Chapter 9: Plan B
Empyrean Request Rejected. New Assignment: Collect from Parturit Arbos. Distribute to Parvus/strong, Cavae/weak. Tomorrow before dusk.
Tarek stared at his comp’s screen, the flashing red letters blinking, blinking, blinking.
Four times in the last week, the same three words dinged into his room from Dimension Development after Tarek put in the request. Except this time, they attached another assignment to it, a subtle “Shut the hell up and stop bothering me.”
Tomorrow was Empyrean’s quarterly collection day. Now they’d have to wait another three months before attempting to get to Teenesee. Until then, he’d have to try to keep Lena from the archives rooms. What she discovered about Cassondra and her brother wouldn’t sit tight for too long. No, she’d want more information. More evidence to prove Exemplar was the evil overlord unjustly ruling the universe.
Yes, Lena had appointed herself humanity’s savior a long time ago, taking the Exemplian oath to an entirely new extreme.
Tarek rubbed his scalp, his empty laugh filling the room as his stomach turned sour. Cassondra’s punishment all those years ago continued to haunt them both. Three decades later and Lena still hadn’t forgiven herself for sending that Empyrean woman’s energy to Andor—the world full of nothing but misery and hate. Retribution fueled Lena’s drive, but now she’d have to put that on hold, which would undoubtedly piss her off.
If only her quest for justice didn’t supersede everything else.
He sighed and booted down his machine. She had waited thirty years to go back to Empyrean. Hopefully she could wait a while longer—and he’d make sure she kept her tenacity at bay until then.
Now for the hard part: breaking the news to her.
Food he’d hydrated earlier now sat like stones in his gut, his nerves tumbling it about until he had to give in and inject a nausea blocker. Okay, breathe. No puking, not yet, anyway.
After his stomach finally decided to listen, Tarek donned a shirt, tucked in the hem, laced his boots, smoothed back his short hair, and went through about a hundred more needless tasks before leaving his dorm for Lena’s.
The looming conversation wasn’t exactly high on his list. More than likely, he’d have to talk her out of storming Cassondra’s office to demand she change their assignment to Empyrean. That definitely wouldn’t go over well. Not. At. All. Perhaps he’d carry out his usual threat of tying her up until reason overrode retribution.
The halls buzzed with hive-like efficiency, everyone ignoring him as he rounded corner after corner. Everyone except for some floor authority drones scouting the halls. One even stopped him with a few arbitrary questions when he drew closer to a screening room, different worlds flashing on at least fifty screens while Guides from Dimension Development studied them. Their faces were expressionless as they watched unknowing people drudging through their day, people with no clue about reality, believing their world was the only one in existence.
Exemplar had eyes everywhere, the universe’s watchdog.
Finally, he reached Lena’s wing, her door last on the left. Despite the anxiety rippling through his nervous system, approaching her dorm always filled him with longing. His life dwelled beyond that barricade of metal and stale technology, his everything.
Tarek paused at the end of the hall, adjusting his wrinkled shirt—stalling. Enough. Go tell her. He shuffled forward, his gait slowing with each step, the cowardice attacking him not ready to relinquish its spot.
Once he made it to her room, he lifted his hand for the access panel, though his clearance was unnecessary. The door opened to Lena standing on the other side. She dragged him in by his rumpled shirt without a word. Not that she had the strength to move him, but he went along with it. Any excuse for her to touch him.
But pathetic was fine with him, had been for a long time now. Gave him character—something he tried to convince himself of during those endless nights without her.
“So?” she said as soon as her door shut. “Was it another ‘no’?”
Tarek pursed his lips and nodded.
He expected rage, anger at least. Shouting and maybe throwing things around her cramped dorm.
He didn’t expect her calm.
This reaction scared the shit out of him.
She straightened her shoulders and lifted her chin, her face resolute. “Well, all right, then. Time for Plan B.”
“Plan B?” He stepped forward, ready to—damn. He had no clue. “Lena, whatever you’re thinking…”
She rushed to her bed and yanked open a box sitting at the end. “I’m done with thinking.” She turned to him, a contego suit in her hands. “We’re going there. Tonight.”
“No. Absolutely not. That’s the exact opposite of what we’re doing.” He gripped her shoulders and hunched until they were eye-level, trying to emulate her calm on the outside while terror scorched him inside. “If we get caught, and if Teenesee doesn’t kill us, we’ll be marked Tainted.” He gave her a shake when her gaze slid behind his shoulder, his terror now squeezing his lungs. “Listen to me! They’ll execute us and send our energy off to a low-level world, or worse. Put us in one of those damn rooms, turn our minds against us.”
“I know the risks.” She focused on him again, and lifted a hand to his cheek. “But everything will be fine. Teenesee… She invited us.”
He squeezed her shoulders tighter. “Thirty years ago. Why? Why is it so important to talk to her this minute?”
Red stained her cheeks and her eyes narrowed to slits. “Are you serious?” She shrugged from his hold. “I’ll tell you why, Tarek. Because I’m tired of being a monster!”
“You’re not a monster, Lena. And this…this fight, or whatever it is, we can’t do it alone.” He rubbed the back of his neck, frustrated. All he had to do was tell her no, and this matter would drop. She couldn’t leave without him. Just tell her no!
Lena’s bottom lip trembled, even as she held her chin high. “If we talk to Teenesee, tell her everything, get her support, we can stop Cassondra from sending any more undeserving energy to Andor.”
Wait. No. This wasn’t the plan, truth spreading. If Lena told Teenesee what they did to her people all those years ago, what Exemplar was still doing to them…? No. She couldn’t.
Tarek closed his eyes for a moment, his fists clenching and unclenching, not answering at first. Panic wouldn’t let him. “You can’t tell her,” he whispered.
She paced the tiny room, her excitement palpable. “I can. And after I tell her the truth, show how I want to help, she’ll tell me what I need to know, too. Exemplians being Wardens… I need to know if it’s true.”
She stopped in front of him, acting as if he hadn’t tried to speak to her. “And if the elders are aware of Teenesee’s anger, they’ll be forced to stop Cassondra. No more strong energy to Andor and definitely no energy to Arcus. Exemplar can’t survive without Empyrean resources. Our entire healthcare system is dependent on those emerald rocks they pull from the ground.”
She regurgitated everything he already knew—and nothing he cared about above her life. “None of this matt—”
“It does matter! If Wardens are actually Exemplians, then…then all the energy collecting has been one big lie.” She threw her hands in the air, a suit leg whipping her cheek. “Please. I have to know.”
He stared at her, not speaking, trying to grasp onto control, refrain from tossing her floating bed into her ticking comp system.
“There’s no law against being truthful with a Warden,” she said, now twisting the contego suit into a ball. “We can’t be marked Tainted if, during our invited trip, the truth accidentally comes out.”
He exhaled as her logic soaked into his growing anxiety. Faulty logic, but she made enough sense. No laws did exist, seeing as most Exemplians sent on collection assignments had apathy that rivaled Cassondra’s.
And they could leave Exemplar. Go to other worlds, as long as they were back in their dorms at curfew. Only Empyrean had a no-trespassing stipulation in the treaty…
Which happened to be the biggest problem. The chance of Teenesee killing them was a high probability.
Yet, she had invited them, something she had never done that he was aware of, and thirty years was like days to a Warden who had lived for probably as long as her world existed.
Tarek scrubbed at his hair. All of this had become too complicated, and he wanted to tell her no.
But he never could.
His gaze landed on the bunched suit in Lena’s hands. “What’s this?”
“A contego suit.”
He rolled his eyes, pissed that he was actually contemplating her idea. “I know what it is. Why do you have it?”
“Contrary to your belief, I’m not looking to die, and since we won’t be collecting…” She smiled and raised a brow.
“You’re completely, annoyingly impossible.” He gestured to her bed where the box sat. “How’d you get it—wait, just…” He shook his head. “Don’t tell me.”
She clapped her hands together and excitement sparkled in her sherry eyes, as if she were years younger. “So, are we going?”
Damn it! When she looked at him like that, all hopeful and trusting, he had no power. None. He sighed. She had the magic to persuade him to do about anything. “Well, today’s good as any to die, I guess.”
She laughed and lifted the hem of her robes, shimmying into the suit. “You’re such a worrier.”
“That makes one of us.”
Her robes lifted to her thighs, and he caught the hint of creamy flesh, undoing him. He forced himself to face the door, although Lena was an expert at switching wardrobes without revealing too much skin. But the tiniest glimpse shot lightning through his nervous system. He couldn’t even swim with her anymore unless she wore a bodysuit. Pathetic was one thing, self-torture he could live without.
While she fussed with her clothes, he worked to slow his breathing, and said, “I don’t want to open a portal at the collection post, too many people.” If only a portal block didn’t exist in all the dorm wings. “The safest place without a block would be—”
The sound of her heavy robes landing on the bed echoed behind him. “You can look now,” she said. “I hate talking to your back.”
He turned, and almost stumbled backward. She looked vulnerable and strong at the same time.
So perfect, different.
Something came over him while staring at her thin body drowning in that too-large suit. Courage? No, more like desperation. Maybe going on a potential suicide mission stoked the fire he had kept on embers for years. But regardless, words left his mouth before he had a chance to swallow them.
“Well, I don’t hate when you undress in front of me.” He moved to press the button on her waist, her heat seeping through the fabric as the suit shrunk to fit her. Her scent, what saturated her dorm as well as her skin, assailed him. Lilacs, like the flowers blooming in their orchard.
“Um…” She gaped at him, little gasps escaping her mouth when his fingers skated across her side.
He leaned in next to her ear. “My willpower can only stretch so thin.”
Rarely did he ever bring up their “pretend.” But times like this, with his anxiety high, and danger so, so close, he needed to remind her. Make her understand how she affected him.
“I…” She paused, swallowing. “Maybe… I mean, we—”
“Don’t.” He dropped his hand, defeated. Stupid of him to bring it up now. Stupid. “I’m not satisfied with ‘maybe.’ Never is better, easier to deal with.”
She closed her mouth and nodded.
He’d fight to transform their pretend to reality until every ounce of life left his body—but only if she gave him more than a “maybe.” Yet, asking that of her before running toward probably the least intelligent decision he had ever made was unfair to them both.
“Put your robes back on. Don’t let anyone see the suit.” He went to the door and palmed the access panel. “I’ll get mine and meet you in the hanger.”
She said nothing else, and he didn’t expect her to.