“Come on, Dakota. Trust me, what you need is some fun.” The words came from Bobbi Camren, as the mixed-race, dark-haired fourteen-year-old strolled casually backward down the sidewalk. Her attention wasn’t on where she was going, but on the girl who was walking along a bit behind (well, in front of considering Bobbi was walking backwards) her. “If there’s one thing I figured out after spending a long time with people like Asenath and Twister, it’s that you should have fun while you can.” After a brief pause, she added with a grin, “Well, that and how to kick a truly inspiring amount of ass.”
Eyes darting around rapidly as the two of them walked along the sidewalk of the busy street several miles away from the motel where the Eden’s Garden rebels had set up, Dakota hesitated before finding her voice. “Are you sure this is a good idea?” Even as she asked that, the girl flinched a little at how childish it sounded. Especially given the way her voice cracked.
She was only a few months younger than Bobbi, but she felt like a child (though not an innocent one). Bobbi had done so many cool things, and Dakota… Dakota had done things too. Things like kill several members of her family while under the influence of Kwur, and spend years afterward in a mental institution because she couldn’t explain what really happened in a way that anyone would have understood. The voice from the plant made her do it? Yeah, no wonder they locked her up. Vanessa had believed her, and even sent that Doctor Folgers guy to help. But then they had both stopped showing up. The other doctors said there was no one named Folgers at the hospital, and that Vanessa was too busy to talk to her.
Now, of course, the girl knew that was all part of the plan to keep her isolated and away from anyone who could help. Vanessa’s memory had been erased by that… that Fossor guy. It was a whole big thing. Still, it didn’t totally erase the feelings of being abandoned and discarded. Kwur made her help kill her family, made her the only survivor, and then trapped her in a mental hospital full of other damaged people and far away from anyone who could understand what actually happened. All because he wanted… he wanted what? Why did he make her a–what was the word… Natural Heretic? Why did he make her a Natural Heretic of himself? Was it intentional, or just something he took advantage of afterward? And either way, why?
No matter what the evil plant’s reasoning was, every possibility made her shudder.
Bobbi was talking, her voice helping to pull Dakota out of the spiral of dark thoughts. “Of course it’s a good idea. Come on, you’ve been locked up in that motel obsessing over fixing the plants for too long. You need to get out and have a little fun. Take your mind off that stuff for a little bit. We’re just two girls heading to the mall to hang out, watch a movie, and get totally sick off Twizzlers and Raisinettes. Unless you’re more of a Whoppers sort of girl. Which is cool, I guess.” She said the last bit in a voice that made it clear that Raisinettes were superior.
“But if I can’t do it,” Dakota hesitantly pointed out in a weak voice, “if I can’t make the plants work right, they’ll feel like… like they wasted their time with me. And… and Noyade…”
Bobbi had stopped walking by that point, standing still as she reached out to put both hands on the other girl’s shoulders. “If you can’t make the plants work, you’ll feel like Noyade died for nothing by protecting you,” she finished the sentence for her in a quiet, subdued tone.
Not really trusting her voice, Dakota gave a hesitant nod. The thought of still failing to fix the plants kept her up at night, invaded her dreams (not that those were very good most of the time anyway), and made it hard to keep things in her stomach. The Gardener people were nice to her. They protected her. They were depending on her to help them recruit more people. If she couldn’t manage that, if she couldn’t give the Rebellion a way to make more Heretics, then what… what was she even doing there? Why did she survive this long?
She had to do something good with this power. Otherwise, the only thing she would ever be was a girl who helped kill her entire family… and a tool for whatever plan that evil plant had.
“Listen, Dakota.” Bobbi’s voice was serious. “I’m not just goofing off now, okay? I mean it. Obsessing over whether you fix those vines or not isn’t helping anything. It’s making you sick, it’s making you, like… doubt yourself. You need to get away from all that stuff, have some fun for a little while, then go back and work on it again. It’s like…” She trailed off for a moment, clearly trying to find the right words. “It’s like when a truck gets stuck in the mud, and they just keep hitting the gas so the tires spin and spin and spin without going anywhere. The truck just gets more stuck, see? You need to go at it from another angle, find a way to pull the truck out or give it leverage. So you walk away from it, clear your head, and go back later.”
Dakota didn’t respond at first. She stood there, shoulders hunched a bit while staring at the ground. It took her a moment to breathe in slowly before raising her gaze to meet the other girl’s. “You really think… you really think doing something else might help?” She asked that in a small, quiet voice, which radiated vulnerability. Swallowing hard, the girl crossed her arms protectively over her stomach before adding, “I just.. I just want to do something right.”
“Hey.” Squeezing the girl’s shoulders, Bobbi insisted, “Take my word for it, okay? You need to clear your head. You need to get out of there for awhile and not think about it. So, you and me? We’re going to go veg out at a movie. A totally dumb, totally absurd action-comedy that will turn your brain to mush. And when you’re sufficiently mushed, then we’ll move on to phase two.”
Dakota blinked at that. “Phase two? What’s phase two?”
“You’ll find out.” With that, Bobbi winked. “Trust me, it’s just like, a sort of favor I got from someone after all the stuff that happened last year. It’ll be fun, I promise. But it’s the sort of fun you need to ease into. It’ll be better when you’re a little more relaxed. Or at least not as stressed. So, let’s start with a movie. A simple, easy, utterly brainless movie where nothing matters.” With that, she raised a hand to point to the nearby mall entrance. “Ready?”
Swallowing back her doubt and uncertainty (to say nothing of her guilt), Dakota made herself nod. “I–yeah. Yeah, I’m ready. Let’s go see a movie.
“Wait, hold on. It’s not that Sherlock Gnome movie, is it? Cuz I think I’d rather just find another monster to kill me.”
A couple hours later, the two teen girls were emerging from the mall together once more. Each held a mostly finished soda cup, and Bobbi still held a box with a few Raisinets left. Both were giggling and nudging each other over the ridiculousness of the movie they had just seen (which was indeed not the gnome movie). They repeated lines to each other, laughing before the other person had even finished the quote, and engaged in a sort of rapidfire back-and-forth where each only had to say a few words for the other to completely know where they were going with it and start to react as though they had already finished the sentence.
Only when they reached the curb leading to the parking lot did Dakota pause. She stared at the pavement for a moment, then raised her cup to squint at the remains of the liquid inside. Her voice turned quiet. “You were right. I didn’t think about anything bad while I was there. Or anything at all about the Heretics, or the vines, or Garden, or any of it. I didn’t think at all.”
Watching her curiously, Bobbi waited a moment before asking, “Are you… okay?”
Dakota seemed to consider the question before taking a long sip from her drink. Finally, she gave a very slight nod. “I think so. I feel… I feel like… like I’m still worried, and I still want to fix things. But it’s not…” She trailed off, putting one hand on her own shoulder as though pushing it down. “It’s not right here.” Then she moved her hand to her stomach. “And it’s not right here. It’s more right…” She turned, indicating the space on the other side of her where Bobbi wasn’t standing. “It’s more right there. It’s still there and it’s still important. Really important. But it’s not right on top of me. It’s not crushing me.” She bit her lip before looking over to the other girl. “And part of me feels a little bad about that too. But maybe that’s okay. I guess it really has been awhile since I stopped focusing on that stuff.”
Offering Dakota a quick smile, Bobbi nodded. “See? And it’s not over yet. Remember, that was just phase one of getting you to stop obsessing for one night.”
Clearly, Dakota actually had forgotten that there was supposed to be more to their day, because she gave a bit of a double-take. “Wha-oh. Wait, what else are we doing? You wouldn’t tell me before.”
“And you think I’ll tell you now?” Bobbi teased before waving both hands. “Okay, okay. Actually, come on, we’re supposed to meet him over on the other side of the parking lot, over there.” She pointed while hopping off the curb and starting that way. “You ever been to Disney World?”
Dakota started to follow before quickly looking over, almost tripping over the curb on her way after the other girl. “Wha-what? Disney World? No? Wait, why? We can’t leave for that long.”
Glancing over her shoulder toward Dakota with a sly smirk, Bobbi retorted, “Who said anything about leaving for a long time? My friend can get us there just like that.” She snapped her fingers in demonstration. “His name’s Berlin, and he’s an Abeonas. Trust me, it’ll be just like walking down the street. Plus, we’re meeting Twister there. She and Berlin wanna hang out too. We’ll see the park for a few hours, then we’ll come home. And that’s when you’ll–” Abruptly, the girl stopped talking. And walking, for that matter. She suddenly halted in mid-step, slowly lowering her foot while squinting at a camper van that was parked ahead of them with all the doors hanging open.
“What’s wrong?” Dakota asked, gaze darting back and forth between the van and her new friend. “I guess it looks a little creepy, but–”
“That’s Berlin’s ride,” Bobbi informed her. “This is where we’re supposed to meet him, but… where is he?” She took a step that way, squinting intently at the vehicle without calling out.
Dakota made a face behind her. “You seriously wanna take a ride to Disney World with a guy in a van?” She muttered the words under her breath, marveling not only at how creepy it sounded out loud, but at the fact that it would hardly have been the weirdest ride she herself had taken. After all, she’d had to hitchhike her way from the hospital to her family’s old house when she’d heard Kwur’s voice in her head again and realized that someone found the hidden plant.
Bobbi, by that point, had reached the van and poked her head in to look around. “He’s not here,” she murmured worriedly. “He should be here. He was supposed to meet us right at his van.”
“Maybe he had to go to the restro–” In her own mid-sentence, Dakota stopped and frowned. She stepped over to the nearby flower garden at the edge of the parking lot and crouched down, reaching out to touch a trampled flower with the very tip of her index finger before giving a soft gasp as a sudden rush of images filled her mind. “Three guys. They stomped all over. They were loud. They were… fighting.”
“What?” Bobbi blinked, turning that way. “How do you–hey, what’s going on?” Even as she asked that, the girl was stepping over and crouching next to her. “It’s a broken flower.”
Dakota’s eyes had drifted closed, as she kept her finger pressed gently against the poor mangled plant, adding a second one while the images continued to twist their way through her mind. The images were hard to understand. Some came in black and white, some in too much color, or upside down. And each came with a thought or a reflexive sort-of understanding. Or rather, a piece of a thought or understanding. It was difficult to sort through or find anything coherent within one image by itself, but putting them all together like letters or syllables of a word helped. As did speaking them out loud. So she did, her voice continuing in a dreamlike tone as she spoke the thoughts that the images brought to mind. “Three men. Two fighting one. Dragging him from the van. Hitting him with something shiny. Red hair, orange eyes.”
“That’s Berlin!” Bobbi blurted, before clapping a hand over her own mouth to allow the other girl to continue. Even if hearing that Berlin had been attacked made her want to start screaming obscenities that would’ve made adults give themselves whiplash to hear coming from her mouth.
Dakota was still talking quietly. “They fought him right here, trampled these flowers and the grass. They dragged him… they dragged him that way.” Turning, she pointed down the slope and off into the wooded area beyond that ran under and beside the nearby freeway. “Just–wait a minute.” She focused again, going silent for a few seconds before adding, “They’re still there. The trees can see them. The grass, they’re trampling it, and the flowers. The bushes, they’re tearing through the bushes. They’re trying to get somewhere really fast…”
“Wait, wait, they’re still here?” Bobbi blurted, bolting to her feet. “Come on!”
Dakota blinked at that. “Wait, shouldn’t we call someone to go save him?”
Grabbing the other girl by the arm and pulling her to her feet, Bobbi shook her head. “There’s no time! You said yourself they’re in a rush.” She put both hands on her friend’s shoulders and met her gaze. “Come on, we can do this. Remember I told you about how I helped people in my neighborhood before I ever met Twister and Asenath? You and me, we can save Berlin. Please? He’s my friend, and they’re running away with him.”
Despite being as nervous as she was, how could Dakota argue with that? Bobbi was basically the first chance at a real friend her own age she’d had in a very long time. Not to mention that small part of her that was offended about the plants being unceremoniously trampled and broken. So, she pushed all her doubts aside and gave a hesitant nod. “It’s that way,” she declared while pointing with a hand. “But they’re already a couple miles away, and I saw a… I think it was a portal just ahead of them. I don’t think we can–”
Before the other girl could continue with that, Bobbi was already moving. She snapped a hand out toward the row of parked cars nearby and drained all the energy from their batteries. Immediately after doing so, she created a glowing red cube around Dakota, making it hoist the surprised girl into the air. And then? Then Bobbi ran. She directed the cube with Dakota ahead of her while racing down the slope and into the woods the way the girl had indicated. The rest of the world seemed to stop entirely as she poured energy into her own speed and that of the cube, moving so fast everything else was almost motionless. Upon hitting the woods, Bobbi leapt over logs, ducked branches, sidestepped her way around clusters of bushes, and created energy-construct stairs and ramps ahead of her to get over pits, boulders, and similar obstacles. The woods were dense, but Bobbi’s speed and ability to simply create temporary ways around anything in her way meant very little could impede her progress. Meanwhile, Dakota was brought along right behind her in that cube, the whole experience passing by faster than it would even take for her stomach to register that it should be upset about this entire situation.
In the end, the two of them crossed that two miles in less time than it would have taken the average person to finish getting up from their chair. Finally, Bobbi heard sounds up ahead and skidded her way to a stop while lowering the cube to the ground and dismissing it to release the other girl. Then she quickly reached out to stop Dakota from stumbling, raising a finger to her lips for quiet just as they heard men cursing nearby. Through the thick clump of trees just ahead, they could see a small clearing where there was a glowing portal that was clearly waiting for the three figures who were moving toward it. One of those figures was being carried by the other two, clearly unconscious.
“Come on, come on, before the bastard wakes up,” one guy was saying. As Bobbi leaned closer, she could see that he had light gray fur and very small brown horns that looked as though they had just barely started to grow. The other guy was a metallic man over seven feet in height, but quite skinny. They were carrying Berlin by the arms and legs, heading for the portal.
“Yeah yeah,” the tall metal man snapped. “I’m coming. Keep your shorts on.”
They were only a few steps from the portal, so Bobbi couldn’t wait any longer. With a hushed whisper for the other girl to wait there, she launched herself that way and turned into a blur of motion. It wasn’t quite as fast as she’d been when going from the mall to this spot, but still a hell of a lot faster than almost anyone else was capable of.
In mid-sprint, Bobbi summoned her blue and white glass-like energy-construct armor. Electricity seemed to dance inside the form-fitting suit, while the helmet covered her head and face entirely with no apparent visor or eye slits at all.
The shorter, fur-covered man reacted first, starting to pivot that way with a blurted warning. But Bobbi was already launching herself off the ground. At her speed, with the armor protecting her from damage, she slammed into him so hard, he hit the ground with her on top of him and didn’t move again other than to cough a couple times in pain.
The metal guy was trying to react, but Bobbi had already rolled off the first man and pointed that way. As she did so, a glowing fist the size of a small motorcycle slammed into the man with so much force, he was hurled off to crash into a tree about twenty feet away. He tried to get up, but the energy-construct turned into an open hand and held him against the ground.
“Hah!” Bobbi snapped, lashing out with her armored foot to kick the fur-covered man in the face when he started to move. “That’s what you both get for–”
That time, what interrupted the girl was an incredibly thick bubble of strange sticky liquid that suddenly formed around her. She was torn from the ground and held in place, unable to move as a third man came into view from the other side of the clearing. He was almost as tall as the metal guy, and appeared to be made of chewed up pink bubblegum, all wrinkly and sticky. Instead of regular arms, he had a random assortment of pink tentacles sticking out various parts of his body with no apparent rhyme or reason.
“Both?” he echoed tauntingly. “What made you think there was only two of us? Now, how about you let my friend over there go, and–”
Then it was his turn to be interrupted, as Dakota burst into the clearing with both hands raised. “Let her go!” she snapped.
“Another one?” the bubblegum man lamented without too much worry. “Aight then, c’mere.” He started to extend one of his tentacles, a bubble beginning to form to pick the girl up.
Before it could reach her, however, Dakota made a noise in the back of her throat that was half-terror and half-anger, then made a shoving motion with both hands. As she did so, a nearby tree straightened up a bit out of the ground and half-turned that way before one of its branches abruptly snapped down, slamming into the bubblegum man so hard he collapsed to the ground like he’d been hit by a car.
Instantly, Bobbi was released. She took a quick second to make sure the full trio were dealt with, then raced over in a blur of motion to reach Dakota. “Dude! That was awesome!”
“I made it move! I made the tree move!” Dakota blurted, grabbing Bobbi’s outstretched hands. The two of them jumped up and down a couple times.
“Hell yeah, you made it move,” Bobbi agreed. “You wolloped that guy real good. He never saw it coming.”
“Yeah, that was pretty cool.” The words came from Berlin, as the Abeonas grunted and sat up from where he had been dropped in the dirt. “Ow. Hey, you’re Dakota, right? Good to see you. Thanks for uhh… jumping in there.” He looked to Bobbi. “You too. I ahh, dunno where those guys wanted me to go, but it probably wasn’t fun.”
He’d picked himself up from the ground by then, already taking a phone from his pocket. “I gotta call this in, get some Atherby peeps to come grab these guys and get answers out of ‘em. Err, and they can get the Boschers involved, I guess.” After a brief pause, he added, “Oh, and uhh, sorry. I don’t think we’ll make it to Disney World today.”
“It’s okay,” Bobbi replied, squinting at the metal man while reinforcing the energy-construct hand that was holding him in place. “We’ll go another time, right?” She was addressing the girl beside her.
Dakota gave a quick nod. “Uh huh. Another time. Besides,” she added quietly, “I, umm, I think I’m ready now. I wanna try talking to Eden’s Garden vines again. But there’s something we’ve gotta do first.”
“What?” Bobbi asked with a curious look.
“We’ve gotta go back to the van,” the other girl informed her. “To where that broken flower is. I promised it we’d help. I mean, if it didn’t tell me about what happened, we wouldn’t’ve found your friend. So we’ve gotta go back and help it. That’s… that’s not crazy, is it?”
“Nah,” Bobbi assured her. “It’s not crazy.
“And if anyone says it is, just hit ‘em with another tree.”