Artificial

By: Kelly Garcia

Chapter Four: The Homecoming

"Heads up!" Shark greeted as he entered the doorway a split second before neatly throwing a dagger straight at Falcon's forehead. An annoyed whine followed. Falcon glared up at her fellow Pagan/room-intruder who had thrown the dagger.

"This is the third book this week Shark!" she declared angrily as she surveyed the sharp edge that tore right into the middle of the book she was reading, which she instinctively used to stop the flying weapon. Well, she won't be reading that anymore. She extricated the simple dagger and peered through the hole that it made. "Think fast!"

Shark smirked, but before he could make a move, he felt something in his chest. He glanced at his dagger protruding out of the right side of his chest, scarlet red oozing onto his white wife beater. "Damn. Look what you did!" he stated as he separated it from his body. "Now, I'm going to have to wash this again."

Falcon smirked. "Well, that's what you get for messing with Sun Tzu and The Art of War."

Jaguar appeared, glanced at the dagger, the bloody stab wound, the hole in the book, and the triumphant smirk on Falcon's face, and figured out what happened. It was a common occurrence among his two fellow Pagans to purposefully injure the other, the most common ways being stabbing, shooting, and breaking of bones. "It's time," was all he said before disappearing down the hallway.

Falcon and Shark shared knowing looks. They had been together for almost ten years now, yet Jaguar was as distant, as indifferent, as emotionless as ever. The only emotion he can freely express is irritation, and even that wasn't as often as they'd like.

The moment passed as quickly as it came.

"I am so thrilled!" Falcon exclaimed as she catapulted herself from the top of the bed to land right in front of Shark in her doorway, an eight-foot distance, and looked up into his familiar chocolate eyes. "Our training is finally over! Imagine! Ten years! And we finally get to go home!"

Home. The word brought a feeling of nostalgia and unreality.

"Pagans…"

The whispered calling sent them both on alert. It was from Jaguar.

"Our leader is calling," Falcon said with a smile before hurrying to the conference room where Jaguar and their officers were waiting for them.

They were briefed on protocols, before allowed to leave.

"Until your first real mission, Lieutenants," were Captain Bouvier's last words on top of the storage building where the helipad was located. They boarded the aircraft and were on their way to the military airbase in the Californian desert.

"We're going home," Falcon whispered without thinking. They had long ago learned to control their actions. If she had yelled it instead, the pilot would have gone half-deaf. "I really can't believe it."

"I can't wait to see Jennifer," Shark declared, talking about his younger sister. She was six when he left. "She must be all grown up now."

"She's sixteen now isn't she?" Falcon asked.

Shark nodded. "We used to ride our bikes all around the block. I remember she always fell off her moronic Barbie bike, even though it had training wheels." The soft smile on his face was betraying his affection.

Falcon laughed softly. The competitive, mischievous boy was replaced by a caring brother. How creepy the transformation is, she thought.

There was a comfortable silence, before she broke it, "I had a boyfriend back home." She giggled. "His name was Tommy."

Shark snickered and she shot him a death glare. He immediately sobered up, not wanting to be stabbed or shot during the chopper ride. He had just finished healing himself, and he didn't want anymore bloody clothes to wash.

"Never mind," Falcon grumbled.

"Proceed," Jaguar commanded silently, looking at her.

She sighed. "Well, his name was Tommy—"

"We heard you the first time," Shark interjected.

"Do you want my knife up your pretty nose?" Falcon threatened.

The blonde-haired Pagan receded and raised his arms in a gesture of defeat.

"Didn't think so," Falcon stated, then said, "He was my only friend. We walked home from school everyday. He was my next-door neighbor you see, and our houses were five blocks away from school. He loved drawing, the only thing I wasn't good at."

"Wow," Shark said dryly, "that's so…boring."

"It's called art, you fool."

"Nothing but lines and colors. The real fools are the ones who pay several million dollars to acquire a painting made by some dead guy."

"You're hopeless."

Shark grinned charmingly and said, "Thank you."

Falcon just laughed.


Ten years. She had waited for this moment for ten years, yet she only felt a slight anxiety at what was going to happen. She rang the doorbell, and waited.

She heard a woman telling a man to go get the door because it might be Sylvia.

For some unknown reason, the tears she thought would come by the bucketful didn't come at all at the sound of her mother's warm voice. She straightened just before the door opened wide. She took in her father's appearance. Tall with graying hair and blue eyes so similar to hers hidden behind eyeglasses.

"Hi Daddy," she said with a smile.

She watched as her father neared her and pulled her in for a hug. She returned it enthusiastically. He smelled like coffee and soap. When they pulled away, he had tears in his eyes.

"I never thought I'd see you again," he choked out, and pulled her in for a fiercer hug. "Carly."

Carly… "That's my name isn't it?" she asked and looked into his eyes. "Carly."

"Yes. Lauren Carly."

"I missed you Daddy."

"So did I."

"I'm going to go see Mom now."

He nodded vigorously. "Of course. You must."

Katia Maverick stood facing the sink, her burnished dark brown hair gleaming beautifully as the setting sun's rays landed on it. She was humming a tuneless melody, her hands busy with the dishes. The scene was so achingly familiar, Falcon felt like she was eight again, and that her ten years in Pagan training had just faded away.

"Katia," her father's voice interrupted.

"Who was that at the door, honey?" she asked without looking backwards. "Was it Sylvia?"

"No."

"Then who was it? Don't tell me you—"

"Hi Mom."

Katia Maverick froze and whipped around to look at the most beautiful sight—Carly. Her Carly. The first thing that she noticed were her daughter's eyes, baby blue with gray rims. Never mind the fact that this woman in front of her was at an impressive height of 5'9", had an angular, symmetrical face that made her look incredibly glamorous despite the simple clothing, and had the most palpable commanding aura she could ever experience. All Katia had to do was look into the eyes, and she would see Carly. Her Carly.

"My baby!" she cried as she ran towards her daughter and enveloped her in a fierce hug. The same daughter she thought she'd never see again. "Carly!"


The smell of chocolate chip cookies wafted from the kitchen and into the living room, making Falcon's mouth water. She remembered they were her favorite afternoon snack when she was a child. She smiled when her mother entered the living room and sat down beside her.

"I'm so glad you're back home."

"So am I Mom. We've finished our training, so they gave us a couple of weeks off."

"You mean you're leaving again?" Katia asked, devastated with this news. She had thought Carly would stay and that their lives would return to normal.

Falcon nodded, confirming her mother's worst fear. "The point of my training was to serve the country."

"But you're eighteen years old!"

"I'm also a Lieutenant."

Katia reeled at this new information. Her brown eyes widened in horror and reluctant awe. "Already?!"

Falcon nodded. The reason of her Mom's surprise was justified. An eighteen-year-old Lieutenant is completely unheard of. Eighteen-year-olds would usually be at an academy, novices in military science and tactics. If one is lucky, he could be a sergeant in ten years, and could be promoted again to a lieutenant in another decade.

"I don't understand. I-Is this because you were advanced in your age?"

It could be put that way, Falcon thought, then nodded in agreement at her mother's statement.

Katia leaned back on the chair, feeling the strength leaving her body with every breath she took. It was all too much.

"You must rest." Falcon noted the tiny beads of perspiration appearing quickly on her mother's forehead along with the elevated heartbeat.

"I'll be fine." She waved her hand in the air, a gesture to stop Carly from moving to help her up. "Don't worry about me. The only thing that matters now is that you're here."

Falcon nodded. Surveying her mother closely, and concluding that she was going to be fine, she stood up. "I'll reacquaint myself with the neighborhood. I'll be back before dinner."

Katia nodded and watched as Carly walked out of the house. The little girl she had once known was gone, and her heart ached at the chance that was taken away from her to watch her only child grow into what she had become.


Shark knew the moment he stepped out of the military-issued black unmarked van that no one was inside the house. He concentrated on listening to anything that might be happening inside the house. Nothing.

He left his bag behind in the van and told the driver to wait for him. He looked around to see if there were any possible witnesses, and went around the house, hoping to see an open window. There was none, as he had expected. His father would never leave the house unsecured from thieves and the like. A smile appeared. But nothing is secure from a Pagan, he thought as he jumped onto his parent's bedroom terrace found on the second floor.

"Thank you Paganite for giving me the ability to jump seven stories high," he whispered to himself as he crept up to the doors and gave a light push, enough to make the aging wood give way for the metal lock. He was in. He went up and down the house, searching for any clues as to where they might have gone. He discovered the answer from his father's recording on the answering machine.

"You've reached the Barker residence. Sorry we're not home right now. Mina and I have gone to Japan and Jennifer is at cheer camp. But please leave a message after the beep."

Japan? Cheer camp?

He mentally listed down his options and after deliberating over it, he decided on his course. He was going back to California.


Jaguar stared listlessly ahead, ignoring the looks the other residents in the area were giving him. He never liked the people here, even as a kid. He didn't know them per se, but he hated their filth, their stink. His oversensitive Pagan olfactory senses were under serious attack from their combined body odors. It was enough to make him cringe.

He couldn't believe he was back here again. His aunt's trailer was a short walk from the sidewalk where he was standing. He couldn't bring himself to move a muscle. A short moment later, he did move his leg muscles, away from the trailer park.


Walking was a very enjoyable pastime, Falcon thought as she finally faced her house again, after thirty minutes of strolling around the neighborhood. Her keen senses absorbed the simple pleasure of just being. A soft smile lingered on her face as her gaze rested on the wide, one-storey house that once belonged to Tommy.

She concentrated on hearing from the inside of the house. A woman was talking. No, she was babbling. Comparing celebrities from her time with the modern day rich and famous. But to whom was she talking to? She searched her mind for a memory of Tommy's mother, and compared it with the voice of the babbling woman. No, she concluded sadly, not Tommy's mother. Someone else. Maybe they moved away?

She listened harder, refusing to give up. Scratching, a light scratching sound followed. She couldn't put a name to it. Something… A deep voice interrupted, a voice that belonged to a male. She listened to their conversation for a good three minutes before she was finally convinced that it was her old friend Tommy inside the house, because he started talking about the importance of light when creating a still life painting.

He was still an artist.

She grinned and without a qualm, walked up to the front door and rang the doorbell. She was definitely looking forward to seeing another familiar face from her before-Paganite childhood. As she hoped, it was Tommy who went and opened the door.

With a hand on the knob, and a slightly curious expression, he greeted the unexpected visitor. Hoping it wasn't another childish prank, he opened the door and what met his eyes instead was most definitely the most beautiful girl he's ever seen in his entire life. His jaw dropped and his eyes widened.

In a split-second, Falcon inspected Tommy. Tall, lanky, pale blond hair, green eyes, and a familiar crookedness to his otherwise straight nose. He was wearing a dark blue shirt that seemed large for him, loose jeans, and no footwear. With expertise, she didn't dwell on the different odors emanating from his body. She found that she was more comfortable with a human if her Pagan olfactory sense didn't tell her what kind of deodorant he used, or hinted at how often, or seldom, he cleaned his feet.

Being a Pagan does have its few minor disadvantages.

She smiled when she saw the sketching pencil on his left hand. She looked into his eyes. "Hi."

Stunned beyond comprehension as to why someone as beautiful as her would be talking to someone like him, Tommy was unable to respond.

Falcon assumed that his inability to speak was caused by the surprise of her being at his front door after ten long years, and forged ahead. "It's been a long time, hasn't it?" She ignored his racing heartbeat.

Tommy frowned. She was implying they had met before. Only he didn't remember. He would certainly not forget meeting someone like her. Unless this was a prank… There was definitely a hint of something in her magnificent eyes. "Do I know you?" he finally asked.

Somehow, she was expecting that answer after realizing he didn't recognize who she was. Ignoring his question and deciding to make him wonder a bit more, she stated, "I just arrived in the neighborhood actually and thought I'd introduce myself. Hi."

Tommy frowned. Cautious by nature, he decided on following up on her story. As far as he knows, all the lots in the neighborhood are occupied, which is one of the reasons why the neighbors know everything about each other. "Which street?"

"This street."

He raised his brows in a disbelieving manner. "Are you sure?"

"Yes."

"And you say you just arrived?"

She nodded.

"I don't know what game you're trying to play so you better leave."

She shook her head, her face smiling, sincere. "No game." Her eyes twinkled. "I see you have a crooked nose. Got into a fight?"

Her change of topic was so random, he looked at her as if she was an alien. He answered her anyway. "Accident from my childhood years."

Her eyes glinted then. "Really? Accident?"

He wanted her to go away. But she was persistent. And one can't just refuse someone as gorgeous as her, or someone with her aura. Her aura was indescribable. She gave off innocence, yet hinted at a deeper, darker mystery. And the way she carried herself… So poised. So confident. So…commanding. She was no ordinary person.

He shook his head. His creativity and imagination got away with him again. This girl was just another ordinary girl, he told himself.

"Yes. Accident."

She looked at him. He looked exasperated now. Probably itching to go back to painting. She grinned. "Well, I'm sorry about that. But then you probably already know."

She started walking away. She heard the rapid heartbeat, the shallow breaths, she could imagine the dumbstruck face…

"Carly?!"

She turned around, and smiled. "I thought you were never going to recognize me. But it's Lauren now."

Lauren… A new name for a new beginning. Carly was the little girl who was unaware of her superhuman abilities. Gone was Carly. It's Lauren now.

Tommy's face broke out into a wide grin. "What are you doing here?"

"Just visiting."

Her words struck a chord and instantly Tommy became serious. "This is your first time to visit in ten years. Must have been some school to not let you come even during Christmas."

"We were busy," she said, deliberately being vague. Any information or hint about their identities is strictly prohibited from outsiders.

He nodded thoughtfully. Then he grinned again. "Why don't you come inside?"

She shook her head. "No thanks. Maybe next time. It was nice seeing you again, Tommy."

"Yeah. Hey, how long is your vacation?"

"I don't know. It might be a few days to a couple of weeks," she answered as-a-matter-of-factly, as if there was nothing wrong with her answer.

He nodded and waved her goodbye, watching as she walked away. When he closed the front door, he thought about his childhood friend. Carly…no, it's Lauren now, she's the same person, and yet she seemed like a completely different person.

Completely different. He had seen a glimpse of the playfulness that had once been the embodiment of Carly Maverick. There was still the familiar hint of kindness and open honesty about her. That is, until he commented on the nameless placeless military school she had supposedly stayed in for the past ten years.

He remembered the day when he found out that his only friend was gone. It was 7:15 in the morning, the usual time they'd see each other in front of their homes and meet at the curb, then they'd walk to school together. Impatient child that he is, seeing that there was still no sign of Carly, he walked up to their house and rang the doorbell. A distressed-looking Mr. Maverick answered the door. He looked down at Tommy as if he was seeing the child for the first time.

"Good morning Mr. Maverick. Won't Carly go to school?"

The huge man seemed to pale at his words. He was quiet for a few moments before he finally said, "I'm sorry Tommy, but Carly's not here."

Tommy nodded, eager for explanation.

"She's gone away Tommy."

"Huh? Whaddya mean Mr. Maverick, sir?"

He didn't realize that the huge man was on the brink of tears. He was just eager to know what had happened to his best friend and how long until she came back.

"She transferred schools."

"Transferred? But she was at school yesterday. She even played soccer Mr. Maverick, sir."

"She transferred schools, Tommy," he repeated. "You best get on your way to school before you get late."

Transferred schools… When he got older, in those rare times that he allowed himself to think of her, he realized that it was highly unusual for an elementary school student to transfer in the middle of the school year without the parents. Highly unusual.

He was thirteen when he found out that it was a military school that she had transferred to. He was walking back from school, and it was almost dusk, when he heard voices from inside the Maverick home. Mrs. Maverick was talking to Mr. Maverick.

"Have they called yet Dillon?" Dillon was the name of Carly's dad, the man who seemed too huge to be a scientist.

"No. No word from them."

He hadn't intended on eavesdropping. He was just walking by. But his curiosity was peaked when Mrs. Maverick said, "They should have called by now. I miss my Carly… I miss my baby."

"I do, too. They'll call soon. They're military. They're probably busy."

Military… Carly had been taken away to military school?!

The wheels in his mind started turning. Of course, the abrupt disappearance, the implausible cover-up story, the unusual circumstances, the cloud of mystery that hung over the entire incident, the military! It explained everything… and yet nothing.

The big question was why.

He was dying to find out. Tommy always considered himself mature beyond his years, and even then, he had wondered and wondered and wondered the answer to that question.

Why. Why. Why?

She was an overachiever. That's it. There are lots of overachievers in America. Why her? Then it entered his mind that maybe the military stole away the overachievers in the country. He quickly threw that notion away. That was crazy… Or was it? You never know with the government. But then again, what would they do with overachievers? Teach them to achieve more? It's ludicrous.

He knew he really should stop thinking about her. It was bordering on obsession. But at the same time, he couldn't. There was just this huge dark mystery revolving around Lauren and her family. And he couldn't ignore it.

He sighed and contemplated her words. When he had asked her why she was here, she had simply answered, "Just visiting." Visiting. This was her home… wasn't it? He sighed. He didn't know. Then he thought about her response to his comment about her nameless mysterious military school. She had said, "We were busy."

'We,' like there were more teenagers who were gone away for a long time from their homes… It was the only possible explanation. Why else would she say 'we' instead of 'I'? How many people can 'we' cover? He sighed. Hundreds. Thousands. Millions. He sighed.

"If you sigh one more time, my ears will burst," his grandmother remarked, her kind eyes on him. "What's wrong? Who was at the door?" Her face took on an accusatory countenance. "Pranksters? Did somebody prank us again?"

"No. No, Grandma. Just an old friend."

She smiled kindly, wiping her hands on her worn apron. "Oh, that's nice, dear. Is it a girl?" Her eyes twinkled knowingly.

Tommy almost smiled. "Yes."

"Tell me about her."

I would if I knew, he thought to himself.

The next day, Saturday, at six o' clock in the morning, Tommy was disturbed by the shrill ringing of the phone. He was taken aback when it was Lauren who was on the other line, inviting him for a morning jog. Confused, shocked, and somewhat flattered by her request, he agreed without really thinking.

They went jogging alright. He was panting and heaving, sweating excessively, feeling his lungs about to explode, every muscle in his skinny unexercised body screaming for release, and yet there she was unperturbed, fresh, as if she was walking inside a mall, without a single microscopic bead of sweat.

Later that day, he was invited by her parents to their home to eat lunch with them. He didn't see her take a single bite. At dinner, she was invited by his Grandmother to eat at their home. She didn't eat then too.

Her eating habit did not coincide with her fit lifestyle. He had always observed when they were children that she was active. Real active. It's like she had an eternal reservoir of energy. She ate a lot too. She had to, to keep up with her active, sporty lifestyle. She was more active now, he knew because she had mentioned that it was nearly lunchtime before she returned from another round of jogging, and yet she did not eat. It made the cloud of mystery around her thicken.

And she used to be so open, so honest, saying what she was thinking. Now, it's like a dam had built around her to keep from saying anything she's not supposed to say. Tommy could see that her parents were worried all the time about her strange behavior. He knew she knew about that. He also knew that she was trying hard to please them, but was having a difficult time doing so.

Sunday morning six o'clock, she called again and asked to accompany her jogging. He agreed. Fifteen minutes later, he was wheezing, hands on knees, head down, a small stream of sweat dripping onto the curb. She patiently waited for him to recover, and while doing that she stretched a little bit to keep her blood running.

"Wow," he gasped. "That military school must have put you through one helluva training."

"You're just out of shape from staying indoors too much," she answered, deliberately not making any comment about the mysterious military school.

Forty-five minutes later and extremely flabbergasted how he was still alive, they jogged up to their homes. Before they parted ways, she asked, alarming him. "Is that what Mom and Dad said? I went to military school?"

He contemplated for a moment before slowly nodding. "You did go to military school right?"

She nodded and he knew she wasn't lying. "I just wondered what they told others."

"Actually, they didn't tell anyone anything. They just said you went away. The whole school, the whole neighborhood was curious. I just overheard your parents from an open window that they were waiting for a call from the military."

She nodded again, weighing his words. "Okay. Thanks."

Then she was gone.

That afternoon, she stayed over at his house, her parents out grocery shopping. That time was enough for him to notice a few more things about her.

When he first saw her, he had thought that she was most beautiful girl he's ever seen. That afternoon, he was convinced she was the most beautiful girl in the entire history of the planet. Her physical appearance was perfect. Dark voluminous glossy hair, almond-shaped eyes slightly tilted upwards at the corner, her orbs the striking color of deep ocean blue, healthy skin, the healthy tan warring with her natural pale complexion, tall slender body… It was like God had been in the best of moods when he made her, giving her the absolute best of everything.

He also noticed that she was as extraordinarily physically coordinated as before. Something not so surprising since she went to military school. He also saw that it seemed as if she always needed to be doing something… anything. He admired that. It was rare in teenagers nowadays, where laziness and idleness reigned supreme over their generation. Another thing he had observed about her was that she seemed to take displeasure in talking. It seemed she liked reading more than she did talking. Another rarity. She only spoke when she was spoken to, and in short, concise, straight-to-the-point sentences too.

"What would you like to eat?" he'd ask. She'd say, "Anything you'll serve."

Or maybe "Do you like that book you're reading?" She'd reply, "Very much."

And "I won't be able to jog with you tomorrow. I have school." She'd respond with, "No problem at all. Thank you for letting me know."

At least that time she'd said two sentences. He sighed. He wondered why she didn't go grocery shopping with her parents. Come to think of it, he thought, she always seems to be not with her folks. After ten years, one would think she'd be glued to her parents' side. But then again, it's not everyday you know a person who spent those ten years in a military school.

But the most significant discovery he learned that afternoon, in his opinion, occurred while he was sketching while she was reading. They were in the living room, and it was nearing dusk.

"Lauren," he called.

No response.

"Lauren," he repeated. She must be engrossed in the book, he thought. He read the cover. The Picture of Dorian Grey by Oscar Wilde.

He stood up. "Lauren." He said it louder. But she didn't seem to hear him.

"Carly," he tried. And she looked up at him expectantly.

Whoa. He didn't expect her to hear him.

"I'm sorry. I'm not used to being called Lauren."

He nodded, understanding. Why did she ask to be called Lauren then instead of Carly if she was used to being called Carly? How mysterious…

He saw the Mavericks driving up. "Your parents are here. I guess you won't be eating with us then."

She stood up, tall, proud, with that imposing aura of hers again. "Thank you for letting me stay."

She walked out of his house.

The next day, as he was walking home from school, a tall blonde guy about his age walked up to him. Curious enough, there was that palpable authoritative aura that surrounded him, much like Carly's. Tommy ignored him and continued walking. He had three blocks to go.

"Excuse me. But do you happen to know a Lauren Maverick?"