Rebels of Darkness, Chapter 17

Where am I?” Gwynivara lifted her heavy eyelids, and all she could see was a dark, stone ceiling. Her body felt totally drained, and her mind struggled to regain its focus. The last thing she remembered was fleeing from a menacing adversary and a chaotic scene. She didn’t remember falling asleep, so she had no idea where she was waking up. Her strength slowly returned, her mind began to race, and her natural curiosity compelled her to find out what happened.

A very hoarse voice croaked, “You’re alive, and you’re home!”

That voice sounded so familiar to her, but its scratchy tone made it so hard to decipher. Whoever he was, he sounded sick. That thought instantly made her think she was in a hospital, but the man stated clearly that she was home. She thought furiously- she knew that voice! Suddenly, a light bulb went off in her head. She felt almost sure it was…but it couldn’t be…She bolted out of bed and whipped her head to the right. Sure enough, it was Emorick! He barely had his eyes open, but he craned his head towards her and smiled weakly.

Gwynivara’s heart skipped a beat, and her impulses wanted her to dart over there and give him a big hug, but when she tried, she found herself bound to the bed. She then realized that she had an IV bag in her, so she gingerly took it out, threw it aside, and dashed to his bedside. “I’m so glad you’re okay!” She almost hugged him, but she hesitated. He wasn’t moving much, and he emitted this overwhelming aura that something was still very wrong.

Emorick made a skeptical face but didn’t express his doubts. Instead, he asked her, “What are you doing here?”

“Well, um…” Gwynivara didn’t know how to explain it to him, especially since she had a hard time understanding it herself. She started off with what she did know, “So, you saw that the new police force has been infiltrated by pawns of the origin. We figured out that they’re trying to spread the disease faster, and our theory became clearer when they set the quarantine building on fire. Some of the victims escaped, but instead of dispersing and creating more monsters to infect more people, we intercepted them. One of them was Chief Forsythe’s daughter, and she has us pretty convinced that he is ignorant of his crew’s true intentions. There’s no way that those dirty cops are bringing the creatures back to the police headquarters, so they must be storing them wherever the origin is hiding. So, we made a goal of tracking the beasts, and Cody helped me realize that the best way to do that would be…” She hesitated at this point. She had no idea how Emorick would react to her plan. She would hate to see the look of disappointment on his face if he viewed her tactics as foolhardy, but he stared at her expectantly, so she knew she had to tell the truth. “…tracking devices.”

Emorick’s initial reaction was surprise. “Wow! Well, that certainly would work, but the only way we could could our hands on it would be to…” He saw her face twist in guilt, and he remarked, “You didn’t!”

“We did!” Gwynivara’s face flushed from her mortification. “We stated a hippie protest to distract the military supply store workers while Kierram found it in the aisles.”

Gwynivara fully expected to hear a lecture about her recklessness, but instead, to her astonishment, Emorick laughed as heartily as his body would let him. “You got guts, kiddo! It’s a miracle you didn’t get caught!”

“We did!” Gwynivara revealed. “The orderly that survived the incident at the Public Health Center is now a cop, and he threatened to kill Kierram. I couldn’t let him do that, so I channeled my Venenatus Sanguis to shoot electricity at him!”

Emorick appeared pleasantly shocked to hear this. “You did that?”

“Kierram started to teach me,” Gwynivara admitted. “We wanted to send data gathered from the tracking device to your orb to track down the origin.”

“That’s impressive,” Emorick complimented, which really rallied up Gwynivara’s spirits. “Only really strong people can fully control their Venenatus Sanguis. It takes a hell of a lot of focus and energy.”

“That’s why I’m here!” Gwynivara felt so vindicated to hear this information, but she witnessed Emorick using his enchantments without collapsing, so she thought it prudent to ask, “How do you do it without fainting?”

He weakly replied, “Black coffee helps.” He let out a guttural cough, and Gwynivara’s heart sank a little. She waited so long for him to get a little better, and now that he showed some progress, she couldn’t bear the thought of him regressing back to ill health. He feebly told her, “Your plan is solid. Keep up the good work!”

She knew what this sounded like, and she refused to accept it. “No! You’re better now; It’s your Rebellion; you’re in charge again!”

“I can’t…not right now…” Emorick coughed again. “Take care of Kierram for me, okay?” He glanced over to Gwynivara, who’s eyes were brimming with tears. “Don’t worry about me! Our people need you right now, go to them!” He noticed that she couldn’t or wouldn’t move, so he mustered the strength to tell her. “That’s an order!”

It registered to Gwynivara that the Rebellion general had indeed given her an order and she had to obey his command. “Yes, sir!” He weakly smiled at her. She requested, “Please get better!” Emorick’s fingers made the okay sign, but his face still showed a lot of doubt. It was hard to leave his side, but she knew she had to. As soon as she got out of his eyesight, she wiped the tears from her eyes. She walked down the hall trying to think only positive thoughts about Emorick’s recovery. She had to- she had a job to do!

Riley sat at the island in the kitchen and looked at notes while he ate pancakes when Gwynivara walked in. “Oh good, you’re awake!”

“Sort of!” Gwynivara poured some coffee and took a sip right away. She wasn’t used to black coffee and shuddered a little. “Now I’m awake!”

Riley laughed, and then he suggested. “You must be famished! I have some extra pancakes- help yourself!” Gwynivara didn’t feel hungry, but she couldn’t recall the last time she ate anything, so she thought she ought to eat something. As soon as sat down and took a bite, she realized that she was starving and starting wolfing down her food. Riley raised an eyebrow in surprise but smiled in amusement. “No need to ask if you like them!” Her mouth was too full of food to say anything, but she nodded in agreement. Riley chuckled.

At that moment, Cody walked into the kitchen in a sort of daze. He seemed surprised to see people in the room and looked tempted to shy away, but Riley greeted him, “Morning! Want some pancakes?”

“Alright.” Cody slumped into a chair next to Riley. Gwynivara, who was already up to get seconds, made him a plate and served it to him. Riley and Gwynivara dove right in, but Cody sighed before taking a bite. Riley and Gwynivara started at him inquisitively. Cody apologized, “Sorry! I just feel so blue today!”

Riley reacted jokingly, “A depressed teenager- how cliché!” Cody gave him a slightly offended look, so he changed tactics, “Alright, let’s hear it.”

“Well, it’s just…I…” Cody stammered. “Okay, so I think I have a crush on Rebekah!”

Gwynivara inquired, “So, why does that make you sad?”

“Because I’m a bum!” Cody lamented. “She’s a beautiful girl, why would a girl like that want me?”

“Oh, sweetie, we all feel that way when we like someone!” Riley said sagely. “We never feel like we’re good enough. But don’t sell yourself short! You have a home here, so you and her are in the same boat. But you’ve got the hero aspect going on. Tell her all about how you selflessly rescued a marine officer and she’ll be all over you!”

Cody looked nervously skeptical about that idea. “I don’t know…”

“You don’t have to propose to her!” Riley responded. “Just be her friend. Most romances start out that way.”

“Really? Okay…” Cody’s mood seem to embolden a little. “I can do that!”

“Of course you can!” Riley replied. “Now, go on, eat up!”

Cody gave him a look of admiration. “You’re a father, aren’t you?”

“How’d you know?” Riley asked.

Cody shrugged. “That’s just how I always pictured it’d be like to have a normal dad. Your kids are so lucky!”

Riley’s usual swagger diminished a little. “My son wants nothing to do with me.” Cody reacted in astonishment, so Riley explained, “I spent my whole life trying to pretend to be something I’m not. Once I turned forty-five, I realized that while I was doing good on pleasing everyone else, I spent the first half of my life unhappy, so I told everyone the truth. They all got upset, and my wife took our son and left. My son still won’t talk to me. He’s too ashamed to have a gay dad.”

“That’s terrible!” Cody exclaimed. “Who cares who your parents date- as long as they’re happy! I wish that was my biggest problem! My mom’s boyfriend won’t stop beating her, and no one cares! I called the cops a few times, but they never arrested him. She would lie and say nothing happened every time! The rest of my family would just let it happen, saying it was her choice to live like that. He almost killed her the last time! I couldn’t take it anymore and ran away. I’d rather live on the streets than deal with that. Your son has no idea how lucky he has it!” Riley was clearly touched by his speech, but he couldn’t speak. Cody suddenly felt awkward, so he clumsily tried to change the subject, “Great pancakes!”

“Thank you!” Riley said gratefully.

Gwynivara watched this scene unfold and got a little choked up herself. Before she could react, Beranadette walked in. “Hey guys, we’re ready to…Ooh, pancakes!”

Riley informed her, “Sorry, hon! Gwyn got the last ones!”

With a mix of betrayal and amusement, Bernadette stared at Gwynivara, who chomped on the last bite mockingly. The two women locked eyes for a while, but soon both burst out into laughter. Bernadette told them, “Everyone’s ready for the officers’ meeting.”

Gwynivara responded casually, “Everyone? Does that mean Kennith came back?”

Bernadette and Riley shifted uncomfortably, exchanging worried glances. Bernadette slowly revealed, “Kennith isn’t coming back.”

“He’s dead?” Gwynivara’s heart plummeted. She never liked him, but he was an officer and one of her people, so the thought made her incredibly sad.

“No,” Bernadette stated ruefully, “It’s much worse than that…”

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Rebels of Darkness, Chapter 13

So, what’s it gonna be?” Kennith challenged Gwynivara. Everyone turned to her and stared in expectation of a decision. She turned away from them, feeling overwhelmed. She had visions of the origin that she couldn’t explain. Their strong, able Rebel leader got brutally attacked and may not survive. She had just fought a bunch of beasts, and she didn’t realize it until then, but it had emotionally drained her. And before she could fully process any of it, she is suddenly placed in charge of everything! She had all of these thoughts swirling in her head so fast that she couldn’t think. She felt kind of short of breath and hunched over a little. At that moment, she felt a rugged yet warm hand gently pat her back. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see that it was Kierram. She felt comforted knowing that she had his support. When she looked straight ahead, she saw Cody standing there looking weary and sort of scared. That prompted Gwynivara to put her feelings aside and do what was best for Cody.

She didn’t know if she would do half as well as Emorick at running the Rebellion, but she felt confident that she could form a logical explanation on what to do with Cody. She turned around to face the other officers. She didn’t have particularly favorable opinions of Kennith, but he did make some good points. Cody didn’t have Venenatus Sanguis, and staying in a community with dozens of people who do have it could put him in jeopardy. She didn’t like the idea of someone his age living on the streets, but he was young enough where he could still overcome these obstacles and have a real life. She felt sure that one day he would forget about this place and in time, this would become a strange memory. Gwynivara wondered how long it would take for him to forget…

Before she could make her decision, she heard Emorick strain in his sleep. She briefly speculated about what was going through his head right now. She didn’t know if he had a sense of his current surroundings or if his mind would go back to where it left off- fighting with that policeman on the playground. Suddenly, that triggered a new train of thought for her…These men had tried to kill Cody, and they left him as a witness. Gwynivara started to think out loud, “Eventually, the cops who tried to kill him will go after him again.” Kennith started to argue, but before he could get a word out, Gwyivara went on, “No, really! Maybe they initially left him there not thinking of him as a threat, but eventually, they’ll realize that he knows their secret. What’s to stop him from going to Chief Forsythe and telling him what they did?”

The others agreed that she had a point. One of them suggested, “Well, shouldn’t we let him do that? Chief Forsythe would shut down that operation, and the origin couldn’t use that ruse to spread the disease anymore!”

Since it had been fresh on her mind, Gwynivara kept thinking about Cody’s memory, which made her conclude, “Eventually, those men will catch up with Cody and ask what he did with Emorick’s body after they fled the scene ‘cause they’ll check hospital records and see that no one checked him in. At that point, they’ll figure out that Cody took him to a hideout. They could torture him and force the information out of him. As long as he’s alive, he has something they want. Once they get it, they’ll kill him. Or they’ll torture him to death for not telling them what they wanna know. Either way, both his life and ours are in danger if we have him go. Cody knows too much about the Rebellion, so he needs to stay.”

Most of the officers didn’t like the idea of Cody living in the Rebel headquarters, but they knew that Gwynivara was absolutely right, so they accepted this inevitability. One officer remarked, “I don’t even what rooms are available right now! Has anyone cleaned out Blake’s room?”

Gwynivara suggested, “He could sleep in Emorick’s room for now.”

Everyone looked at her quizzically. Another officer reacted, “But, I thought since you’re in charge that you…”

Gwynivara felt uneasy about taking Emorick’s room. She had come to terms with her leadership position, but she felt like she was merely babysitting the role. Once Emorick got better, she would happily relinquish control back to him. Moving into his room would feel like they officially gave up hope. Gwynivara felt like her sentiments would be viewed as impractical and dreaded the idea of getting argued into it. Fortunately, before she could speak, Kierram rang in, “It doesn’t make sense for her to move into my father’s room and then move back to her old room when he gets better!”

Kennith pointed out, “If we move Cody in there and Emorick gets better, we’ll have to move him out of there too.”

Bernadette conjectured, “In an emergency, Cody doesn’t have the ability to conjure anything like we do, but he is obviously decent with weapons. So, it would make sense to give him easy access to the armory.”

“You wanna put a kid in charge of the entire weapon supply?” Kennith responded skeptically.

Another officer sided with Bernadette, “He’s unbiased. He’d be fair and honest with who gives weapons to.”

“I agree,” Gwynviara piped in. “He can stay in there for now. I’m not about to move anywhere this late in the night!” She could tell she had made her point to them, but soon after she noticed the crowd still gathered in front of the first aid station, so she told the officers, “Everyone’s worried sick right now, but we can’t have the whole Rebellion get into a state of disfunction. Let’s get everyone to their rooms and then go to bed. Tomorrow is business as usual. No mater what happens, we must make sure the mission continues.”

All of the officers, even Kennith, concurred with Gwynivara. Everyone except for Gwynivara, Kierram, and Bernadette went to address the other members and began to persuade them to maintain a normal schedule during this crisis. The other three agreed to set the example for the group and headed to their rooms with Cody. As they walked down the still empty halls, Gwynivara glanced over at Kierram. His eyes still looked haunted by his dad’s unknown fate, but he seemed a little more subdued than before. She asked him, “How you doin’?”

Kierram wistfully answered, “I just can’t ‘til this is over! Then Dad and I can go back to bickering with each other.” Gwynivara snickered, and then Kierram continued, “Part of me thinks I need to be there and just watch him, like by never taking my eyes off him that he’ll stay exactly as he is. Like, if I take my eyes off him, he’ll…” He cleared his throat, unable to think of his father’s possible demise. “But I know when Dad wakes up and sees me there, he’ll be mad. He wouldn’t want me to waste my time worrying. So, I’m gonna do what I can to take care of the Rebellion for him.” He paused, and then he inquired, “How are you doing?”

They had gotten to their rooms, but Bernadette took the reins of showing Cody where he’d be staying in order for them to finish their conversation. Gwynivara knew that she could trust him, so she replied honestly, “I’m terrified; terrified that your dad is in the state he’s in, but taking over his responsibilities is equally terrifying! But there’s a consistent schedule we all follow, so really, I just have to make sure everyone follows it, right? Piece of cake! And it’s only a few hours ‘til he gets better, right?”

Neither of them said it aloud, but both of them had a feeling it wasn’t going to be that easy. Kierram simply told her, “You’re gonna be fine! I mean, you’re doing good so far!”

Gwynivara smiled. “Thanks!” For a moment, neither of them spoke, but they could both sense that each others’ emotions were running high. After a while, Gwynivara sighed, “I guess I better go inside. I definitely gotta set the right example.”

“Yeah,” Kierram responded sympathetically. “If you need anything though, you know I don’t sleep really anyway. So, feel free to bug me.”

Gwynivara laughed, “Oh, I have permission now?”

Her joke managed to crack a smile out of him. “See you in the morning, Captain!”

“Don’t call me that!” Gwynivara called after him as he opened bedroom door. He gave her a small grin before shutting the door gently. Gwynivara’s heart fluttered thinking that she had successfully helped someone feel better. It was a very satisfying feeling.

She shut her bedroom door behind her and sat down on her bed. After everything that happened and everything she was set to face, she knew there was no way she was going to get any sleep. She laid down on her bed and stared up at the ceiling, her eyes staying wide awake. She kept telling herself that everything would be fine, that everyone knew their duties and that she shouldn’t have any problems. Her nerves were still jangled and she tried to convince herself that any notion indicating that something would go wrong was simply from that. Nothing could quell her nervousness, so she kept her focus on planning out tomorrow. She had no choice but to ignore her ill feelings and hope for the best.

The next morning, Gwynivara ate her breakfast in the kitchen. She had instructed the medics to come find her immediately when Emorick’s condition had changed. She truly had hoped that as soon as she left that a medic would tap her shoulders and tell her that he woke up, so when she got a tap on her shoulder at that moment, excitement flooded through her veins. She turned around, and disappointment crushed her optimism. Although she adored Riley, she doubted that he had any news that she had been wishing for. “Oh…hey Riley! What’s going on?”

Riley seemed to have understood her emotional reaction and didn’t comment on it. “Hey Gwyn. I was just wondering if I could go patrolling for a recruitment mission. I can’t stop thinking about last night, and I think it would help to get out and do something productive to keep my mind of of…”

“Yeah, sure, go ahead,” she authorized him. Riley thanked her and left. After he was gone, Gwynivara knew it was time to face the fact that she would have to run the Rebellion today, at least for a little while. She really hoped that Emorick would interrupt and take over! Gwynivara quickly finished her coffee and headed to the training auditorium.

When she arrived, she expected to walk in on the officers sparring with their practice weapons, but instead, everyone sat on the floor with glum faces. One officer croaked, “Any news?”

Trying to maintain a cheery tone, Gwynivara replied, “Not yet.” Everyone’s hopes seemed to have been dashed, and Gwynivara knew that she couldn’t let it escalate further. She clapped her hands once, and it snapped everyone into attention. “We can’t let ourselves get to the point where we create a bunch of beasts again! We have to focus on the mission!” They all agreed with her and were ready to comply. After thinking about it all night, Gwynivara had come up with a simple plan for today. “None of us got much sleep last night, so there’s no use in trying to learn something new. Let’s just focus on fine tuning what we already know. We’ll start with swordplay. Everyone partner up!”

Everyone obeyed and put full effort into practice, but no one really chatted with each other like usual. The room was pretty quiet through the whole session. Gwynivara hoped some good news would come their way so that the officers would get their motivation back. After a few hours, Gwynivara started to get hungry, so she addressed everyone, “Good job guys! Let’s take a break and get some lunch!”

They all agreed and started to head for the door. Before they could though, Riley burst in. His presence in the training room was odd enough in itself, but at that moment, he gave off a very panicked vibe. Gwynivara noticed his clothes and hair were dissheveled, and he was short of breath. Before anyone could ask, he spouted, “We have to go help! They’re gonna kill them all!”

Rebels of Darkness, Chapter 5

Today is my first day in the Rebellion, and out of all the things to worry about, I’m most worried about what to wear!” Gwynivara remarked as she shuffled through a rack of clothes in a cavern shop. “I know, typical girl issue, right?”

A man with pepper-gray hair slicked to the left, large, thing metal glasses, and pale skin smoked a pipe as he sat behind as he sat behind the counter and casually kept an eye on the store. He shrugged and told her, “Listen sweetie, everyone wants to make a good impression on their first day! Sometimes you don’t get a second chance, so I get it!”

Gwynivara examined a garment, trying to decide if she wanted wear it today or not. “Ugh! I don’t know! What do the other officers wear?”

The man raised an eyebrow. “You’re an officer? That’s impressive! You got more guts than I do!” Gwynivara smiled gratefully, but before she could figure out what to say back, the man went on, “Most of the other officers are men, so they don’t care that much. Bernadette came from a rich family and brought most of her clothes with her, so don’t expect to find anything like hers here!” Gwynivara giggled, but that statement struck a chord with her; how Bernadette went from luxury to this environment must have quite a story to it! The man concluded, “Just go with anything that you would exercise in.”

Gwynivara found some lightweight pants and a matching shirt, but she suddenly noticed, “It looks really close to what I have on now!” She glanced at the clock on the wall behind him. “Crap! I don’t have time to look for something else!”

“It’s only for one day, dear! If you want, I can take a look around and find some items your size and set them aside for you,” he offered.

“Really?” She got a little thrown off because she wasn’t used to so many people treating her so kindly.

He shrugged again. “I got nothing better to do.” Gwynivara handed him the clothes she picked out, and he found the tags on them so he could see her size. “Okay, got it. Come by at the end of the day, and I’ll show you what I find.”

“Thank you so much, uh…” She fished for his name.

“Riley.”

“Gwyn.”

They shook hands, and Gwynivara complimented him, “You’re so nice!”

Riley chuckled, “Most of the time I’m pretty sarcastic, but you’re obviously new, so I’m on my best behavior right now.” Gwynivara laughed, and Riley concluded with, “Have a good first day!”

“You too!” Gwynivara replied automatically, but after she processed the interaction, she cringed. “I mean…”

“I know what you meant, darling.” Riley took a smoke but grinned. “It’s okay, you can go!” She smiled gratefully and left.

In the kitchen, Gwynivara didn’t have a lot of time, so she searched for food that could get prepared quickly. She settled on toast, and as she waited for her bread in the toaster, she heard someone enter from the entrance behind her. When she turned around, she saw Kierram and turned right back around. Kierram grumbled, “If you’re expecting an apology, you can forget it!”

Gwynivara shrugged and casually said, “Okay.”

“I-!” Kierram got thrown off by her nonchalant attitude. “What do you mean, okay?”

“I mean I don’t expect an apology from you.” Her toast popped up, and she began to put butter on it. “Isn’t that what you wanted?”

“What, now you’re mocking me?” Kierram accused.

Continuing to spread butter on her toast, she told him, “No. Actually, I genuinely don’t want your apology. I want to make my breakfast and do well in training. I could care less what you do or don’t do.”

Kierram scoffed, “Oh, now you don’t care! You cared enough last night to barge into my room and put your nose into my business, but now-!”

Gwynivara, who had already finished preparing her food, looked him square in the eye and stated, “I care for you as much as any other person or animal in that I don’t want you to die, but I have my own life to worry about, so I don’t care what you do or don’t with yours!” Kierram didn’t respond other than to look utterly stunned. While she walked out of the room, she regarded him coldly, “See you at training!”

“I don’t do training!” Kierram sneered.

Gwynivara turned her head and gave him a piteous glance. “Oh, okay then.”

As she walked down the hall, Kierram called after her, “I could, I choose not to!”

Not looking back, Gwynivara responded listlessly, “Good for you!” Kierram viscerally growled in frustration and went back into the kitchen.

Later that morning, Gwynivara found a heavy oak door at the end of the left hall. With great effort, she pulled it open and nervously entered. The training arena reminded her of a high school gym except for the dark, rocky floor. The spacious, well-lit room had soft, foamy mats placed strategically throughout the area. Nine men and Bernadette were already practicing sword fighting with slender, wooden poles. Emorick hadn’t arrived yet, so she surmised that they did this as a warmup exercise. With everyone else paired up, she thought it’d make sense to approach one of the men who formed a group of three. However, it felt too awkward to just in like that since she was so new to the group, so she hesitated. She silently debated whether or not to join them or to wait for a calm moment to introduce herself to everyone.

Her decision got made for her as one of the men in the group noticed her. He stopped in his tracks, nudged his buddies, and pointed behind them. They turned around were surprised to see someone standing there. The three discussed something, and one of them walked towards her. Gwynivara felt a rush of gratitude and really respected the Rebellion for its thoughtful people. When he got closer, she observed a smug smile on his face, the kind of smile that a person bears when they’re good-looking and know it. Gwynivara sincerely hoped that this interpretation wasn’t true, but the way he posed in front of her, leaning on his pole while maintaining way too much eye contact, she was certain her presumption would prove to be accurate and groaned.

The man very smoothly asked her, “Come to watch us practice, bunny?”

Scowling, Gwynivara informed him, “Actually, I’m here to practice. I’m an officer too.”

He raised his eyebrows in mild admiration. “Oh really? Well, feel free to practice on me anytime!” He either didn’t notice her disgusted expression or he didn’t care because he went on, “Seriously, I’d love to see your sword-work!”

Before Gwynivara could let out a noise of revulsion, she heard one from behind her. She turned around and was surprised to see Kierram standing there! The man must not have noticed Kierram giving him a dirty look because he urged, “Come on, let me have it!”

Reaching into a tall crate next to him, Kierram suggested to her, “You heard him, let him have it!”

He tossed her a pole, and anger impulsed her into it. She raised her arm and, using all of the strength in her muscles, she whacked him in the stomach! The force of her strike took the air out of him for a moment. The room fell silent as Emorick entered. Gwynivara still felt miffed about the situation, but she hung her head shamefully, fearing the worst from Emorick. Instead, Emorick ordered, “Keep going!” Although this slightly shocked her, Gwynivara obliged and hit him in the arm and then again in the opposite leg. Hiding his grin, Emorick regarded the man, “Come on, Kennith, fight back!” Kennith genuinely tried to fight back but couldn’t get a hit in.

When Gwynivara got a good hit on the back of his head, Emorick instructed, “Alright, that’s enough. Stop!” She adhered to his direction, feeling vindicated. Emorick stood over Kennith, who rubbed his head pathetically, and told him, “All soldiers will treat each other with respect if they want to remain in it. Do I make myself clear?”

“Yes, sir!” Kennith responded civilly.

“Good,” Emorick addressed him, “Now go get an ice pack from the first aid station. You’re dismissed for the day!” Kennith could not get away fast enough and dashed out of the room! As soon as he was out of sight, Emorick directed, “Alright, everyone, gather ‘round!” He sat on an apple box on the other side of the room while the others sat cross-legged on the floor before him. He saw Kierram hesitate to sit, and clearly Emorick did not expect his presence. “Kierram? You’re here!”

Everyone turned to him incredulously. Gwynivara expected him to say something snarky, but instead, he pointed out, “You act like I’m the new one here!”

That brought their attention to Gwynivara, who clumsily waved hello. “Hi! I’m Gwyn!”

Emorick added, “She’s our newest officer. You’ll have to get to know her later though. We have more distressing news to discuss before we practice.” He reached into his pocket and brought out that purple orb. He showed it to the group, and when they leaned in close, they saw a local news article that showed a middle-aged man with light colored, slicked back hair, a bushy mustache, and a thin physique standing proudly with his hands on his hips, which had the effect of showing off his police badge on his belt. The headline read: Chief Forsythe Cracks Down on Venenatus Sanguis Fugitives. Emorick informed them, “It says that he’s hiring more officers specfically for the purpose of rounding up more people with the disease to bring them into quarantine!”

“No!” a couple men cried out.

Bernadette commented, “Well, looks like we’re about to get more crowded in here!”

“That’s true!” Emorick agreed. “We’re gonna increase our patrols in the city, of course. However, Chief Forsythe is relentless and won’t stop until every last one of us is exterminated! Our patrols will only be like a tourniquet-we won’t truly stop the bleeding until we fix the wound. We’ve gotta do more research on the cure!”

“How are we supposed to do that?” one of the men asked. “Every time we go to the library, every book written on the subject is checked out.”

“We could see if the hospital has any brochures,” another man suggested. The others murmured in agreement.

Gwynivara didn’t share their sentiment. “I worked for that hospital for over a year and a half, and trust me, their brochures aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on!”

The others were a little disappointed to hear this but accepted her input. The man who made the suggestion snidely inquired, “Do you have any suggestions?” He crossed his arms, clearly not expecting her to come up with a better solution.

Gwynivara shyly brought up her idea from last night, “The Public Health Center is doing research on Venenatus Sanguis, so they must have access to a lot of resources on the subject. Now, I know only authorized personnel would have access to the material, but I heard that they were looking for volunteers. So, if we signed up to help them out, we could sneak in and peak at what they’ve got.”

For a moment, no one spoke. Eventually, one man remarked, “That’s suicide! If we got caught-!”

Kierram interrupted, “I think it’s a great idea!” Everyone, especially Gwynivara, seemed stunned by his new-found allegiance. He affirmed, “What knowledge we could gain is worth the risk. I’m in!”

“Me too!” Bernadette asserted.

Emorick probed, “Are you sure you wanna take on a task so dangerous on your first day of the Rebellion?”

“We don’t have time to waste!” Gwynivara answered with absolute certainty.

He couldn’t argue with her logic, so Emorick consented, “Alright, Gwyn. You have my permission to head this mission.”

Kierram and Bernadette stood behind her. Hardly believing her fortune, she mentally started to prepare herself to plan this out. She began to head out, and the other two followed her. Before they could leave, Emorick called after them, “Just do me a favor…” Gwynivara, Bernadette, and Kierram all turned around and listened. “…Come back to us alive!”

Gwynivara vowed, “We will.” As soon as they turned back around and left, the three of them tried to hide their ominous sense of foreboding.

Sabotage, Chapter 18

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So, now what?” Carmen asked.

“How about the teacups?” Zartex suggested.

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah…” Garith and Carmen said unison.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sabotage, Chapter 17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sabotage, Chapter 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.