Late 2018

54 minutes before emergence event

Several miles away from Rachel, Nevada

Heleno opened his eyes lazily. Fatigue and carsickness wracked his body, and getting shut-eye wasn't making it much better. The roads here were far better than in San Juan, but the desert air and sun were getting to him somehow. At least his mother hadn't tried to speak to him yet. He thought less humidity meant the climate would be better.

As far as he knew, Rachel was one of those truly small small towns peppered over the American landscape and that hung on stubbornly in defiance of all demographic laws. It was basically a ranching and farming settlement, propped up only by the fact that it was almost literally a stone's throw away from Area 51. There was absolutely nothing else remarkable about the place. It wasn't even a town, just a 'census-designated place': a pretty-sounding euphemism for 'this location doesn't even qualify as a village to us.'

So, beside the conspiracy connection, as podunk as podunk got. It didn't even have a gas station or post office. He had no earthly idea why his mother would stop there. Probably just be there for a few minutes to get refreshments at the inn or something. She had gotten even chattier than usual lately. Why was beyond Heleno, but at least it would be good for her mental state.

The rental sedan didn't have enough room for Heleno to slump comfortably on the back seat. It felt wrong to be eighteen and yet vastly larger than both his parents. 5'8 wasn't even that tall. He was about to ruminate on dwarfism in Latin American populations before the car abruptly turned and stopped. His mother's voice stayed the same as ever.

"We're here. Concentrate, be nice, behave. I'm going to speak with some friends." Hm? He never recalled her having any friends in Nevada or over the web who lived around here.

That was definitely odd, but he dispassionately dragged himself out of the car and into the desert sun, taking in the crisp air and shuffling onto the dusty parking lot. There wasn't anything to see here beside the town's structures, the foliage, and the mountains in the distance. The motel's sign had a cute pun and a cartoon Grey head emblazoned onto it just like his idle Wiki-walk had told him earlier. Pocketing his smartphone, he sauntered ponderously toward the building itself. The reception was cramped, but at least there was a chair.

Heleno did note that his mother was speaking avidly with what looked like some locals rather than the receptionist herself. That was very odd, but they just looked like family friends. Back home, she'd had the Camping Association. Woman deserved her privacy and her space, God only knows how much of it he had taken up in his upbringing. It was a little suspicious when they left, but he just figured she had made arrangements for gas or lodging with them and browsed some more on his smartphone.

It was 3:30 pm when they had arrived. It had been fifteen minutes since then and she was still gone. Well, people her age who knew each other this way tended to spend a lot of time exchanging pleasantries.

Before he knew it, the fifteen minutes stretched out. His smartphone games kept his mind off the fact that it was taking a long time. He began to be concerned, but his attention deficit disorder kept him laser-focused on his screen. The young man became suspicious when a passing glance at the clock revealed it had been exactly 51 minutes since their arrival.

At that time, he asked the receptionist where his mother had gone. She gave him a blank stare and made a noncommittal noise that she didn't know, but he asked around cautiously and someone oriented him outside, toward a large warehouse in the distance, maybe a few hundred feet away? He felt somewhat awkward being ushered like this. But the greater sense was a deep black pit in his stomach and in the back of his head. Dread clawed at his mind on the low.

Heleno rushed to the warehouse on both his feet. He wasn't completely unathletic, but his college career had taken a chunk out of his gym time. Trying to be as quiet and unobtrusive as possible, the dark-haired youth peeked into one of the doors, left ajar. He reassured himself over and over that nothing would be wrong and he wasn't a child anymore. There was no reason to be afraid of the blackness, right? Right? There wouldn't be any kidnappers or organized crime here, that was silly.

He reassured himself everything would be fine one last time as he put one foot in the threshold, seeing his mother's black flats partially-illuminated and the rest of her in blackness.

Drawing his eyes upward, barely adjusted to the darkness, he drew his eyes up toward her legs and body, and head. Her eyes stared blankly into the darkness, reminding him of a soldier's thousand-yard stare for one fleeting moment.

Heleno hadn't realized it until now, but he'd been getting increasingly worried about his mother's health ever since they'd immigrated to Las Vegas two years ago. It was as though she was becoming increasingly distant: first she didn't coddle him as much, then she dropped a couple of hobbies, and then she'd chucked her tablet computer. He didn't worry about it. In fact, it was a welcome relief to finally learn how to be independent and cook for himself for once. He got out of the house more often, ate more often, and actually had mustered the courage to speak to people face-to-face. But she just… grew aloof. He worried it was Alzheimers, some kind of mental disorder, or maybe even an undiscovered degenerative disease in his more paranoid moments.

He always wound up figuring her personality was changing now that he was getting ready to leave the nest or something else. His social life was finally picking up in the real world, so he actually had something in the way of friendship. And thanks to an odd confluence of events, he'd actually gone through all the bases and 'scored a home run', as it were. That experience was… interesting.

"Mom?" A trickle of panic invaded his senses as he took her hand in his. It felt distantly sickly, like something was wrong about how her flesh responded to being prodded, although there were no obvious signs of ill health. He shook it and she didn't respond. The panic grew as he pinched areas of her body and got no response, although her pulse appeared normal, if a little slow. Just as it occurred to him to call an ambulance, he turned and noticed there were people jam-packed into the basketball court-sized space, almost shoulder-to-shoulder

Turning toward it, he saw many other people in a similar state to his mother. The panic became a river, then a tsunami. He rushed into the throng of eerily still men and women, checking their pulses as he went in a frenzy. Normal. Normal. Normal. What was going on? What was happening?

He paused when he checked a woman whose pulse was dangerously low, instinct mixing with his limited first aid training. It didn't react right, either.

Looking at her body, he saw the nasty red gash in her left forearm where a piece of her ulna stuck out, as though it were a horror movie prop. In shock, he saw her face framed by darkness: the same absent, slack-jawed stare as on all the other people he'd seen.

Then the screeching started.

Heleno watched transfixed as, among the din of seemingly dozens of people, she drew her good arm up to claw the skin off her face. As though in slow-motion, the doors of the warehouse seemed to open, and he beheld the sight of seemingly every person inside of it doing the same, in broad daylight.

His body started moving before his mind could fully compute what he was seeing or hearing. He found himself running, arms in front of his face to protect himself from the sudden maniacal crowd around him, clawing after him. He just kept running, pushing past writhing bodies toward the only family he'd ever truly been close to in life, thinking only of getting her out of here.

He didn't stop even as he saw his own mother's hands sprout ugly growths from the fingertips, even as he heard her own inhuman screaming ringing out in his ear, even as she flailed wildly when he tackled her and dove for the ground outside the warehouse, all its population seeming to reach for him when he turned his sight back.

There wasn't any time to process the goings-on before he heard an ear-shattering POP, one of the people stumbling mid-stride. Then another and another. Gunshots?!

After a moment, he felt two firm pairs of hands pull him out from above his mother. He made vague noises of protest and kicked his arms into empty space, but it wasn't enough to keep him with her. The last thing Heleno Cortez would ever see of his mother was of someone in a gas mask riddling her body with shotgun fire over and over as it writhed. He sobbed breathlessly, his voice cracked and silent, as he was dragged off.

"What a mess," Priya mumbled to herself as she worked the controls on the EG device. The damn Hispanic kid had ruined their tidy containment plan. If only he wasn't so damned curious, the Level-0s would have dealt with him.

Then again, he wasn't to blame. It was probably his infected mother who gave the game away by dragging him here. The swarthy woman squinted at the EG as though checking how the sights were zeroed, and leveled the TERS glyph at his face. That should do it. Then, she flicked it away and displayed MUTA. "There weren't any screaming zombies in that warehouse. Your mother wasn't shot to death. You were headed to Rachel, Nevada with her, when-"

"What are you babbling about?" Heleno replied, the tears on his face dry. "Is this some kind of sick joke? What have you people done with Mom?" His mouth quaked as though he wanted to cry even more than he had. His wails had been truly miserable for a few minutes before he'd fainted. That's really strange. No dilating pupils, no blood pressure or heart rate changes, nothing. If he's immune, then-

Before he could say anything more, the woman visibly switched the fire selector-looking thing on her weird gun-like contraption. The restraints in the back of the van kept him from making any motion, however, and he was helpless as she displayed the same two glyphs, her eyes locked onto the portable blood pressure readout on his arm. "Again, there were no zombies, no warehouse, you didn't even enter the to… fuck. One more time." Before he could speak, he was shown the two glyphs once more. They were slightly dazzling, like a mirage, and Heleno held his breath involuntarily as they were shown. But Priya could find no other system response.

Oh, fuck. An immune. We're inducting another recruit today, then. "Glenn, get the chopper! We gotta bring him in!" Priya shouted to someone outside the vehicle. Heleno heard the distinctive shrill of a helicopter starting up and tried to protest, but the woman administered some anaesthetic to his left arm. By the time he thought to make a sound, he was already falling fast asleep.

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