“Meteors in Russia” – Command Center Earth (part 5)

PART FIVE

I’m waiting in the hall outside Dobbs’ office when Thom finds me. Two weeks passed, but I feel little urge to rekindle our friendship, mostly because I want to keep the alien discovery to myself. His eyes narrow, hand resting on the wall, head drops to one side as he watches me play with my own special phone. Access is limited, but Dobbs thinks I should have one.

Assumption nine-hundred and twenty-two billion: He’s using it to track me. That means he knows my favorite bathroom haunts.

“Long time no see, stranger.” Thom moves closer, blocking the only exit. I look him over. His hair is shorter than when we first met, I think, but I like his eyes. The color is unique, like a hunk of polished amber with flecks of brown running throughout.

I slip the phone in my pocket and shrug. None of it matters. The only thing that concerns me is getting on the flight list.

“I’m signing up to ship out,” I tell him to get past the awkward I haven’t seen you in age’s conversation.

His face lights up, and he lifts me off the floor to spin me around. “It’s about time. We can co-pilot the same ship.”

He sounds more enthused than I feel is acceptable. I’m not sure how seating will be assigned, only that I want to go.

“You’re going up,” he’s saying. “Finally!” Faint dimples appear in each cheek. “You’re just like me and have to go, don’t you? It’s almost like you’re being pulled toward them, isn’t it?”

I want to say yes, but something keeps my mouth shut.

“She has to do what, Thom?” Dobbs appears at the mouth of the hallway, and I look for the cloud of black smoke dissipating around his feet, but there is none. “Slaven, what is he going on about? You have to do what?”

“Rox,” I correct him.

“I’m not calling you that name. Now answer me. That’s an order.”

My reaction is kneejerk. “You can’t order me around.”

Of course it’s the wrong thing to say, and his black eyes darkened.

My stomach lurches, and I spurt, “I’m here to officially sign up for the launch, sir.”

That seems to be the right thing to say because his stormy expression becomes almost pleasant. If that isn’t enough, he pats me on the shoulder. Small electric blasts travel down my skin, and I take a half step back, out of his reach.

“That’s good, Roxanne. Really good, let’s go inside to discuss details. Thom, you’re dismissed.” Dobbs looks at my feet, noting the distance I added between us. He pushes Thom aside, and walks to his office leaving enough space not to touch me again.

Thom is motionless.

“Was there something else?”

Thom makes an expression I can’t translate. Dobbs has his back to me, so there’s no way to know what silently transpires between them.

“I…” Thom starts. “I’ll find you later, Rox.”

Dobbs holds his position until Thom retreats fully, disappearing around the corner. Dobbs’ neck twists and our eyes connected as he unlocked the office, and ushers me inside.

“What do we know about these aliens?” I ask before even stepping fully into the room. “Why are we so sure they’re here to hurt us? And for that matter, do we know where they’re from?” I sit in the chair across from his desk and decide not to tell him the aliens are humanoids. You know government types. You can trust him as far as you can throw them. I can’t lift Dobbs off the floor. Throwing him is completely out of the question.

Dobbs’ right brow barely arches. He empties the contents of his hands on the desk and drops into the seat behind it. “What’s with the change of heart?”

“I want to do my part,” I lie.

He knows it.

He folds his hands, elbows resting on the arms of the chair. From where I’m seated, I can’t see the bottom of his body, but I can tell his legs are crossed.

“If I can’t go back to life I want, why not start a new one that’s more interesting than the old one ever could have been? Why not go out to the asteroid belt and see this situation all up close and personal like?” I offer.

Both good reasons, but he still isn’t biting.

“With Thom,” he says.

“With whomever I’m assigned to, sir,” I reply with extra formality.

His fingers circle a silver and black travel mug. Dobbs takes a sip, makes a face, and pushes a button on his desk. “Fresh coffee. Now. I’ll need two cups.”

“Yes, sir.” The voice is familiar, but I don’t try to place it.

This man in front of me will have to sign off on my application to the program. I fit the bill as a perfect recruit. I’ve logged more than enough hours in the simulator, I’m an orphan, and no one will miss me if things go wrong. On top of that, they came looking for me, so it really shouldn’t be a hard decision.

The door slides open, and BA walks in, holding a tray with two mugs and a coffee decanter on it.

“Sir.” She sets the coffee on his desk. “Roxanne.” She looks at me, eyes wider than a great horned owl. The mugs rattle on the tray, and I know someone didn’t expect to find me playing nice in Dobbs office.

“Hey, Frail. How’s the war room?” BA isn’t a fan of the simulators since they make her claustrophobic, so she runs intel in the main command room. At least that’s what the water cooler gossip says. As far as I know, her name isn’t in the running for the space mission.

“Good. How’s… everything?” Her expression softens, and her eyes go all doe-like. It’s a look she reserves for when she wants something or is trying to end an argument without apologizing. She turns them on Dobbs, but he doesn’t return the gaze.

I’m about to respond, but Dobbs talks first.

“She’s heading to the Belt when we launch in a week. Wants to see the aliens up close, isn’t that right?”

Beth Anne’s eyebrow twitches. I feel like I’m missing something, like they had a conversation about me.

“Why? What’s changed your mind?” Her voice wavers.

For the briefest moment when she first walked into the office, I missed her. The old days rush back and all I can thinks, “Good old BA. My BFF,” but as her disapproval appears, my longing for her friendship fades.

“Makes sense,” I say as I take her in. She’s lost weight and her hair is cropped short and faded close to her natural color. “I want to see things first hand, and I can’t do that on the ground.”

I’m not sure if it’s her that’s changed so much or if I’m the one who’s changed.. Maybe it’s my fault our relationship fell apart, but that can’t be true. She’s the one who wouldn’t help me escape. She’s the one who abandoned our plan. She is the one who blamed me for Mitch’s kiss, and when he needed us the most, when they took him away, she didn’t try to stop it.

None of this is my fault. It’s hers. All hers.

“It’s a death sentence.” Beth Anne’s words linger like blossoming jasmine, the kind of scent that sticks in your throat and nose. “Everyone is saying whoever goes up won’t ever come back.”

I think it’s funny that, suddenly, she’s concerned about my well being.

“I approve of her decision, Frail,” Dobbs says. “If it feels right to her, then it’s important she follows through with it.” But I know what Dobbs is really saying. It’s a camouflaged I told you so.’

There it is again. A missing conversation they keep referencing, yet refuse to tell me about.

“Yes, sir.” BA shifts from one leg to the other, avoiding eye contact. Her body language confirms I’m missing a chunk of the puzzle. If she didn’t have something to hide, she would look me in the face.

“Have you finished the project I assigned you?” he asks.

Dobbs is the opposite of Beth Anne. He keeps his gaze on me, willing me to read him… He’s more impenetrable than Fort Knox, and I hear that place is solid, yo.

“I’m on my way to finish up now, sir.” BA’s shoulders square and her expression relaxes. It would seem her animosity for me isn’t so easily dismissed. Guess she would rather her hate for me to linger longer than a barfly at closing time. The Buddha would be very disappointed in her.

“Good. You’re dismissed, Frail.” Dobbs points toward the door.

BA goes to speak again, but doesn’t.

“Tell Thom to stop lurking in the hall on your way out.”

“I-I… he…” she stammers. “Yes, sir.”

The door slides close behind her.

“Now, let’s talk about your death wish.”

No one knows much about the aliens, Dobbs tells me. One day, they showed up. Our outfit tried to hail them, but there wasn’t a reply.

“That’s what they told me when I took over the division,” he explains.

“You weren’t always with this division?” Interesting. I assumed Dobbs was born in a lab somewhere in the bowls of NASA, but it turns out he was recruited too.

He looks through his lashes at me, never really making full eye contact. “I took over two months after the initial breach.”

Their earliest movement began in 2013. One of the alien crafts broke the line. On February 15, 2013, a small ship ejected from the largest craft, took aim at our planet, and launched.

You’ve actually already heard this story. You just don’t realize it. A ‘meteor’ crashed in Russia, but it wasn’t a meteor. It was the alien pod. The aliens landed hard, and the Russians did what they’re good at. They sent out a recovery team. Some of the aliens were captured, and according to the transcripts, the ship was lost in transition.

That’s government speak for the Americans wanted the ship, but the Russians weren’t willing to give it up. They said it officially burned up. “If you see the footage you’ll know we’re telling the truth,” is what the file states. Personally, I figure it’s locked up in a warehouse somewhere in Siberia.

“They never recovered the entire crew,” Dobbs explains. “A few of the aliens escaped. To do what, we’ve never been sure.”

From how he speaks, I know he assumes the worst. World domination and all sorts of bizarre stuff that involves Earth becoming the first vacation planet in the Milky Way. I wonder if aliens like little drink umbrellas.

“Russia is a vast country and it’s hard to poke around, so I doubt we’ll ever be able to recover the captured crew.”

Translation: “I’ve always known they look like humans, and now we lost them in the soup. Soon, they’ll probably be trying to eat your brains while you sleep. See, I told you it was safer to be locked underground than living in the open in Los Angeles.”

That’s how my brain works. Fascinating, isn’t it? Well, I think it’s fascinating. I know most I’m being told are lies, and with the humanoid creatures just out there, I find it difficult not to jump into hyper paranoid drive. Maybe Dobbs is right. Maybe the aliens’ plan is world domination and mass extinction of humanity in order to create a first class vacation resort. I imagine it would be like Disneyland, but more post apocalyptic. Except for the beaches of course. Those would have cabanas.

“How do you know they’re, for sure, trying to kill us?” I ask the day my assignment is official. I can begin counting down to my “death wish,” a.k.a. my last day on this dirty infested rock.

“Command Center has compiled a lot of stats to answer that question, but I came to my own conclusions based on the fact they keep shooting at us. Suffice it to say, creatures that shoot at you are usually here to cause harm. It’s a thing. Don’tcha think?” His words are laced with sarcasm, like always.

He has no argument from me. Even though I’ll never admit it, Dobbs is right, but at the same time, I’m not completely sold. That is why I’m willing to fly over 222 million kilometers inside a tiny un-registered spacecraft with a weirdo. I saw a dude in a steel gray jumpsuit, and I’d really like to meet him face to face so see what he thinks before shooting him dead.

My mind somewhere in the stratosphere, I leave Dobbs office with a little over forty-eight hours until my official launch, and I make my way to my room, distracted.

If she were quieter, I never would have noticed Beth Ann hiding in the shadows. I jump.

She falls into step next to me.

“Just keep moving. We can’t talk in the open.”

I’m not sure why I follow, but I do. She weaves through the corridors of CCE like Lt. Johnson did my first day. For the most part, I’m now familiar with my surroundings, but it’s easy to get lost. She pauses at a hallway I must have jogged past a dozen times and urges me around the corner.

“I’m sorry,” she says.

I stay quiet.

“Do you believe me? Do you believe that I’m really sorry?”

I look her over, noting her body language. There are no doe eyes. She is being sincere.

I shrug before accepting her apology, but I’m still having trust issues and am waiting for the other shoe to drop.

“Why the change of heart?” I ask, suspicion clear in my voice. She turned on me once. What’s keeping her from doing it again?

I want proof even though I know she can’t me give any, but wait for her response regardless. Suddenly, it doesn’t matter. Something is pulling at me away from BA. Turning toward the wall, long electric fingers prickle my skin, drawing me in close. BA tries to stop me, but I slip past her and go to the end of the hall. The feeling is stronger here.

“Wait a minute. Did you already know?” she asks, running to my side. When I look, I see the phone in her hand.

“Know what?” It is the same thing that happens when I’m near Dobbs but different. My hands float toward the door on autopilot, fingers outstretched absorbing the energy. I yank them away as if scorched. It can’t be.

BA’s fingers tap beside me. Each beat grows more and more distant. My eyelids become heavy, suffocating my vision. I can no longer see but allow the feeling to lead me along. And that’s when it begins.

It takes a second to register. My last attack was so long ago I almost forgot what it feels like. Somehow, my time at CCE made me forget the pain of my condition.

I press the heels of my hands into my eye sockets, and my knees buckle, dropping me to the floor.

Beth Anne catches me, looping an arm around my waist before dragging me to the door. She taps the screen a few more times, forcing the door to open.

“Quick,” she says. “Get her legs.”

My feet leave the floor, and tunnel vision sets in. At the pin point end of the tunnel, I see him. His long curly hair is gone, but it’s him. It’s Mitch. He’s alive.

Then the pain reaches my temples, and the images begin. This time, it’s different. This time, the pieces start falling into place. This time, there is context.

“Rocky,” says the woman with the red bob. “Rocky.” She walks across a room, footsteps on metal. “It will be fine…” Her voice fades, and she fades, too.

The room spins, and I see the logo again. So close I can brush dust off it. It isn’t a badge, but an upside down triangle painted white. In the center is a circle with a thick blue line running through the middle, from top to bottom. It reminds me of Saturn on its side.

“Rock,” a new voice says from somewhere else.

Fire is all around me. In the distance, a man wearing red plaid flannel is yelling some gibberish I can’t translate. Then I do. It’s Russian. He leaves. I am cold.

“Rock, we have to move.”

Blackness.

Blackness.

Blackness.

I wake up. A hand pushes into my chest, another against my mouth.

“Roxanne, you’re safe,” he says. Mitch.

I search his face, and he smiles. My fingers peel his hand off my mouth, and I smile back.

“Are you okay?”

He nods, looking off to my right where BA stands, eyes on her shoes. “Beth Anne found me a week ago.”

Right before I agreed to launch into space.

“I want to tell you everything, but I can’t. Not yet,” Mitch says.

“We have less than five minutes, so make it quick,” Beth Anne tells us as the door slips open. “I’ll knock twice when we have to go. Just come out and I’ll get you back to your room.” BA steps into the hall, hesitating with her hand on the doorframe. “Roxanne, I’m really sorry about everything…” She glances at Mitch and at the ground. “I was hurt… It doesn’t matter, just tell him what you saw and meet me in the hall. They’ll be here soon.”

“Who?” I ask as the door closes, but she is gone. “Who?” I ask Mitch.
“I know you want answers, but they’ll have to wait. Right now, I need to know what you saw. The visions.” He watches me with those blue eyes, and my mind races as I tell him everything, even though I’m not sure why he’s so interested.

He leans forward, setting his hands on his knees, making sure never to touch me. That’s when I realize there are beads of sweat dotting his hairline and small burn marks around his temples. Grabbing his hands, I flip them over, finding more burn marks on his wrists.

“Oh my god. What did they do to you?”

He slips his fingers through mine, and I feel a jolt, similar to the one I felt when Dobbs patted my shoulder. “It doesn’t matter. Really, Roxanne, I need you to listen. Beth Anne and I have a plan to get out of here, but you have to trust us. Can you do that?”

I can trust him but I’m still not sure about her.

As if on cue, two knocks fill the room. “Times up. We’ve gotta go.”

“In a minu-” I start, but Mitch leans forward and kisses me. Unlike outside of the club, I want him to. This time, I like it.

“I know you and Beth Anne are fighting, but listen to me. You can trust her. The only one you shouldn’t trust is Thom.” He guides me to the door. It slides open, revealing BA.

“They’re gonna be here any second,” she is saying.

“Thom’s my friend. Dobbs is who we can’t trust,” I tell him.

His cheeks flush red as his head shakes in disagreement.

“Dobbs has his reasons, but he’s on our side. Thom…” He shows me the burns on his wrists. “Don’t trust Thom. He’s fascinated with you, and not stable. I know how this sounds, but it’s true.”

“He did this to you because of me?”

BA grabs my arm, pulling me from the room. I break free long enough to run back to him and kiss him again.

“We can’t do that anymore, either,” he says after breaking the kiss.

“Why?” Doesn’t he like me? I’m not good with this sort of thing.

Beth Anne reaches for my wrist, and drags me into the hall. Mitch disappears behind the slab of white shiny metal.

“Over here.” She pushes me into a room across the hall. As the door slides close, locking us in an empty and unlit room, I hear footsteps coming down the hall. “Now, be quiet. If we get caught…” I don’t need to see her to know she is making a slicing gesture across her throat with her thumb.

The voices are muffled, but BA ensures me it’s Thom and his minions coming to harm Mitch, which makes no sense. Why would Thom want to hurt Mitch because of me? We’re not even a couple.

“Thom wants you to forget about Mitch,” BA says, as if reading my mind. “So he locked him here. We’ve been trying to find him for weeks. That’s why Dobbs put me in central command, so I can hack the system and locate him.”

“But why? I didn’t even know I was into him until just now,” I say.

I hear her fingers tapping away. “Yeah, well. I think you’re the only one who didn’t see it. Don’t worry about Thom. His interest in you is just a delusional crush. He doesn’t know anything important, promise.”

I think of Mitch’s last words to me, but don’t bring them up. Nothing is making any sense.

We sit inside the empty room for what feels like an eternity even though it’s only fifteen minutes. I roll around everything I’ve learned, trying to digest it all. Looking over her shoulder, BA is watching heat signatures on her phone of the men in the hall.

“Can’t they do that and figure out we’re in here?” I ask.

“In theory, but Thom is too sure of himself.” She never looks up or elaborates.

I still can’t believe Thom is holding Mitch captive because of me.

“When Dobbs stopped us from escaping, he said something weird. He said velquen. The second Mitch heard the word he stopped trying to run off with me, and went with Dobbs. No questions asked,” I say.

“Yeah, that’s what I heard,” BA says, without look up from her phone.

“What’s velquen?” I ask.

BA’s hands dropped a half inch, but she recovers nicely, lifting the phone closer to her eyes. “I said, what’s velquen?”

She stands, brushing off her uniform. “I know you want answers, but the only reason I brought you here was to show you that Mitch is all right. All your other questions you’ll have to ask Dobbs.” Pressing a finger against my lips to keep me quiet, Beth Anne looks down at her phone. “They’re gone. Let’s get you back to your room before anyone notices.”

I follow like a puppy dog, all the way to my room.

“I can’t open your door.”

Nice to know. I take out my own phone and let myself in.

“Why now? Why after all this time did you take me to see him?” I ask, not sure if she’ll answer or just walk away.

“Orders.”

Frustrated, I glare at her. “Is there anything else you’ve been ordered to tell me?”

BA lets out a long sigh and looks around. “I’ll be in touch, soon. Tomorrow even. Stay close and do what Dobbs says.”

“Why do you love him so much? He’s been nothing but a pain in the ass since we saw him at the Whiskey.” I hover in the doorway, one hand resting on the jam, and the other waving the phone at her like a weapon.

BA pushes past me and snatches my phone to close the door.

“He’s the only reason you’re alive, him and Mitch.”

My chin juts out. “Not to brag or anything, but I’m pretty sure I was doing a fine job before I was kidnapped.”

Her nostrils flair as she slams her fists on her hips. “For someone so smart, you’re really stupid, you know that?” She shakes her head, and my cheeks flush. “How could you not have figured it out yet? How hard did you hit your face that you can’t remember jack?”

“What’s velquen?” I ask again.

“It’s a saying from your planet, you moron.” Her lip curls and eyebrows shoot up in a mixture of exasperation and surprise, as she points at the ceiling.

I’m sure my face looks like I’ve sucked on a sack of lemons. One eyebrow arching, the other gone flat as my lips puckers at the ludicrous idea I’m one of the humanoids I saw in that stupid ship.

“They also say shits on fleek on my plant, and this crap you’re slinging at me, it’s not on fleek. Not even a little bit, Beth Anne Frail.” Automatically go into deflection mode and I fold my arms across my body, defensively. “What the hell is that even supposed to mean? On my planet.

“It’s true.” She mimics my stance, arms fold over her bulkier chest, and her lips pucker. “You’re not from around these here parts, my small miniature friend.” Her index finger traces a circle in the air.

I don’t like the game she’s playing and I drop my pose. This leaves me feeling oddly exposed, so I rewrapped my arms around my body. The whole time I fidget glaring at her through narrowed eyes.

That. Isn’t. Funny!” I spit the words at her. Half angry and half dazed. I don’t want to believe what she’s telling me, but Dobbs’ stupid voice is laughing in the back of my brain. It keeps saying, “I told you so,” over and over again.

“Here, I know you prefer bluntness, so I’ll just lay it out. You’re the alien they’re looking for. All three of you are…”

My knees wobble, no longer able to hold my weight, and I drop on to my bed.

“Yeah, that’s pretty much how I felt when Dobbs told me.” Her bravado is gone. Voice deflated like a punctured basketball. “Thought he was straight cray-cray, you know? Tryin’ to play me ‘cause he knew you and I’ve been fighting. But after listening to his rant, it all kinda made sense.”

She sits next to me. Her added weight lifts me up an inch, as she reaches for my hand.

“He said instinct brought you this far, and even though you can’t remember more than the last year, in your bones you know the truth. That what he says your visions are. Little bits of your past working their way out. I told him he was straight mad, and that we’re just normal people, but he said you’d prove me wrong. Then, not even an hour later, you’re in his office signing up for the launch, because you need to get to the aliens.”

I turn to face her. Our eyes lock and we hug.

Beth Anne grabs my shoulders, pushing me back so I can see her whole face.

“Dobbs wanted me to tell you. Guess he thought the truth would be easier coming from a friend.” Her shoulder twitches and her face goes flat and unreadable, as she waits for me to react.

I shake my head. “Does that mean I’m some sort of al…” I can’t bring myself to say alien. I’m also not ready to trust what BA is saying. Not that she’s untrustworthy, but, I mean, would you believe her?

My words hang in the air. The longer she doesn’t answer, the angrier I become.

Stepping out of her grasp, my lips go into a tight line and my fists ball up at my sides.

“What if you’re wrong? What if this is some stupid story he told you to mess with me?” I ask. I imagine slugging Dobbs in his square jaw as punishment for this weird and cruel joke.

Beth Anne reclaims my hand, sandwiching it between both of hers. With a small squeeze she says, “You’re a weird-o, but we already knew that, didn’t we?” Searching her face, for the first time in a long time, she looks sincere.

Nervous laughter bubbles in my chest. She joins in, and I feel my anxiety slip away, but the anger still lingers.

I wish it was gone too, because it feels good to laugh with my best friend again.

With a loud sigh, she says, “I’m going to give you some time to process things, ya know? I’m sure you need it.” Her head wobbled side to side, like she’s shaking the thoughts around.

That’s the understatement of the year.

I don’t have any idea how to start processing things.

What does being an alien even mean? The last time I checked BA and I poop the same… Wait! Maybe we don’t. I mean, it’s not like we have poop parties in the toilet. What if there’s something wrong with my body and I don’t even know it? And, does being an alien make me a freak?

Holy balls, will someone want to dissect me?

BA must have seen the bullet point list run over my face, because she hugs me quickly. Whispering, “I’m here. Promise,” into my ear, I sniff back tears, as my anger and panic melts away.

“Will you be okay?” she asks. Leaning back, she takes hold my shoulders.

I nod my reply. She’s right. I need time to sort things out on my own. The longer she’s there, the more I’m going to wait for her to yell, “gotcha!”

“Are we good?” I ask.

“Totes,” she says, dropping her hands into her lap. “I have to get back, and tell Dobbs everything is in motion.” BA points at the door with her chin.

Wiping tears from my cheeks, I try to hid my face so she doesn’t see I’m crying. The bed creeks, but I still don’t look. Keeping my head turned, I hear the door slid open.

“Hang in the, Rox. It’ll be over soon.” The door swishes closed.

I stay on my bed, stunned. Doing the math, my time in L.A. fits perfectly, but her big reveal leaves me with more questions than answers. Like, why didn’t Mitch say something before we were hijacked, or why did Dobbs tell BA before confiding in me?

Later that night insomnia strikes.

Lying in bed, I toss and turn, still wondering if it’s all a big joke. Maybe BA isn’t really on my side? This could be her exacting revenge the Mitch kiss. Or, maybe she’s straight up punking me, and plans on making me the punch line when it’ll hurt the most.

I shake the thoughts away because I know Beth Anne too well. She would rather omit parts of the truth than lie about it. That’s not her style.

The depression that claimed me since she left faded. Looking up at the ceiling, my hands clutched the scratchy blanket that was keeping me warm.

All of this could only mean one thing.

OMG, I’m a freakin’ alien.

Sleep claims me out of sheer exhaustion. I dream of the woman with the red bob. It lasts approximately fifteen minutes, when a light rapping rouses me from my shallow sleep.

“Rox,” the voice says.

Groggy, my brain can’t understand what’s happening. It’s too late, or is it too early? I’m not sure.

“Rox, let me in.”

It’s Thom’s voice and my heart falls. Everything rushes back to me, and I being to panic. Does he know who I am? Is why he’s here? He knows. I don’t want to let him in, but if I refuse, he’ll suspect something’s wrong, so I decided to open the door.

Wearing nothing but my government-issued tank top and a pair of workout shorts, I allow him entrance.

“What are you doing here?” I ask. The door slides close, submerging us in complete blackness. I’m afraid if I turn on a light he’ll see something different in me. “And what ungodly hour is it for that matter?”

A swish of air flutters over my naked arms.

“Where are you?” He’s reaching out to find me, arms waving around trying to make contact.

I decide I’ll pretend nothing changed. It’s the only thing for me to do. Act normal.

When I take a hold of his arm, he stops struggling.

“Oh, there you are,” he says, sounding almost sweet.

“Everything all right?” I leg go to find pants and a sweatshirt cover up with before turning on a light. When I flip the switch, I find him rumpled and squinting.

“I’m here for you. It’s 0300, and yes, everything is okay. I just want to show you something,” he says in one long breath.

My chest tightens. I’m in a small room with Thom, my new enemy, in the middle of the night, and he wants to “show” me something. I can’t help but wonder if he’s talking about Mitch.

He locks eyes with mine and smiles. “Did you know it’s official?”

“What is?” Is it me? Am I what’s official? Officially an alien…

“You and I are a team. We’ll be shipping out in the same fighter.”

The news makes me spring up like a baby gazelle, landing in Thom’s arms. Bona fide orders means I can get off of Earth before anyone becomes wise to who I am. I’m so excited about the pending escape that I forget who I’m with. Easing back I catch the look on Thom’s face.

Let’s just say he really liked me rubbing on him, and Mitch’s assessment of Thom is right on point.

Backing out of his arms, I consider turning the bedside light off again, but know that would give him the wrong impression. “That’s amazing. Dobbs never told me.”

“Dobbs will receive orders after chow tomorrow. He’ll tell you then.” Thom’s smug. I’m not sure if it is due to being paired with me or telling me before Dobbs.

“Is that why you woke me in the middle of the night? You know I have to be up at 0500…”

“You’re sixteen. You can miss a few hours of sleep,” he jokes. “Telling you was only part of the reason.”

“What’s the other part?”

“You’ll need shoes and a jacket.” He points to my boots.

Obviously, we’re going outside.

Hand in hand, Thom leads me down the halls. We stop at metal door I fled through my first week at CCE.

“Have you ever seen the Perseid Meteor shower before?”

I answer with a shake of the head and a shrug.

His smile grows three times wider. “You’re going to love it.” He pulls out his phone and pushes a few buttons releasing the doors latch.

As we step into the night and the door closed behind us, I look to the heavens and drop his hand.

Shooting stars rain across the sky, one after another, after another, after even more. A breath catches in my throat, and I forget I’m supposed to be afraid of this boy. All I see are the bright stars fading into nothing. For a second, I’m blissful. My weird life almost makes sense.

“What are you thinking?”

I jump at the sound of his voice. I think to answer, but can’t manage the words. Something about all the meteors falling to the Earth triggers an attack. Everything I learned only a few hours earlier piled onto top of everything else. No matter how I try to stop it, it consumes me.

Long tangled bits of pain start at the top of my spine, wrapping over my ears and gripping my skull like a basketball player palming a ball. Streaks of light shot across my vision, and I can’t tell if I’m still watching the meteor shower or straight up hallucinating.

I don’t want to have an attack, not in front Thom. What if something slips? What if I say something that reveals what I am?

The wounds on Mitch’s wrists cloud my visions, and I feel like I’m going to hyperventilate. My heart races and my arms shake uncontrollably. Elbows wobbling in and out, knocking into each other as my hands go to my eye sockets, and I drop to my knees. There is nothing I can do to stop it.

Thom hovers, chanting my name like a forgotten prayer. The more violent the pain, the softer his voice. Gravity pulls me to the reddish brown dirt. As my cheek presses into the dust, the visions began. Fluid and languid, the short blasts have been stitched into a patchwork quilt movie that sears my brain.

“We are soldiers, the front line, and the chosen. Today we embark on a journey like no other. Today, we leave Commfrey in search of what our galaxy has to offer. I remind you, this is an information gathering mission. You will be armed, but must not engage.” It’s Dobbs, but it isn’t. I call him by his first name, and he isn’t my superior. He is something else. Something that makes my heart skip a beat. I remember how he looks bathed in pale starlight two hours before dawn, and how he smells, like a smoky cedar, thick with earthy tones.

“No one left behind,” he continues. “Velquen!”

“Velquen!” I yell in unison with the rest of our men.

Our tagline. Like semper fi for the Marines, Velquen is the motto of the Commfreians. It means truth, honor, and loyalty. It’s what we say before leaving on a quest in Commfrey’s name. It means all of that and so much more, all in one little word. I remember. And I feel incredible.

The image skips, and a new one pops up. The timeline is skewed, but I’m almost certain it’s after Dobbs’ speech. I’m with a woman.

“I am proud of you, Rocky,” she says. It’s the woman with the red bob.

She is my mother. I can feel it. Somewhere out there is my mother. She never abandoned me. I volunteered because of him. I’m here because of Dobbs. “You’re job is to ensures the success of all Commfrey. As faculty, you will keep us connected. It’s good for the family to be this visible. It will bolster morale.”

And then the visions are over and I’m lying in the dirt outside of CCE.

“Roxanne. Roxanne, are you all right?” Thom leans over me.

Remembering my past hurts more than anticipated. Knowing parts of who I am makes it hard to breathe, so I bury my feelings to be sorted later.

Being emotional won’t help me, but concentrating on what I’ve learned will. Faculty. My job title.

Thom’s assaulting my personal space as I tuck the word away, and wrestle with the strange attraction I suddenly feel for Dobbs, and what Mitch said earlier in the day. We can’t do that anymore, either.

Why must everything be so complicated?

I look at Thom’s crazy eyes, and vow he can never know.

“I…”

“Jesus. I thought you were dead,” he says, callously. Like my death would be one more thing he has to clean up, secretively.

I swallow a sigh. BA is right. Thom is a first class prick. Suddenly, I’m annoyed I allowed my ego to get in the way of our friendship. I’m glad BA and I are friends again.

My gut tells me to play it cool. If I go back inside too quickly, he’ll start asking questions.

“I’m fine.” I sit up. “It was all this fresh air,” I lie. “My body must have grown used to the recycled crap inside.”

Thom laughs. He’s happy his date isn’t ruined.

“Did you want to go back?” He stands too. It’s obvious he wants to stay out. I can feel the heat from his body through my clothes and I realize I don’t want to go back inside, but for different reasons than his.

Thom slips an arm around my waist. The touch of him against my body is awkward, and I think of Mitch’s kiss and then I think about when Dobbs pat my shoulder. The current I feel when I’m near either of them. Thom doesn’t feel like that, because he’s from Earth and not home.

Blindly, I let Thom steer me away from the compound entrance.

“If we go over there,” he says, pointing, “the cameras can’t see us.”

As the words leave his mouth the voice in my head, Dobbs’ voice tells me it’s a bad idea. He is chastises me for not leaving. I should find Dobbs, or Mitch, or BA.

But I don’t. Let’s blame it on the latest scrambling of my brain or the fact I’m feeling so overwhelmed I’m certain my next attack will put me into another coma, but I blindly let Thom lead me away.

We move further up the slope.

“What do you think about the meteors?” he asks me.

They make me homesick. “I think they’re beautiful,” I say instead.

Grabbing my hand, he stops me. “They’re just rocks. You’re beautiful,” he corrects me.

I try to smile, and mumble, “Thank you.” Pulling my hand free, I rush a few steps in front of him.

“You’re so smart and you never take any of Dobbs’ shit,” he tells me. “I’ve never met anyone like you. You’re incredible. In all my life, I didn’t know girls like you existed. You’re attractive, smart, and funny. It’s like someone built you in a garage.”

The words sound cheap and scripted. He strings together so many compliments I’m sure he spent the afternoon searing them online. I try to close my ears, and do so successfully until I hear, “He never appreciated you, did he?”

It takes me a second to figure out who “he” is. Mitch. The comment triggers Dobbs’ voice again. Good job, Slaven. The kids probably going to kill you! He sounds less than pleased.

“Mitch is my friend, that’s all,” I say, shifting away from him. Thom’s chest puffs out, and the smug look from earlier is on his face again. Closing the small gap I tried to create, he struts next to me like a proud peacock. I wonder what he would do if he found out I kissed Mitch only a few hours earlier.

He waves me to sit down, and I do. Thom slides close with a plastic doll smile glued to his cheeks. “It was one sided. You never liked him.”

It’s a statement. Thom’s working something out and whatever the conclusion he stumbles on, it’s intoxicating to him.

Looking around at the set up, I become conscious he’s been planning this late night picnic for a while. Below me is a moth-eaten blanket resting on a thicker softer quilt. I move to get away from him, and a stray rock presses into my spine. He moves closer. If I try to move again, the rock will gouge me. The only way off of it is getting up, but Thom is slithering closer still, making me claustrophobic. I turn my gaze to the sky, silently willing him away. It’s becoming harder to concentrate on the falling meteors as he runs a hand up my arm and brushes his fingers against my cheek.

Propping his body on an elbow his face hovers above mine. “Have you ever…” His top lip curls, and he looks away for a second. “You know… have you ever been with a boy?”

“No,” I choke out the word. I don’t think I have…

“Really?” He sounds surprised.

I shift off the rock and away from him.

“Yes, really. Just because I’m not your traditional kind of girl doesn’t mean I’m running around whoring myself out.” I swear under my breath and sit up.

Wrapping his fingers around my wrist he gently pulls me back to him.

Amber colored eyes search my face. “I only meant you’re so amazing some guy must have swept you off your feet before.”

The more he leans in to kiss me the louder Dobbs’ voice grows. It says things I won’t repeat. Thom crawls on top of me, I push at him, feeling trapped. Knowing no one inside the compound is aware I’m gone terrifies me. My mind trips over ways to distract him. I sifted through what I can or can’t say until I finally blurt, “I saw the aliens. They’re human.”

His eyelids open, mouth still puckered for a half second before falling flat.

“The aliens, I saw them. They look like us.”

Sitting up, he looks frustrated. “I heard you.” He responds faster than expected. “How long have you known?” Holding up a hand when I go to respond, his chin juts out. “The day you signed up for launch. I’m impressed.” He nods with approval.

“Why?”

“I was convinced you wouldn’t figure it out until we were up there.” He scoots away from me.

Until then I hadn’t noticed the basket of food. He tosses an apple to me and takes a bite of his own.

“Actually,” he says with a full mouth. “You knowing makes things a lot easier. We can spend the two months planning how to kill them. I figure, if they look like us, they die like us.” He goes on to tell me more than I am probably cleared to know. Our true objective is to make contact, but if the aliens aren’t willing to cooperate, we’re ordered to blow them up.

By the way, I know what you’re thinking. Why would we fly billions of miles to kill the first wave of aliens ever to approach our planet? Simple. That’s what we do. Blow. Shit. Up.

I ask if the government tracked the escaped aliens from Russia, but he clams up. Changing the subject, he tells me the central ship is in place. Beth Anne, Mitch, and I were brought in not long after it launched with CCE’s full intent of sending us into space. We’re the perfect candidates: young, alone, and smart. Well, me and Beth Anne. Mitch was never meant to make it to the program. According to Thom, Mitch is a pissant surfer boy who got in the way because he was crushin’ on me.

“Dobbs should have left him at that wretched club. I have no idea why he brought him along. Did you know he was supposed to go into the program?” Thom snorts. “Like that coffee-slinging kid is even a quarter as smart as you. If you watch the footage, you know in an instant he was just doing what he’s told. I’m surprised he scores at all. No wonder you were never into him. What would you have to talk about? Surf wax and espresso beans?”

I keep looking at Orion’s belt, trying not to get angry. Thom doesn’t know who Mitch really is. He is jealous of Mitch and is competing for my attention. All of this I find to be nine shades of psycho. Who thinks like that?

Thom, that‘s who.

“Yeah,” I say, trying to sound like I’m on his side. “I told BA she could have him.”

I never said that, but it calms him. Thom’s mood flips as he leans back, resting his weight on his forearms, dropping his head back to look at the sky.

“We’re going into space to meet real aliens, Rox.”

He says my name, and I think of my mother. She called me Rocky. Somehow I kept my old name.

“I’m going to be a commander by my twenty-fifth birthday,” Thom is saying. The thought terrifies me. “They won’t be able to say I’m too young after this mission, and you’ll get a promotion, too.”

“Brilliant,” I mumble.

“What?”

My head flops to the side to answer, but before I can he shoots up. He pushes me out of the way to clean up his little lovers’ nest.

The sound of boots reaches my ears a half second later, and I know he’s there, coming for me. Dobbs. My heart grows light. All I want to do is hug him until he can’t breathe.

And then I have a million questions for him to answer.

“Unless the rules changed in the last few hours, all personnel are to be confined to their rooms until 0500,” Dobbs says. “I’m still your supervisor.” He looks like a statue leaning into Thom, wearing another one of his ridiculously expensive suits. And no, I don’t know why he’s fully dressed at 0330, or why he insists on wearing clothing that could balance the national debt of some small country.

Silently, I’m waiting for a flash of lighting to make the situation more ominous, but it doesn’t come.

“Inside. Now.”

Thom balls up his things and leaves me to make my escape alone. I brush excess dirt off my legs. When Thom is gone, I make my move, but Dobbs holds out an arm keeping me at bay.

“Velquen,” I whisper.

Dobbs’ face is cemented in anger. “Leave us, now,” he orders. His men do as they’re told.

“You’re on lockdown starting now. You leave in thirty-six hours.” His black eyes bore into me, and I’m not sure he heard me. “Do we have a problem, Slaven?”

“What about Mitch?” I ask, keeping my voice barely audible.

He watches me for a second before saying, “You have your orders. I suggest you follow them. The only reason you leave your room until launch is because I tell you too.”

“But…”

“My office, 0600. Dismissed,” he barks.

I’m not sure he heard me, but there’s a smirk on his lips like the one at the club, so I back away.

Swearing loud enough for the guards to hear me, I swerve past him knowing twelve hours ago I’d be mad at Dobbs simply for existing.

He’s not the only one who can play pretend.

He grabs my arm and yanks me to a stop. “He’ll be there, Rox.”

“Sir.” One of the jumpsuits reappears hailing their leader, and Dobbs fingers tighten on my arm.

I want to tell him everything, but can’t with an audience. The guards think he’s disciplining me, so I’ll have to make it believable. “In thirty-six hours, it won’t matter one way or the other.” I press my lips in a tight white line, and shake my arm until he lets go.

“Velquen,” he whispers as he releases my arm.

“Yeah, you can go to hell, too,” I cuss, leaving him with the guard and who knows how many sets of invisible eyes.

Blog it

Once upon a time

Once upon a time, it was easy for me to come on here and blog–and then I started to over think things, rendering it nearly impossible to write a single post.

Because that’s what I do. Mind block extraordinaire!

I used to love blogging, but the more I write outside of the internet, the less I find I have to say on it. Suddenly I’ve been rendered silent, and my biggest case of writers block is associated with what should be the relaxing part of writing.

Because let’s be honest, blogging for fun is what it should be about. Am I right? Yet, maybe my expectations are too high…?

Back on June 1st I posted the first installment of Command Center Earth both on here and on Wattpad, and that has led to me posting a little bit more. Alas, I am still not feeling content with the content–or lack there of.

So I am here today to ask you about you! Do you write? And if you do, what are you working on right now?

Starting down this path, writing a serialized story, and self-publishing it, has been new and wonderful on so many levels. How many of you have decided to go the self-pubing route?

I would love to hear from you!

-Aryn

“Regular Jokester” – Command Center Earth (Part 4)

PART FOUR

-One Month Later-

My alarm wakes me at five in the morning, and I fall into bed somewhere around midnight. Late to bed, early to rise is my motto. No, it’s not, but you would think it is. After the day I tried to leave, a.k.a.–the last day I spoke with BA or saw Mitch, this has become my life. It’s perfect because there is never a chance to actually think as long as I keep to my schedule.

My simulator shift begins at seven, but after three weeks of sitting on my ass and asking about Mitch, I start to exercise.

Life Lesson: Exercise is another fantastic way to remove negative thoughts and generally distract yourself from the life you never asked for.

I dress, run a comb through my inch of scraggly hair, and rub the sleep out of my eyes. By then, the knock on my door comes.

That day, I yell, “One sec” as I finish tucking the lace of my right shoe inside my sneaker. “Enter.”

After he brought me back to the main control room, Thom becomes my shadow. I think about telling him to leave me alone, but decide it will piss BA off so I keep him around. He helps move me to a private room, rather than bunking with BA, or Frail, as everyone at Command Center Earth calls her.

“Frail, saw your configurations. Dobbs wants to start implementing them next week.”

“Frail, you’re a betrayer of friends and should be put before a firing squad!”

Okay, so I made the second one up, but it’s a valid point in my humble opinion.

“Short or long today?” Thom is always smiling when he sees me. The second he turns in my direction, a switch trips like he found my golden unicorns wrapped in a ribbon of rainbows.

Mitch has been on my mind since Dobbs found us trying to escape, but Thom changes the subject whenever I mention him. It’s easier not brining him up at all, and I assume I’ll never see him again, but hope I’m wrong. The last time I made that assumption he turned up, and that gives me hope. My current theory is, if I solve the whole “alien invasion” conundrum, a release date will appear, and our reunion will occur, but I doubt it.

Some nights, I script scenarios in my mind where Mitch shows up. He slips inside my room, leans against the wall, and says, “I’m sorry, Rox. We should have run. Let’s do that now.”

But imagining it is my last ditch effort at freedom. Both his and mine. No matter how I spin it, three weeks is a long time to not be heard of or seen even in passing…

Shaking the thoughts out of my head, I finally answer.

“Long. Not hungry,” I tell Thom concentrating on the moment. I’ll never see Mitch again. End of story.

I look up and smile. Thom isn’t so bad, and he’s the closest thing resembling a friend in my life anymore.

Each morning, we take turns running the halls of the complex. Sometimes short jogs. Other days, we run up and down every corridor there is. It depends on how much personal time is available. If we run the whole shebang, I skip chow. He’s against me forgoing meals because I lost five pounds since moving to my new luxurious home, but he also never forces me to eat. Guess after the first day everyone realized trying to strong arm me to do anything is the quickest way to get me to do nothing.

He steps in nice and close, setting his hands on my shoulders. “You lose much more, and you’ll look like you’re dying.”

I am dying, I want to say. Instead I nod and promise I’ll break at lunch, but we both know I’m lying. For a split second, I wonder if he really cares, but push the thought away. If he cared, he would help me leave. Done and done-er.

“Your turn to lead.” I nod him toward the door.

I like when he stands close, but I keep it to myself because it’s kinda like going grocery shopping when you’re hungry. I’m lonely. If I tell Thom I like our friendship, it’ll turn into some unnatural romantic relationship I don’t want. The truth is liking Thom is comparable to how I love Cheetos when I’m starving. They sound delicious until I remember cheeseburgers exist. Also, I’ve been mostly lonely for as long as I can remember. I’ll survive.

Like I said, Thom’s nice but he’s also part of the CCE system. Technically, he’s my superior. Turns out, he’s some sort of child genius who enlisted young. It’s something he won’t talk about. I don’t blame him. I’m not keen on talking about BA or my fosters either.

The only topic we agree on is the alien invasion.

They’re a fascination for the both of us. Why are they here? Where do they come from? What do they look like? That last one is my biggest obsession. Are they green and gray like the one’s people claim landed in Roswell? Or do they look like something we humans never could possibly imagine? Maybe they have tentacles growing out of their heads or are two-headed Cyclops with acid slime-covered skin that breath through space-filtering gills.

What? I like science fiction.

Thom never seems to care about their appearance. Mostly he steers the conversation to the battle we’re fighting as I sit and write the codes we’ll use to help blow them up.

BTW: We have been ordered to strictly observe, which is extra annoying. Why kidnap me and make me sit here and rewrite code, and then tell me I can’t obliterate the alien space ships on my screen? When I ask, I’m told I don’t have “clearance” and it’s above my “pay grade.” As far as I can tell everything is above my pay grade, seeing that I’m not getting paid…

We leave my room and run in a line, him leading, me on his heels. After the day I tried to escape, I start trying to determine my location. When I’m plugged into the system, I can use the VR (virtual reality) interface to do a little research on the side. They’re good. Whoever programmed the system set up a lot of fake leads so if I do manage to bypass the first level of security, I stumble into a mess of dead ends. Yet I can guess. Strongest contender is Texas. The landscape fits, and Johnson’s Research facility is located in Houston.

“Did you hear?” Thom calls over his shoulder.

I sprint to his side.

“What?”

“We got the green light. CCE will be launching actual bodies into space in the next few weeks to combat the aliens in the first ever fighter ships.”

The sole of my sneaker squeaks loudly on the white linoleum as I come to a stop.

Thom joins me, his breath even and calm while mine is ragged. “Isn’t it wonderful? I’ve already volunteered to be in the first wave.”

“That’s crazy. There is no way we can win without having a base out there. If CCE sends us out in short-range ships, they’ll kill us for sure, if we even make it.” I tug on the front of my t-shirt to let my skin breath.

“There is a base. It launched right after the initial attack.” Thom nods forward to let me know we’re to run some more.

I lift my feet and jog at his side.

“Dobbs has been trying to get us off the ground for months, but Congress is against it. Well, they were against it. The bill finally cleared the floor yesterday and it looks like it’s a done deal.” He peers down at me and winks. “You should sign up. It’s two man teams, so we can go up together.”

He’s always like this, suggesting we do things together. I think about Dobbs. Just like BA, he barely speaks to me, not since the day he threatened me and somehow convinced Mitch to go with him willingly. I still have no idea what he knows about my past, and the longer I’m here, the more it makes me paranoid. Some stones are best left unturned.

“Travel time?” I ask, turning back to what is actually important.

“The program is boasting two months. Half that of other ships.”

Whistling my amazement, I use the back of my hand to brush a bead of sweat off my forehead. My fingers find the inch of hair growth, but I still miss my Mohawk.

“I’ll have to think about it.”

“What’s there to think about? You can either stay here in a suit strapped to a chair fighting them virtually, or you can climb aboard with me and we can do it together in person.” Thom’s pace slows. His eyes narrow, glaring down at me. Like I suggested we light ourselves on fire to stay warm, instead of getting a thick blanket. “You’d finally get to see them,” he says like I’m an idiot.

Wiping his nose with the back of his hand, his lips pursed and right eyebrow lifts into a high arch. I feel like I’m being scolded by a teacher for not remembering what she just explained in class.

I’m about to comment how I don’t appreciate his attitude when a hand appears out of nowhere and yanks me to a stop.

My body jerks to see who the hell it is, but I should have guessed.

“As you were, solider,” Dobbs orders Thom.

Thom remains unflinching.

“I said you are dismissed. I have business with this one.” His fingers dig into my bicep as I fight the urge to punch him just for kicks.

“You want me to stay?” Thom asks, trying his hardest to ignore my favorite captor.
“If it was up to her, that would be a great question, but it’s not. You. Are. Dis-missed. If I have to repeat myself, I’ll be forced to make a phone call about your pet project.”

Thom’s spine snaps straight.

“Yeah, I know all about that. If you leave now, I’ll give you a little leeway.”

Thom’s eyes narrow. “Like I have a choice?”

Dobbs shrugs. “You’re assuming I care.”

“Whatever. Later, Rox.” He jogs off.

Great. Dobbs has secrets on everyone.

“As for you, Rox, this way.”

I trip over my feet as he drags me away. He lifts me off the floor with one hand, sets me back down to untangle my legs, and proceeds to do the same thing again until I keep pace with him.

When we step inside his office, he closes the door, locking it behind us, and pushes me into a chair. This time, there are no proximity issues. He’s all business.

“The remotes on the desk if you want it.” He scratches his ear with one hand and lifts a sheet of paper with the other. Looking at m e, he smirks. “Not interested anymore? Well, I’m going to leave it there in case you change your mind. Never know when the urge for fresh air might take hold.”

I stare at the wall, trying to keep my expression neutral.

Dobbs crosses my sightline by moving to the front of his desk and sits on its edge, dangling the sheet of paper in front of him.

“Do you know what this is?” The page flutters under the air vent, making it unreadable. “It says you have to meet with me every day, starting today.” Setting the paper on the desk, he feigns a look of excitement. “How much fun is that going to be? Like, totes a-maaa-zing.”

“That’s not how I talk.”

“Sure you do. You’re a kid. But that’s not important. What’s important is what we’ll do with our daily meetings.”

“Is it?”

Dobbs lips flatten into a thin line as he taps his chin like a cartoon character thinking too hard. The only thing missing are plumes of smoke leaking from his ears. When he finally looks me in the face, he says exuberantly, “Yes. Yes it is. Let’s start with Beth Anne. How is your relationship?”

I ignore him. It’s common knowledge we aren’t speaking.

“Where is Mitch?” I counter.

“That’s right. You two aren’t friends anymore. It’s you and Thom, Thom and you. I feel like you’re breaking some sort of girl code.” He thinks for a second. “Chick code? What would you call it? Never mind. I don’t care. Just a reminder, fraternizing with your superiors is frowned upon. As long as he keeps it in his pants, you still have a chance. Ha! That rhymes. But the real reason I brought you here.” He sighs as he leans back swapping the page for a thick brown folder that he tosses it into my lap.

Pointing at the file, he says, “Tell me what these are.”

I hold the brick thick folder up next to my head. “This is called a file. Inside are things called pieces of paper. You work for the government. By now, you should be familiar with them. You’re supposed to write lots of useless crap on them and then file them until no one remembers they’re there and then leave them packed away for another fifty years or so until they become artifacts. That’s a-r-t-i-f-a-c-t-s. You know, with an F-U in the middle.”

He laughs. The sound is forced and makes me flinch.

“You’re a regular jokester,” Dobbs says. “While that is a fantastic analysis, I meant what is on those government papers. There are a lot of them. I’ll wait as you look.” He waves his permission and reaches for a cup of coffee sipping gingerly.

I open the folder.

Dobbs presses the intercom button on his desk. “I’m going to need two breakfast trays with extra coffee. The stuff in here is cold.” Letting go, he looks at me. “Do you like juice?” He presses the button again, “And two orange juices. Thank you.”

In my lap are readouts of every moment I’ve spent in the drone simulators. Every maneuver I’ve performed, every tweak I’ve made to the system, and every issue I fixed from my earlier hack. When I see the information, my heart drops. The printouts also contain every attempt I’ve made at finding my location.

“This would be the perfect moment to explain why you are recoding the system as you play. You may be surprised to learn this, but we have the world’s best coders working for us.” His voice loses its light sarcastic twang, turning into the gravelly tone he likes to use for threats.

I sit unaffected.

“Obviously they’re the best, that’s why you needed to recruit me in the first place.”

I don’t need to look up to know I won that argument. May not be a first class win, but I’ll take any I can get.

Paging through the pile, I find an entry from two days earlier when I adjusted the pitch of the drone. “This here, I did this because it increased my response time.” I hand him the page and the one after it and look through more of the stack.

“All of these were made for the same reason. The system isn’t bad. It just needs to be tweaked. As you said before, the drones aren’t designed for combat use, so I’ve been doing my part helping them work a bit more efficiently.” I set the folder on the floor. “If that’s all, I’d like to get back to my run. It’s the only exercise I get all day long.”

“Well, that’s about to change, because now–”

A raping sound fills the office. Dobbs presses a button on his remote, allowing one of the jumpsuits to push a serving cart into the cramped space. The man locks the cart’s wheels, and exits without comment. Once he’s gone, the door swishes closed, and Dobbs locks it once more.

“As I was saying, starting today, you will train with me and you will eat with me as well. You’re welcome to think of me as the New Thom. I’ll be your bestest friend ever.” He pushes the cart in front of me and lifted the lid. “Eat.”

“I’m not hun–”

“Doesn’t matter. You’ll either eat with me in here, or I’m sending you to the infirmary where they will strap you to a bed and shove a bunch of needles into your arms.” He hovers with the metal lid in hand. For a second, I think he is going to hit me with it.

My fingers fumble for a fork, and I shovel a mound of potatoes into my mouth and chew.

“See. I knew you could do it. Now, as we eat, let us discuss your new role at Command Center Earth.”

Silently I pray for a migraine, but for some reason since I arrived, they’ve stopped happening.

Along with my new “best friend breakfast” meeting, I’m assigned two mandatory snack breaks and a full lunch and dinner. After dinner, I meet with Dobbs to work on my physical training. For the first four days, Thom visits in the morning. We gossip mostly, and I tell him how much I hate Dobbs and his mandatory everything. Thom walks me to Dobbs’ office, and we go about our separate ways. I don’t see him again till the next morning, but on the fifth day, everything changes. Again.

Dobbs moves my station to the back corner of the simulator room. He says it’s for added privacy, yet I note a security camera pointed directly at my console. I don’t complain because with my new seat comes a brand new state of the art rig. Suddenly, the CCE game that started on my small iPhone is transformed into a full computer system with full play emersion. Pilots, such as myself, are supplied with full body VR suites designed to help train us for the promised off planet mission everyone is working toward.

No, I’m not ready to give a definitive yes to being catapulted into space, but I’m not about to pass up the opportunity to play on first-rate equipment either. Granted, to get that equipment I’m forced to elude I’m on board with the whole space travel thing, but that doesn’t bother me. I lie to survive. What does bog me down is saying yes is probably my only way out of Command Center Earth. Basically, I’m caught between earth rock and a space place. See what I did there? I’m funnier than Dobbs. But that’s a bridge I’ll wait to cross. Right now, I’m all about the game.

This is what goes through my mind as I prepare to play. I dissect and make lists of good over bad. First, the VR suit they give us is cumbersome and awkward. So much so it’s hard to play at all. The only way to make it functional would be dropping us pilots into a vat of water. Since that isn’t an option, we grunt, cuss, and lumber through our daily routine. We do this loudly, until new suits arrived–-and man, are they genius. No, they aren’t space ready, but they’re designed to simulate how it feels in null gravity. Our oxygen levels are monitored, as are all other vitals. I feel like I’m stepping inside Ironman’s suit. It’s mind-blowing.

The new chairs are replicas of the ones inside the fighters set to launch, and the improved helmets have a screen that wraps around your entire skull. After a few minutes of game play, you forget what you’re seeing isn’t real. Even when you remind yourself it’s just a game, I find I prefer the artificial environment over reality.

When I log in and start my shift, I like to open my eyes slowly, revealing this environment in small increments. It’s surreal. Here I am, little Miss Amnesia, floating in the asteroid belt so close to the alien crafts it’s like they’re in a car next to me stuck in traffic on the 405.

The first time I use the new rig, I finally believe Dobbs that the “best of the best” created Command Central Earth. The suits and systems are designed to train our reflexes as intergalactic fighter pilots. If we mess up on Earth, our drone crashes. The goal is to get us ready so we don’t crash, because in space, there is no next drone to hop into.

The new system consumes me, and I don’t notice Thom isn’t around for nearly two weeks. The only thing that matters is getting past my mandatory to-do list so I can wrap my fingers around the controls. I’m in love with a machine, and I’m completely fine with that.

Our assigned mission is to monitor and assess as we learn the controls. Orders are still in place stating we aren’t allowed to blow up any more ships, er… I mean, we can’t “engage the enemy.” Basically, all the government suits are afraid one bad move and we’ll start the first ever space massacre. We’re only permitted to use our weapons to “shoot across the nose”–stupid saying–if the enemy attempts to move toward our line.

Personally, my theory is the government wants us to capture the aliens alive so they can refill beds in Area 51. Since no one’s asking me, and I’m not about to strike up a conversation concerning government red tape and general bullshit, I keep my opinion to myself. It’s too boring to think about, and I’m saving my energy for other things, like being awestruck.

Utterly and absolutely awestruck by the exemplary environment that is our solar system.

Mind blowing, earth shattering awe.

Like real existential shit.

Where I’m from in LA, you can see Orion’s belt and maybe a few random stars. Anything else you assume is celestial is probably a plane.

Once, I went to the planetarium up by the Hollywood sign. You sit in this big round room and a “space guide” walks around with an orb in his or her hand like they’re an Ood from the Horsehead Nebula but without the face tentacles. The room goes black and the ceiling transforms into a clear night sky, and the audience goes, “Oh, wow! Look at all the stars,” but even that doesn’t do outer space justice. Or the fake /real outer space I’m fortunate to be immersed in at CCE.

I think that’s why I forgot Thom so easily. There’s something comforting about deep space, something spectacular about looking at Jupiter glowing orange and brown in the big black nothing. Yes, the asteroids can be dangerous, but it’s more comforting than the best, thickest pair of socks and a bowl of your favorite soup could ever be. Living inside the simulator is my favorite place on the planet.

When I’m forced to rejoin the outside world and take off the virtual reality suit, I grow depressed. Each time my shift ends, it’s harder to shake the sinking feeling.

“Slaven, report.”

Dobbs. It’s always Dobbs. He’s on me all day every day. My subconscious now sounds like him instead of Optimus Prime. I miss Optimus Prime… The only Dobbs free place left in my life are bathrooms. I love bathrooms and their gender specificity.
“Ships are holding their line,” I say, “Permission to do some weeding?” That’s a pretty way of asking to blow up space rocks.

“Permission denied.”

Permission is always denied. Basically Dobbs is a boring human being and his way to make up for his short comings is to ruin my day.

“How’s the new suit feel?”

I want to tell him it’s exceptional, but I opt for, “Good,” because he doesn’t deserve more from me.

“Some of the other pilots are reporting movement. Keep a close watch on your mark.”

“If I saw movement, I would have told you I saw movement. I’m not the one keeping things from you. It’s the other way around.”

This only makes him angry.

I’m assuming he’s the most constipated man alive with how angry he is all the time.

He shoots back, “Slaven, why must you be such a pain in the ass? Check in with the other pilots once in awhile.”

“I’m not a pain in the ass, Dobbs. I’m only honest. Question: if I checked in with the other pilots, would you be out of a job?” I bank my drone to the right, dodging a small piece of asteroid, and inched toward the closest alien ship.

“If the aliens attempt to engage, report. Dobbs, out.”

See, boring. He doesn’t really care how the new rig is, only uses the opportunity to criticize me. He assumes the worse, and it brings out the worse in me.

My mind drifts to Mitch, but I squash the thought as soon as it pokes its stupid head out of my subconscious. No matter how hard I dig around, he’s vanished. That’s when I think about Thom. I roll my neck, vertebra cracking as I grumble under my breath. Thom, Thom, Thom, and his… my mind goes blank. Outside of the color of his hair, I can’t seem to call on his features. I think maybe his smile is nice, but it perplexes me that I can’t remember anything else. Did I just not look at him?

“Come in, Dobbs,” I call into my radio.

“This is Dobbs.”

“Can amnesia spread? Like, I lost those first fifteen years, but can it start eating up things in my present life?” I try to think of everything that transpired over the last month, but it’s spotty at best. I hold my breath, trying to slow my pulse and concentrate.

“If there is no movement–”

“I’m serious, Dobbs. Seeing that I’m not allowed to speak to anyone but you, you’re the only one who can help me,” I tell him, but he didn’t see it that way.

“Please keep this line clear for emergencies, only. Dobbs out.”

The line goes quiet.

I’ll have to track down Thom and stare at him and memorize his face. At least he is nice to me. Mostly. Well, when he wants something, which is more than Dobbs.

I fidget with the controls, moving my drone up and down, making basic patterns in space and using the cameras to zoom in on the alien ships. They’re in the same position as before, and I’m trying to accept I can’t remember Thom’s face, wondering if maybe I have a brain tumor. I distract myself by making a few more adjustments to my camera and finally grant myself permission to think about Mitch. Unlike Thom, I can see Mitch clearly, and Dobbs, too.

It’s so weird that Thom is blurry. I’m about to pull Beth Anne into my mind, but suddenly something changes. The alien ship in front of me is shifting and then… there it is.

I mean, there he is.

Him.

A man in a steel gray jumpsuit.

Inside the alien craft as it bobs above broken chunks of iron ore is a human. Holy shit! The aliens are humanoids. Take that Ridley Scott! Aliens aren’t the spitting image of sea creatures. They look like jerks from New Jersey.

“Come in, Dobbs,” I spit the words inside my helmet, excited to tell Dobbs what we’re up against. The invading UFO… well, I guess they were identified… the ships are filled with humans. High Jesus and the Holy Rollers!

That means if they invade Earth, they’ll be able to slip into the human stir-fry we call our population. Now that is a terrifying thought… the intergalactic brain-eating zombies I’m sure they are.

“Dobbs, you still there? It’s about the aliens.” My heart pounds, palms sweaty, gaze glued on my new discovery.

The ship presents itself to me like a blue jay showing off to a mate. It’s like this alien man wants me to see him.

“Hey, other pilots, are you seeing anything special?” I decide to try them since Dobbs isn’t answering. I don’t want to blurt it out, hey look! It’s a man! A real alien man! but I wish someone would tell me they saw him, too. All I get back are a slew of, “negatives.”

My chest burns.

“This is Dobbs. Let me guess, you may be having appendicitis? Just an FYI, I’m not doctor, but I still have my knife from lunch.” His voice is gravelly.

He’s annoyed, and it makes me stop to think.

“Never mind,” I change my tune.” Thought I saw something, but it was nothing.”

“Do I have to remind you these are official channels?”

The line crackles, and I blink. A tenth of a second and the ship slips from view. The man is gone. It’s over so fast all I make out is a garden variety human with dark hair, long limbs, and that steely colored jumpsuit. My eyes close as try to memorize everything. I push a long breath through my teeth.

“Mandatory break starts in ten,” Dobbs says in my ear.

“Request to continue working?” It’s a long shot.

“Request denied.”

“But…” I close my mouth as the ship comes back into view. Quickly, I look around the windows when I notice some script on the ship’s body, and then it hits me how big this discovery is. It’s so big Darwin will shit his pants even though he’s dead.

This is when all my doubts about leaving Earth disappear. Suddenly, my future hinges on getting off this planet. There are aliens sitting in the middle of our solar system, and I want to go to them. That means only one thing… Dobbs and I must become friends. Because the only way he’ll approve me for duty is if I jump through his hoops.

Double damn.

I’d rather become friends with… well, just about anyone else on the planet and all the aliens, too.

Part Three – “What’s Vulcan?” — COMMAND CENTER EARTH

PART THREE

Mitch sleeps soundlessly when I return to the cell. The remote is between my palms as my mind creates a conga line of questions. Dobbs isn’t lying to me. So far, everything he’s done proves he can do whatever the hell he wants. Well, except explain things in a way that clears up confusion.

I look at Mitch. He snorts and begins to make sounds like he’s waking up, but he rolls onto his side and his breathing evens out again. Looking at the hard plastic object, I flip it over and slid off the back panel. It’s digital, just like the base. It’s so state of the art it looks almost futuristic. Dobbs may have the upper hand, but I’m still left with a choice. Stay to protect my friends or run and take them with me.

It takes a one hour and thirty-six minutes to make my decision. One hour and thirty-six minutes of mental ping-pong that leads me to the same decision I made prior to Dobbs’ threats, mass attempts at physical intimidation, and mental confusion. It really isn’t hard. Staying is scarier than running because Dobbs has my life story outlined with bullet points. It’s a story I don’t want to read.

I’d rather go and be who I am now.

Life lesson: Let go of the past. Embrace the present. Zen.

Tinkering with the remote is easy. Digital means software that can be manipulated. Digital makes my life a little easier. The adjustments are simple. The hard part is the broken boy in the bed next to me.

“Hey,” I whisper. “Dude, wake up.”

Mitch shoots up, his hair a big blond puffball tarnished by unwanted dreadlocks.”What?” he says, obviously trapped in the state between sleep and awake. “Did they try something? Are you okay?”

I hold up the remote, using it like a finger against my lips to shush him. “I have our ticket out of here. You coming?”

He’s on his feet before I tap a button and the door slides out of our way.

“What about Beth Anne?” he asks.

I’m thinking the same thing. Our first order of business is to find and rescue her. By now I’m sure she’s changed her mind about the place. I heard the doubt in her voice when I passed by. She’s my best friend and won’t turn on me simply because a boy flirted with her. I hope. A lot.

“She’s this way.” I nod in the direction.

The hall is empty, so we make our move. Our time window is limited. In twenty minutes, Dobbs will return to my cell to demand his answer. I weave us through the corridors just as I walked earlier, making it to the main control room.

Here we are not so lucky. People in silver and blue jumpsuits mill around, some are working on computers, others are having candid conversations, and a few are watching interactive screens of the ongoing drone strikes. All I can do is stay out of sight and peek around a corner trying to pick BA out of the cloud of people. And pray she sees me. It takes half a glance, and I do a silent fist pump in my mind at express success.

When I catch her gaze, she looks a little too excited, which lifts my heart. Her reaction makes me think she hasn’t turned after all. I wave her to us, and she crisscrosses the throngs of people to join us in the shadows.

“Isn’t this place amazing?” She wraps me in a hug. “It’s like a place out of our dreams.” Just then, she spots Mitch, at first smiling but it fades as she takes in his cuts and bruises. “What happened to you?”

“I was trying to defend you two, but failed.” He grins awkwardly.

BA is quiet. She holds her ground, not cowering away from him, which worries me. Why isn’t she into Mitch?

“This isn’t my dream place,” I correct her, reaching out to touch her arm. “We have to get out of here before they realize Mitch and I broke out of our room. Com’on.” Grabbing her hand, I turn to go. The exit is only two corridors down and two to the right. We can make it there before anyone notices she left her station.

But Beth Anne yanks her hand from me. “And go where?”

“Ah… let’s see… this place is totally bullshit, so I say we go someplace that’s not bullshit.” I shrug and make a face I think is absolutely funny.

She crosses her arms and shakes her head.

“I’m not leaving, Roxanne.”

“Rox.”

“Whatever! I’m not leaving, Rox. This place is amazing, and I vote we stay. We have a bed, plus the food is amazing, and they’ll give us real jobs with a real future. Why would I ever want to leave this place, and for that matter, why would the either of you?”

I sigh inwardly; making a note to buy BA a thesaurus so she will stop saying everything is amazing. “Well, I’m sure Mitch wants to get back to his family.” I wave my hand in his general direction.

“I live alone,” he says.

News to me, but then again anything involving Mitch outside of bagels and coffee is.

“I thought you had family?”

“Naw. Just me.”

“Guess that means we can go to his place,” I tell BA. “And then we can figure out what to do next.”

Her lips pull into a straight line. “Rrr-ight. That ain’t happenin’. I’m staying.”

Her sarcasm flips something in my brain, and I lose it. “You know, there’s no need to be a bitch.”

“Oh, that’s right. Being a bitch your job.” Her bitter words push me back a step. “Listen, I know your plan was to finish school, go to college, and get a great job.” She ticks the list off on her fingers. “But this place knocks, like, five or six years off that list. If we stay, we already have great jobs. No, not great – amazing. So, tell me, why would we leave?”

“Stop saying everything is amazing.”

“Just callin’ it like I see it, Roxanne!”

I’m losing her. “Dobbs threatened me. He threatened all of us.”

“Did he, or did he show you what we would be doing and you turned him down because you didn’t get a normal invitation to the party?” she asks wryly. “Because I know you pretty well and I’m guessing you’re mad because of how we got here and completely skipped over the rest.”

“Guys, we really have to go.” Mitch tries to get between us, but I swat him away.

I’m deflated. “It’s not like that.”

“It’s always like that. Your way or no way. Also, stellar escape plan! Mitch’s place, really? If they really are after you wouldn’t Mitch’s place would be under surveillance and the Dungeon, too? You two gonna go there and make out in front of me a little more?”

The accusation makes me forget we’re hiding, and I step out of the shadow, placing myself in clear view of the people around us. The movement outs us. Chairs scrape against the floor. Voices grow loud. Out the corner of my eye I see all of BA’s coworkers gathering into a small mob, all of them looking in my general direction.

There is too much noise, I can’t think straight.

“What are you talking about? We weren’t making out in front of you. He kissed me,” I spat. “Right?” Mitch’s skin goes pale.

“Not a good time, ladies,” he says, clearly not paying attention.

“Whatever,” BA says flippantly. “Here, maybe if you see the news…” She pulls out a phone similar to Dobbs and taps on a link to KTLA, our favorite Los Angeles news affiliate. At the top of the page is an image of Maureen, my foster mom, ICYMI. Above a paused video is a bright red rectangle that reads, “BREAKING: Two teens sought in possible bank robbery.” BA taps the play icon and the video comes to life.

“Two teen girls on the run. Rumors of robbery, drugs, and prostitution. Today we’re talking to Maureen Swarrow of West Los Angeles about her daughter Roxanne Slaven and her daughter’s friend, Beth Anne Frail,” the moody short-haired male reporter says.

“She’s not my real daughter. I was her foster mother, and let me tell you, I’ve spent the last year trying to show her love, but she wouldn’t have any of that. Then today, I found all my jewelry missing, so I checked her room and found a stash of drugs and compromising photos of her and her girlfriend with more men than I can count.”

BA turns off the phone and slips it into her pocket. In the distance, the sound of people shuffling around and rallying reaches my ears. BA’s new friends must have noticed us arguing.

“How are you okay with that?” I wave a hand at the phone. Glancing at the growing ruckus, I know our time is limited.

“Truth is, I don’t care. I hate my fosters, and so do you. And I’m guessing that fantastic piece was concocted because of you in the first place. I’m sure you did something stupid that pissed Maureen off, and now if we leave this place, we’ll get picked up and thrown in juvie and have no dreams whatsoever. Option B is, we stay put, and you apologize for whatever asinine thing you said. You agree to fix the hacks on the drones, and we have a shot at a real life.” Beth Anne pauses, staring at me. “There are aliens, Roxanne. Actual honest to god aliens and we can be part of all of it. Isn’t that incredible? Isn’t that worth staying for?”

Remaining at the facility isn’t an option. Staying the course of my previous plan is. No matter how awesome or amazing Beth Anne thinks Command Center Earth is, I want the life I worked on for the last year back, just how it is.

My brain begins to hurt as I absorb everything she says. Mitch is tugging my shirt sleeve, and I don’t have the will to swat him away. On top of those things, I’m also waiting for the blue and silver jumpsuits to grab their torches and pitchforks. They must be close. Someone triggered a siren, and I translate the whooping sound to, “They’re escaping! They’re escaping!”

The high pitch screech only makes my gray matter fuzzier than a wooly bear in spring. Suddenly, I’m terrified I’ll have an attack.

“He did this. Dobbs did this, you know that, right?” I plea, but I’m preaching a wall. Her mind is made up. She sees a free ride where I see a prison sentence.
“We both know that it’s all Maureen, and I’m sure my fosters helped out, too. They want money. Dobbs had nothing to do with any of it. Once again, it falls on you.” She shrugs. “Why can’t you just do this for me? Why can’t you let it go my way just once?”

I don’t know how she can’t see what’s really going on. Glancing at a clock hanging just beyond her, Mitch tugs on my arm, hard. I don’t have to look to know the jumpsuits have finished organizing and are coming our way. Four minutes left to make our escape. Leaving Beth Anne is hard, but staying isn’t an option.

“Are you coming?” I ask Mitch.

He nods without hesitation.

“You’re making a mistake,” she calls after me.

“Fuck you,” I holler back. There is a little over a minute left when we reach the exit door. With Mitch half draped over my shoulder, I pull out my universal remote to unlock the door. When I hear a faint click, I dump the remote, and kick my foot against the silver bar. Together, we throw our bodies against the metal door and it gives way, releasing us into the world. Stepping out of the building fresh air rolls over us, we both stop moving.

Mitch’s hand slides off my shoulder as we take in the view going on for miles. Flat red sandy dirt dots with nearly infinite brown scrub brush. There are no buildings, no Los Angeles skyline, no Santa Monica Mountains on the horizon, not even a wisp of marine layer threatening a gray day or a chorus of car horns drifting on the Santa Ana’s from all the traffic. I’m not sure where we were, but it isn’t Los Angeles, California.

I’m so surprised I can’t find my breath. Everything I spent the last year working for is gone. Hot tears blur my vision, threatening to run down my cheeks and trick others into thinking my anger and frustrations are really sadness. I sniff them back as my knees give out, dropping me to the dirt.

Behind us, the door flies open. “Roxanne, it’s time to come inside.” Thom. Screw him.

“Stay away from her,” Mitch thunders. “I’m warning you…”

A new set of feet falls on the crunchy ground. “Corrado,” Dobbs says.

I look at Mitch acting as my body guard, keeping Thom, Dobbs, and two other guards at bay.

“Corrodo. Velquen,” Dobbs says.

The words make no sense, but Mitch goes quiet. A muscle in his jaw twitches as he looks from Dobbs to me and back again. Mumbling something to Dobbs I can’t make out. The words don’t sound like English. Dobbs’ eyes narrow, he pushes a breath through his nose, and Mitch relents.

“Inside,” Dobbs says. Mitch walks past him, glancing at me with a weak looks that tells me he’s sorry before slipping out of view.

Thom reaches for me. “It’ll be okay. I swear on my mother this place isn’t so bad. You’ll like it here.”

In that moment, I’m sure Thom’s mother is a most unsavory person, someone he’s hated his whole life.

I want to say something rude, to at least swear, but every inch of me is numb. The skin on my hands prickle, and the tears win their fight spilling past my lashes. First Beth Anne forsakes me, and now Mitch leaves me with a backward glance.

Thom gently takes my hand pulling me to him. Once I am close enough, he wraps his arms around me and gave me a squeeze.

“It’ll all be okay,” he coos. “You’re safe in Command Center.”

His voice sounds prerecorded, and I push off his slight frame.

“Get her inside and clean her up. Half hour until you start working for me, Slaven,” Dobbs yells. He leaves me with Thom outside.

“What did he just say? Vulcan or something like it? What’s Vulcan?” I ask the second Dobbs is gone.

“You never quit, do you?” Thom squints, trying to figure me out. “No idea. Dobbs tells me nothing.”

“I’m not going back in there.” Screw all of them. I would rather die in the desert than live in that place.

“Dobbs said you would say that.” Thom waves his hand, and the guards point their service issued guns at me. “Don’t worry,” he whispers in my ear. “You’ll be fine.”

“That’s easy for you to say. You’re not the one with the guns pointed at your head.” I move toward the door.

“Well, we did ask you nicely.” Thom pushes me inside.

Jerk.

Command Center Earth – Part Two – “Who’s Daddy Warbucks?”

PART TWO

The scent of hospital mixed with sanitized school halls reaches my nose before my eyes open. Rubbing alcohol and Clorox are surprisingly the worst scent combination, ever. Panic and fear make me want to look around, to use sight to figure out where the hell I am, but it’s smarter to wait for my other senses to kick in.

Life lesson: Using all five senses can save your life. I hope.

Not sure if I’m alone or if BA is with me, or maybe there’s a guard watching. So, I continue to play possum. If I’m not alone the other person will make a sound, breathe too loud, radio my captor that they’re board watching me sleep, or something equally as telling.

A scratchy wool blanket rubs against my cheek, and the only sound I can make out is someone’s breath. I recognize it as Beth Anne’s. Ragged drafts draw in, and long even breaths push out. The cadence of sleep echoes slightly in the hallow room; I assume it’s empty from how the sound carries. Plus, every point of exposed skin on my body feels like ice.

BA is with me, but if there is a guard, he or she is surprisingly silent. I flinch when my eyelids open, and quickly close them because I don’t feel right. Something is off. Physically off. My fingers move swiftly, checking my entire skull. I’m surprised there aren’t any bloody wounds or throbbing egg-sized lumps protruding from my body. The absence of wounds leaves only one thing that could create the migraine devouring my senses.

Drugs.

Thoughts ping-pong inside my cranium as I try to remember exactly what happened. I remember Conquering Command Center Earth, Mitch kissing me, BA hating me, Bitch Manifesto’s set… and then I remember the man. Something sparks, but it’s gone before I know what it is. I know him, but can’t place him. His identity sits like a forgotten word on the tip of my tongue I can never quite pronounce right.

“Rox?” BA shouts in hushed tones, making my name sound like it has been spoken by a disembodied ghost. “Rox, you okay?”

The soles of her shoes slap the white linoleum floor as she rushes to my side. Before I manage an answer, she is on me like a beat cop on skaters in the parking lot of the local Save-a-Lot.

“Oh, jeeze… Oh, jezzez… Slavin, you even alive?” She only uses my last name when she’s scared. Hearing her say it paralyzes me. Suddenly I am terrified.

My lids feel like sandbags, a side effect of drug induced sleep. My hands want to reach up and lift them open, but it’s a profitless gesture. They would open on their own solely by BA’s willpower.

“This place…” Her voice shakes as I squint at the bright lights bouncing off four snow white walls. “It’s a…”

“A cell,” I finish for her. As the idea sinks in, my arms, legs, hands, fingers, and toes all began working in unison. They lift me off the bed, propelling me around the room. It’s a bar free cage, with tall shiny white walls, no windows, and a cutout of a door. My hands glided over the spot where a doorknob should be. It’s naked–Electromagnetic locks.

“Rox, my head hurts,” BA says, and I know they drugged her, too.

She moves two steps toward me before sinking to the floor. Her disheveled unnaturally black hair swishes from side to side. Tears begin to well. She rocks like a mother soothing an infant. Words stream past her lips. “Not again,” she is saying. “Please, God, not again.”

Her fright reminds me why we chose to hide in the Dungeon, rather than have rooms in houses like normal kids. It’s just safer that way.

Again, is what she says, not again.

I remember the story, though we never speak of it. An old foster home, an odd family; bad memories resurfacing precisely at the wrong moment. We need to keep our heads straight, but there’s no way I’m going to convince her of that.

Instead, I move to BA’s side. The movement is a promise. There would be no “again.” Not while I’m around.

“No one will touch you. Just stay behind me,” I say with complete confidence.

Her head bobs up and down, but she keeps rocking. She doesn’t even stop when I wrap myself around her broad frame and set my on her shoulder.

I only let go to keep my sights on our one and only exit. There has to be a way out or something we can use to escape. The room is sparsely decorated. It looks closer to an empty storage unit than a bedroom; two cots, two dressers, and a lot of smooth white wall panels, each four feet wide and eight feet tall. It’s bleak and disinfected, which only adds to my level of freak out.

“Somebody is coming,” I tell her. It’s a gut feeling. Long energetic fingers reach for me, immediately putting me to be on guard.

It would be best to move to the farthest corner of the room, but BA won’t budge. Her torso sways; her butt is glued to the floor. Reaching down grabbing her wrists in a vain attempt to drag her, but she’s too heavy, and we’re both to useless from being drugged.

We hear a dull thud just before the door slides open and the man from the club steps inside. He’s wearing a different suit, something with three pieces and that costs more than a used car. When I meet his gaze, the slivers of energy I felt through the door engulf me like the shell of an egg does an unborn chick.

He’s giving me the same grin from the Bitch Manifesto show. Lips parting just enough to see clenched teeth, but this time, I’m close enough to stare into his black eyes. I search for anger or hate, some sort of explanation for why he brought us here, but instead I find recognition. He knows who I am, or at least he thinks he does. I’m not the only one who felt the familiarity, but it has to be impossible. Someone like him would surly stick out of the gray haze that is my past, but all-inclusive amnesia doesn’t work like that.

“Call me Dobbs,” he instruct, hovering too close. In his left hand is a paper to-go coffee cup. His right grips a fancy high tech smart phone like none I’d ever seen. Quickly, he slips the phone in a pocket just like he did at the club.

I give him my best indifferent duck face with a shrug. My way to say the only thing I care about is leaving.

“Where are we?” Directness is a long shot, but I have to try.

No answer.

BA’s arm snakes around my legs as her rocking turns to whimpers.

“We’re minors. You have to let us call our guardians.” I crouch, wrapping my arms around my friend, keeping my sights on the man walking across the room. Every step he takes, she flinches and the more I hate him.

His eyebrow arches, and my gaze falls to his black suit. It’s tailored to fit like a second skin. Made out of a thin layer of wool and cashmere, it’s the suit of a high-priced lawyer or the bourgeoisie type, not a basic government employee. At least that’s what I assume he is. My gaze reaches the high shine on his Italian leather shoes before rebounding to his face.

“Since when do twenty-one-year-olds have guardians?” he says with a smirk.

“We’re only sixteen,” BA hisses.

“Not according to the Golden State,” he thunders on, smiling. “And since you’re not sixteen, you are eligible to be drafted in order to help our government when it is in dire circumstances.”

“Since when is kidnapping someone considered drafting to help the government? This is bullshit. If we can’t see our guardians, then I want to see my case worker or a lawyer… or did we lose those rights as well?” The more confident he looks, the less I feel.

Fun fact: I’m not a fan of ambivalence. Call me whatever the hell you want, but get to the point. The longer someone strings me alone, the angrier I become, and eventually, I will try to fight you.

I brace my hand against BA’s shoulder pulling, myself up to my full five-foot stature. People think being short makes you tiny, but that’s a load of crap. Having strength makes you larger than life.

Before he has a chance to pull his phone from his pocket, I wriggle my leg free of BA’s grasp and stab a finger into his chest.

“Listen. I’m not sure who you think we are, but I think you’re help the government plight is a load off bull. Let. Us. Go. We have nothing that can help your problem is. Okay? So I’ll make you a deal. If you let us go now, we’ll never tell anyone about you snatching us from the streets and locking us in this room. Deal?” I balance on my toes to get in his face making sure he gets my point. “If you keep us here, I’ll make you wish you had taken my deal.” I seethe, and he smirks.

The door slides open and two more bodies enter the room. I keep looking at Dobbs, his rich suit, and the cup of coffee he keeps sipping. His eyes linger a half second longer before dragging them to look past me. He nods in BA’s direction.

I rush to put my body between the intruders and my friend, but Dobbs is faster. He latches onto my arm, heaving me off the ground as I throw a punch and miss. BA thrashes against Dobbs’ lackeys, but the mixture of drug hangover and general mental fatigue has weakened her. She’s fading fast, and they pin her down.

“This is the only safe place for you.” Dobbs lets go the moment they’ve wrangled Beth Anne. Eyes on me, he takes a deliberately long sip of his coffee. Fuming, I lung at him, but he sees my move and steps out of the way. With his free hand he pushes me to the floor. A sprinkling of coffee dots the linoleum around his five-dollar word kicks, but somehow misses the hand crafted leather.

“Let us go,” I demand, on my hands and knees.

“As I just said, this is the only safe place for you, so no, I won’t let you go. Also, you should work on your hand to hand combat tactics. I’m not sure if you were trying to punch me, or throw me a high-five, either way, it was a complete fail.” He takes another sip, and my nails stab the palms of my hands, drawing blood.

“What is that supposed to mean? “ As I unclench my fists, the spot where he grabbed me begins to throb. There will be a bruise in the shape of his handprint later, and it makes my temper burn hotter.

He glances around the room. “Be a good girl and go with my friends here. They’ll take you some place to freshen up.” Looking me over, his eyes move slowly over my stained t-shirt and thread bare jeans. “You know I’m right, somewhere in there.” The index finger of the hand holding the coffee pokes me in the temple. The contents slosh around next to my ear.

“Just because you thought you were safe doesn’t mean you were. Deep down, you know I’m your Daddy Warbucks.”

“Who’s Daddy Warbucks?”I say just to piss him off.

“Slaven.” Beth Anne looks at me like a puppy pulled from her mother’s teat, and I no longer feel strong.

“It can’t hurt to wash up,” I say, trying to make my voice sound sincere, but it wavers. There is no way to know what will be waiting in the restrooms. Maybe more people like Dobbs or someone even worse. All I know is until we figure out what he wants, we have no leverage. And that sucks.

Just like the last glimpse of Mitch outside the club sucked. He chased after us, but I blacked out. I figure I’ll never see his pretty blond head again, but I can’t think about that right now. Dobbs minions are here to separate us, so I move closer to Beth Anne.

Dobbs nudges my shoulder. “If I have to tell you everything three and four times, we will never get to the part where you learn why you’re here.”

Scowling at the two matching minions waiting with their arms at their sides, I dub them Toady One and Toady Two. The only difference between them is their gender–-one boy and one girl wrapped in silver jumpsuits, looking like a relay satellite or an unwanted Christmas package.

BA’s fingers weave through mine, tugging me to her side. Not even a slip of air can pass between us as we push into each other. Toady One steps forward and Dobbs says, “Frail, you’re with Tweedledumb, and Slaven, you will be going with Tweedledee.”

He points with his coffee cup, and I dream of smashing it into his skull.

“We stay together, thank you.”

He makes an “O” face. “I didn’t realize you were so close.”

I let him goad me into dropping her hand. “And if we are it’s none of your damn business.”

A mistake. We’re apart long enough for Toady One to take BA by her elbow and lead her from the room.

Toady Two steps forward as BA looks back. “I’ll be okay, Rox. I’ll be okay.” Suddenly she’s the one trying to calm me.

“Listen to your friend, Rox.” Dobbs says my nickname like a made up word that means something else entirely.

“Hey.” BA again. “The sooner we know…”

The sooner we go, the rest of the sentence floats through my mind. It’s something we say about studying. The more we know, the sooner we go away from here.

“Stay sharp,” BA says.

Without a fight she slips from the room two steps in front of Toady One and leaves me with Toady Two and Dobbs.

“It’s not what you think,” Dobbs says.

“So you have a cotton candy machine and pony rides down the hall?” I spit the words out and plant my hands on my hips.

When I look into those black eyes, I expect to see more of his tasteless humor or something more cavalier, but I find that look of familiarity again, this time mixed with remorse.

Then it’s gone.

A migraine filled with flashbacks that explains him would be nice, but my head is still foggy from whatever was used to subdue me. The sense that I should know him distracts me long enough for Toady Two to take my arm, pulling me away from my new captor.

Toady Two has his soft features, freshly shaven jaw, and looks like a fluffy body pillow. I try to pull my arm free, but his grasp is strong. He guides me down the white and silver tiled hallway without a word. Craning my neck, I look back, certain Dobbs is still watching me, but I’m wrong, and the hall is empty.

For some reason I wish it wasn’t.

I am passed around like a hash pipe at a frat party, bouncing from one person to the next to be cleaned, scrubbed, and tested–both blood and urine. Then they send me to the fancy salon to have my head shaved, and finally, like a dolly, they dress me in a navy blue jump suit, no accessories needed. Seems I’m not made of silver quality.

Each corridor we pass or room I’m directed through, I commit to memory. There has to be a door that leads outside. My goal is to find it. Once I locate the escape hatch I’ll find BA and get out of this sanitized Petri dish hell, and back to our life.

“Miss Slaven,” one of the women who decontaminated my skin and hair says.

She looks like the Hindu Goddess Lakshmi dressed in American clothing. Long jet colored hair, pale milk skin, and features so delicate I wonder if I chant her name three times she’ll bless me with an abundance of wealth.

“I prefer being called Rox. Thanks,” I correct her, knowing that even if I chant her name one-hundred and eight times, all she would ever give me were minor skin abrasions from scrubbing too hard. Like she already had.

Miss Slaven, please follow Lt. Johnson to be debriefed,” she instructs, exasperated.

She’s no Lakshmi.

“Of course his name is Johnson,” I retort, smirking to add some flare to the drama.

“This way, please.” Lt. Johnson speaks as if I haven’t, leading me to yet another door. A whole new passage identical to all the others I’ve seen so far. I search for irregularities. Boot scuffs on the floor, or a knick in a wall, any little breadcrumb that will help me navigate when it comes time to escape. Nothing.

I’m concentrating so hard I almost miss Lt. Johnson saying, “Stay to the left. We don’t want to disturb the pilots.”

I look up in time to spot the biggest breadcrumb of all. On an unoccupied computer screen are the words, “Command Center Earth,” written in the same script as the game on my phone.

The second I see the logo, I remember the invitation screen, “Invited by: J. Dobbs,” and swear. He is behind all of it! What an amazingly huge jerk.

Lt. Johnson walks me to a chair and waits until I sit before moving to guard a door.

The room is the first I’ve seen not decorated in white and silver. It boasts blue gray berber carpet squares, three rows of dinged brown folding chairs, a pull-down movie screen dating circa 1975, and a wooden podium. Also, unlike all the other rooms, there are four points of entry: two at the back and one on each side.

No one else is seated. Behind me J. Dobbs hovers with his coffee and a blank stare. Nothing is happening, so my eyes drop to my newly booted feet and lavender scented skin. They scrubbed that crap into my pore. I feel like a poodle fresh from a day at Pretty Coat Junction dog spa.

“Mind if I join you?”

A new body is standing next to me. Amber-colored eyes and nearly matching ginger hair. The boy is close to my age, although he looks a little younger with his square head and stubble free jaw.

“My name is Thom,” he offers and sits too close without my consent.

I’m about to demand he leaves when two more people step into the room: an old woman and an older man. I swear they’re in, like, their late fifties or something. Totally at the, “You should listen to me because I have experience under my belt,” phase in life, which roughly translates to, “Do what I say, or I’ll be angry because I’m a control freak.” Old people are lame.

“Roxanne Slaven of Los Angeles, birth whereabouts unknown, due to a…” The woman shuffles through a pile of papers on the podium.

“Coma,” I supply. “I was in a coma. When I woke up, no one claimed me like the unwanted scruffy mutt I am, so I was put into the system.” I make air quotes, pausing for effect. “So that’s my story. Now that we know all about me, hows abouts we jump to the Q&A portion of this deee-briefing?”

“Do you have any idea why you’re here, child?”

“I was kidnapped by that guy.” I hook a thumb at Dobbs, and Thom snickers. Squinting and scrunching up my mouth, I shoot him my best, “shut the hell up” look, but it only makes him laugh harder.

The marble military statue of an old man steps forward with a stern, yet pensive, look on his face. “You defeated Command Center Earth. That has never been done,” he says, reminding me of Walter Brimley. I didn’t always have a fancy phone with TV-watching capability, and when one doesn’t own a TV, one is slave to bus terminals, train stations, and other various public places that rarely supply a remote for your boob tube fixation making you a slave to dated TV.

“Because everybody else sucks.” I glance around for applause, only to realize all eyes are glued on me, even Lt. Johnson’s, and none of them look amused.

“What? That was a little funny and you all know it.” Thom chuckles, which makes me smile, until Dobbs makes a coughing sound that silences the both of us.

Walter Brimley cleared his throats, mirroring Dobbs. That’s the military for you. Conformity on every level.

“It isn’t simply a video game, Miss Slaven,” Brimley tells me. “It’s a recruitment tool designed to help aid us aid in Earth’s first ever space conflict. You and your friends are the first three test subjects to ever destroy an enemy alien spaceship. Until now, all we’ve managed to do is hold them at bay, but yesterday, our screens lit up as we watched three of our drones out maneuver the lead ship, working together to bring it down.”

Remembering the move, BA complained she couldn’t get close enough to attack, so we did the old bait and switch. I was bait. When the ship moved toward me, I dropped below while BA moved in front and Mitch came around back. This gave me a split second to slip under the belly of the beast, coming to its other side and then we opened fire at once. Ka-boom and a little blam-o! Donzo alien space twerp.

My points were higher due to the sweet evasive maneuvers. BA shrugged it off, but it bothered her. She liked being number one. Who doesn’t? Well, maybe Mitch. He didn’t seem to mind either way.

My mouth opens to ask a question, but the woman holds up a hand. “Not right now, Miss Slaven. Now it’s time to discuss how we need your help.” Small, wrinkled, and staring at me, she pauses waiting for me to do something. I’m not sure what. The moment pulls long and awkward until my skin itches under my new jump suit, causing me to wiggle in my seat.

“You do understand this is a matter of international security?” Walter Brimley steps forward, peering over his drug-store glasses.

“No, I guess not.” I’m not sure what they were asking me, or maybe they’re telling me? I mean, I sort of get it, but I prefer people who get to the point. None of this the future of the world depends on you! All of that is BS. I’m a kid who squats in West Holly and happens to be good—amazing–at video games. And that’s because I’m wicked smart. It in no way shape or form means I want to be a Yankee Doodle dandy. End of story.

The old woman motions the man to lean in. She whispers in his ear for a few seconds before I hear him say, “I agree. It’s the only way.”

With a sigh, she turns back to me “You can ask your questions now.”

All of my questions disappear, so I keep my mouth shut and look around the room once more. Every exit is guarded, and I’m officially screwed.

“So that’s it?” I ask.

“Excuse me?”

“I don’t jump up singing my allegiance for your intergalactic space war so you have a private little chitchat, letting me hear the phrase it’s the only way but tell me squat? What is the only way?” Anger bubbles in my belly slowly spreading through my arms and legs. Why did I say yes to Command Center Earth? Why couldn’t be back in the Dungeon fighting with BA about her crush on Mitch?

“Actions have consequences,” she tells me.

“But I didn’t do anything,” I remind her.

“You, Miss Slaven, accepted an official game request, and in doing so, you digitally signed a contract with your government,” Brimley chimes in.

“Coffee guy said you were drafting me, not that I signed up.” I look back at Dobbs.

He arches an eyebrow, and gives me a shrug that basically says oops.

My jaw locks, chin jutting forward as I clench my fists.

“The draft is unconstitutional. However, you were given a list of terms prior to accepting. Two times you signed over your support to your government.”

Everything becomes a hazy shade of red, and I’m not sure who I wanted to punch more: Dobbs or my Elders at the front of the room. My head drops back, eyes on the ceiling as I let things marinate. It’s my fault. Yes, it was a trick, but essentially my accepting the request led to our kidnapping, and why? Because I skipped the fine print.

All I can do is let out a fat beefy sigh.

“Your goon sent me a game request that I foolishly accepted. That’s on me, but I never signed up to be your little solider in wherever the hell this is. Neither did my best friend.” I hold up my hands, fingers wide as I mimicked the woman’s gestures. “But, hey! It’s all okay, because you need my help…”Muscles twitching, I stand. “What now? Am I supposed to kill more of these aliens for you, and will he be here glaring at me while I save our world?”

Thom clears his throat as he leans toward me. “You may want to lay off the insults on Dobbs. It’s kinda like poking a hornets’ nest.”

I hunch to hear him better, twisting around to look at Dobbs. “Well, that sounds like gobs o’ fun.” Climbing onto the chair, I thrust my fist into the air. “Here are my demands. Number one: I want Beth Anne Frail at my side. Number two: we want to leave this place, now. After that has happened, then we can discuss our helping you with your little problem.”

The old lady’s spine goes rigid. “Miss Slaven, this isn’t my little problem. If the aliens break our line we have no means of defense to stop them. Right now, we’re attacking using drones intended to obliterate asteroids that move too close to our planet. How much longer do you think they’ll hold?” She steps away from the podium and makes her way to me. “This isn’t a joke, child.”

“You’re the one that made it into a game. I’m just a kid who happened to be dumb enough to play it,” I say, jumping down.

Thom stands, blocking his side of the row.

I turn the other way to find Dobbs waiting with his familiar half grin.

“You have no right to hold me here. It’s against the law.” I would have to push through the chairs and make a run for it, but I’m not sure which way I should turn. The hallways are like a maze, and I never saw an exit sign.

“This is all perfectly legal, Miss Slaven.” The woman keeps talking as I toss folding chairs at my captors, watching Dobbs, Thom, and Lt. Johnson bob and weave to avoid them.

How convenient. A tiny little disclaimer I missed, and here I am, trapped. They think they’ve won, but it’s only an assumption. You don’t survive living outside without having a trick or two up your sleeve. My biggest challenge is getting past Dobbs; Thom isn’t much of a threat. He looks like to a dog that wants its ear scratched. With his head tilted to one side, and all the panting… Okay, so that isn’t really happening, but his face is clear and smooth—making him look naïve and impressionable.

I don’t know why I’m being an ageist against someone so closer to my own age, but I just know he won’t attack me. Maybe it’s because he seems too fixated on becoming my friend.

“If you won’t abide by the contract you signed, I can cite The Patriot Act,” the woman says. “Technically, you were playing on a secure government server.”

“He sent me an invitation.” As predicted, Thom steps back. Lt. Johnson circles to my right, and Dobbs gingerly moves forward. He isn’t afraid of me. Pity. This makes me mad, so I throw a chair at him. He ducks, and I miss him a second time.

“The records we have show you and Beth Anne Frail hacking our system. That’s a federal offense.” Other than her voice growing louder, she looks unaffected by my attempt to escape. She’s obviously versed in veiled threats. This isn’t Dobbs’ first rodeo either… but Thom and Johnson are looking a little green.

They are my ticket out.

“Nothing clever to say?” Dobbs’ voice grates on me as he moves closer still holding his stupid coffee.

My heart hurts from beating too hard. Breath running jagged, all I can hear is my History teacher talking about World War II. “For the Allies it was simple killology. Fight or flight.”

Flight would have to wait. I wasn’t done fighting, yet.

Grabbing another chair, I swing at Thom. He jumps out of the way creating my escape route. Launching the folded rectangle of metal at Dobbs, happily, it connects. I’m so proud of myself I miss the split second in which to flee.

Thom is rebounding, so I make for Lt. Johnson. My assessment is dead wrong. The Lt. tackles me and secures my wrists with zip ties. My nose is bleeding, so I try to stanch it with my upper lip, but it won’t work.

Dobbs shiny shoes are inches from my face, and I turn, flinching from how tender my cheekbone is. It’s probably bruised. I’m glad I’m not going to prom.

“Put her in holding with the other one,” he says. “A few hours together will change her mind.”

I look up at Dobbs and smile when I see the blood smeared across his cheeks and the bridge of his nose. Our eyes meet, and I see a hint of remorse. At least that’s what I think it was, one blink later and he looks pissed off again.

Licking the blood off my upper lip, a metallic flavor fills my mouth, and I smirk. At least I’m not the only one bleeding.

They snip off my bindings and push me into a new sterilized white room. Spinning on my heels the door slide close and the next leg of my imprisonment begins. Are insane asylums everywhere jealous of this place’s splendid interior décor? Asylum owners must be pretty sad they they no longer dominate the market on enamel white, chrome, and extreme solitude. It seems my new landlords are determined on embracing the market of psycho chic. I am almost sad the walls aren’t padded. Think of the money they can save on bedding if the floor and walls are appropriately upholstered? Hell, why stop there? Who doesn’t like a plush toilet? All soft and squishy for your tushy…

The only bunk in the room is occupied. My mind rampages as I try to figure what this new trickery is, because the shape of the body is clearly not Beth Anne’s. My initial guess? They lock me in the room with a mini-rancor monster that I’ll be forced to have a death match with.

Okay, fine. It was a human form.

Hesitantly, I inch toward the body with its back to me. Two steps away, I gasp and run to the bed, drop to my knees, and reach out to a tattered and torn Mitch. His face is black and blue. Right eye socket is swollen, there are scraps on his chin, and that’s only what’s clearly visible. I figure if I lift the blanket I’ll be greeted with more scrapes and bandages.

“Mitch?” I say, fearing he won’t answer. “Mitch, are you okay?”

Okay sounds a lot better than alive. My fingers go to his hair, dirty and matted with dried blood and god knows what else.

His eyelids flutter open, and I exhale.

“Roxanne?” My name slurs on his broken lips and puffy tongue. His body rolls on the mattress in a haze, but his vision seems to clear when he finds me. “What happened to your face?”

Reflexively, my hand brushes over my newly gotten badges, and I smile. “I tried to escape. Turns out it’s not my forte. And how did you get your new fancy face? I’m guessing pavement and boxing gloves?”

“Trying to save you and Beth Anne.” He looks around franticly.

“They separated us. I’m assuming she’s in another room similar to this one.” But I can’t figure out why they would put me and Mitch in one room yet stash her someplace different.

Mitch read my minds. “She’s fine. I’m sure she’ll be here soon,” he offers. While we speak, he doesn’t move. His injuries are worse than he’s letting on.

“My head is pounding,” he tells me.

“Drugs,” I say. “If you close your eyes it helps.”

He listens, and I leaning against the bed my brain churns.

Outside of Mitch, the bed, the toilet, and sink, the room is empty. The only other thing to keep us company is a set of well hidden cameras. There are four, but keep it to myself. At some point I’ll have to explain to him how we got into this mess in the first place. But he’s drifting off, which will give me time to figure things out. Hopefully.

Whoever designed the room took care in tucking the cameras behind lighting fixtures keeping them out of sight, yet, to me, they’re obvious. If I designed this place, I would’ve hidden them in the same spots. Knowing the cameras exist makes my first hour in confinement enjoyable. Just as knowing I’m being watched is surprisingly liberating.

I figure their plan is intimidation. Lock me in the room with my wounded friend, and I’ll start shaking in my worn out kicks. It’s a not so subtle message. Look at this boy beaten and battered! You’re next. They won’t hurt me too badly, because they can’t. They need me. If they didn’t, I wouldn’t be there in the first place.

If I’m going to be honest, the compound is like the freaking Ritz Carlton. It’s heated, and there’s a bed that has legs and elevates you off the concrete floor. There’s a functioning toilet and a sink. All these pesky little things are missing in the Dungeon. I mean, we have a toilet, but sometimes we have to dump water in it to get it to flush. I live a life of glamour. Bask in my awesomeness.

Two hours pass before there’s any activity. Another jumpsuit clad Toady brings us a tray of food. Each plate holds a delightful array of processed and dehydrated crap. I hardly notice because my mind is occupied on planning our escape. I’m not really hungry.

This room, just like the one they put me and BA in earlier, boasts a knobless door. What do a knobless door and high tech cameras have in common? The room is run by remote. That little deduction changes the playing field. I may not be able to pick a lock with a hairpin, because I’m bald and hairpin-less, but if I can get my hands on a remote or a cell phone, I’ll be able to set us free.

Once Mitch and I are out of the room, all we have to do is find BA and leave, as one singular, formidable unit.

One perk of being dragged to this lovely insane asylum suite, I was able to finally spot a big old green EXIT sign. It’s posted a few hallways back from our current location. I smile at the camera. My plan is coming together. The only parts that need work are finding BA and getting my hands on a device to spring us. Okay, so its two major parts, but I assume she’s nearby, and one of the silver-clad Toadies will get close enough I can swipe their phone.

I look at Mitch. How is BA holding up? I hoped she isn’t swallowing the shit they’re shoveling. We know what we need to live a happy life. I have confidence their, “you need to save the world,” spiel wouldn’t taint her views on that.

This alien conspiracy won’t change things.

I shove the tray of crap away and flip off one of the cameras.

“Calm down, Rox,” Mitch says, half awake.

“I’m going to get us out of here,” I tell him.

“How?”

Before I can answer, someone’s coming. The electric fingers seek me out again, and a second later, the door swishes open. It’s Dobbs. Behind him are the original Toady One and Toady Two, waiting to do his bidding. Good little puppets. Neither Mitch nor I move.

Fun Fact: In our current predicament Dobbs can hurt us if he wants to. Good times. Take that civil liberties!

Knowing there is no way to stop him only made me itch. Trying to attack or resistance can end poorly, but it’s all we have. If he wants us to go with him, the most we can do is make him wait, solely because it’ll annoy him and that’s liberating in its own right.

“Where’s Beth Anne?” My voice sounds surprisingly nonchalant, even to me.

He holds his coffee in one hand and toys with his phone with the other. Gaze lowers and he leans against the door frame, ignoring me. I watch the black rectangle, knowing our freedom relies on me stealing it from him. If he slips it in his pocket, I can easily pick it back out.

“She’s training with Thom.” He pushes a button on the side of the phone and slips it out of sight. Finally looking up and with a grin, adds, “Turns out she wasn’t as opposed to the idea as you two have been. Last I saw, they were looking over game footage. I even heard her say she was excited to be part of something so a-ma-zing.”

I sit up quickly, knocking over the tray of food. One of the metal plates wobbles, making a clanking sound. The idea BA is working with them is complete bullshit. Dobbs is making it up to get under my skin. The muscles in my right arm flex, and suddenly beaten and bruised, Mitch is at my side holding my arm.

“BA wouldn’t cave so easily,” he says softly, pulling me to his side, and wrapping an arm around my shoulder. He looks to Dobbs’ whose jaw clenches

Noting his reaction, I shrug Mitch off intending to advance on Dobbs, but doubt grips me and I am motionless.

“You’re lying,” I say, feeling unsure.

My skepticism must be apparent because Dobbs suddenly look satisfied sipping his coffee with a grin.

He nods and retrieves his phone. “That’s exactly what is happening. You, on the other hand, are in this cell because you miss dumpster diving for food and sleeping on dusty cement floors.” He glares at Mitch and something passes between them. Hostility, maybe?

“You were a bonus catch.” His voice is gravely.

Mitch grunts.

At the same time I ask, “How could you know I used to dumpster dive?”

Dobbs points with his coffee hand. “I know things, and I know this place is better than where you were two nights ago.”

“Who made you the authority on my life?”

“Bonus catch?” Mitch interrupts sounding angry. In the short time we’ve been friends, I’ve never heard him sound less than happy.

Dobbs lips go thin. “Maybe bonus isn’t the right word. What do you call those tiny insignificant fish that latch on to the bigger, more important ones?”

Annoyed, I charge. Mitch gropes for my shirt but misses. Dobbs is unmoving when I slam into him.

“You know shit about me. You know shit about any of us. Whatever your little printouts say are lies. I know because I made most of the stuff up to get out of the hospital.” I punch at him with each word, but it’s like hitting a statue cemented to the floor.

He looks amused.

“Rox, he’s goading you,” Mitch warns me, but I’m too angry to listen.

“She wouldn’t side with you,” I insist.

Brushing me aside, Dobbs unlocks the screen of his phone. I memorize the pass code as he brings up a video feed of BA talking to Thom. The video’s in an array of grays, but I can tell from her body language she’s into him. Guess Mitch kissing me won’t be an issue any more.

“Hold on! There’s more.” Dobbs taps a drop menu, and suddenly, we hear their voices.

There are too many wars sucking up all the spare money needed to build a space program large enough to fight an alien invasion,” she’s saying.

Thom leans closer, like he’s about to tell her a secret. Looking around a couple times, he finally says, “It’s a cover built for this very reason. While the world watches the latest television skirmish, we work to get the things done that need to be taken care of.”

With wide eyes, Beth Anne nods slowly, “That makes sense…

Dobbs snickers.

“Told you.”

I want to punch the phone out of his hand, and then sock him in the temple.

Winking, he pushes the phone closer. “Wait for it,” he says.

If you stay here, you’ll have the chance to help be part of this secret program,” Thom is explaining. “The public loves a good war, but I doubt they’re ready for an alien attack, but you are, aren’t you? You’re ready to be part of the real problems and help us fine real solutions.”

Thom sets a hand on her shoulder, gently running a thumb across her collar bone, and begins to lay it on thick. He tells BA she is one of the best hackers alive and how she can save the world. The longer he speaks, the more she melts. I count four different times she touches his arm for no reason, and then she starts tilting her head from side to side in a cute, look at me, I’m a girl, kind of way.

All I can do to stay calm is to rake my fingers against my stubble-covered head. What is she doing? I want to believe somehow Dobbs created this video falsely, but I know it’s true. Not some hack decoy created to get me to turn on her. I can’t, not now that she already turned on me…

“I’m sure there’s something he’s not showing us, Rox.” Mitch sets his hand on my shoulder, which I immediately shrug off. He keeps talking but all I can hear is the murmur of his voice. Defending Beth Anne only makes me want nothing to do with him.

Satisfied, Dobbs slides the phone into his pocket, and I force my gaze on him. He’s a lot younger than I originally guessed, but somehow he seems much, much older. Maybe it’s all the hate he has for me combined with all the rage I have for him, but something forces me to really look at him. His black irises search my face. A staring contest. There’s no way I’m going flinch first.

“Follow me,” he demands, leaving the room.

Mitch shuffles forward.

“Not you.” Dobbs points to one of the guards and back to Mitch. A silent order. One of the Toadies steps between me and Mitch.

“What if I’m not willing to follow you?” I ask.

Dobbs doesn’t answer or even glance back. Watching him walk away, I contemplate what to do next. The need for answers outweighs everything else, so I jog to catch up. The guards stay in the room, with Mitch, leaving me a small amount of freedom.

Without the constraints of guards or zip ties, I walk freely down the corridors half a pace behind Dobbs. Lean and tall, his body weaves from hallway to hallway, leading us into a large room loaded with computers, a wall video, matching desks, and at least sixty people. Out of all of them, I only recognized two: BA and Thom. When she spots me, she looks excited. Dobbs wasn’t lying. I keep my expression flat, and when her face falls, I know my message is received. To me she’s a traitor.

“But you said…” I hear her say to Thom but miss the rest as Dobbs leads me out of earshot.

He takes me down a hall and into an office out of view from the main floor. I follow into a short hall of doors, only stopping when he reaches for his phone in front of the last door on the left.

The door slides open, and he steps inside. Hovering in the hallway, the room looks small and tight like a coffin. Inside we will be detached from the rest of the compound. Why can’t the floor swallow me up, so I won’t be alone with him? The long electric fingers surging around me, acting like a lasso. They pull me forward, even as I try to my heels into the ground. They carry me through the door.

He’s directly on the other side of the doorjamb, leaving enough space for my body. Once I’m inside, the door slides closed and the magnetic locks engage. Being so close to him makes me uncomfortable. I’m unsure of his intentions. His ever watchful eyes are on me. At first, there’s a level of desperation. It’s like he needs to say something, and for an instant, I want to reach out and touch him, but I don’t. As my hand hovers next to his face, his jaw clenches and the current breaks.

He steps away and waves to a chair, but I have no urge to sit.

“Suit yourself,” he says like nothing happened.

Not waiting for a response, he sets his coffee down, grabs a small white remote, and points it at a blank wall behind his desk. The wall comes to life showing video feed.

“How well do you know our solar system?” Dobbs asks.

I’m still trying to figure out what his deal is, but assume I have a better chance of solving the mystery of the sphinx first.

I turn my gaze to the grainy image of rocks bobbing in an empty black sky on the screen. My forehead begins to ache. Oh please, not now. My stomach lurches. Jupiter sits predominately in the distance, so large it’s the size of an over sized beach ball, making it extremely hard to miss.

“Well enough,” I manage. My knowledge of the solar system is pretty intimate. General outer space knowledge makes my heart quiver in my chest. Trivia and fact, especially the asteroid belt, which is by far my favorite part of our solar system, are imprinted in my brain. I loved the idea of a river of rocks drifting like an iron ore gate cutting our solar system in two. I’m not sure if it was 2001: a Space Odyssey or Empire Strikes Back that triggered the initial fascination. Whatever did it happened before I lost my memory. Then one day, I’m watching Hubble 3D at the IMAX and all my undying love comes rushing back.

When the first ship moves into view, it’s only for a split second. Quickly slipping behind a larger asteroid out of the drone’s camera rage, the movement is nearly too fast, but I catch it.

“This is the footage from when you were playing.” Dobbs points the remote, and the images speed up. Rapid movements so hurried it’s hard to tell what is happening. Finally, he finds the section he wants and stops the feed. His arm is outstretched, finger pointing at the wall.

“That’s you. That’s Mitch. This one is Beth Anne. The ETs use the larger asteroids for cover. You three surprised them.”

He doesn’t have to tell me, I remember. I was working hard to beat the game, so I hide in a corner of the Dungeon, vainly trying to tuning out BA and Mitch. She complained about losing too often and Mitch wanted to quit, but I needed them both to win. I began yelling out commands to keep them playing. With them executing my orders, I suddenly had two extra arms. That meant I could execute my plan faster and more efficiently, thus ensuring my success.

The longer we played, the easier it became. With each attack, I anticipated the alien’s next move until I finally was one step ahead of them. It was like having a direct link to their brain waves–-exactly like how I could feel Dobbs outside our holding cell before he walked in. I can’t explain it, but suddenly, every maneuver they have up their sleeve is laid out in front of me. No matter what they do, the aliens can’t get ahead of me. The game isn’t over. Right after our attack, I swooped in and eliminated the ship. Wait, I mean, we eliminated the ship… Okay, fine. It was really me.

Pet ego gently.

Whatever, it really was all me. The operation was my plan, their movements my strategy. BA and Mitch did what they were told to do. May sound mean, but at the end of the day, it’s the truth.

“This is the part.” Dobbs points again. “Right here.” He presses a finger into the image.

An asteroid zipped past my drone as I looped over the top of the rock, using it for cover before slipping behind the alien craft, finally firing before they could react. It was the second kill, even more impressive than the one brought up at the debriefing.

From the reaction of my enemy, I knew no one ever used the maneuver before. The aliens only expected forward strikes, because that was the easiest way to attack with the drones. The drones weren’t designed to perform intense aerial maneuvers, but somehow, I managed it, crossing some unspoken line drawn in the chalky space dust. Until we showed up, no one thought to cross it. Morons.

I look at Dobbs, still watching the feed and randomly making comments like, “There,” or, “We never had confirmation that craft was there, but you knew.”

Out of the corner of my eyes, I watch him. When he isn’t leering, he looks serene, handsome even. His shoulders are relaxed, and the crease in his forehead fades. For a second, I take it all in. The ships on the wall, his new demeanor, and all the pretty things he’s saying to me. I could understand why BA would want to stay in a place like this, but I also know this moment won’t last.

“You see why we recruited you,” he says, but when he says “recruited,” I hear “kidnapped” and the moment is over.

The “k” word slips out of my mouth.

His face jerks toward me, his trademarked scowl reappearing.

“We’ve been tracking you for weeks, did you know that?” He turns his back to the screen so I can see the full level of his disappointment. “This was a last ditch effort.”

“Why didn’t you ask?” Knowing they had been searching for me only makes things creepier.

“We asked your foster family for permission to recruit you, but your foster mother wouldn’t allow it.”

This is the first sentence he spoke I actually believe. Maureen, the woman who took me in, is a poster child for a foster mother-–as long as someone’s looking. The moment we were alone, she ignored me like globs of dust on the ceiling fan blades. If I was whisked off by the government, she would lose the monthly stipend, a stipend I never saw a dime of. If she lost the money, how else would she be able to get all of her scratch ‘n lose lotto tickets? Get a job? Yeah, right.

“Then suddenly you went from sixteen to twenty-one, and I no longer needed permission.” He smirks and turns his palms up to the ceiling.

Dobbs points the remote at the screen, fast forwarding the image. “This is what happened after you adjusted the game and bowed out.”

A small fleet of three ships attacks full barrel and breaks the line, and one makes it through. It’s different than the rest, larger and obviously a battle ship. It takes out more than half the drones in a couple second, including the one I abandoned.

“So that’s my fault?” I cock a hip, tilting my head to one side, annoyed.

“It’s an obvious retaliation move from your attack, coupled with the fact you rendered more than half our drone useless.” He turns off the screen. “So yeah, it’s your fault.”

When he sets the remote on the edge of his desk, my mind goes blank. I no longer hear the words coming out of his mouth. My escape hinges on this moment. I need the remote, or I’ll be stuck in this underground bunker forever.

Closing the gap between us, I rise onto the tips of my toes and square off with him. “But I never went looking to play the game, so this is your fault for sending me the invitation, not mine for doing what I always do. If you really have been watching me, then you know that’s my thing. Kinda stupid to bring in a hacker who likes to, I don’t know… hack shit?”

His jaw clenches. “You’re missing the bigger picture. If that ship makes it here, we’re all screwed. Plus…” He pushes me, and I trip back a few steps as he grabs the remote once more. “This is what happened as you and your little friends skipped your way to listen to bad music.” The screen jumps faster now, and I watch a new fleet of ET ships come into view. “Yes, you took out a flag ship, but you left our defenses weakened, and they’re using the opportunity to rebuild. That leaves us with one option: you get into one of our chairs, fix your modifications, and start playing again-–now with full knowledge of what you’re doing. Because if you won’t, we all lose, including your pretty blonde boyfriend.” He nods toward Mitch’s drone.

“He’s not my boyfriend.”

“Sure looked that way outside the Whiskey, or do you go around kissing all the boys?” He sets the remote on the desk.

I bite my tongue. It takes every ounce of energy not to tell him to go to hell, explicitly.

“Whatever,” I say instead, glaring as I move closer to the desk.

He turns and stabs at the air where the images were only moments earlier. My fingers graze the edge of the remote, and I slip it into a pocket in my jumpsuit before taking a step back.

“I’d like to go back to my cage now.” I walk to the door, and stop with my arms crossed, but he won’t budge. I made him angry, and it’s my turn to smile.

The moment my lips curl towards my eyes, he backs me into the wall and placing hands on either side of my face.

“You have no grasp on what you have done. This isn’t the plan.”

I have no idea what he’s talking about, but I don’t comment. What plan? This closeness isn’t like when we first came into his office. That was electric, this is suffocating.

I hate how he’s watching me. Like he’s picking me apart and waiting for me to figure out something I don’t know. His head shakes from side to side and I anticipate his next move.

Whatever he’s thinking, he keeps close to his vest. I can’t make sense of anything.

“What plan?” I finally ask.

Practically growls in frustration, he presses his nose into mine. “You have two hours to decide to work with me voluntarily. If in two hours you don’t agree to do so, you’ll never see your boyfriend again. He’ll never see anyone ever again, and BA will wake up on the side of the road somewhere far, far away and completely alone.”

“What plan?” I ask again as he pushes off the wall. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

He wipes a hand over his mouth. “You have to stay here.”

“Why? You wanna throw me away, too?” I’m confused by his sudden sense of desperation, and the feeling makes me enraged.

“No.” He leans in so close I can smell the spicy scent of his deodorant. “I won’t throw you away. I’ll drag you from your room, tie you to a chair, and leave you there until you fix every line of code you screwed up.”

I no longer care about his stupid plan. I’d rather poke the dragon. “What if I starve to death?”

“Guess I’ll need a new hacker.” He’s not backing off completely, hovering close enough to smother me with his presence.

All my sarcastic quips disappear as my fear of what he’ll do next grows. The energy burning off him is filled with rage, and it eats up every last ounce of my defiance.

I’m trapped like a tiger in a three by five concrete cell. Moving to my right, he shifts his weight, blocking my escape, so I try for the left, with the same result. Each move eats what little personal spaced I have left. There is no way to escape. The smell of coffee on his breath and static on his clothes pushes into me. I try to squeeze past him, but he wouldn’t let me move an inch.

I know his office is secure. Silence blankets us and I feel certain if something happens, no one will hear me scream. The thought makes me feel faint.

“You’re not powerful enough to do any of that,” I say, my voice giving away my uncertainty. Panic floods my veins, my fingers numb. The longer he stands over me, the more I want to claw at my neck and attack his face.

“I can do whatever I want. You know why?” His voice is coarse and low. “Because all those years you can’t seem to remember, I know what’s in them, Roxanne Slaven. I know who you are, and I’d be more than happy to use it against you.”

COMMAND CENTER EARTH

IMG_0483Roxanne “Rox” Slavin is a brilliant street kid who lives with her best friend, Beth Anne “BA” Frail, in an abandoned store front in West Hollywood. Obsessed with hacking and computer games, Rox has a five-year-plan to guarantee her future–which includes attending MIT. The only thing she hasn’t figure out are the first fifteen years of her life–none of which she can remember. But that’s about to change… When Rox receives a game invitation for Command Center Earth on her cell phone, she accepts, not realizing it’s a trap. Sent by a covert branch of the government, Command Center Earth is really a recruitment tool used to search out young resourceful men and women–much like Roxanne, Beth Anne, and their best friend Mitch. These young men and woman are Earth’s first line of defense against an invading unnamed alien army. Digital soldiers, drafted to stop the first intergalactic war. Kidnapped, Roxanna and her friends wake up in an underground bunker, brought there by a mysterious man named Dobbs, who won’t let them go. The only thing he will do is rub in Roxanna’s face that he knows everything about her, including the fifteen years she forgotten.

COMMAND CENTER EARTH is a 6 part series.

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —

PART ONE

The problem with amnesia? It’s a sneaky bitch. One second, you’ve accepted you’ll never remember the first fifteen years of your life again, and the next–bam, memories try to surface and trigger a migraine. This explains why I’m balled up on the floor and pressing the heels of my hands into my eye sockets, a small vain attempt to quell the pain.

Even though it never helps, I do it every time.

“Are you going to eat the last blueberry scone, or can I have it?”

My best friend Beth Anne Frail, I call her BA for short.

I ignore her question, my brain busy doing other things–like screwing with me. One second, I’m ready to yell, “Give me that scone,” and the next, I’m trying to decipher a series of images that have little or no meaning to me. You would think flash backs would be more insightful. Not so much.

“I’m going to eat it if you don’t answer,” she says, voice flat.

I can’t answer even if I wanted too. If I try to speak, the sound waves will tear my body into a trillion pieces of fleshy shrapnel. Said flesh bits will coat the Dungeon, making life look like a scene from some anime about exploding chicks. Wait, about exploding chicks with big boobs…

Okay, maybe that’s a little much, but that’s exactly how it felt.

When I set my drama anime episode aside, all that’s left is concentrating on the images.

First. Grainy image of a woman with a red bob with a wide smile. This is a common one. I’m assuming she’s an important adult figure in my life, or she’s Dana Scully from The X-Files. BA and I did just down load season one onto her phone. Alas, she was in the visions long before our discovery of 1990s pop horror.

Second. Red plaid flannel. Why would anyone want to wear red plaid flannel? Moonshine anyone?

Third. A logo too hard to describe. A white badge shape with a blue circle in the center, like some sort of insignia. Possibly another reference to the missing parents in my life. I know what you’re thinking. Maybe they worked for a security company and that was its trademark. Once again, not so much. I Googled the hell out of it and nothing came up.

Fourth and last. The man without a face. Tall, dark, and missing. He is in every vision, and all I remember is his steel gray jumpsuit. He always rounds out the visions. Him and the redhead, a human sandwich of confusion and puzzlement.

“Aw, man. You’re having an attack, aren’t you?”

See, BA catches on. Maybe not as fast I would like, but she got there. Yes, in case you are wondering, she consumed the blueberry scone before noticing I was writhing on the floor in pain.

I’m sure she was hungry.

Life lesson: If you’re starving, eat something. You’re welcome.

When you live on the street, you get used to an empty belly. If she wanted to eat the scone, so be it. Personally, I preferred the left-over fruit cups, but beggars and choosers and all of that.

BA leans over my crumpled frame to make sure I’m still alive. The movement causes her faded and worn vintage Bikini Kill shirt to billow like a parachute. Unintentionally, I stare at her bra covered breasts and the rest of her fleshy body before the fabric settles once more. She outweighs me by a lot, seventy pounds I think. I’m not calling her fat. BA is a good five foot ten inches, and I come up to the crotch of a grasshopper. Fine, maybe not that small, but I barely push five feet in my boots. Too small to be normal, too tall to be special, that right there about sums me all up.

Her dyed black hair tickles my cheek, but I hardly notice. The “images,”–a.k.a. stabbing pains–are shifting to my ocular cavities, and that means in a second, I’ll black out. I do every time. Later, when I wake up, I attempt to decipher the images. This is the portion I always fail, so shortly thereafter, I promptly give up and pretend I don’t care about the visions or my past.

You know, ‘cause not remembering your life really ain’t no big thing.

The “system” couldn’t care less about helping me find my bio family, so why should I? They only care enough to put me in crappy foster home where all those things you pretend are only in movies happen to nice girls like me and Beth Anne.

Note: Not all fosters are bad, but we weren’t so lucky and I’m really not up to talking about it. Thank you and you’re welcome.

That’s how I met Beth Ann, good old BA with her soft round face, clear green eyes, and the mouth of a sailor. We found each other in group. Got placed in “nice” homes, ran into each other in school, and realized both our lives were less savory. So, we declared each other family and found our own place to crash. Who could ask for more?

Terrorist, that’s who.

And we aren’t terrorist. No matter who tells you otherwise.

“Homework is complete!” Something I’m proud of. I may not know where I came from, but I sure as hell knew where I am going. Yes, at some point, I’ll have to shave off my little baby Mohawk, but not yet. Now I have to study, get amazing grades, defy the odds-and there are a lot of them-and win. The prize? Full ride to MIT. At least that is my dream. I think BA wants something more local so she can stay in Los Angeles, but I long for the prestige. I want to be able to go to an interview and say, “Why, yes! I went to MIT, and now you have to hire me because I’m a freaking genius.”

“No fair. How do you always manage to burn through AP calculus?”

This is our routine. I finish first, do a little dance as BA complains, and keep to myself I’m actually taking Senior AP Multivariable Calculus and Advanced Applications. What you don’t know can’t hurt you. Well, unless it’s cancer. I’m sure that would kill you regardless. Or ninjas… Sneaky bastards.

“It’s because I ate my Wheaties,” I explain skipping in a circle, humming One, Two, Buckle my Shoe and doing my best impression of a carefree school kid.

To the outside world, we’re weirdoes with our worn out retro band tees and not your mama’s funky hair. I’ve kept mine partially shaved for as long as I can remember, roughly four-hundred and fifty-five days, and BA has a penchant for pigtails. At school, we get picked on by the zombie losers who can’t survive away from their ever so cohesive and mind numbing conformity flock, but so what? When we graduate, BA and I will smoke those assholes. When one of them stops me in the halls of MIT to say “Hi,” I’ll act like they’re strangers- because they are.

Child services would flip if they ever found out we lived in an abandoned building behind a Starbucks, but to us, it’s perfection. Living alone means we can do what we want, when we want, and not be bothered, but if it ever came out, I’m sure we’d be expelled.

Living in the Dungeon is Christmas morning every single day. Just like when you’re five and got that Rockin’ Rider Pony you dreamt of all year. Cinnamon pancakes and a slice of perfection.

Once, many moons ago, the Dungeon was some sort of kitchen supply store, but the economy dipped and I guess people needed less mega powered stainless steel blenders. Their loss is our gain. BA found it crushin’ on a guy who works at the Starbucks next door. That’s the story how we went from bridge sleepin’ to having a roof and free WiFi. This meant gaming, and if that was the icing on the cake, the big fat red cherry is the all you can eat buffet of left over Starbucks snacks. Granted, they were taken with care from the dumpster out back, in the beginning. Now there was a nice chap who liked to deliver it pre-dumpster.

The only problem with the place was the cold. We bought supplies from money raised by performing random hacking jobs. Our primary clientele are teens who flaked on good grades and are willing to pay for minor GPA “adjustments” prior to college submissions. For the most part, we have everything we needed, especially since one desperate night we tried to remedy our drafty space by snatching a few yoga blankets from a studio down the street. The owners never seemed to notice they were missing. That or they’re just too damn Zen to turn us in.

BA chews on her lower lip with a mischievous grin.

“What?” I skip my way back to her. The soles of my worn combat boots scuff the dust-covered floor. The sound echoes like footsteps in an empty church.

“What’s the look for?” I ask, sinking to the floor. “You’re hiding something.”

She wiggles her eyebrows. “Close your eyes.”

Closing them like a good girl, I listen to her shuffle around, setting her homework aside and digging through her backpack. A zipping noise followed by more shuffling that’s obviously paper. Whatever it is I can tell it’s thick. My guess-a stuffed envelope.

Squeezing my eyes tighter, fighting the urge to open them and see what she’s hiding from me. “Oh my god. I’m gonna lose it if I can’t look.”

“Just give me a second. Promise it’ll be worth it,” BA says lightheartedly. In this moment she’s happy. It’s radiating off of her, and that makes me thrilled. “Now you can look.”

My mascara-coated lashes stick together momentarily. Once free, I finally see a California driver’s license with my photo hovering two inches from my nose. All the information is correct. Hair: brown. Eyes: blue. Heights: as tall as a ladybug.

Then I look at the date of birth and squeal.

“Guess who’s going to see Bitch Manifesto on Friday at Whisky a Go Go?” BA barely pauses before adding, “We are!”

I hug her so tightly we tumbled to the ground in a tangle of hair, arms, and laughter. Bitch Manifesto is the most amazing, incredible, intelligent, ridiculous all girl-band ever in all of space and time. They are the soundtrack of my life, my favoritest band in the entire known universe. Up until now we could never see them live because we’re not twenty-one.

She lets me go, and I lay on the dirty flooring of our lovely home, holding the license as if it’s made of eggshell, afraid it will shatter into a million pieces, because that’s how good things work for me. One second life is perfect, and then a 3000-foot shit storm knocks me on my ass.

I tilt the license back and forth watching the watermark shimmer. It is the real deal.

“How?” Not that it matters. She worked her hacker magic and procured us two authentic photo IDs allowing us the freedoms our age held out of reach.

Sitting on her knees, she points at the back of the ID. “The strips work too. If the bouncer swipes, it’ll tell him we’re legit!”

Baffled, I flip the card over and look at the thick black line. This isn’t your mother’s run of the mill fake ID; somehow Beth Anne Frail changed our everything. Every second of our lives down to our birth certificates has been magically altered. As far as California was concerned, I’m twenty-one, and that made my life limitless.

“How…”

“Best you let the questions slide, my tiny friend.” She scoops up her textbook and starts working on her homework again.

Every girl deserves a mystery. I’m just about to say as much, when my iPhone explodes, causing me to jump. Both of us to laugh.

I tuck the ID inside my wallet out of fear of losing it and pick up my phone. The screen reads,

Remote Access Request.

Accept Connection from 216.110.94.228?

Command Center Earth by J. Dobbs (CJD)

You’re assistance is being requested to pilot a drone mission.

Stop the Aliens at 1 Ceres.”

My right eyelid closes, and my nose scrunches up. It is obviously some game, and even though I’m not sure who’s sending the request, I’ve gamed long enough to make an impression.

“What is it, Rox?” BA leans over me, staring at the screen. “Are you going to accept?”

The million-dollar question… My thumb hovers over the icons. Yes? No? Accept? Deny?

I am too intrigued, and the day has been perfect. Hell, I didn’t even get into a fight after school.

Life Lesson: Never fight at school, kiddos. It can ruin your chances at scholarship money.

The game seems like a gift from the gods. My thumb hovers and BA asks a million questions I block out. “Your assistance is being requested to pilot a drone mission. Stop the Aliens at 1 Ceres.”

A drone mission, in space, in the asteroid belt, and I would be fighting aliens?

Who doesn’t want a chance to kill a bunch of green and gray ETs who are–most obviously–coming to zap us all dead with their laser guns? Alien terrorists. Jerks. All of them.

So I tapped, “Accept.”

And that’s how it all begins.

The graphics are like nothing I’ve experienced on my iPhone before. I’ll have to dig up a little info on the company who created the game–once I’m done of course. Not now. Now I need to acquaint myself with my new obsession.

It isn’t a Space Invaders Retro Rip-off. It has some first class gaming graphics, including a choice of peripheral view or a full three-hundred-and-sixty, on top of the ability to move around independently. I can see other drone fighters in a line next to me, and a battalion of alien ships built like nothing I could have imagined right in front. Basically, the screen view is looking out a fighter jets cockpit, but instead of a jet, you’re piloting a drone.

I play around with the controls. Nothing fancy. They sit in a transparent layer over the main screen. The game is a no brainer. It’ll take two hours, if that, to beat it. This is no intricate and sophisticated game. Those are the kind I prefer to play and are still dominated by PC or console games, but it’ll do.

Most first person shooter phone games aren’t anything to write home about, but I am intrigued. It’s set up to look like a “testing” center. What would happen if I pass the test? I hope it’ll be a unicorn. No… a golden unicorn. A golden unicorn is a mixture of a magic lamp and a unicorn. It’s the luckiest thing I’ve ever made up. One day I will possess one and then the world would be mine.

Would you like to engage?” The letters scroll across the screen, blinking three times before disappearing.

I tilt the phone to one side, set my sights on an alien target, and fire. Would I like to engage? Did Napoleon want to take Russia? Granted, I assume my ending will turn out better than his.

Twenty minutes into game play, a loud rapping echoes through the Dungeon. Obviously, I ignore it and attack per instructions from Command Center Earth. The only person it could be is Mitch, the diligent Starbucks employee who BA has been crushin’ on since the day she discovered our beautiful palace. Turns out he isn’t only cute, but kind, generous, and general nice as well. Like a real sport, he packs up the throwaway food in a nice clean trash bag and delivered it to us.

I feel BA’s eyes burning holes into the back of my skull. A talent of hers that surfaces when I do things she doesn’t care for. Like when I go from celebrating her IDs to becoming consumed with Command Center Earth. This makes her no bueno. Spanish. I’m fancy!

“Check your phone,” I told her when the glaring began. Once she saw I sent her an invitation, she calmed down.

The pounding starts again, this time even louder, and Beth Anne is back to working her magic and trying to laser beam me.

“What?” My thumbs breeze over the screen like it is their only purpose in life. The Aliens… Yeah, no cool name. Totally lame if you ask me. Why not the Archimedes Titans or Planetary Palestine? Nope, just “Aliens.” News flash! It’s been done. Any way the aliens are using asteroids to hide from me and the rest of the drones. At first I think they’re a backdrop, but Command Central Earth turns out to be a multi-player game no one is able to beat. Yet.

The scoreboard is practically empty, and the only names listed score so low I’m surprised they’re mentioned at all.

“It’s Mitch,” BA says in a voice laced with warning.

Translation: “It’s the boy I have a crush on, and I can’t answer the door because if I see him, I’ll freak out, so you have to answer before he goes away and I missing seeing him at all today.”

Deciding to hold my ground, I say, “And?” which sounds annoyed, even to me, but I’m frustrated because this one alien keeps evading me and it’s beginning to piss me off. Plus, how will she ever get him interested in her without talking to him? You don’t need to be a Sudoku champion to figure that puzzle out.

The fist pounds turn into heavy kicking at the base of the door that makes a loud thump! Thump! Thump! followed by an even louder string of cusses.

“I can’t talk to him.”

“You won’t talk to him,” I reply without looking up. What is with this stupid ship? It almost anticipates my every move, and boy, do I have some sweet moves. I just… needed to… get past… this stupid freaking mother puss…

BA kicks me, sending my phone sliding across the floor. The pounding starts again as my phone chirps that I am KIA. No golden unicorn for me… god damn it.

“You’re such a bitch sometimes, BA. It’s Mitch. Just open the door for once, and maybe you two can talk and fall in love, and you can stop interrupting me when I’m clearly trying to save the flipping planet from earthling hungry aliens.” I crawl onto my knees with the intention of chasing after my phone.

Her brow knits with a fear that only consumes her when she’s around a boy. In her mind, BA thinks all boys wanted someone small and slight like me. It isn’t true, but you know how that can be, the grass is greener and all that plant watering stuff.

“Fine. I’ll get it,” I concede, rising to my feet.”But that means tomorrow, I’m taking the day off to beat this damn game and you’re going to take amazing notes and bring me my damn homework. Deal?”

She nods her compliance, and I go to answer.

There’s a signal if someone pounds on the door. It’s best not to just pull it open, even if you already guess it’s a friendly barista delivering dinner. I tap three times.

“Christ, I thought someone found you,” comes from the other side.

I unlock the dead bold and yank, using my other hand to pull Mitch inside. He’s taller than BA, at least six-foot three, with the long curly blond hair and blue eyes you expect in Los Angeles. Two months earlier, he found me trapped in the dumpster. Again, I would like to state for the record, I’m short, but him finding me led to our nightly food delivery, so I’m not complaining.

By the way, I do know how this looks. Me in a dumpster. She’s so smart and has a job but is dumpster diving for food? And that’s where your vision has been obscured. If you saw the amount of food dumped at the end of the day, you too would be diving in. Well, maybe you wouldn’t, but I never planned on falling in. Sadly, sometimes the person who is supposed to lend you a hand loses grip on your legs and you find yourself lying in a pile of day old bagels… and other gross things not worth mentioning. Ever. Blech.

Right now, I’m fine, annoyed by BA, but fine because Mitch brought the mother lode of dietary fare, which makes me happy. A big clear trash bag full of pastries, sandwiches, bagels, and muffins, a few lovely fruit cups, and if that isn’t enough, in his other hand is an oversized box filled with the daily dark roast.

“Brad wasn’t in tonight so I grabbed coffee and a few bottles of water, too.” He sets down the bag, hands me the coffee, and pulls two oversized bottles out of the back of his pants. “Everything okay in here? I was pounding for, like, ever. Was about to see if someone drove through the front of the store and squashed you both in the process.”

“You know that only happens to places on street corners. We’d have a better chance of a bear pawing its way in,” I say, which is kinda true, okay, not really but I’m itching to get back to playing and he isn’t leaving.

I glance at my phone.

Mitch adds, “Hey, why is your phone halfway across the room?”

Brushing past him, I snatched the bag o’ pastries by his feet. “Thanks, man. We really appreciate it. Don’t we, BA?”

She mumbles something I can’t make out. I glance back to find Mitch concentrating hard on translating the babble. It screws up his face, and I watch him physically try to make his ear drums worker better. What? Didn’t you know if clench every part of your body, the volume on your ears turns up? And you poop your pants…

“I have to get my homework done,” I lie, but it’s more polite than saying, my friend has a crush on you and can’t talk when you’re in the room, so thanks for the food. Please don’t let the door hit you in the ass. I really need to get back to this game and ignore the both of you. Even I’m smart enough to know you can’t be pissing off the one dude that goes out of his way to feed you.

Mitch snaps to attention, blue eyes looking down at me.

“Oh, yeah. Homework. I forgot you two still took part of the daily grind. That’s smart.” He taps his temple. “I should probably go.”

“Yeah, you should.” I slide the bag toward BA and go to my phone, beyond annoyed and on the cusp of angry because Beth Anne still won’t talk. Mitch is hovering, and my phone is chirping reminding me I’ll have to start over.

I’m not a fan of starting over. I’d much rather get in and get out. So I decide to push on and grab my phone off the floor, dust the screen on my pant leg, and tap it to life.

Would you like to play again?

The words pulsate silently, saying, “you know you want to, you know you want to, you know you have to,” so I accepted the challenge.

I look up to find both Mitch and BA staring at me.

“What?”

BA looks around the room before landing on me, but Mitch’s gaze never wavers off of me. Not once. “Mitch wants to know if he could hang out for a bit?” she says.

I shrug. It’s a catch twenty-two. If I said yes, she’ll be mad I allow him to stay. If I tell him to leave, she’ll say I’m being rude. So I decide the best answer is to move to my favorite corner and begin my second strike on the incoming alien forces. They can figure the rest out on their own.

The next day comes faster than I would have liked. I send BA to school with a forged letter from my fictitious doctor and get to work on the Command Center Earth. I’m not proud to say it, but it takes me all day to conquer the damn thing. An extraordinary personal low, especially since it’s a stupid phone game.

With only four hours until Bitch Manifesto is due to hit the stage I finally blow up a ship, cementing my name in the top slot of the score board. Yes, Command Center Earth is my bitch, and this I smile.

You have no idea how happy I am.

None. There are no words to describe how beating that damn game makes me feel. Elated is only a nice try.

In that moment CCE, a.k.a Command Central Earth, is my favoritest game in the world. Why? Because it’s straight hard, yo! No other game made me work so hard for a win. Not a single one. Well, none I can remember. Everything before amnesia fest 2014 is inadmissible in this court. Maybe there’s a tougher game I defeated years ago in the twelfth hour, but seeing I can’t remember means it doesn’t exist. Get it? One thing I am sure of I’m now eligible for a Golden Unicorn! Not really, but in my mind that thing is boss, yo.

At some point, I send Mitch a game request so he plays with us. Then I leave him and BA on their own private dirt floor islands as I conquer and defeat, but the more times they lose, the angrier they become. Being the amazing friend I am, I take a minute to help them out.

The aliens are tricky little buggers who like to use our drones and asteroids as temporary shields, thus deflecting my attacks before causing any real damage. There were a lot of near misses, until I found the pattern. Suddenly their maneuvers became a choreographed dancing gauntlet and all I had to do was move to the same rhythm. This alone made it more worthy of a game. Winning was nice, but dominating felt euphoric.

We killed the aliens, stopping them from destroying our human infested planet. Yes, we were heroes. Jealous? I know you are.

I look at the screen and take in the scoreboard hailing our three names and three impressive scores. We are deserving of fanfare and attention. This victory means there is only one thing left to do-break the code to make the game harder for everyone else and then reboot it. By doing that, we would keep our covenanted top three slots for a long, long time.

Roxanne “Rox” Slaven supreme winner and champion! I know… I’m the modest type.

Hacking conquered games is a little something both BA and I like to do. You know, to help keep us the legends we deserved to be. We call it fixing. In our year of best friendship we managed to fix over a dozen games. It is our thing.

This all happens three hours until Bitch Manifesto, and after BA is back with all the schoolwork I missed from my “sick day.”

Once annihilate the game, Mitch makes excuses to leave for a tick. BA says he’s acting weird. I don’t care. He’s gone, and we eat. We study. We complete homework assignments. I freak out every few minutes because I’m going to see Bitch Manifesto. This makes it increasingly hard for me to concentrate. They. Are. A-ma-zing.

Two hours until Bitch Manifesto and Mitch is back in the Dungeon-still acting weird. BA invites him to the show, even though she didn’t make him one of her special IDs. He says he has a good fake. When he shows it to us, we crumble in hysterical laughter. All we can do is hope the bouncer is blind.

“Yeah, well at least I’m eighteen. Not sixteen like you two,” he sulks.

“What the hell difference does that make? The clubs still twenty-one and over,” I shoot back.

One hour until Bitch Manifest and I refuse to sit still any longer. The walk takes about forty minutes, and I’m not going to get there late. Both Mitch and BA assure me there are opening bands and that shows never start on time, but these are just excuses to procrastinate. Being in the same room as Acid Wash, like, the greatest lyricist ever to walk the planet, and Frieda Base, the bassist, Cara Bomb, the guitarist, and Crash, the drummer, is one of the most anticipated moments of my life.

Seeing them live is bigger than winning Command Center Earth. These are the women I long to be like, so smart and talented. When I found them at the beginning of my new life, they were my salvation. All I could think was that these were the kind women to look up too. It didn’t matter what I couldn’t remember, what did was setting my sights on something better. Something bigger. Seeing them live was going to be epic.

My phone beeps somewhere along our walk, and I dig it out of my pocket to see another request from J. Dobbs. Seems he doesn’t like to get beaten by a girl. I decline and go to slip my phone back into my pocket when it goes off again.

“Who’s that?” Mitch points at my phone with his chin.

“The creator of CCE seems to want a rematch.” I hit decline again, turn the ringer to vibrate, and tuck my phone away. This is one of the rare moments in my life where I rather go outside than hide in our Dungeon and play video games. I want to be out in the world, among the people, absorbing their energy.

We walk the last stretch to the club while badly singing our favorite songs. Mitch is silent since he isn’t as well versed as we are. I’m not sure why he even came. I’m also not sure why he’s walking nearly on top of me. So close I trip on his big feet and have to I grab his hand not to fall into traffic. After I right myself, he tries to keep my hand in his, but I use a light pole as an excuse to pry us apart.

When we finally get to the club, a line snakes down the sidewalk and we join them shuffling to the door like a bunch of hipsters on a zombie walk. I size up the bouncer. Arms bigger than my skull, head bald as my ass, ass hidden in a pair of baggy black pants, and skin covered in more ink than the LA Times could fit in the Sunday post. Well, I’m guessing. Do people still read news papers?

“Hey.” BA nudges me.

“What?” I ask, still eyeing the bouncer. He has to let us in, end of story. “What?” I repeat when she starts shaking me. Her gaze is glued on a black van parked across the street. “No worries, BA. There ain’t no kiddies nearby.”

“I saw a guy in a suit… He was just there. He’s been following us. I saw him a few streets back and caught him watching us a few times.” Mitch pushes us forward until we come face to face with the bouncer-extraordinaire.

“I’m sure it’s nothing, Beth,” I assure her, not really caring at all.

“I saw him,” Mitch says, wringing his hands. Beth swoons, and I roll my eyes at the both of them. “Looked familiar. Do you think he looks familiar, Rox?”

“Why the hell would I know a guy in a suit?” I asked, dumfounded by how stupid the question is. Suits are the polar opposite of my life.

Mitch shrugs, eyes going to the van. He starts picking at the cuticles on his left thumb with his index finger.

“Dunno,” he says, and I roll my eyes again.

“You know ‘im?” Beth Anne asks, way too interested.

Mitch’s eyes dart around, making him look like one of those Kit-Cat clocks, and I wonder if it’s his dad or something. “Must be from the shop, I see so many people in suits when I work. Could be any of ‘em.”

BA goes to say something else, but I groan. Some old man in a freaking lawyer getup is boring. There is music to be had and the bouncer is giving us a look like he’ll kick us to the curb if we don’t mind his rules.

Rule of life: Do not piss off the person who holds the power to ban you entrance to a show you desperately need to see.

“ID’s,” he grunts in a way that let us know he’s said it before.

We hand them over looking anywhere but his face, until he chuckles.

My nose scrunches up. Angry. “Someone tell a joke?”

The beefy man’s shoulders slack, right brow arches, and an impish grin appears on his hard face. Seems we’ve done something amusing, guess I missed it.

“If you’re twenty-one, I’m George Clooney.” Chuckles turn into belly laugher as he pulls out the swipe machine and run our IDs. “Well, shit.” The card swishes against the innards of the magnetic strip reader when it’s swiped a second and third time. Tired, our new friend sighs, and hands back the proof that we’re awesome.

“Ladies, you’re welcome to enter. As for you, surfer boy, no go. That’s a bogus ID. Take a hike.”

“He’s with us, George,” I say, reaching for Mitch’s wrist.

The bouncer wraps a steroid thick arm around my waist hoisting me off the ground.

“If you want him with you, you gotta to stay out here. You’re choice, munchkin.” He sets me next to Mitch.

Why do adults find it necessary to be condescending?

I look around to find Beth Anne, figuring since she invited Mitch, she would help me get him in, but I watch her slip past the bouncer and work her way inside.

Mitch sets his hands on my biceps. Golden curly locks fall forward so he could see only me.

“Rox, it’s not worth it.” He leans in. His breath tickles my cheek, and chilly bumps dance across my skin. “Find me after. There’s something we need to talk about.” He looks back at the mystery machine van and lets me go. “It’s important, okay?”

“Um… sure?” I manage.

Before I can think of something clever to say, Mitch closes the gap between us and kisses me. My eyes go wide. I imagined this night in detail since BA gave my ID, but never once was kissing Mitch part of it.

“All right, kids, there’s a long line that you’re holding up.” The bouncer’s voice breaks the spell, and my body is shoved and rammed into as the crowd drags me inside.

“I’ll wait for you out front,” Mitch yells. “Find me.” He looks back at the van while he’s swallowed up by a sea of bobbing heads and leather jackets.

I find BA inside looking like a toddler who just watched Bambi for the first time.

I’ve never had a thing for Mitch. To be honest he really isn’t my type. Even though I didn’t make the first move, BA will blame me, regardless. She has every right, and I feel like a complete jerk for unintentionally hurting her. But instead of admitting it, I say, “What?” like the kiss is no big thing. “Com’on. Let’s get to the stage before we miss anything.”

Before she can answer I push my way inside, and leave BA to follow.

Let’s take a break for a moment. Maybe I’ll sing a little instrumental version of “The Girl from Ipanema.” What? Yeah, I know that song. Don’t judge me. Anyway, hearing such a lovely song will be a small Tarantino-esque warning that something bad is about to happen. That’s why I’m choosing it, because something bad really is about to happen.

Here we are, inside an amazing club waiting to see an incredible band, elbowing our way into the main room that houses a stage big enough for bands to move around and really get into it if they want to. The air is laced with the vinegary scent of stale beer and long forgotten cigarettes.

BA nudges me toward a flight of black metal stairs, or maybe it’s a subconscious assault because she’s angry about Mitch, I’m not sure. She mumbles something about a better view, but I’m not interested in a better view. I want to be on the floor. I want to be sandwiched between my fellow fans, drenched in the sweat of my favorite band. I want to stand at the feet of the women I idolized for the last year, not stare at the top of their heads.

Even if my best friend wants to decapitate me, I’m not going to miss it. It wasn’t my fault. He kissed me. Mitch kissed me, and the longer she is angry, the less bad I feel.

Weaving around Beth Anne, I drift into a stream of people as they trip over each other to get the best spots. My phone vibrates against my leg, but I ignore it. It’s Mitch or another game request; either way, it’s nothing as important as where I am and whom I’m about to see.

“It would be better up stairs,” BA yells in my ear.

I shake my head. To say I hate when BA gets like this is putting it mildly. I loathe it. I loathe when she creates drama.

“Rox, you’re too short.”

“And you’re pissed Mitch likes me and not you.” I say this under my breath callously.

“What?” Her voice cracks.

“I want to be by the stage.” I turn my back and keep moving, bouncing off people like a human sized pinball. Long fingers of electricity pulsate through me, forcing my heart to slam into its boney cage and everything else fades.

Closing my ears to BA’s yipping, and forgetting the vibrating phone against my thigh, the only thing I want to think about are the women carrying their instruments on the stage. Someone plows into me, but I hardly notice. The second push forces my gaze on a body wrapped in navy blue wool and not white cotton stamped with a logo.

The suit makes him stand out like a neon sign hidden in a book stack. “Excuse you,” I holler sarcastically.

He turns, and two black eyes peered down at me.

And the weirdest thing happens.

Everything around me stops.

The music, BA yelling, the crack of the mike as Bitch Manifesto starts their sound check–it all becomes a void of nothingness. Only the man is. I recognize him, but when I try to place him, my brain hurts. Still I can feel it, a connection created only from history.

I run through my visions list. Nothing fits. As I push harder, sharp pains stab my brain, leaving me no choice but to back off. The last thing I want is to trigger an attack.

His lips part enough for me to see a thin line of white incisors and canines. A playful grin and then he’s buried inside the crowd.

“You’re not even listening. I told you I liked him! Well, maybe not in words but you knew how I felt. How could you let him do that? How could you let him kiss you like that?” BA leans over me like a palm tree shading a beach, but no tree has ever yelled at the sand about a boy.

“Let him?” I scream, searching the crowd for the blue suit man. Somehow, he’s vanished. Finding him should have been easy. How he was dressed, how he carried his body, his age. I figure he’s in his early thirties, possibly late twenties. I’m not good with ages; I’m sure it has something to do with all the other things I’ve managed to forget.

Once again, amnesia equals stupid. The school shrink thinks it’s a defense mechanism, I could care less what the woman actually thinks, but I have to go see her or go to juvie.

Life Lesson: Shrink visits look better on school forms than incarceration for delinquent behavior.

“You know what I mean.” BA cusses. “Can you at least pretend to listen, Rox-anne?”

“Don’t call me that!”

Bitch Manifesto tears into their first song, silencing all hopes of finishing our argument and giving us an excuse to cool off. It takes two songs to forget we’re fighting, and only one for me to forget the man in the suit.

Here’s a question for you. Have you been to a live show before? It’s nearly indescribable, but I’ll try. Oddly, my favorite parts are the byproducts of music. I love hearing the singers pant into the microphone after a song when they’re out of breath. Then there’s the sound of calloused fingers sliding up and down electric strings. I even like when the drummer accidently hits the rim or drops a stick. All that lumps on top of music, sweat, beer, and screams, and transports you some place far away from your every day mundane life. Some place perfect, like a void in space where all you can see for miles are stars and nothing else.

When BA shakes my shoulder, I nearly bite her head off for interrupting the nearly nirvana like experience. Instead I shrug her hand away. She does it again and I slap at her, my anger from earlier resurging.

Turning to yell, my phone vibrated for the twentieth time. Utterly annoyed, I reach inside my pocket to pull it out when I see him again, standing by the bar with that same impish grin and a phone in his hand like nothing is happening around him. His gaze moves from me and BA to a group of men and women dressed like CIA agents from a lame action movie. When he looks back his smile is wider.

“We need to get out of here.” BA points to a door that dictates “emergencies only.”

Watching the six men and women circle the room like water in a flushing toilet, I think it’s the perfect door to use. When I look at the man one more time, he nods curtly, shrugs nonchalantly, and slips his phone inside his coat.

“What do you think they want?” BA used my small body like a battling ram to clear a path through the dense crowd.

Grabbing onto the lip of the bar as we corner, my mind is reeling to understand what is happening. Why do they want us, who knows? Regardless, it is clear we’re their objective.

Then it hits me. “Where did you get the IDs, Beth Anne?”

She swears. “I’m sorry, Rox.”

“Apologize later. Now we run.”

I look to the emergency door and take BA’s hand, but we never have a chance. The pain starts at the base of my skull and my body lurches forward. BA’s arm wraps around my waist as my knees buckle, forcing me forward in a clumsy fall.

“An episode?” she asks, even thought she already knows the answer. She flings my arm around her shoulder, dragging me toward the exit.

The pain creeps around my jaw, heading toward my eyeballs when the flashes began. Everything moves so quickly I can’t decipher any of them.

“Hold on,” she’s saying. “Hold on.” Her voice echoes down a long corridor.

But it’s too late. As the cool night air brushes my skin and the door alarm fills my ears, the black woolen operatives are on top of us. A thousand hands reach for us, grab on, and pull us apart.

The pain finally attacks my ocular cavities. Sinuses around the sockets expand and my capillaries pulsate and throb, as if working to burst and hemorrhage. Jagged trails of light attach to every moving object around me. Tears stream down my face as the pressure grows. Tiny needles attack the nerves running along my face and throat, and I squeeze my eyes close willing it away. It’s useless.

The pain is so crippling I pull at my own hair, attempting to release the pressure on my skull. This is the most intense attack I’ve ever experienced.

A scream escapes my lungs, as a giant hand wraps around my body. Another hand presses my lips into my teeth as Bitch Manifesto starts their encore, and I black out.

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —

Come back on June 8th for Part 2 of COMMAND CENTER EARTH

Copyright (c) 2015 by Aryn Youngless

Writing Dance Time!

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Back in August my son started school, and I had a grand idea to write a short story to post it on my blog. Yes, it would be that simple. Sadly, my life is many things, but simple is not one of them.

Now, it’s months later. Today is April 1st, but this post isn’t a joke. I am writing to finally say I am SO close to actually realizing this dream. Yes! Soon I will have a story to post.

You see, my little “short story” turned into a novella. It is five parts long and today I got back edits from my editor. Yay!!

(Doing happy dance and drinking too much coffee!)

As this very second I am about two months out from publishing the first installment on these here blog (and on Wattpad. If you’re on Wattpad, and would like to follow me, click here.)

Right now, I’m getting ready to edit/fix/edit, and work on a cover. I am excited!! Woot! Woot!!

Seriously, I can’t wait to share this with you and I hope you enjoy it. [insert super hyper *high pitch girl scream* that goes along with doing something you love.]

Mark your calendars!! June 1st is the date! Over the next two months I’ll start posting more information letting you know more. Right now all I’m willing to say is that it’s in the realm of science fiction.

OK! Back to editing!

Hugs to you all!!

xxoo -A