, I won’t be cheerful then,” Garith said sarcastically.

“I don’t have a problem with your cheerfulness!” Carmen argued. “In the last week, I had to deal with failing in sales and running out a doomed marriage. I have to walk to California with company that I didn’t have a choice on! I gotta live like a homeless person to survive while trying to avoid getting killed by hit men! I’m usually hungry and always tired! I’ve had so much go wrong that I don’t need a smug jerk pointing out another reason why I suck at life! So, I’m sorry if I’m a little cranky, but if you know this, why are you purposely making it worse?”

Carmen was clearly fuming, which immediately made Garith uncomfortable. “I’m gonna…I gotta go to the bathroom. There’s no bathroom here, but you know what I mean. I’ll find a tree to hide behind far enough away so that I don’t disturb you…again!” He ran off.

Zartex observed, “You sure scare him when you’re angry!”

Carmen didn’t respond. She sat down and faced the lake. As she gazed at the lake, she felt a little more peaceful. She shifted a little to make herself more comfortable, which made her remember that she had to sleep there. The prospect made her a little more disappointed. She thought about their discussion on THE VOBS and how they had used that on her to trick her into joining their cult. “Why didn’t I see it sooner?”

“See what?” Zartex asked.

“The red flags!” Carmen answered dramatically. “They exaggerated the earning potential, but I ignored this because of the big picture. For once in my life, I felt like a somebody! I thought I closed the chapter on petty, dead end jobs. No one gave me a shot at leadership because I’m an actress and I’m pretty; no one took me seriously! II never cared about management though, I just wanted to make enough money to pay rent so I didn’t have to be an adult dependent on family to survive. I don’t care about making a ton of money, and I’ve never cared about materialistic things. I wanted a circle of friends and a sense of being part of an important team. I wanted to belong somewhere! And I just wanted to prove myself to the world. When I make a goal, I see through it ’til the end. I’m fine closing that chapter of my life, but I just wish I knew what was coming next! So far, this has been a miserable experience, but when it’s over, what’s next? Will it, just be more of my old life of floating from place to place never truly finding my sense of independence or belonging? They say everyone goes through hard times, but my whole life has been this way! Why can’t I just be happy? This job made me give up on my dream, and I gave up on this job too. I’m just an all around failure, aren’t I?” As she said this, tears welled up in her eyes. Suddenly, all of her hurt seemed to surface. All of the hard times that THE VOBS made her bury came out. The sacrifices she made, the heartbreak, the defeat…she didn’t feel it then, but she felt it now!

Carmen buried her head into her knees and sobbed uncontrollably. Zartex noted, “I don’t need to use my emotional reader to know how you feel!” Carmen heard him but did not acknowledge his assessment. She couldn’t. Zartex observed, “I spent my whole career analyzing humans and their emotions, but not once did I learn how to deal with them. I understand you’ve been through more hardship than most people have ever or ever will deal with. This is overwhelming and caused an out pour of emotion. I know all of this, but I don’t know how to make it better. I’ve never had to know. It’s not a requirement of the job to make our subjects feel better, just understand them. I do understand you, but you’re different than my other clients because I actually want to make you feel better! You’re the first subject I’ve ever cared about! I never had an Earthling as a friend. The problem is my species doesn’t process emotions the same way yours does. So, I don’t know how to help you. But I want to, I really do!” Carmen continued to sob, so he made an awkward attempt at comfort by stiffly patting her back and spouting, “There, there!”

She continued to cry as Garith came back. “Oh good! You can show me what to do!” Zartex requested. “You are human and experience these emotions. Help!”

Garith ineptly sat next to her and gracelessly pat her back much like the way Zartex did. He bumbled, “There, there!”

Carmen wailed, “Forget it guys! I’m hopeless!”

Zartex looked to Garith, who quickly analyzed the situation. “What was she saying before it happened?”

“Um…” Zartex thought back. “She wanted to be successful in Mirage because she didn’t succeed in acting or getting a job that pays rent. She gave up on her dreams and she gave up on Mirage too, so now she wonders if the next part of her life will ever make her feel like less of a failure.”

“Okay, I got this!” Garith put his arm around her and rested his hand on her shoulder. “There’s a big difference between giving up and realizing that you’ve had enough. Like, it’s why I stopped getting houseplants. I got busy at work and went straight to bed when I got home. I forgot about it until Fourth of July. I stayed home ’cause it was a holiday, and as I tidied up, I saw it turning yellow. I felt guilty and vowed to bring it back to life. I kept giving it plant food and watered it like crazy, but it just grew more and more brown. One day, I realized that there’s no point in watering something that will never live. when something in your life is over, it’s better to let go ’cause holding onto the past will break your back. Your life will get better as long as you do something different. Doing the same habits will get you the same results. I can’t guarantee success, but at least you can take pride in the fact that you gave a shot. No matter how often you fall, get back up again! Keep trying different things until you succeed. If you don’t give up, at least you can say you did everything you could. If you try, you might fail, however, if you never try at all, failure is guaranteed. You’re not a failure from walking away from an unhappy situation. I’m proud of you for overcoming all you went through and for having the courage to move on!”

Carmen pondered his words for a moment. Mirage always made anyone who gave up on their goals feel lower than dirt, but sometimes important to let yourself fail so you can move on. It’s true that a person can’t focus on new ideas if they stick to the old ones. She still feared perpetual failure, but she knew she wouldn’t stop trying and took some pride on that. This didn’t make her feel optimistic, but she realized that she had stopped crying. Zartex inquired, “How are you feeling?”

“I’m feeling…”Carmen listened to her innermost feelings and heart before she finished her thought. “I’m feeling like I gotta pee!” She had so much mixed emotions that she couldn’t even process it all right now, and she said that without even thinking about it. She had decided that she didn’t have to understand it all tonight. She gingerly got up and headed for the trees. Garith and Zartex high fived, and Garith sprawled out to go to sleep.

Sabotage, Chapter 10

“I can’t believe we’re doing this!” Carmen grumbled. She stood with her arms folded in front of a chain link fence that guarded a dumpster.

Garith, who had had his arms folded for entirely different reasons, assured her, “I told you, restaurants throw away perfectly good food at the end of the day. I worked in a kitchen in college, and it always killed me to waste so much food. But, for health code reasons, they can’t use old food the next day, so they don’t have a choice. It’s not like it’s rotting. We’ll be fine!”

“I understand that,” Carmen responded. “Although I don’t consider anything coming from the dumpster exactly sanitary, I’m more worried about breaking and entering.”

“Oh, well, I guess technically it would be,” Garith professed. Then, he joked, “Hey, we’re already criminals in their eyes, right?”

Zartex popped up from inside the dumpster. “Actually, I’m the only thief here!” He held up a couple of pizza boxes. “These look pretty untouched!”

As Zartex climbed out of the dumpster bin, Carmen still looked a little unsure. Garith pointed out, “The more we save on food, the less we have to walk!”

Zartex hopped over the fence and handed them the pizza boxes. Garith opened up one of the boxes and Carmen saw that it was a thin crust, cheese pizza. It was hard to tell in the dark, but aside from it being cold, it looked okay. She relented and picked up a slice. “Bon apetit!” She took a bite and half expected it to taste like dirt, but it tasted alright. Actually, it tasted really good! “I can’t believe I’m kind of enjoying this! This has to be the strangest part of our journey!”

Garith practically choked on his food. “This? THIS? Out of all the crazy shit that’s happened, this bothers you the most?”

Before Carmen could reply, they heard footsteps come from across the parking lot. They quickly hid what they were doing and cautiously waited for the perpetrator of  the noise. A voice called out, “What are you doing?”

“Nothing!” Carmen answered with a mouth full of food. She cringed and hoped the person didn’t notice.

The figure stepped under the street light, and it turned out to be a teenage boy in a dark blue football jersey. Carmen, Zartex, and Garith felt relieved since he seemed to be non-threatening. The boy gazed at them in confusion. “Come on! The bus is leaving in a couple of minutes!”

“Bus?” Garith said in surprise.

The boy pointed to across the parking lot. In the distance, they saw a group of people wearing similar jerseys waiting by a bus with a giant yellow cat on it. The boy challenged, “You are cougar fans, right?”

“Cougars are okay, but I wouldn’t call myself a fan,” Garith told him. “I prefer women my own age.”

Carmen hit him gently on the back of the head. “Do you think they have shuttles to go pick up women? Don’t worry, kid, we’re coming.” The kid ran back to the bus, and the other two ogled her quizzically. “They’re heading to the college, which is in the same city we were heading to anyways. We won’t have to walk there. Plus, what are the odds of one of their assassins attending a primarily Mormon school?” They shrugged, grabbed their things, and headed to the bus.

They got on the bus and saw that it was mostly full. Zartex sat next to a young man in the middle. Garith sat next to an older man who sent a quick text and passed out with a very audible snore. Behind both of them, Carmen sat next to a tiny old lady, who greeted her with, “Hello, young lady!”

“Hi,” Carmen replied. She felt so out of place there and hoped no one would discover their secret. She dreaded the idea of getting humiliated and kicked off the bus. Or even worse, if they detained them while they really had nowhere to run. She bean to have second thoughts on this idea.

The old lady pleasantly conversed, “You must be new here. I’m Bette.” She pointed to her name tag.

Bette held out her hand to shake it. As Carmen shook her hand, she had to think of an alibi fast. “Bette, Bette…I’m…Joan.”

“Joan! How funny!” Bette giggled. “I guess we’re supposed to be rivals like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford.”

“I don’t need any more enemies,” Carmen stated truthfully.

Bette laughed, “Is that why you’ve done so much walking?”

Carmen got a jolt of surprise upon hearing this. “How did you know?”

Bette sagely told her, “At my age, I’ve seen it all. We’ve all fallen on hard times. Don’t feel too ashamed. In fact, a lot of the original settlers of Utah came here by foot.”

“I didn’t know that.” Carmen was surprised that this conversation had become mildly interesting. She noted how strange it felt to have someone genuinely be nice to her.

“Oh yes!” Bette went on. “It’s not like it’s easy to get transportation when you’re escaping persecution!”

“Tell me about it.” Carmen hid her grin.

Later on that night, most of the bus was asleep as the driver navigated through the mountain top. The kid sitting next to Zartex gazed at the stars above the treetops. He asked Zartex, “Aren’t they beautiful?”

Zartex looked out the window and replied listlessly, “Reminds me too much of work. The days are getting closer and closer where I gotta go back. I like where I’m at now. My office is so boring!”

“Wow, do you work for NASA?” the boy asked full of wonder.

Zartex, who hadn’t thought of an alias before, clumsily agreed, “Okay, yeah, sure.”

“That’s awesome!” the boy complimented. “I’m studying astronomy myself. I like NASA, but I really wanna prove the existence of aliens.”

That last line got Carmen and Garith’s attention. Zartex, however, did not appear alarmed by it at all. “So, you know a lot about aliens, huh?”

“Oh yes!” the boy gushed. “I know everything there is to know about them! Ask me anything!”

“Okay!” Zartex obviously felt tickled pink about this situation. “Would you recognize if an alien was in your presence?”

“Of course!” the boy replied enthusiastically. “No alien could get past me!”

Carmen and Garith tried to hide their laughter. Zartex could hardly keep a straight face as he told him, “Nah, I think aliens are more clever then you think. Why, one could be right in front of you and you’d never know it!”

The boy argued, “No way! I see where you’re heading with this, and I already know there’s one around us now.” Carmen, Garith, and Zartex sobered up a little after that assertion. “Someone’s been watching us. I noticed a flash on the mountain earlier. This whole bus trip has eyes on us.” Garith and Carmen gave each other a a look that said without words that he may have sensed Mirage watching them. “Something is about to happen. That’s why I’m keeping myself awake.”

Garith and Carmen leaned in the aisle to get close enough to talk. Carmen whispered, “We need to get off this bus!”

Garith said quietly, “We could tell the driver, but I seriously doubt that he would stop on the top of a mountain. Besides, what could they do to us on a bus full of witnesses?”

As if on cue, a loud boom sounded ahead, and the shock waves woke up everyone on the bus. The bus driver slammed on the brakes, lurching everyone forward. The bus stopped, but the driver’s face showed sheer fright. He informed the bus, “The road ahead of us is destroyed, and the ground beneath us is very soft. I’m going to reverse slowly, but while I do, for everyone’s safety, don’t move.” As he reversed, the grave tension on the bus was palpable. Suddenly, the ground behind his rear tires crumbled. The driver quickly moved forward, but now they were stuck on an island!

The bus arched upwards, and everyone held onto the back of their seats, dangling like autumn leaves at the onset of winter. The boy that studied aliens shouted, “See, I told you something would happen!”

“Hey kid,” Garith retorted, “now’s not the time!” He turned to Carmen. “What do we do?”

Carmen tried to think fast. People’s belongings began to slide to the back. Someone’s toddler fell, and Zartex stopped it from sliding to the back. A cell phone slid by Carmen, and as she grabbed it. Her eyes flitted from the phone to Zartex wrangling the baby and back to the phone, which made something click for her. The bus began to slowly slide into the hole, making everyone panic. Carmen held herself up with one hand and held the phone with the other. She held it up to her mouth and commanded, “Okay Google…Play Magic Bus by the Who.”

“You’re joking!” Garith shrieked.

As the music caught Zartex’s ear, they felt the world shift. Carmen grinned broadly as her plan unfolded. They shifted to a new world where the bus became a giant hippie vehicle, and everyone wore outfits from the seventies. The bus driver happily drove through a pink and gold cloud. Zartex played a guitar and sang as the passengers partied behind him:

Zartex:     Everyday I get in the queue
Garith & Carmen:     Too much, magic bus!
Zartex:     To get on the bus that takes me to you.
Garith & Carmen:     Too much, magic bus!
Zartex:     I’m so nervous, I just sit and smile.
Garith & Carmen:     Too much, magic bus!
Zartex:     Your house is only another mile.
Garith & Carmen:     Too much, magic bus!

Zartex:     Thank you driver, for getting me here.
(Zartex began to sing to the driver)
Garith & Carmen:     Too much, magic bus!
Zartex:     You’ll be an inspector, have no fear.
Garith & Carmen:     Too much, magic bus!
Zartex:     I don’t want to cause no fuss,
Garith & Carmen:     Too much, magic bus!
Zartex:     but can I buy your magic bus?
Garith & Carmen:     Too much, magic bus!
Driver:     Nooooo!

Zartex:     I don’t care how much I have to pay!
Garith & Carmen:     Too much, magic bus!
Garith & Carmen:     I wanna drive my bus to my baby every day.
Garith & Carmen:     Too much, magic bus!

Zartex:     I want it, I want it, I want it, I want it!
Driver:     You can’t have it!

(Zartex turned to the party and sang to them)
Zartex:     Thruppence and sixpence every day
just to drive to my baby.
Thruppence and sixpence each day
‘Cause I drive my baby every way!

(After Zartex put down the guitar, he picked up the driver
and tossed him in the air, causing him to float away.
Everyone else sang as they did this.)
Party Guests:    Magic bus, magic bus, magic bus!
Magic bus, magic bus, magic bus!
Magic bus, magic bus, magic bus!
Magic bus, magic bus, magic bus!

(Zartex sang as he drove)
Zartex:     I said now I’ve got my magic bus!
Party Guests:     Too much, magic bus!
Zartex:     I said now I’ve got my magic bus!
Party Guests:     Too much, magic bus!
Zartex:     I drive my baby every way!
Party Guests:     Too much, magic bus!
Zartex:     Each time I go a different way!
Party Guests:     Too much, magic bus!

(The driver floats back down and begins to
wrestle with Zartex to get his seat back.)
Zartex:     I want it, I want it, I want it, I want it!
I want it, I want it, I want it, I want it!

(The driver gets his seat back, so Zartex
picked up his guitar and sang to the party again.)
Zartex:     Every day, you’ll see the dust!
Party Guests:     Too much, magic bus!
Zartex:     As I drive my baby in my magic bus!
Party Guests:     Too much, magic bus!

As the song fades, the bus arrived at the end of the mountain, and it stopped to let Carmen, Garith, and Zartex out. The rest of the guests keep partying until the world shifted back to reality. Zartex, Carmen, and Garith found themselves on an actual road just outside the forest. The mountain stood behind them, which let Carmen know that her plan had succeeded. The cougar bus chugged away as the passengers pondered how they got out of that but shrugged as to why they didn’t perish. Everyone did but Bette, who stuck her head out the window and gave them a peace sign. They gave one back, which snapped Bette back to reality. She wondered why she did that, shrugged, and returned to her seat.

Garith was the first to speak, “Thank you for not teleporting out to save yourself!”

“I just had a feeling,” Zartex said warmly.

“A lot of them, thank god!” Carmen commented. “If you didn’t have that ability, we would have died!”

Garith complimented Carmen, “Don’t sell yourself short! If you hadn’t thought of it, we would’ve been goners! Good thinking there!”

Carmen felt taken about aback. With all of the bickering they did, she got caught off guard when he said something nice. No hint of sarcasm, he actually looked grateful for her! Before she could respond, a convertible pulled up next to them, and it was a scruffy man in a nice suit who pointed a gun at them. They put up their hands, but they didn’t seem worried. Perhaps it was because their spirits were still high from the emotional overload, or maybe it was due to the fact they had successfully evaded danger several times now, but they actually felt calm faced with this new adversary. Carmen addressed him, “Who told?”

“Let’s just say a little bird told me,” the recovery agent leered.

Zartex concluded, “It was probably that old man sitting next to him. He texted as soon as he saw us.

“We had a rat!” Carmen exclaimed.

“That’s right!” the recovery agent reveled.

“No, there were no rodents on the bus,” Zartex remarked. “There was a cat on the side of the vehicle though.” Carmen and Garith grinned at the assassin’s confused look.

The recovery agent shook his head. He then cocked his gun, ready to fire. “Any last requests?”

Garith noticed some music was softly playing on the radio. “Yeah, can you turn it up?”

He gave them a curious look but complied. Zartex, Carmen, and Garith knowingly smiled at each other and braced themselves for another emotional overload.