A/N: Hello everybody! I finished typing earlier than anticipated. Here’s an early Christmas present to you, my beloved readers. 🙂
Roucan Global’s Forest Reserve was reminiscent of the enchanted forest Cheska had called home in the years that followed after her mother’s passing. That forest lingered in her dreams even after she’d lost her identity. Regaining her memories should have led her there but, for some reason, she could never find her way back to it on her own again and Cheska loathed asking her most loyal sentinels, Keena and Strago, to open a doorway to that place.
The panther and the Rabyanah hyenas were uncharacteristically silent ever since they left the research facility.
The hyenas accompanied them up to Libya’s borders. They were glad to have been part of a good hunt and extended their offer of help in the near future. Despite their kind words, Cheska noticed a few of the pack’s members giggling; a sign that they were afraid, according to Keena’s interpretation.
Strago was already waiting in the tunnel when Cheska and the panther arrived in the Mysts. The stag’s gaze flickered over her, the hover pod, and Keena before asking where they would go next.
Cheska had intended to seek refuge in the enchanted forest but the portal directed her to her father’s reserve instead. She suspected the sentinels knew that the reserve was not her true destination when she said: “To the forest.” Thankfully, they kept their opinions to themselves. But, sooner or later, the subject would arise the longer they stayed together. So Cheska sent them both on their individual errands: Keena would bring James and Strago would fetch the Libyan guardian and the apprentice.
She waited by the pod that quarantined and kept Fred alive. Cheska hated seeing him imprisoned in what could be his worst fear, trapped in an enclosed space. She prayed that he would wake up and recognize her, yet afraid that when her wishes were granted, Fred would have an anxiety attack, which can be just as deadly for him.
She pressed her forehead against the glass that separated him from the outside world and sent another prayer to any god who might be listening to save Fred. When she opened her eyes, hazy gray orbs stared back at her.
Cheska’s heart stuttered then pounded a wild beat. Her hand lay flat on the glass, itching to touch him.
He looked at her and, for a fleeting moment, the corners of his mouth lifted—
A lump formed in her throat. He hadn’t noticed he’s in a pod, she thought.
—before his face contorted in agony.
“Fred!” Alarmed, her eyes darted to the heart monitor. His pulse rate had spiked for several seconds then dropped back to normal. Cheska checked on him through the glass. Their gazes met again and held each other for a moment. Both reflected pain yet each held a different kind of suffering. The spell broke when Fred’s chapped lips formed her name.
Cheska released a breath she hadn’t known she was holding. “Yes, Fred. It’s me,” she answered back. He was alive. He was fighting. She needed to be strong for him, too. “You’re going to be fine,” she assured him. “Help’s on the way. You just need to hold on for a little longer, okay?”
Fred closed his eyes, though the small crease on his forehead remained. His mouth moved again soundlessly. Cheska read: “Stay.”
She went to the pod’s control panel to look for a way to relieve his pain. Occupied with the task at hand, she was oblivious of James and Keena’s presence until the novelist spoke. “What’s going on?”
Cheska jumped at the sound and spun towards the source of the voice.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you,” he said, holding up his hands.
“It’s alright. I—” She noticed his blackened eye. “What happened to your eye?”
“It’s nothing, just a small misunderstanding.” James looked over her shoulder and skimmed over the list of commands displayed on the control panel’s screen. “So what were you doing before I scared the daylights out of you?”
“Was it Louis?”
Her brows furrowed. “Who?”
“It’s not important.”
“Please, tell me,” she pressed.
He deliberated ignoring her question altogether until he saw the concern on her face. “His bodyguard. Allan.” James smiled wryly and rubbed the back of his neck. “The guy thought it was better for my sake that he did the job than to wait for your brother to do it. He said Louis doesn’t pull his punches in both the figurative and the literal sense when angry.
“Please don’t apologize,” the novelist said quickly when he sensed her guilt. “I knew what I was getting into.”
Cheska dipped her head, resisting the urge to do the opposite of what he wanted.
Satisfied with her response, he said, “About the file you asked, there isn’t much documentation on it compared to the previous viruses.” James pulled an item from his pocket. “I’ve read them except V-X2103. The strains share similarities and I figured V-X2102 isn’t too different from the new one. Anyway, I brought everything – thought they’d be useful as a reference.” He extended the object toward her. It was a black wristband with a dark disk in the middle. Four buttons protruded on the side of the disk. “Press the upper-right button to switch it on, then the lower-left to project the screen.”
“Thanks.” She strapped the bracelet around her wrist.
The novelist’s head swiveled toward Fred. “How’s he doing?”
“He’s awake,” Cheska worried her lower lip and stared at the control panel, “but he’s suffering. Can you help him?” She motioned to the controls helplessly.
“I’ll see what I can do.” James selected several commands and studied the settings. “The unit’s equipped with first aid. Rehydration treatment’s been activated. He’s been attached to the IV for a while now. There aren’t any pain relievers, though.” He selected a couple of options, then: “Here’s the manual. It says here that stasis is the best choice; it can freeze a virus’ progression.” After selecting a series of commands later, James raised a brow. “The feature’s been disabled permanently. I can’t fix it with Fred inside.”
“It couldn’t be helped.” Cheska’s gaze dropped to the heart monitor. “Fred had been put in stasis when he was taken out of the cell. One of the scientists was our spy. He injected a chemical in Fred to stage his death. The spy must’ve needed a way to deactivate stasis without blowing his cover.”
“Spy, huh,” James rest his palms on either side of the control panel. His index finger tapped on the plastic surface while he thought for a moment. Then he moved to the head of the hover pod to get a closer look at Fred.
Cheska couldn’t see the novelist’s face with his back turned to her, but she noticed his hands ball into fists at what he saw.
James rapped at the glass. In a kind voice, he said to his best friend: “Hey, Fred.”
Fred peered up at him with bloodshot eyes; the blood vessels around the pupils stood out in dark red – almost black. Cheska made a small noise. She couldn’t believe that a new symptom had manifested so quickly.
The novelist glanced at her. He was just as shocked as her. Maybe, it was double if he factored in that he felt her emotions, too. Fred’s feelings though bordered on depression. James swayed on his feet. The fatigue from the last couple of days and his ability was taking a toll on him. He placed his hand on the pod to steady himself. Tugging the corners of his lips into a smile, he continued talking. “We’re a mess, aren’t we? You, playing at being a vampire and me, trying to look like a gangster.” His smile wavered at his friend’s unresponsiveness. “Listen, mate. I’m going to put you to sleep – just until the cure gets here, alright?
“I know you don’t react well to chemicals, so I’ll give you a quarter of the regular dose just to be on the safe side.” James headed back to the control panel, his face grim, and followed through on his promise.
Cheska watched the medicine take effect. Fred’s eyes fell shut, his forehead smoothened, and his heart rate slowed.
“Thank you, James,” she said with more sincerity than earlier.
“You don’t have to thank me.” James shook his head. “I’d do anything I can for him.” His gaze fixed on the screen, he voiced the question they both dreaded: “How long does he have?”
“Three to four days,” she replied in a small voice.
He cursed under his breath then turned his head toward her. “The spy. Will he make it in time?”
A second passed before she said, “He’ll make it.”
James, however, had noticed her pause and, although he hated himself for it, he asked: “And if he doesn’t?”
“He’ll make it.” Cheska couldn’t bear the thought of losing Fred, not like this. It couldn’t be possible that both of them have the worst luck in history, especially him; he’d devoted himself to curing the sick.
Thankfully, James caught the finality in her tone and brought up a different topic. “Louis is back – him and you father. Louis knows you and Fred are here.”
She averted her gaze, turning toward Fred once more. “Are they alright?”
“You know they’d appreciate it more if you drop by to see them yourself.”
The look on her face reminded him of Fred from that day; they’d all gone to search for her back then. The near-despair that rolled off Fred when he returned from the enchanted forest empty-handed almost brought James to his knees. Fred hadn’t stopped looking until he found her again, though. The novelist frowned at his best friend. You’ve only just found her, Fred. Don’t be in a hurry to leave her.
He sighed and told her, “They’re fine.”
James hung his head and shoved his fists deep into his pockets. He had to go before Cheska’s feelings overwhelmed him. Besides, he was more useful to them both as a hacker. “I have to get back to the lab – see if I can find out more about the virus,” he said reluctantly. “If there’s new intel, I’ll send them to you.” He pointed at the bracelet he wore around his arm. It was the same device he’d given her. “You can use yours to call me.”
Cheska bobbed her head and expressed her gratitude once more. Afterward, Keena accompanied James back to SecTech Division.
Alone, Cheska read the documents James had stolen. He and Gerry had been right about the plague. The virus strains shared common symptoms, save for V-X2103’s unpredictability. It appeared that there were no distinct stages in the new virus. The sickness could jump from V-X2102’s stage 1 to stage 5 in a couple of hours. To date, V-X2103 has four known victims, all of whom were healthy prior to contacting the disease.
Among the victims, the most baffling was the second subject, 43109-VIP, who miraculously recovered after drinking a green substance. In twenty-four hours, he was completely cured and not a single trace of the virus remained in his system. The researchers attempted to replicate the medicine and have yet to succeed. They hypothesized that a vital ingredient or a step in the procedure had been overlooked. Until they discover the missing component the third subject, 43110-VIP, would be put into stasis.
As for the fourth subject, he was monitored at all times for two reasons. First, to study the disease. Second, to watch out for medical and scientific breakthroughs. Cheska could guess subject 43111-TS’ identity. His file was larger and consisted mostly of video footages. She had a vague idea of what it contained: answers and worse. Her stomach turned as she pressed play.
She watched Fred scramble to the toilet and vomit. The divider that provided a semblance of privacy hid him partially from view, but she could still hear him retching behind it. After watching him return to the toilet a couple of times, she fast forwarded the footage to skip it altogether. She pressed play again and saw Fred, weakened and pale, crawl back to his cot. He stayed there, shivering, and wrapped in his torn blanket. Occasionally, he would dry heave at the edge of the bed or have a coughing fit.
The people, who came in and out of his cell every few hours, were only concerned in gathering data. They didn’t even bother to give him water, food, and medicine. He was simply their lab rat.
It sickened her to watch Fred’s ordeal. The only thing keeping her from closing and deleting the video was the possibility that she could find a way to help him. The next scene, however, became too much for her.
Fred’s trembling figure curled into a tight ball. He groaned at first, then whimpered. The sobs that came later were harder to bear. His coughing worsened and he struggled to sit up but ended up falling from the bed. Fred wheezed, his breathing short and shallow—
Cheska switched off the device and moved away from the pod. Her hand went up to rub at the ache that twisted inside her chest. She looked over her shoulder toward the pod’s occupant. Cheska had never heard him complain during the times he’d been sick and hurt before. Fred hadn’t cried when he was stranded in the tunnel and nearly died.
Her eyes dropped to her gloved hand and suddenly she couldn’t stand wearing the biohazard suit. She hurriedly removed the headgear and began stripping off the suit, a sordid reminder of the scientists who’d made Fred miserable.
The scene from the footage replayed in her mind, haunting her. She focused on breathing. The scent of earth and plants pervaded her nostrils and shifted her attention to the scenery before her. A gust of wind blew from behind her, scattering leaves and carrying them toward the horizon. For a moment, she stood transfixed at the ball of fire that painted the sky a red-orange hue. She realized just then how much time had passed since she woke in her art gallery’s basement. So many things had happened that it felt like days had gone by instead of hours.
Something niggled at the back of her mind, but Cheska couldn’t pinpoint what she’d overlooked. She shoved the thought away, and having calmed herself, checked the monitors and studied Fred’s sleeping face. “Why didn’t you fight back?” she asked him, though she was painfully aware of the answer: he’d condemned himself to save her and mankind.
Then she remembered Louis telling her that the future is not set in stone. Should she take comfort that Fred had succeeded to alter the course of humanity’s fate? He’d paid the price and was still paying for it.
A twig snapped, announcing the presence of new visitors. Cheska kept her back to them, reluctant to have Fred out of her sight.
My lady, the stag began. I have brought Guardian Zafeera and her heir, Mohy, as commanded.
Thank you, Strago, she said. I’d like to speak with them in private, please. I’ll call you again when we’re done.
Very well, my lady. The sentinel bowed his head and took his leave.
After one last look at Fred, Cheska turned toward the Libyans. The motion caused an unexpected reaction. One of the foreigners gave a strangled cry when they saw who was inside the pod. It was a woman’s voice. Zafeera’s.
Before the woman could take a step forward, Mohy grabbed her arm and pulled her behind him. He spoke in Arabic to his sister, all the while his eyes never left Cheska.
Zafeera opened her mouth to argue but her brother’s next words silenced her.
“You are the Head Guardian, yes?” Mohy asked warily.
Cheska nodded, confused with the siblings’ behavior. This was not how she’d imagined their first meeting would start.
“May I know the reason you wished to meet us?”
She frowned. Wasn’t she supposed to be the one asking questions? “I was hoping you have information about V-X2103,” Cheska said slowly.
“I’m sorry. We don’t know anything about that virus.”
She arched her brow at Mohy’s guarded stance and tone. Her gaze slid to his sister who kept on staring at Fred. The emotion written on Zafeera’s face told her how much the doctor meant to the Libyan. What is she to you, Fred? Cheska wondered.
Irritated to where her thoughts had strayed, she shook her head and observed the siblings. She couldn’t help compare the pair’s relationship to her own. Mohy’s protectiveness was just like Louis. Zafeera would protect her brother but her duty would always come first. Cheska decided to test her and the theory she’d formed after Gerry snapped her out of her drunken haze of power. You’re awfully quiet, guardian, she said to the woman.
Zafeera flinched and met her eyes.
So all guardians can communicate with each other telepathically, Cheska thought. Then she said to the Libyan guardian, I know you can hear me. Will you tell me why your brother is afraid of me and what he’s hiding?
It’s because you’re glowing, Head Guardian, Zafeera replied at length. Our gift allows us to see the true nature of the gift each person possesses and how they wield it. She hesitated then explained: You’re glowing because you drank too much…energy.
Zafeera pried her arm free of her brother’s grip and sidestepped him. Clutching her side, she dropped on one knee. “We’ve wronged you, Head Guardian. Punish me as you see fit but, please, spare my brother.”
She lifted her head, desperation in her eyes. My life is yours.
Copyright © 2014-2016 Cecilia Beatriz. All rights reserved.
A/N: I know. The cliffhanger sucks! I was afraid the chapter would be too long…
On a side note, the next one will tell us if Mr Roucan’s suspicions are correct. Do you think there really is a traitor in their midst? Who could it be?
If you enjoyed this chapter click on like and/or share this story with a friend. 😉
Advanced Merry Christmas! 🙂