We are forced to stop the car and get out when the road in downtown Paso Robles is completely blocked up. Barricaded up by wreckage and overturned vehicles.
The downtown, just like the winery we left minutes ago, is ablaze.
“This can’t be right,” Francis says. “How did the fire...”
“It’s not the same fire,” Delta says.
“So then... What... is going on?”
Downtown Paso Robles, a place we visited just half a day ago, is burning to the ground before our very eyes. The mall where I received my very first phone will no longer exist in a matter of hours.
Who could have done this? My first guess is to, like Francis, blame Clone Eryk and not myself, but there is no possible way the fire has spread so many miles already.
It must truly be something, or someone else.
Francis shrugs. “I mean, California has a lot of wildfires, but...”
Then we see it. A group of ten or twenty people banded together, each wearing makeshift helmets with colored cloths wrapped around their necks. They hold up weapons and chant something I can’t quite make out at the moment.
“Hello!” I shout. “Who might you fellows be?”
They stop their chant and immediately charge at us in unison. One young man holds a pitchfork and the others have various axes and anime swords.
“Wait, stop! We mean no harm, unless that is you are allied with Karen! Then we definitely do mean harm!”
They all stop, also in unsion. One young man with a hunting rifle greets us. “You are against Karen as well?” he asks.
“Yes, we are,” I say. “Let us introduce ourselves. We are Team Systemless, a group of explorers from the land of San Francisco. We stumbled upon Paso Robles in our journeys, and we were recently held captive by Karen and her cult of wine loving mothers.”
“Then the rumors were true,” he mutters, half to himself. “They really are moving onto Phase Three of their plan. The time is right, then. We were in the right.”
“In the right?” Delta asks. “Please don’t tell me you are the ones who...”
“We are the Paso Robles Liberation Army!” the young man shouts.
“Libre Paso!” those behind him shout in unison.
So there was an entire rebellion movement underneath the surface that we had no idea about. All along, the rebels were here, ready to strike. And our efforts in the winery were the spark that lit the fire that will destroy the Wine Order.
“I am Miguel Santiago,” he says, “And Karen’s cult tortured me for two weeks. Kidnapped my family, all because I didn’t meet the olive oil quota for the year.”
“All they want is to keep their power,” someone else says. “But we won’t let them take control!”
“Yes,” Miguel says. “We heard that the winery burned down, so we took to the streets and joined in the battle. Karen’s top lieutenants have been arrested, and we will soon take full control of the city.”
“Finally, democracy in our time,” someone in the back says.
I nod. “All of this sounds tremendous,” I tell them. “I am proud of you for your excellent work in all of this.”
“And will you stay to help the transition away from the cult dictatorship? To help pick up the pieces after the ashes have cooled?” Miguel asks.
I shake my head. “We must depart as soon as we can. We have aided in your battle as best as we were able. Do you know if the hotel...”
Miguel shakes his head. “Fighting is too fierce there. If you are not a combatant, you must leave, now.”
I look at Francis and Delta. And we nod together, solemnly. “Thank you, Paso Robles Liberation Army. I hope you see happiness in your lifetimes.”
We run as fast as we can before the warfare continues, cultists fighting rebels and explosions going off in the distance.
We rush to the Amtrak station and arrive just in time to buy tickets for the 5:55. The very first train of the morning, headed south down to Los Angeles and beyond.
When we finally board, we sit down on in our seats, relax our postures, and each let out a deep sigh.
Delta soon gives a frown. “I left a bomb-ass dress in my suitcase...”
“My PS5 was in there...” Francis adds.
“We can buy new clothes and consumer electronics,” I say. “What we cannot buy is more time to complete our journey. If we ran into serious harm back there... Well, let us be glad we didn’t.”
I only have [6,200/15,000 LP] left at the moment, but I won’t let them know about that now.
“Man, bro, Eryk, that was so cool what you did with the clone and all that,” says Francis. “You were like pow, bam, kboom, fireball! And you tricked them all into thinking Delta was pregnant just to mess with them? Genius!”
Delta glances at me but I try to avoid eye contact. Too tired to get into that, either.
In fact... I’m too tired to do much of anything at all...
I rest my head on Francis’s shoulder and fall asleep within the minute.
It is a peaceful sleep.