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.”
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.
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.
“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.
“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.
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.
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.”
“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.