Chapter 5

SATURDAY, MAY 14th

From: Cronus
To: Kepik
Subj: Be strong

I would apologize for not replying to your initial letter – the one describing your fascinating dream – but since you sent it just before being hauled off to prison, I wasn’t exactly “able” to respond.

Your fault, Kepik. Not mine.

Regardless, I’m relieved to hear you’ve been moved back to Orionis, and I’m very much hoping that your encryption protocol remains active and unbroken. If not… well, I’d rather not think about it. I will try to be discreet, but frankly I am willing to risk detection if it means I can inform you of recent events – events the Council is certain to hide from you.

Zyken is growing increasingly reckless. Late last night a group of his HIRCs mounted a full-scale attack on a local hospital, presumably based on a tip that David Garrison was being treated there. Why they chose to target Garrison when there are thousands to choose from is inexplicably bizarre; I am not aware of anything that would make him a target deserving of so great a risk on Zyken’s part.

As much as it pains me to admit it, the obvious inference from the attack is – as some have suggested – that a traitor hides among us.

Still, I hold out hope for another explanation. The thought of a traitor in the group is more than I can currently bear.

Fortunately, Garrison and his family escaped unscathed, but I fear that Zyken will only get more desperate as the time of your hearing nears – which could mean terrible things for Garrison and his family, and perhaps others if Zyken (or god-forbid, a traitor) is able to crack the codes to your Project Earth files.

I just hope you encrypted them well.

As you admonished, I have double-checked with each of my contacts, and though many are shaken by the boldness of Zyken’s raid, they are still prepared and ready for The Closing. They will not let us down, Kepik – these men and women are strong, stronger than you may think. Perhaps I should be admonishing you to not lose faith.

Just kidding… I hope.

Speaking of which: did you really think I didn’t know I was being administered an antidote at every one of our meetings? I would have thought you more perceptive than to think that I – or any of us, for that matter – were fooled by this gesture. We all know about the poison, and we all know that the odds of any of us surviving are miniscule. But we persist because we believe in ourselves, and we believe in The Closing.

And despite all that has happened, many still believe in you, Kepik. Please don’t forget that.

I can’t promise any sort of action based on your dream, but I will try to convince whomever I can that it might work. If you have any further details on the specific “plan” you mentioned, I look forward to hearing them.

118 hours left. We will think of something.

Be strong.

-Cronus


On a normal Saturday I would sleep in until 10:00am – maybe even 11:00 – but this was no normal Saturday morning. I was wide-awake at 6:30 and there was no point in trying to fall back asleep. My mind was already running at full tilt, and I needed to get it in order before mom and I sat down to have our inevitable “chat.”

I debated between grabbing breakfast and jumping in the shower, but the butterflies pullulating in my stomach made the decision for me. There was no way I could hold down a breakfast given the anxiety in my gut.

I showered quickly and threw on a nice set of clothes (mom was likely to tell me more if I looked responsible), then got my hair looking nice and my teeth well-brushed. Then I walked downstairs and sat myself at the couch. The time was 6:57.

I didn’t have to wait long. At 7:01 mom came down the stairs, also dressed and ready to go.

“Good morning,” she said.

“Morning.”

“I’d like to take you out to breakfast.”

“What about Emmary and Jackson?”

“I’ve asked Ellen Barnhurst to look after them. She should be here any minute.”

Mrs. Barnhurst was the kind old widow who lived across the street.

“Are you ready to go?”

I nodded as a knock rang out from the door. Mom let Mrs. Barnhurst in, and after a brief explanation of what to do when the little ones woke up (if we weren’t back by then), we took off.

As we backed out of the driveway, I noticed the lights on the white Explorer – still parked at the end of our street – flicker to life. We drifted down our street, took a left at the stop sign then a right at the next light, and at every turn the Explorer followed close behind.

“Don’t worry,” mom said, sensing my concern. “They’re… with us.”

They. So there were multiple people in that Explorer.

My mind burned with questions but I just nodded. Mom’s cryptic answer led me to believe the car wasn’t a safe place to talk. I just hoped she would recognize my silence as patience, not indifference. The grimace plastered across my face should have been clear evidence of the willpower I was exercising.

The rest of the drive passed in silence. I didn’t ask where we were going and mom didn’t offer any insights. The white Explorer never drifted more than a car length or two behind us.

Fifteen minutes and many turns later, we pulled into a truck stop on the outskirts of town. Cars and semi trucks filled the parking lot and fuel pumps, and I inferred that mom selected this particular destination because it was one of the few places in Franklin relatively busy on a Saturday morning. The white Explorer parked several spots down, and two normal-looking men discreetly followed us into the diner.

We sat ourselves, and the waitress brought mom a coffee and me a glass of orange juice. I took a sip but immediately regretted it. My edgy stomach was none too happy about having citric acid poured into it without warning. I placed the glass aside and asked for a water instead.

Our two “shadows” took a seat at a table between us and the front door. It was kinda cool to think that two guys had spent all day and night watching out for us. We must be more important than I thought.

Hopefully this conversation would answer that once and for all.

Mom waited until the waitress had taken our breakfast order, and then the chat began.

“Teal,” she said, her voice just above a whisper, “what we’re about to discuss can never leave this table.”

“What about Eddie?” I asked. “Can I talk to him?”

She glowered at me.

“Can Eddie keep a secret? Would you trust him with a secret so significant that revealing it could mean your death?”

Dramatic. I hoped she wasn’t serious.

“Yes,” I replied. “I trust him that much.”

“Very well. You may share generalities of our conversation with him, but please – let him know how serious this is. It’s not just your life at stake, but your siblings’, mine, your father’s, and countless others.”

Good grief. What kind of secrets was she hiding?

I nodded, then replied, “speaking of dad, is he okay?”

Mom took a deep breath before replying.

“Yes and no. For the time being, he’s okay. But his health is in danger.”

“He’s been poisoned.”

“…What makes you say that?”

“I overheard you talking at the hospital.”

“Really. What else did you hear?”

I knew this question would be asked as soon as I revealed I had overheard something at the hospital. Now the eminent question became to tell or not to tell. For reasons I can’t really explain, I decided to keep my disclosures to a minimum.

“Not much. I just heard the word antidote pop up, and that usually means some kind of poisoning.”

Mom allowed a smile to momentarily dance across her lips.

“True enough, Teal. True enough.”

I decided to play another card in my hand – the old reverse-psychology trick. Mom used it on me all the time, so maybe it would work equally well on her.

“I’m assuming you can’t tell me everything.”

She looked sideways.

“Technically, I can’t tell you anything. Even trying to explain your father’s condition is… ah… difficult.”

I was expecting this.

“Okay. Do ‘they’ – you know, the bad guys – have a way of tracking what you tell me?”

“More than likely, and if they do, the mechanism is probably triggered by me saying, mouthing, or writing certain keywords. Unfortunately, I have no idea what the keywords are.”

“What? So you’ve been bugged? But what kind of bug can detect mouthed words?”

“That’s at the heart of the question, isn’t it.”

She said it like a statement, which led me to believe she knew who was behind all this. That was good and bad – good because it meant I might actually be able to weasel answers out of her, bad because it meant we weren’t being targeted randomly.

Thing is, whoever had technology capable of detecting mouthed and written words was high tech indeed. I didn’t need Eddie to tell me that.

“So how are you bugged? Is dad bugged too?”

“I can’t really explain how, since it would require me to use too many ‘keywords.’ And yes, your father is bugged as well.”

“So what happens if they catch you using a keyword?”

Mom shifted, then looked into her lap.

“I don’t know, and I’d rather not find out.”

I pondered this for a moment.

“Then let me ask you simple questions – requiring only simple responses – and you answer however you think you can. Can they track what I say?”

She shook her head, and I felt a sudden rush of energy at the realization that this could work. Finally, it was time for me to ask the questions that had plagued me since yesterday.

“Okay, then. How long has dad been poisoned?”

Mom looked frustrated with this game, and I could only infer that she really didn’t want to reveal anything. I was about to protest when she quietly answered, “…awhile.”

“Awhile? Did it happen before or after I was born?”

“After. But before Emmary.”

That put the poisoning at somewhere between 15 and 9 years ago – not exactly accurate, but better than nothing.

“Do you know how to cure him?”

“…Yes.”

“Really? Then why is he still sick?”

“Knowing how to do something and being able to do it are not the same.”

“Oh. I guess you’re right. So are you able to cure him?”

“At present, no.”

“Is anyone able to cure him?”

“…”

This was the longest pause yet.

“Mom?”

“Anyone, no. Anything, yes.”

Interesting choice of words.

“Okay… Is dad’s poisoning related to the fight at the hospital?”

“C’mon Teal, of course it is.”

“You’re right, stupid question. Was the fight at the hospital related to the explosions at school?”

“Yes.”

Now we were getting somewhere.

“Are both of those events related to the previous tenants of the school building – specifically, the company called Genetitech?”

Mom’s eyes narrowed, her expression a sudden mix of surprise and concern.

“How do you know about that?”

“Uh, Eddie and I did some research.”

I did a poor job of suppressing my grin, and again a smile danced across mom’s lips.

“Figures,” she said. “You aren’t supposed to know that.”

I laughed nervously.

“You know Eddie, sharp as a tack. So does dad work for Genetitech? Are they still around?”

“…No, your father does not work for them. Just the opposite, in fact.”

“The opposite? So they’re the bad guys?”

“…not really, but kind of.” She sighed. “It’s complicated.”

No kidding.

“Were the guys that attacked us last night from Genetitech?”

“Again, not really but kind of.”

What kind of an answer was that? ‘Not really but kind of?’ That made no sense.

I was starting to get bored and confused and mom looked unsettled – so it was time to move onto the really exciting stuff.

“Where did you get your laser gun?”

“Teal, no. Not only does that require a complicated answer, but I don’t want you even thinking about those weapons. They’re not toys.”

“I know that, mom. How old do you think I am?”

“It doesn’t matter. Any talk of weapons is totally off-limits.”

Now it was my turn to sigh. This was going to be a long breakfast.

The waitress suddenly appeared, but instead of bringing us our breakfast, she placed a note in front of my mom.

“Sorry, ma’am,” she whispered, “but those men sitting three tables down paid me a lot of money to give you this.”

Three tables down – those were the two men shadowing us.

“They promised me it wasn’t crude, and I really needed the money. I’m so sorry if this is awkward.”

Mom gave her a forced but polite smile.

“Don’t worry about it, dear,” she replied. “But if they try to send anything else, tell them to grow some balls and come talk to me in person.”

The waitress giggled.

“Okay, I will. And your food is almost done. I’ll have it to you in just a moment.”

Mom forced another polite smile as the waitress scurried away. As soon as she disappeared back into the kitchen, mom’s smile vanished. She swept the note into her lap – where I couldn’t see it – and began reading.

“Mom, what’s it–”

She held up a finger, clearly telling me to can it. I was getting really sick of being interrupted, but I obeyed.

Her eyes darted back and forth across the note for what seemed like hours. It must’ve been a long note.

(Or maybe time just dragged because I desperately wanted to know what the note said.)

Either way, she didn’t finish until after our food arrived. The waitress had no further notes to deliver, and a quick glance behind me as she left showed that our shadows were gone. The white Explorer was, however, still in the parking lot. Apparently our two “friends” hadn’t stayed for breakfast.

Who were they, and what had they written in that note?

Breakfast smelled amazing and I’d gotten enough answers to calm my stomach for the time being, so I wasted no time digging into my French toast combo. Mom continued reading the note (and there was no way it was that long – she must have been re-reading it) as steam drifted from her omelet. I was grateful for the food; after no dinner the night before and an adrenaline high all morning, I was starving.

Halfway into my third tasty piece of toast, mom finally spoke.

“Sorry for the wait, Teal. It’s just… things get a little more complicated every day.”

“Mom,” I replied after swallowing down my too-large bite, “is there any possibility of us getting to the heart of the matter? I don’t have much use for cryptic one-liners.”

She laughed, then just as quickly shifted to a very serious tone and visage.

“Use, Teal? Tell me – why do you want more knowledge about what’s going on? Curiosity? Concern? Exactly what are you planning to do with the information I’ve told you?”

I was suddenly reminded of part of the conversation I’d overheard at the hospital the night before:

“Have you found a way to get an antidote?”

“…I think I have. But you’re not going to like it.”

“I’ll like anything that gets you cured.”

“It involves Teal.”

“…What? You aren’t honestly thinking of acting on that ridiculous dream, are you?”

“It isn’t ridiculous, Natalie. Please try and understand how significant–”

“No. Stop. Listen to me, David. I don’t care if God himself marched down here and commanded you to send Teal after an antidote. You’re no Abraham, and he will not be your Isaac.”

“…Well then no, I don’t have an idea. Not yet, anyway.”

“I can’t believe you actually considered sending your 15-year-old son through a portalgate. You must be insane.”

I have an exceptional memory for conversations. I’m not very good at remembering names or faces (or math formulas, as my last algebra test demonstrated), but I have a real knack for remembering conversations, and I’d never been more grateful for the ability than I was at that moment.

It was obvious to me that dad had concocted some sort of plan for retrieving an antidote, and that plan somehow involved me passing through a “portalgate”… whatever that meant. Mom didn’t think I was capable, or maybe that it wouldn’t be safe. Either way, she’d said ‘no’ to the idea.

But if I could convince her I knew what I was doing, maybe she’d let me participate after all. A flutter of adrenaline struck me upon realizing this. I needed to convey to mom just how capable I was – and if that worked, maybe I really could go after an antidote.

Newly charged, I delivered my best, most careful response.

“I’m gonna use the knowledge to do two things: prevent any further harm to people I care about, and,” dramatic pause, “…and I want to find dad an antidote.”

Mom’s countenance drifted from serious to thoughtful to tearful. I wasn’t sure if this was good or bad for me.

Because the thing is – yeah, I was curious. What kid wouldn’t be after seeing everything I’d seen in the last 24 hours?

I was also concerned. Knowing my dad was poisoned but not knowing how or why or to what degree was deeply unnerving.

And really, a lot of emotions were flowing through me, much more than just curiosity or concern. There was a certain amount of pride – I’m a pretty capable kid, and there was a good chance I could offer unique insights on whatever was going down. Another part of me was thrill-seeking, and the thought of going on a hunt for an antidote was just plain cool.

Then there were the grander, more melodramatic aspects of it. The general flow of events – including dad’s poisoning – seemed to indicate some sort of good-guy/bad-guy struggle, and I wanted in. I wanted to be a good guy, a hero, a savior. Taking out that enemy with a fire extinguisher the night before was awesome. My quick thinking had caused him to blow himself away instead of possibly killing me.

Wow.

Killing.

I hadn’t really thought of it like that.

I could have died last night. My life could have ended.

And there, in that sudden thought, was the dark other half to all this. My insecurities, my worries, my fear. Fear had told me to turn back and not go down the main hallway after the first batch of explosions at my school; good thing I’d ignored it, or I never would have met the man who promised more info come Monday morning. Fear had told me we were going to the hospital because dad was already dead – something he most certainly wasn’t. Fear never would have wanted me to sprint across a warzone for the fire extinguisher that most likely saved my life and maybe the lives of my siblings.

And yet fear clutched at me now, again, warning me that by offering to participate I was getting into something way more dangerous than I understood. Fear had a pretty convincing case.

“Teal,” mom said, reaching across the table for my hand. Tears rested at the corners of her eyes. “You know your father and I love you kids more than anything.”

I nodded.

“Good. Never forget that. It will always be true.”

Where was this going? Had she been poisoned too? Was that the next horrible revelation I was about to get?

“But Teal… I can’t tell you more about what’s going on.”

“What?! You gotta be kidding me!”

“Shh! Keep it down, please! Believe me, I wish I could tell you. I hate lying to you worse than you can possibly imagine.”

I doubted that. I had a pretty vivid imagination.

“But son, the chances of me revealing something that could place us in danger is much too great.”

“Is this what the note from those two guys said?”

“Part of it. The note went into some detail about how the enemy’s monitoring equipment might work. I thought the devices were fairly simple, but it sounds like they may be a lot more advanced than I thought. I just can’t take the chance, Teal. It’s essential they don’t find us.”

They. Always they. Whoever they were, I was really starting to hate them.

“Mom… can you at least tell me who ‘they’ are?”

She shook her head.

“…I’m so sorry,” she whispered, and I didn’t doubt it.

But honestly, this hurt. The thought of enduring another day without information was more than I wanted to consider. I felt like a bird who’d just spent an entire day learning about the beauty and wonder of flight, only to realize I was an ostrich.

The rest of my weekend was really going to suck.

“You’re mad,” she said, her voice soft. “I don’t blame you.”

I forced a smile.

“Not really mad, mom. Just frustrated. Imagine what it’s like to be me – having my school attacked by ‘them,’ finding out ‘they’ poisoned dad…”

I wasn’t sure of that connection, but the sudden narrowing of mom’s eyes told me I was right.

“Then ‘they’ ambushed us in the hospital and any one of us could have been hurt – or worse. The thought of not even finding out who ‘they’ are is hard to deal with.”

Mom nodded grimly.

“It’s a terrible, horrible situation. Believe me – if there was any way for me to tell you more without endangering you, I would.”

But a sudden volley of thoughts made me question that. Dad had suggested sending me on a mission to recover an antidote – which implied he was willing to tell me more. Maybe mom just didn’t want me to know more because she thought I’d try something stupid. Maybe the whole “they’re watching us” line was only a ruse.

I ran through that line of reasoning again and realized just how much sense it made. I could totally see mom convincing herself that giving me knowledge would be just as dangerous as dad involving me in some crazy antidote-finding plan.

Hmm. What a tangled web I found myself in.

Mom pulled out her wallet, removed a $20 bill, then set it beside her plate. She wiped her eyes then rose from the table.

“Uh, you haven’t eaten any of your omelet.”

“I’m not really hungry,” she replied, sitting back down. “But I can wait while you finish your meal.”

It took me less than a minute to scarf down the rest of my French toast. Mom still didn’t eat anything, and after I finished we returned to the minivan and started for home.

The white Explorer eased out of the parking lot directly behind us. Now that they knew we were aware of their presence, they apparently weren’t interested in being inconspicuous.

Just as well. It was nice to finally have something in my life out in the open.

No one spoke until we reached an intersection about halfway home, where a red light resulted in the white Explorer pulling up immediately behind us. I took a moment to turn around and examine the individuals in the SUV.

There were two of them, both men. One was somewhat heavyset and white; the other, shorter and more moderate in build, looked Hispanic. Both were dressed in nondescript street clothes and both wore sunglasses.

I wanted to know more about them, so I figured I’d put mom’s “can’t give you more information” line to the test.

“Say, mom – were those two guys in the Explorer with us at the hospital? Did they fight too?”

She hesitated, then responded, “I assume they were at the hospital, but I don’t know if they participated in any fighting.”

“Hmm. They look like pretty normal guys.”

She didn’t respond.

“Do they work for Genetitech?”

“No,” she replied with a quiet smile. “They’re on our side. And Teal – while that… company… is part of the puzzle, it’s important to realize they went bankrupt a long time ago. Nowadays, no one works for them directly.”

She paused, then smiled and pointed at a sign down the street to our left.

It read Dead End. How tricky of her.

I grinned and nodded.

“Thanks for the tip.”

“You’re welcome. If I were you, I’d…” she took a deep breath, as if internally debating something. “Well, if I wanted more information about things, I would start by investigating how that particular organization started.”

Finally! An actual tip!

…If only it were something novel. Obviously this was on my list of things to do. But some information was better than no information, and I’d take whatever I could get.

I pondered this as the light turned green and we pulled away from the light. Mom opened her mouth to say something more when a sudden screeching crash exploded somewhere behind us.

She slammed the brakes as I spun around in my chair.

The white Explorer had been suddenly demolished, brutally broadsided by not one, but two identical-looking black sedans. The sedans had hit the Explorer from opposite sides, colliding with such force that the fenders of both black cars looked to be nearly touching. The Explorer was decimated; from the looks of it, there was no way either passenger could have survived.

I heard a gasp from mom when another black sedan suddenly arrived from the west – but this one skidded to a halt at the edge of the intersection instead of crashing. Four men piled out, one from each door, and each leveled some kind of pistol-looking weapon at the wreckage of the Explorer and the two other sedans.

My stomach dropped, and I somehow knew what would inevitably follow.

Green bursts of energy exploded from the men’s weapons, engulfing the wreckage in a plume of fire and debris. The men blasted away at everything – including the two black cars identical to their own. Apparently they weren’t afraid to blow away their own men as well.

I watched, horrified and unable to pull myself away, until mom let off the brake and floored the gas pedal. The force of the acceleration smashed me into my seat but I stayed turned around, watching as the group of men stopped firing and pointed at our escaping car. Three leapt back into the intact black sedan while the fourth placed something shiny on the pile of now-smoldering car wreckage. Once he finished, the black sedan swung around and he jumped in.

Their car rocketed after us.

I buckled my seatbelt.



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