Rhivera

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~Chapter Twenty Seven- Meeting amidst War~

~Chapter Twenty-Seven~

~Juaquin~

~December~

The Emperor declares martial law across the country with the start of Miro’s war. Checkpoints are formed across each region at key locations to prevent his forces from sneaking around. But knowing they could get around using the network of underground tunnels make those efforts seem moot. Immediately after taking Tolesta and Illesto, Miro’s army sets their sights on Norino. Using a simultaneous attack from both sides, they toppled Norino’s base and captured all of the northern regions of Rhivera.

A river separates the northern regions of Rhivera from the rest of the country; bridges were built to allow passage across. The first thing Miro’s army did after capturing the north was destroying most of those bridges, leaving only three, effectively funneling all future confrontations on those points.

While Miro’s northern forces are aggressive, the army that took Joldair takes a defensive position. With Mount Rhive blocking the way to the north, the only way for the military to retake Joldair was to attack from Sotra or the sea. General Felix led a small offensive from the eastern shore but was met with ocean mines and Miro’s newly established naval forces, forcing him to retreat.

Generals Elian and Victor sought to retake the north while Raul and Felix are tasked with retaking Joldair. Though, Raul is distracted trying to track down Maria and Eugenio, as well as Melissa. He keeps me in Uneva to help keep the peace while he’s busy in Sotra commanding the frontlines.

I return to an empty home. For the first time since he was born, Eugenio isn’t here. I can only imagine where Arturo took him. The phone rings, and I promptly pick it up.

“Come to the Montoya estate.” A familiar voice says. It’s Melissa.

“Where are you?”

“We’re all here. Come alone.” Melissa replies shortly, hanging up immediately after.

I head for the door. Before I step out, I eye my Survival Suit, but I leave without it. They trust me enough to tell me where they are. I could call the military and bring them with me. But they know I would never do that and I trust they won’t turn on me either.

I haven’t been to Montoya Estate in months. Both Arturo and I have been so busy. Only now do I understand why. I’m sure Mom and Eugenio are with them. I’m positive they’ll try to recruit me into Miro’s Revolution. I walk slowly on the way, thinking about what I’ll say and do.

A part of me wants to join them. But I don’t think I can. Population Control exists for a reason. Despite how cruel it can be, I still see its purpose. But they’re not going to stop just because I won’t join them. There’s more to consider.

If this war goes on, a lot of people are going to die. If Miro’s revolution wins, who knows how many lives would be lost. I can only hope they have some plan for the future. That they won’t destroy this country in their attempts to save it from Population Control. Their path is a destructive one.

But if the military wins, Arturo and all of those he’s protecting will be in danger.

Damn it! There has to be some way around this. A way where no one has to die. Or as few as possible.

I could turn Arturo over to the authorities, that could end the war prematurely, saving a lot of lives. But who’s to say the military wouldn’t kill him to serve an example? That wouldn’t necessarily end the war either, his followers may become even more determined to stop Population Control and avenge him. I wouldn’t betray Arturo like that anyways. That isn’t an option.

I just don’t want anyone else to die. Not without stopping Arturo somehow. I need to find a way to end this without him getting killed. That might not be reasonable though.

... Unless

... That could work. I’m sure the government would agree to it. If I can convince Arturo to go along with it.

I stop at the front door of Montoya Estate and take a deep breath before knocking at the door. When the door opens, I see Arturo and his unkempt black hair. We stare at each other for a moment.

“Hey man,” I say in a subdued manner.

“Hey. Come on in,” Arturo parts the door, seeming anxious. Melissa throws her petite frame against mine and hugs me as I enter.

“It’s been way too long,” Melissa says happily.

I squeeze her tightly, “It has. Where’ve you been?”

Melissa releases me and mutters, “You ought to be able to figure that out by now.”

Arturo closes the door behind us. I look around and see the estate is especially barren now, most of the furniture and appliances are missing, “So, are you really Miro?” I ask Arturo pointedly.

Arturo walks to a black suitcase lying against the wall and pulls out a flat black object. He flicks it, and it expands into Miro’s helmet, “I am Miro.”

That settles that. I never imagined he was capable of all that Miro has done... Rico would be alive if not for him...

“I owe you a lot after Norino,” Arturo says.

“How did you get all the way from the north to here? Miro is supposed to fighting General Elian right now,” I ask.

Arturo smirks, “I have my ways.”

I turn to Melissa, “I figure you’ve been in on this too?”

“You could say that,” Melissa responds coyly, sitting on the staircase.

“How long have the two of you been doing this?” I ask them both.

“Since 2015. Though we started very small. We corresponded with people exclusively through radio back then,” Arturo explains, “We even had this silly voice changer to disguise who we were. After we got this Survival suit and could meet with them in person, things started to move a lot faster.”

“We wanted you to join us,” Melissa says, “Between the three of us, there’s nothing we can’t do. We probably would’ve already destroyed the PCC if you were with us. But you wanted to join the military, so we had to do it on our own.”

Arturo collapses the helmet back to its flattened state and returns it to its suitcase, “It’s not too late though. You can still help us,” He extends his hand out to me, “We can end the PCC for Eugenio’s sake.”

I look down at his hand. A part of me wants to take it. But I can’t. I swallow hard before saying, “There has to be another way.”

“Damn it Juaquin!” Melissa abruptly shouts, “The PCC is wrong.”

“Do you even have a plan after you’ve brought down the PCC? How do you know that you won’t just make things worse?” I ask angrily.

“Nothing could be worse than being under Population Control,” Arturo states flatly.

“Look at how many people have died already because of Miro’s revolution against Population Control! Thousands? Good people too! Imagine how many will die if you continue this war!”

“People defending an evil system.” Melissa counters.

“The government tried to make a peaceful resolution with you through the Equality Zone, but you turned them down. They don’t want to fight! Population Control isn’t wrong. Not entirely at least.”

Arturo and Melissa both look at one another. Melissa stands from the staircase and beckons to me, “Let me show you something.”

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I follow the two of them to the basement stairs. Arturo passes Melissa a key, and she unlocks the door. I remember as kids, Arturo showed us an opening to an underground tunnel that started here. As we go downstairs, there is a dim light coming from that tunnel.

We reach a clearing in the tunnel. There are several tents with candles and lanterns serving as light sources and hundreds of people there. A small settlement. The people wear ragged clothing, clearly whatever could be spared. Several soldiers from Miro’s army overlook the settlement and wave to Arturo and Melissa as they enter the area, clearly familiar with them.

Arturo speaks, “All of these people are hiding from the Population Control. If we lose, the PCC will kill every last one of them. The lives we’ve taken don’t amount to how many they have and will.”

They walk me through the settlement. The young in the settlement care for the elderly. I see Mom serving an older couple rations before returning to the tent they call home. Others in the settlement are packing away supplies. Are they planning to leave?

I spot an able-bodied young man serving himself rations and returning to his tent, not contributing to their settlement. He isn’t the only one. There are several who are perfectly capable of helping but choose not to. Miro’s army is a shield allowing them to do so. Ilyana told me her parents were like that. Lazy people who were content with taking, but never giving back.

I see Eugenio speaking to a pale young girl around his age.

“Eugenio’s quite the stud, he already has a girlfriend,” Melissa comments. Eugenio glances up and locks eyes with me. He tells the girl he needs to go before reorienting his wheelchair and coming towards us. We’re on the edge of the small settlement, alone.

“Juaquin!” Eugenio hugs me as he reaches me, “You took your time getting here!” He seems... happier than usual. Happier than he’s ever been. He’s surrounded by more people than ever before.

Melissa puts her hand on my shoulder, “You’re going to join us now, right Juaquin?” Melissa says with a hopeful look. Eugenio smiles up at me. He finally gets to live with other people. He doesn’t have to be alone.

For a moment, I almost say yes. Almost.

“It’s not that simple,” I say.

Eugenio’s smile disappears into confusion, “Melissa! You said he’d come with us,” He wails, sounding betrayed.

“He is!” Melissa stammers, “We just need to change his mind.”

Arturo winces, “Juaquin, if we lose, the PCC will come for everyone here. You have to help us.”

“There’s been enough fighting already!” I snap at him, “I’ve lost enough people already, and I don’t want to lose any of you!”

Arturo wants to argue but calms himself down, “What would you have us do then? Surrender and let the government do what they wish?”

A tiny voice from a wheelchair speaks up, “I don’t want anymore people fighting for me either,” Eugenio says.

Melissa and Arturo’s composure softens. Melissa asks, “But, don’t you like being with other people, Eugenio?”

“Yeah, but I don’t want people to die because of it. I’m okay with going back into hiding with Mom and Juaquin.” Eugenio says with the purest of intentions.

Arturo and Melissa are dumbstruck. Miro’s Revolution was in large part for Eugenio’s sake. Hearing him say he doesn’t want them to fight anymore shakes them.

But... That’s not fair to Eugenio.

“No. You don’t have to do that, Eugenio. It was wrong of us to keep you in that house all those years,” I explain, “I think there’s another way though.”

“What’re you thinking?” Arturo asks skeptically.

“We can leave Rhivera.” I declare, and the three of them are silent. “Think about it - the government would let all of Miro’s followers leave. They don’t want to fight anymore, and all of the people Population Control wants gone, would leave. If they want to get rid of more people, they could always give people the option to join Miro outside of the country. If Miro were to ask the government for safe passage out of the country, I think they’d give you that. If they don’t, I’ll join you. Either way, I’m with you.”

“Juaquin, we don’t know what’s outside of Rhivera,” Arturo tries to reason.

“So what?” I press him, “Between the three of us, there’s nothing we can’t do. Whatever’s out there, we can handle it together.”

Arturo goes quiet. He looks very uncertain of himself, but could be considering it. He parts his lips.

“No,” Melissa interrupts before he can speak, “We can’t stop now. If we give up now, everything we’ve done would be for nothing.”

I never would’ve expected Melissa to be so set to fight. I thought she would be the first to look for a peaceful resolution. Is this new for her or was she always like this?

Arturo’s resolve to fight returns, having been convinced by Melissa, “She’s right.”

I step back and lean against the walls of the tunnel, “What if you were about to lose? Would you surrender and leave Rhivera then?”

Arturo’s eyebrows raise, and he thinks for a moment. He looks to Melissa, and she shrugs, “If it comes to that, yes. But we don’t intend to lose.”

I take a deep breath, “I can’t join you guys to fight the PCC. But if you surrender and leave the country, I’ll go with you. I’m going to fight with the military until you surrender.”

Melissa folds her arms, seeming to expect a response like that, “What if we win?”

“Then I’ll do everything I can to help you,” I say simply.

The four of us are silent for a moment. No one is really getting what they want here. Melissa looks disappointed in me most of all, but Arturo seems to have expected this sort of response from me.

“Will you keep mom and Eugenio safe until the fighting is over?” I ask softly.

Arturo nods, “Yes. Yes, of course. We’re planning to relocate everyone here tonight. To a safe place.” He says. They must’ve hoped that I would come with them.

Eugenio turns to me, “Wherever Juaquin goes, I’ll go,” Eugenio says austerely, shocking Arturo and Melissa again.

“Bud, that’s not fair to you.” I kneel next to him, “You and mom will be safe with Melissa. Once all of the fighting is over, we’ll see each other again, okay?” I say with an honest smile.

“How long will that be?”

“Hopefully not too long,” I respond, “You’ve got to be tough until then.”

Eugenio gives a worried nod and compulsively hugs me again. I hold him for a long time, not knowing when I might be able to see him again. I hesitantly let go and rise. Arturo has a strained look on this face.

Arturo sighs, “Why do you have to be such a pain, Juaquin?” He gives an airy laugh and reaches out to hug me too, “Make sure you survive, okay? No matter how this all ends, I need to see you again when it’s all over.” He says to me. To Nirivo.

“Same to you,” I say to Arturo. To Miro. After today, we’ll go back to being enemies again. At least until all of the fighting is over. Hopefully we survive until then.

Melissa’s arms are folded, and she’s avoiding eye contact with me. She’s not being as understanding as Eugenio or Arturo. Melissa says under her breath, “Why do you have to make this so complicated? It’d be so simple if you just joined us.” She says, eyes downcast.

“You know how Juaquin is. Once he’s set his mind to something, nothing will change it.” Arturo says with a smile, “You heard him. Once we win, he’ll come over to our side.”

Still, she can’t look at me. I hug her, but her arms remain folded in front. She refuses to look at me.

“You’re going to regret it if you don’t hug me back Melissa,” I say, not letting go.

Slowly but surely, she eases up and puts her arms around me as well, “You’re such a pain, Juaquin.” Melissa keeps the embrace brief and steps away from me, seeming more disappointed in me than angry, “Do you want to see your mom?”

I glance at her helping out in the settlement, oblivious that I’m here, “No. She won’t understand why I’m still with the military. I’ll see her after this is all over.”

“Can you tell my dad that I’m with Miro’s army? But that I’m safe?” Melissa asks. “Just make something up to explain how you know that.”

I can only imagine how Raul will react. But I’m sure it’ll ease his mind to know she’s alive, “I can do that.”

“Well, if you’re sure you’re not going to join us, you ought to get going,” Arturo says glumly.

“Right. Right.” I say, “Hopefully, it’s not long until it’s over.” I turn away, but I can hear Eugenio sniffling. I give him another hug and reassure him that everything will be okay before heading back the way I came through the tunnel. I take one last look at the three of them before turning away and leaving. I leave the Montoya Estate and head home.

The next morning, the Montoya Estate is abandoned, with no sign of the settlement ever being there. Eugenio, Arturo, Melissa and Mom could be anywhere.

Days later, there is news of an attack between the border of Joldair and Sotra. Miro’s forces in Joldair have assembled and begun their offensive. The war continues on.

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