Sabotage, Chapter 18

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So, now what?” Carmen asked.

“How about the teacups?” Zartex suggested.

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah…” Garith and Carmen said unison.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sabotage, Chapter 17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sabotage, Chapter 16

With tears rolling down his cheek, Seth made a plea to a reporter, “She killed my buddy in cold blood, and she didn’t stop there! She humiliated our Western Regional Manager in public and framed him for a crime he didn’t commit. She got a vicious dog to attack our vice president. Our head of security is still missing. Our accountant got attacked by a bear. Our recovery agents have lost their minds. I knew she’s after me next! Please, find her before she destroys everyone I hold dear!”

The reporter put up Carmen’s picture alongside Garith’s, who got listed as an accomplice. Peering into the shop window, Carmen’s face turned to pure disgust. “That miserable f-!”

Garith interrupted her by putting his hand over her mouth. Some people stared curiously, so he casually waved them off, “She has Tourette’s Syndrome. Please, don’t stare! She just wants to be like everybody else!” People seemed to accept his explanation and went along their way down the row of vintage, downtown shops. Garith continued to muffle Carmen as he whispered, “He’s a liar, a murderer, and a horrible human being. I’m mad too, but we have to lay low since he’s framing us for his crimes! So please, hold onto your anger until we’re safe!”

Carmen pushed his hand off her mouth and hissed, “He tried to kill me! I defended myself and now I’m getting punished for surviving?”

Before Garith could calm her vexed nerves, a woman proclaimed, “Hey! You look familiar!”

A million excuses ran through Carmen’s mind, but Zartex was first to speak, “I get that a lot. People say I’m a dead ringer for Pee Wee Herman!”

The woman, who hadn’t noticed Zartex until now, realized he was right. “Oh my god, you do! Can I get a selfie?”

“A what?” Zartex replied. The woman took that as a yes and posed for a picture with him. Carmen and Garith slipped away to an alley behind them.

While they trotted through the alley behind the shops, Carmen apologized, “I’m sorry I am so emotional. I feel like such an anti-hero!”

Garith assured her, “No need to apologize for having feelings! You’re human, and you went through a horrific experience, so it’s totally normal to freak out a little. You’re stronger than I am! If I went through what you did, I’d be a big, freakin’ baby about it!” His comment made Carmen laugh, so he went on, “No, seriously! Men actl like we don’t feel anything but hungry and horny, so we stuff our feelings until eventually we blow up over something stupid like a dumb call at a football game!” Carmen laughed again, so he added, “I’m a reporter, so I’m worse! We aren’t supposed to show any emotion even when we talk about horrible stories. I’m a ticking time bomb!”

“Sounds like I’d be safer traveling with a recovery agent!” Carmen joked. Garith laughed this time, and Carmen commented, “I can’t believe it! A minute ago I was really upset. How do you do that?”

Behind them, Zartex teleported and abruptly related, “He uses humor as a defense mechanism.” Carmen and Garith turned to him, and Zartex inquired, “So, how do we get to Sacramento from Roseville?”

Carmen thought out loud, “Well, originally we were gonna take the train, but it’s probably not safe to do that. The city bus is gonna be crowded too. We could take the back roads and alleyways to a point, but eventually, we would walk right into a people-filled area. I don’t know! There’s gotta be a way! Don’t worry, it’ll hit me!”

Immediately, after she said that, she crashed into a business truck! A man poked his outside and yelled, “What are you doing?”

Zartex answered truthfully, “Escaping the police!”

“Very funny!” the man came out to check the damage. “No damage, good! Will you freaks scram? I’m behind on my deliveries! Damn, there better not be too much traffic going down to Fair Oaks!” The man stormed back inside.

“Where’s Fair Oaks?” Garith wondered.

Zartex used his watch to look at a map. “Oh, it’s down here by the American River.”

Carmen also peered over the map. “That river flows to Sacramento! If we went to Fair Oaks, we could get to Sacramento by boat! But…we couldn’t!”

Garith, who already climbed inside, pointed out, “He’s running late, like he’ll check!”

Carmen seemed skeptical, but when Garith reached out his hand, she felt compelled to accept. They heard the delivery driver coming back, but luckily they quickly found boxes to hide behind as he shut the back door. Before he drove off, he saw Zartex standing there and glared at him. “I live in the dumpster.” The driver rolled his eyes and took off. Zartex shrugged and used his teleporter to get out of there.

The delivery driver opened up the back door and started loading boxes onto  his dolly. After he removed a few, he saw Garith and Carmen hiding in there. “Are you freakin’ kidding me!” he reacted vehemently.

“We can explain!” Garith claimed. The man ogled him skeptically. “We’re from the union. We work undercover to see who’s paying attention to safety precautions during their runs. You left your vehicle unsecured and overweight. We’ll have to report you!”

The driver’s tuned totally changed. “Oh please, don’t turn me in! I need this job! If I don’t pay my rent, me and my kid will be out on the street!”

Carmen and Garith made eye contact and pretended to silently debate the issue. Carmen told him, “Well…we’ll let you off with a warning this time, but only because we wouldn’t wanna see a kid on the streets!”

“Oh, thank you!” The man seemed truly grateful. As they hopped out of the truck, he secured his vehicle even though the restaurant owner, who had been waiting for her delivery, came out to yell at him.

Once they were out of sight, Carmen and Garith gave each other a high five. “Good thinking!” Carmen complimented.

“I don’t even know where that came from!” Garith relished.

Zartex appeared behind them, almost making them jump, and remarked “It came from you subconscious instincts.”

“You gotta stop doing that!” Carmen admonished him.

Zartex ignored that and informed them, “I got us a boat. Don’t ask me how!”

“We know how,” Garith responded. “What are we gonna do? Call the police?”

Zartex explained, “I hid it by the river. If we go by night, no one should spot us. All we gotta do is walk a couple of blocks down Sunrise Boulevard, which is right over there!”

“A couple of blocks?” Carmen lamented. “We’re doomed!”

“After all of the walking we did, you’re afraid of a couple of blocks?” Garith probed. “It’s almost too easy! Oh, I see your point now. What do we do?”

“What choice do we have?” Carmen said sagely, “We can’t stay here. We gotta move forward. All we have to do is walk briskly and try not to look too guilty.”

As they walked down Sunset Boulevard, Garith and Carmen avoided eye contact with everyone. Zartex whispered, “Act more normal!”

Carmen quickly noted, “An alien is giving advice on being normal!”

They peeked their heads up to take a look at their surroundings. People didn’t seem to notice them much. A mother and father walked their baby in her stroller. People drove to and from their jobs. A group of teenagers hung out and goofed off with each other. Everything just seemed so normal! It just felt so unbelievable that as her world came crashing down, life still carried on. Carmen wondered if her life would ever be so ordinary. At this point in her life, she couldn’t fathom going to work that she didn’t have stress about so much. As she stared at a businessman on his cell phone driving by, she saw him crack a smile. His worst worry right now would be paying a ticket for using his cell phone while driving, a minor inconvenience that he would forget about it as soon as he saw his buddies at the office. How perfectly extraordinary it was that all this unexceptional behavior went on while this madness happened in Carmen’s universe!

The last block was the most difficult. Carmen’s heart pounded in anticipation. She tried her hardest to walk normally, but she knew that any minute something dangerous would come along. Any minute someone would jump out of the shadows and take her whole world away. The park got closer and closer. She felt faint. Danger lurked around the corner, she just knew it! She lost awareness of her surroundings. She couldn’t breathe. Instincts took over as she walked through the shadows. She  wished it would just happen already so she could get it over with. The anticipation was too much to bear!

Suddenly, she saw sunlight and took a deep breath. She found herself in front of a riverbank. It took her a minute to see a canoe hidden by brush, and she realized that she had made it safely! They didn’t get attacked or captured! Apparently, Garith thought along the same lines because Carmen heard him say, “I’m alive?”

Zartex pleasantly chuckled, “You guys got some funny looks, so I told them you just saw a scary movie. It’s kind of true. I can only imagine the images running in your heads!”

Garith and Carmen giggled nervously. It took them a moment to compose themselves. Garith asserted, “Now all we have to do is wait for the sun to set. And then find a place to hide in California’s capitol! That should be easy, right?”

Zartex was about to answer, but Carmen stopped him. “Don’t answer that.” Garith and Carmen laughed a little, starting to relax again.

As dusk loomed close, the three of them finished eating some chicken. Garith asked Zartex, “Where did you get this? I will make a trip back to Sacramento just for this!”

Zartex recalled, “It was on a picnic table by the lake. I wanted to steal the boat, so I shouted ‘Bear!’ The humans went running! I remember you guys like to eat every day, so I thought that since I’m already stealing from them, I may as well steal some more!”

Garith mused, “You should probably stop admitting to stealing so often!”

“Psh!” Zartex countered. “If I get arrested, I’ll just teleport out! The worst case scenario is my boss will lecture me about breaking the rules. Actually, she can be scary when she’s mad!” Zartex raised an eyebrow at the thought.

Carmen remarked, “You sure do move your eyebrows a lot for someone who doesn’t have any human muscles!”

Zartex retorted, “What kind of disguise would it be if I had a face that didn’t move? Besides, the human body is fun to play with!” He wiggled his eyebrows one at a time.

The three of them laughed, but Carmen shushed them shortly after. They listened for a moment, and the other two heard what she did-footsteps. They hid behind some bushes as Jorden came into the scene, surveying her surroundings with a flashlight. As she scanned everything, she spoke spitefully, “I know you’re here, Carmen! I heard your laugh! You’re here with that reporter! You guys can’t hide for long! I’m right here! I will find you!” She shined her light to where the canoe was hidden. The three had to hold their breath since Jorden had no idea how close she actually was to them. “Oh, this must be your canoe. I’ll wait.” She sat on the edge of the canoe but couldn’t resist baiting Carmen. “You really pride yourself in breaking the rules, don’t you? You’re just like your father!” Carmen felt herself get riled up but didn’t dare act on it. “Maybe we’ll just forget you and focus on him! He’s been successful at keeping secrets so far, so we can use him! And if he doesn’t cooperate, we would have no trouble getting rid of him…”

Carmen felt herself tense up with rage. Jorden was threatening her father and she couldn’t tolerate that! Jorden sat up and spoke to the river, which put her back in the position of being within inches of their hiding spot. “You wanna hide like a coward, fine! Don’t face your charges like an adult! I’m gonna call a recovery agent and tell him to go retrieve Hank! Forget giving him a job in Mirage! We’re gonna send his brown hyde back to the ass of Europe!” Without even thinking about it, Carmen stormed out of the bushes. Before Jorden had time to react, Carmen punched her in the face! Jorden fell to the ground, knocked out!

Garith emerged from the bushes and celebrated, “Yeah! Take that, you racist bitch!”

As Zartex came out, he noted, “The sun is almost down, we can probably get going.”

As they cleared the brush from the canoe, Carmen noticed that Jorden kept slipping closer and closer to the water. As they got the canoe out and began to climb in, Jorden’s head went totally underwater! “Oh no!” Carmen cried out.

As she waded through the water, Garith questioned, “Are you really gonna save someone who wants to kill you?”

“I hate her guts!” Carmen explained as she retrieved her. “But I’m not about to stoop to their level and be responsible for a loss of life!” She got her back onto the land, and as Zartex and Garith rowed to the bank, Carmen pushed down on Jorden’s chest to give her CPR. Finally, Jorden coughed up water, and as she came to, the other two grabbed Carmen. The three of them rowed out of sight before Jorden realized what was going on.

As they rowed down the shadowy river, Garith complimented Carmen, “You’re a better person than me!”

Carmen grinned, “Thanks!” She felt herself blush and was really glad it was so dark! She changed the subject, “How are we going to get away with this?”

Garith replied, “With dumb luck, just like every other part of the journey!”

The three of them laughed together as they rowed down through the shadows.

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 9

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sabotage, Chapter 5

“I can’t breathe!” Carmen croaked. She always knew this day was coming, but it felt like a fantasy this whole time. Carmen had a comfortable rut for the last three years that she realized that she never really liked but had become accustomed to this lifestyle. Even on bad days or weeks, she could foresee the consequences of her actions. On the flip side, once the wedding finished, she knew her path. After her honeymoon, she would move in with Teddy and work on becoming manager. Today was a different story though. Today felt as though it would never come. Yesterday, she was in the field as normal. She didn’t felt any pressure during the week to make sales because she couldn’t earn any interviews while she was out of town. That level of indifference should’ve garnered her some promising sales, but it didn’t. When she got back, she would have to work really hard to get sales so that she wouldn’t have to scrimp so much. That was a normal thought on a normal day for her, but today was far from normal. The change she spent so much time working toward was upon her, and she wasn’t ready!

She gazed at her stricken expression in the full length, antique mirror. She had a v-neck bodice with a lacy flower pattern that went down to her waist with a tiered tulle skirt that flowed down to the floor. Normally, stilettos hurt her feet, but she couldn’t feel anything right now. She had her make up professionally done, and they had added heavy eye shadow and lots of blush, a level of cosmetics she had not dealt with since her theatre days. She didn’t have her hair in an up-do but only because the veil,which her maid of honor would bring soon,had such an intricate template. She reminded herself of a Barbie doll that she had in the nineties! The gown itself was worth more than she made from a whole month of sales. Every detail down to the most minute facet wreaked of luxury. This was the moment every woman dreamed of, and so now she wondered why she didn’t feel more excited.

The gossamer curtains of her preparation tent ruffled. The area was now empty except for the mirror and various things left behind from her bridesmaids. From one of the flaps at the entrance, Lilith entered. She commanded the attention of any room she went into. Her ivory skin was so smooth that people often forgot that she was in her forties. She had chestnut colored hair with a natural bounce, and her piercing brown eyes could terrify even the meanest person around. She wore a lavender chiffon gown with an empire bodice and a sweetheart sweep train, which made her look like a fierce princess. She could hardly believe that the vice president of Mirage agreed to be her maid of honor! Then again, Lilith was the one that set them up in the first place. She brought in Carmen’s elaborate rose bouquet and ornate flowery veil. Lilith leered, “Uh oh! Someone is getting cold feet!”

“This is different!” Carmen wailed. “I’ve gotten butterflies in my stomach before, plenty of times! Before running my first meeting, before my first play I was in…this is bigger! I’m scared! I’m petrified! I…I can’t breathe!”

Lilith straightened Carmen up and started to put on her veil. “It’s just nerves! You and Teddy are perfect for each other! That’s why I set you two up. I’ll never forget the day he first laid eyes on you. While I was in the western Colorado main office, he happened to see a picture of you on my phone. I just got off the phone with you after a one-on-one, which, by the way, I normally never do for anybody who isn’t a manager, so Teddy saw your picture ID. Teddy said he never saw anyone so beautiful! Just wait ’til he sees you today!” She heard music starting to play. “That’s my cue. I’m so proud to be your maid of honor! See you soon!” She winked and left the tent.

Carmen knew that she needed to walk to the other pier, but she was having a hard time moving. Zartex pulled up the back of the tent and checked in, “Oh good! I thought you were dying! Your emotional reading is off the charts!”

“I can’t do this!” Carmen shrieked.

Zartex slipped into the tent and encouraged her by saying, “You’re scared, but you get scared a lot. In the past week, I’ve seen you constantly brave your fears and knock on all of those doors. Do you know how many people fear all of that? Talking to people, going to strange houses, failure…Yet, you always persevere! I’m quite convinced you can overcome anything! Are you telling me that you don’t have the nerve to participate in this ritual?”

“Yes!” Carmen cried out. “I got good at ignoring my feelings for work, but I can’t ignore this Even on the days I got a serious injury I didn’t have anxiety like this! I feel like I’m walking into my own funeral!”

Zartex pointed out, “Well, you have to do something! You can’t stay in this tent forever!”

“You’re right!” Carmen bitterly admitted. “As we said in theatre, the show must go on!” She took a deep breath, opened the tent flaps, and marched outside.

As she stood on the old pier, a cold wind hit her face. She heard the attendees gasp in admiration as she stepped out. She jerked her head over to the other pier, and everyone looked like ants. She would have to walk fast to catch up. The sound of her heels hitting the pier seemed so loud. Everyone of note from Mirage and all of the Grand Junction office were there. She could see Seth Dabria, the president of Mirage, take a picture with a digital camera. It was hard to tell one person from another from a distance, but she knew it was him because he always wore the loudest suits. Today was no exception; he wore a purple plaid suit with a periwinkle tie! He always wore his Buddy Holly glasses, and the only ordinary thing about him was his brown, curly hair. The president and the vice president were there to honor her, so she should feel grateful, right?

Teddy stood at the alter waiting for her. As she quickened her step, she thought about how often people congratulated Teddy for finding a bride like her. They were happy for Teddy more than her. She never really thought about it before, but they never really made a big deal about her milestones. Why, in exactly two weeks she would be turning thirty, and no one had mentioned it yet, just like all her other birthdays. Her big days were never a big deal. In fact, she reasoned that Seth, Lilith, and the other executives were way closer to Teddy than her, so most of this ceremony was celebrating Teddy. They were all here because Teddy wanted to marry her, just like they wanted her to be a manager for them. Suddenly, she realized this whole thing was never about her! The field, the promotion, the wedding, they weren’t about her goals or needs. Sure, some of it fit her long term goals, and they knew that! They sold her on the idea to help them, not her! So no, they weren’t there to honor her, and they won’t make a big deal on her milestone birthday either. And they never would! This was the first day of the rest of her life!

Instinct overtook her body. The truth radiated through her body, and she stopped dead her tracks. The wedding party stared at her in bewilderment. She knew what she had to do. She turned around swiftly and ran in the other direction. She could hear chairs scraping and people rushing over. She couldn’t let them catch her. She didn’t know why, exactly, she needed to avoid them, all she knew was her intuition told her to run! Run! And never look back! Before they could get any closer, she jumped off the pier and into the lake!

Carmen sank down but bobbed back up a little. She then swam over to under the dock. She got her head above the water and took a deep breath. She heard almost the whole wedding party calling her name, so she knew eventually they would peek under the dock. Serendipitously, a motor boat jetted in her direction. She quickly pulled off her veil with one hand, and as the motor boat passed by, she threw the veil on it. She heard Arius shout, “She’s on the boat!” Everyone ran off the pier, and Carmen hid behind one of the support poles. She watched them all run along the lake shore, and once they were far enough away, she swam to shore.

Carmen could feel her heart pounding rapidly, and all of the nerves in her body were stirred. She ran for the nearby woods. Soon they would discover that she was never on that motorboat and would come looking for her. She had no time to ponder why her instincts told her to escape them, but she trusted her intuition. She ran, and she kept running as fast as she could. She ran and ran, dodging every bush and gnarled branch in her path. Suddenly, part of her skirt got caught onto some shrubbery. Panic flooded her body as she heard footsteps in the distance. She ripped off the bottom layer of her dress! When she freed herself, she heard footsteps coming from multiple directions. She spun around frantically, trying to figure it out. All of a sudden, Zartex appeared before her and commanded, “Stay hidden!” He threw her up into a tree.

After recovering from the momentary shock of getting flung into the air, she clung onto a large branch well above the ground. She laid on her stomach and watched the scene below her. Zartex must’ve teleported out of there. She didn’t move and even tried to slow down her breathing, although they worried that they could hear her heart pounding inside her ears. From one end, she saw Seth, Lilith, and a few executives searching across the forest floor. In the next moment, Seth held out his arms to stop the others as they glared at someone approaching from the other direction. Seth forcibly pried, “Who are you? What are you doing here?”

Carmen caught a glimpse of the man from the back. He wore a brown suit, so Carmen’s curiosity was roused; what would someone like that be doing in the middle of the woods? She couldn’t tell if he was young or old, but she guessed that he must be somewhere close to his age since his dirty blond hair had no gray. From the sound of his voice, he projected strength and knowledge. The mysterious man pushed back, “I was gonna ask you the same thing! What business do you have here?”

Lilith seethed, “We’re looking for a fugitive!”

Most men would cower when Lilith gave them a stare down like that, but this man had the bravado walking up to her and staring at her dead in the eye! “Oh, you’re federal agents? I don’t like your type! Just ask your friend in that clearing!”

“A friend in the clearing?” Seth inquired skeptically.

“Yeah, let me help you get reacquainted.” The man reached into his back pocket as if he was pulling out a gun. Seth, Lilith, and the others unwillingly backed away.

Carmen didn’t move. She didn’t want to get mixed up with gangsters at a time like this, but somehow she didn’t think he was dangerous. There was something about his aura that made her trust him. He stood in the same place with a fixed stare in the direction where the Mirage executives came from. After what seemed like an eternity, the man gently instructed, “You can get down now, Carmen.”

Carmen’s heart fluttered at the mention of her name. She wondered how he could possibly know who she is! She hesitated as she silently debated if coming down would throw her from one danger to another, but since he already knew she was there, she didn’t have much of a choice. She couldn’t just stay in the tree! Besides, her nerves had calmed down, so she took that as a cue to follow him. She gingerly climbed down and saw him holding his arms out to catch her. She wanted to get a little closer so her fall didn’t have too much of an impact on the mysterious man, especially if he could turn into her ally! At that moment, a branch snapped, and she lost her footing. She fell threw a few more branches and…smack!

She landed on top of the man on her back causing the man to fall onto his back with a huge grunt. Carmen anguished, “I’m so sorry! Are you hurt?”

He breathed, “Get off! You’re too heavy!”

“Excuse me?” Carmen replied, slightly offended.

Zartex appeared and grabbed her by the hand. “I think he’s having trouble breathing ’cause you’re on his throat.”

Carmen took Zartex’s hand, and the man got up, gasping. Carmen apologized, “Are you okay? I hope I didn’t hurt you too badly!”

“It’s okay; I’m real strong!” the man responded breathily.

Carmen finally got to take a glimpse at his face. He had kind, blue eyes and facial features that conveyed a mix of fortitude and softness. He did seem to be in good shape as he claimed. It took her a while to realize that she had been staring at him too much, so she looked away shyly. She couldn’t believe that, for a moment, she forgot about what danger she was in or that she had a lot of hurt from the past that made her miserable. She remarked, “Thank you for helping me! You seem to know who I am, so can I know who you are?”

“Garith Kendric,” he told her.

“The reporter from San Francisco?” Carmen got surprised by discovering this, but then it occurred to her that she recognized him from all of his social media friend requests. “What are you doing here?”

“Well,” Garith explained hastily, “I came to spy on a big corporate wedding, but now I’m here to rescue you!” Now that he had recovered from the fall, his senses were reawakened. He finally registered that Zartex was there and made a strange face. “Who is this?”

“Zartex the alien!” Zartex held out his hand.

“What?” Garith didn’t believe him, but he didn’t have time to object. He absentmindedly shook his hand and notified Carmen, “Whatever. Look, they’ll be back soon, and we gotta get you out of here! You’re in terrible danger!”

Zartex grabbed Carmen’s hand and ran in the direction he came from. Zartex followed them as Garith led Carmen through the woods. Carmen felt compelled to ask, “I know I’m in danger, but could you explain to me exactly why I suddenly felt like I was at death’s door?”

Determinedly focused ahead, Garith told her, “Because you’re escaping from the world’s most dangerous cult!”

War of the Mystics: Frozen

Attention Readers: the free version of my novel, which I posted a chapter at a time on my blog, is no longer available. However…you can purchase it at Amazon, Barnes and Noble online, Createspace, and eBay. So please, check it out and spread the word!!!