edit/machine

There are so many catch phrases or one liners out there. The same words regurgitated repeatedly until they lose their meaning.

I find I use all of them. All.

Metaphor after metaphor. Line after line. Soliloquy on a page trapped in a vacuum known as the internet; a living thing called a blog.

We all need to have our own live action digital magazines.

Editing lost out the moment we claimed ourselves writers, artists, photographers, and independently published genius. The rooms are so crowded no one can get through–we all suffocated together.

I lost my breath years ago.

…somewhere shy of midnight…

I sit, leaning back in a worn and damaged swivel chair, palms resting on the equally frayed desk. Fingers cramped–because I know better, but still don’t care.

I sit, knees pressed together pulled up into my chest–because I’m sure that’s how Dickens’ did it, too.

I sit. I sit. I sit and I write. I write. I write, because that’s was the advice I received. My feedback. My life line.

And when I’m not sitting I pray my words capture more than the one-liners and worn out metaphors. That they are like, “a light in a sea of darkness.” (see, there’s one now.) And I hope I don’t shrivel up, but secretly I know I won’t.

I haven’t before.

I won’t now.

So I close my ears, squeeze my eyes shut, and tell myself tomorrow will be better. Because it has to be. Because I said so.

And then I write some more.

Delete is the greatest key designed. Backspace is a close sentence. And cntrl X has it’s moments, too. But never around worn out metaphors, and some times when a soliloquy when it runs to long. (and you forgot why you started in the first place.)

A Blog Post

I don’t have a clever image to post at the top of this page. Actually, I’m not even sure what I am here to write about–but here I am. A long time ago, when I first started blogging some 8+ years in the past, I was diligent about finding a topic, hoping online, and then pouring out my soul. Honestly, I was easier to write back then. For the first year I didn’t have a child, and then once I did, he was small, and I mostly talked about how I thought I was losing my mind because I had an infant.

They do that to you.

Drive you slowly crazy.

But recently I’ve been inspired to write post again. This will ensure small breaks from the vast amounts of editing in my near future. Yes, Command Center Earth is done (for now,) but I have two other projects that are past the first draft and now being molded into (hopefully) query read manuscripts.

This is fantastic news!

This also leaves a giant void where I create new things…

Trust me when I say I’m not “anti-editing.” Editing is a thousand times more important that the actual first draft (imo,) but if you’re a writer, and your mind is anything like mine, you’re ALWAYS coming up with new story ideas, plots, characters, twists, and on and on and on…

I hate to ignore the little voices, but editing will never be complete if I spread myself so thin I can’t concentrate on the task at hand. [The task at hand is “The Trials of Imogen Grace.”] <= this is a project I both love and am proud of, but it needs work. And that brings me back to this post. Since it’s not very feasible I’ll be able to sit down and write a new story with a new character (already rattling around in my head) I’m going to embrace the inspiration I get from reading my friends blog [read it here] and try not to be so much of a stranger on here.

Yes, this post is me saying hello. Hope you’re well! I’ll be around much more often, and I hope to hear from you!

Talk soon.

-A

“Visions” – Command Center Earth (part 6)

PART SIX

Thirty-six hours is no time at all when you’re being run all over hell and back. After I leave Dobbs, secretly praying his great escape plan will work, I have to pretend it’s life as usual. There’s no other choice. The only way off the planet is through Earth’s retaliation program.

Dobbs is the only person authorized to interact with me. I’m banned from being near Thom because of his little stunt, which is fine by me. Thom only wants me because he hates Mitch. BA says it’s simply a delusional crush. I feel “delusional” is putting it mildly.

I have another attack when I reach my room. The more I learn about myself, the more I doubt who I thought I was. It’s like rebuilding a skyscraper on a fractured foundation. I may look like I can handle it, but feel like I’m sinking. At any second everything will come crashing down around me.

Until I figure out the final memories, my foundation can never be solid again.

With Thom, my general theory is his being a child genius locked inside military compound most of his life scrambled his brain like an anti-drug commercial from the 1990’s. The government’s way of compensating for him not having a normal childhood, is allowing Thom certain perks no loving parent would even consider. Like permission to train new recruits without actual supervision, inadvertently allowing him to stash said recruit in a dark room to do with him as he will.

I don’t like that we can’t spring Mitch. I also don’t like the possibility of Thom showing up at my room for another night rendezvous.

Dobbs must feel the same way because the morning after the meteor shower field trip, guards are posted outside of my room. I never fall back to sleep, and decide before meeting Dobbs, I need to talk to BA and learn what she knows.

She’s about to walk inside the mess hall, when I find her.

“Can we talk?” I ask, not paying attention to the three silver jumpsuits walking with her.

Beth Anne lets out a heavy sigh. “Save me a spot in line,” she instructs her entourage.

A female jumpsuit nods with a look of pity on her face. It takes a second to accept the look is meant for me. They take a few steps closer to the mess hall’s signature arched entry way, but instead of going inside, they hover just out of ear shot.

Beth Anne grabs my arm, pulling me away from her new friends.

“No, I can’t talk,” she hisses. “Aren’t you supposed to be in Dobbs’ office?”

“I have a second. I was thinking…”

“Don’t,” she cuts me off. “Don’t think. Don’t do anything. Go to his office and keep your mouth shut.”

Glancing at her new friends, they’re waiting and watching. I wish they would go inside and disappear into the line of jumpsuit clones waiting to fill plastic brown trays with plastic brown food.

Beth Anne leans in. “This is too dangerous. We can’t be seen together.”

“But-“ My eyes snap back to her and away from the rows of beige folding tables everyone ate their three squares at. Everyone except me. I was still eating with Dobbs.

Her head drops to one side, eyes narrowing. “You would think that,” she says loudly and out of context. “Just because you can write code, doesn’t make you a god, Slaven. Anyway, I don’t have time to hang out with VR jockeys. I have real work to do.”

It’s an act, I know it is, but it still hurts because it’s so convincing. Her friends sneer, and we both know the general population thinks all is right in the world.

“I can’t wait till you blast off this planet, and I never have to see your stupid face again.”

Sulking away from the mess hall, my feet drag along the floor all the way to Dobbs’ office, trying not to take it personally.

Dobbs reassures me when we we’re alone, but I’m overwhelmed. I still don’t remember the two months prior to my launch to Earth or the specifics of what happened prior to meeting BA. On top of that, I have no clue what faculty means or why my mother thinks our family is important.

I’m sure someone will notice I’m on the verge of a breakdown, but Dobbs protects me. He keeps me out of the public eye by ordering me on lock-down in prep for launch. When I’m alone, all I think about is Mitch. I have no way to see him, but Dobbs promises me again he’ll be with us when it’s time.

Outside of Dobbs, the only person I’m allowed contact with is Beth Anne.

In that last day I spend more time her than I have since arriving at Command Center Earth. Dobbs calls her his Girl Friday. If anyone is around other than him, BA keeps up her act. When the people leave, she’s good old BA again. My best friend. The switch between contempt and contentment seems easy for her, and it leaves me feeling awful.

After a full day of this, I’m back in Dobbs’ office working on how to use the space suits supplied to us.

“If I have to keep repeating myself, we’re never going to finish.” It’s Dobbs, looking angry because I am distracted.

“Sorry. I was thinking…”

“The suit. That’s what you should be thinking about.”

It’s vastly different from anything I’d ever worn. Bulky at best. It’s the main flight suit I’ll wear for the entire two months to the Belt. Gross, right? But whatevs.

“Christ, Slaven.” Dobbs is shaking his head. Before I can say another word, he breaks down the basic functions of the suit. “Just tell me what the problem is.”

“Beth…” My shoulders slouch forward.

“It’s taken care of,” he says.

That’s supposed to be the end of it, but I need more.

“You say that, but I can’t remember,” I start, but he waves a hand for me to shut up.

“Doesn’t matter. You need to pay attention.” He begins unhooking my suit. “If you mess up, you die. This isn’t a game, Slaven. You die.”

“Why do you act like you know everything?”

“Classified. But if you have half a brain, you’ll start listening.” Dobbs looks smug, but he’s right. If I want out, I need to know all of it 100% or they’ll ground me and I’ll be stuck here forever.

“One answer is all I’m asking,” I push.

“One.”

“Beth Anne.”

“That’s not a question; it’s a name.”

I stare him down.

Finally he adds, “I just answered that question and would like to note your trust issues our outstanding.”

“With good reason.”

“You weren’t always like this.”

We both know I can’t remember what he’s talking about.

Dobbs moves around the desk and snatches up his travel coffee mug, chugs the contents, and sets it down. We watch each other. It’s a game of chicken, who will talk first.

He steps in front of me, tugging on the front of my suit, leaning in so close I can smell the coffee on his breath. His eyes fall to my mouth, slowly inching up to my eyes. “She’s the only human. No one else but us.” He lets go of me and his expression morphs into a frustrated looking growl. “Now, let’s finish learning this suit or you won’t be able to launch.”

I want to say more, to talk everything out, but the look his undeniable and I’m not in the mood for a fight, so I run through every safety measure and assure him I understand how the suit works. His grimace smoothes into appreciation as I tap out all I’m required to know on my fingers. I specifically name everything he demanded I know, and finish with a loud sigh before looking at him. When I do, his appreciation turns into pride. He stares for awhile. He’s weighing something I’m not privy too and then picked up his clipboard.

“What about the visions?” he asks. He wants me to tell him something, but I’ve already told him everything I know, for the most part.

“What about them?” I pull at the suit, but there’s no give. It’s the type of clothing that requires assistance to get in and out of, and I’m the only person interested in getting it off me.

“What do you see?”

The last batch of visions included Dobbs, but I’m not ready to talk to him about it. Not until I understand the bond I feel between us. “Everything I already told you, all the stuff you said not to talk about. Especially the whole faculty and family thing you won’t explain.”

“It’s your job title and you have a nice family.”

“That doesn’t clear it up for me.”

He shrugs. “You used to trust me.”

“And you’ve been nothing short of an asshole since I’ve met you a month ago,” I say, trying to pick a fight, but he doesn’t take the bait.

Staring at the floor, a long breath passes through his nose, and the corners of his mouth move up a hair. Finally, his eyes meet mine once more. “I’m glad most of it has come back,” he says.

My brow furrows. Everything about this man confuses me. And then I remember the first day I was in his office. The argument, the strong electrical current pulling me into the office, it makes my heart skip a beat.”

“You said we had a plan,” I say.

Deep lines cut in around his eyes and mouth and dark circles pool under his eyes making them even more onyx. For the first time, he looks tired and worn. “We did. And now we have a new one.”

“So, you won’t tell me about the old one.” I nod my understanding. “Do you really remember everything?”

“Yes,” he says with a tight voice.

Giving up on the suit, I hope if I’m quiet enough, he’ll fill in the final holes of my past, but he remains silent. Stepping closer, his body tenses.

“Cat got your tongue?” He’s at the end of his rope, and I know it. I should give him space, but want to know everything. How we got here, why we chose this planet, and who he is to me. I want to know how Mitch fits into things and why Dobbs decided to infiltrate an agency that’s mission is to destroy him.

Dobbs stares. My skin burns under his watchful eye, and I shift weight from one foot to the other dancing away the anxiety he’s causing. His features are impassive and unreadable.

And he wonders why I have trust issues. He expects me to be forthcoming but won’t confide in me. How am I supposed to accept this man as my savior?

Finally, he replies, “You’re dismissed.”

I look down and shake my head. “Dobbs, I can’t-“

He shoots to his feet. “Roxanne, we can’t have this conversation yet. Not until you remember everything.” And I know by everything, he means him.

“I was going to say I can’t leave in this,” I say, stretching my arms out so he looks at the suit.

Trudging to my side, he pulls and yanks at the suit until I can step out of its confinements. The stifled air in his office is cool and my skin prickles with chilly bumps. My arms wrap around my body as I shimmy under his arm and out of the space suit. He snatches his pricy suit coat off the back of his chair and covers my shoulders running his hands over my arms. Electric pins prick through the fabric, I’m no longer cold.

“Who are you to me?” My voice sounds more like a breath than actual words.

Eyes falling to his neck, his pulse flutters, and he swallows hard. I know I’m getting to him as much as the smell of a light musk, there’s something else, but it’s masked by coffee. His new trademark scent and it’s getting to me. Before I think clearly, I lean closer. My heart is racing. A breath catches in my throat as my arms snake around his shoulders. My eyes drop to his mouth. Is this what he won’t tell me about?

“Dobbs?”

I say his name, forcing him to look at me. There is only an inch between us. My tongue darts out and he watches it dance over my lips.

I want him to kiss me more than I’ve wanted anything, ever.

Abruptly, he pushes me away. “You blast off tomorrow,” he says, coldly. “Get some rest. Dismissed.” Yanking the coat from my body, he retreats behind his desk. “I’ll see you in the morning.”

The door opens, but I don’t move.

“Dobbs?”

His head drops. “Slaven, please.”

I lower my eyes and leave the room.

LAUNCH DAY

My night is sleepless, filled with thoughts of Dobbs’ and Mitch. Confused doesn’t begin to cover the tangled mess of emotions consuming me. For two hours sleep forces my mind quiet.

The morning of the launch Thom appears like an unwanted specter. Barreling down the hallway like a kindergartener after their first day of school trying to reclaim their missing parents, and corners me. Our bodies collide, as he lifts me off the ground, spinning me for a second before setting me on my feet. Dobbs told me to act like nothing changed since I got my original orders, but it was hard because I didn’t want Thom touching me.

Mitch is still locked away and Dobbs is nowhere to be found. According to BA he’s off finalizing our escape plans, but the look she gives me says otherwise and it makes her uncomfortable.

In Thom’s mind, I’m almost his girl, and soon we’ll jettison into the black for two months in a tiny space ship. I pray everyone knows what they’re doing, because I don’t want to be alone with Thom, not even for a second. Logic states we can’t remove Thom from the equation until it’s too late for him to retaliate. The boy knows too many higher ups who can get in our way. I have no choice but to pretend I don’t hate him.

Fun fact: I’m not a patient person. Waiting is stupid. And not knowing is frustrating.

“Are you all right?” He holds my hands, leaning in close. “I’m sorry I left you the other night, but I couldn’t jeopardize the mission.”

If I really had a thing for him, I would’ve been devastated he left me to fend for myself the night of the meteor shower, but Thom doesn’t see it that way. He wants me to be grateful, like leaving me to clean up his mess is a special gift.

“Ah…yeah? I know what you mean,” I said even though I probably never would.

“I can’t wait to tell you everything.” He looks around, making sure we were alone. We are. God help me. Before I can stop him, he pulls me into his arm and presses his lips to mine.

Anger surges through my veins as the burns on Mitch’s wrists and face pop into my mind. I hate this boy. I don’t want to be near him.

“Get off of me,” I scream. Working my hands against his chest trying to push him away, but he’s too big, and I’m pinned against the wall. “Asshole,” I say. “I know what you did to Mitch.”

He steps back, stunned.

I rear my right arm back, preparing to punch him square in his smug-looking jaw.

“I did it for you.” The look in his eyes tells me to be on guard. He’s not the kind of guy who won’t hit me because I’m a girl. If he wants to, he’ll swing.

“You did it for yourself.” Enraged, I don’t realize we’re not alone. Just as I’m about to haul off and swing, my arm is practically yanked from its socket.

“Let go of me,” I yell. Dobbs’ hand is wrapped around my arm, his face inches from mine.

“Move,” he orders, pushing me behind him, and he squares off with Thom.

“Guards,” Dobbs’ calls and Thom laughs.

“You can’t do anything to me, old man. I’m launching with Slaven, whether she likes it or not.” He smirks as the guards appear. “No worries guys. Old Dobbs here doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”

A guard takes Thom by his shoulder and pushes him into the wall. It’s Lt. Johnson..

“You are under arrest for the unlawful imprisonment of a Mitch Corrado,” Dobbs says, and Thom protest. “Please take him to the stockade.”

“I’ve worked here since I was ten-years-old. They’ll never side with you. I’m important,” Thom screams while Johnson drags him away.

Dobbs turns to me, a hand dropping to my shoulder with familiarity. “You were going to punch him?”

I’m not sure how to answer, so I don’t.

A smile plays on his lips, he is amused, and my body relaxes.

“Yes, I was,” I say, confidently.

“Rocky, I-“ He uses my birth name, and my stomach twists in knots.

“Yes?”

Letting go, he moves back a pace. “It’s time to suite up,” he says, takes my shoulder once more, and guides me to the prep room. “You have to get moving”

“Dobbs, about yesterday…”

He shakes his head quieting me. “All the answers you want are on the other side of launch.”

Spinning around to face him, I crane my neck to look up at him.

“I can’t go in there alone.”My chest tightens with anxiety. All the not knowing is killing me. Literally. I hate it. Okay, so maybe not literally, but I still hate it.

“You have to,” he says. Turning away, he starts walking after Lt. Johnson and Thom. “Trust me.”

Everything is completely out of control, and now I’m standing in the hallway lost and alone. Dobbs jogs to catch up with Lt. Johnson and Thom, who is shouting and thrashing against the lieutenant. My eyes close, willing him to look back.

Please Dobbs, look back.

Just when I think he won’t, he glances back with a wink, and I don’t feel so alone any more.

The prep-room is to my left. Inside are the suit technicians waiting, but my legs won’t move. Until Thom showed up, I was excited, but suddenly all I want is to be back in the Dungeon. BA will be doing homework, Mitch will bring us food, and I never heard of Command Center Earth.

But I really didn’t want that because if I haven’t heard of Command Center Earth, I wouldn’t know who Dobbs is.

“Roxanne Slaven?” a voice calls from inside the room.

Swallowing hard. It’s time to let go. I’ve falling too far down the rabbit hole to turn back now. Everything will work itself out; all I have to do is walk through the door.

“Roxanne Slaven? Where is she?” the voice calls again.

I step inside, and everything becomes a blur.

Colors and sounds swirl in shapeless forms, carrying me through suiting up with all the other recruits I only know by sight. In a daze, I’m loaded into a transport tube and sent on my way. I try to speak, but anxiety cements my mouth shut.

“Lt. Johnson will lead you to the boarding area,” the main tech tells us.

Lt. Johnson, ever the busy guard. He nods at all of us dressed in our Sunday best space suits and leads the way to the departure deck. One by one, my fellow fighter pilots board a transport taking them to their assigned ship on its assigned launch pad.

We’ll launch within minutes of each other, regroup once we’re in orbit, and fly to the Belt as a single unit.

Two by two, they send off, until I am alone with Lt. Johnson. I run scenarios of what’s next. Each ends with our capture.

“Your orders are to wait,” Lt. Johnson says.

“If I don’t,” I respond, trying to break the tension. “You gonna shoot me?”

Lt. Johnson shrugs and turns to leave. I watch him go and make my way to a plate glass window that shows the entire launch area. It’s expansive. Transport tubes carry the other teams to their assigned launch pads. It reminds me of intricate hamster tunnels.

“Hey, Rox,” a voice calls. BA is standing ten feet away.

“Beth.” I nod, noting she is fully suited up as well.

She shows me her big wide doe eyes, hair pulled back in a pony tail, helmet under her arm, just like me.

My hand goes to my short hair. It makes me feel like a boy, even if I don’t admit. I let my hand fall to my side and try to look happy.

“What happened to calling me BA?”

“Doesn’t feel right any more, I guess.” I refuse to admit I would always call her BA in my mind. “So, you’re coming with?”

She is weighting her words.

“You can’t give me a straight answer, even now?”

“I have to borrow a computer and lay down some code,” she says. “Stay safe, Rox. Don’t let them hit you outta the stratosphere.” There’s a grin on her lips.

I narrow my eyes, trying to remember why the words sounded familiar. Then it hits me. They’re Bitch Manifesto lyrics.

“Keep your feet planted in the here and now. Watch your back. Watch your back,” I continue.

Then we both say, “Watch your back or they’ll get ya. They’ll get ya till there’s no going back.”

“God, I love them.” I mean it. Maybe I was never meant to be here how I was, but if there is one thing I’ll take with me, it’s that band. One year of incredible memories, almost all linked to their music and Beth Anne Frail.

“I want to say goodbye and to give you this.” Meekly, she steps forward, hand extended. There’s a memory stick between her fingers. “It’s every Bitch Manifesto song I could find on the internet. Figured you’d want some good music to listen too as you, you know…”

I take the stick and hug her.

“I’m sorry.”

The warning sirens go off, signaling if we wait much longer, we’ll miss the launch. BA guides me to the mouth of a transport tube and pushes me inside.

“Aren’t you coming?” I ask, but she shakes her head. “Have someone else lay down the code. I can’t pilot the ship alone.”

She pushes a button to activate my transports departure.

“Just do what he told you and everything will be fine,” she screams through the double glass doors. Her hands look wide and flat smashed against the glass.

“What do you mean? I can’t do this alone,” I holler, pounding my fists against the doors.

The transport casts off from its dock, carrying me to my ship and away from CCE. The last image of Beth Anne I see is her pressed against the glass. I slip the memory stick inside the neck of my suit and try not to cry.

When the transport stops, I’m guided by a team of technicians who speak over me but rarely to me. They shift me and move me, placing me inside the cockpit I’ll be living in for the next two month. The memory stick rattles around as the radios flare up, saying things like, “Oxygen levels, OK?” and the tech replies, “Check.” This goes on for twenty minutes before I hear the second chair behind me being occupied.

I try to twist to see if it is BA but can’t turn far enough.

“Good luck up there,” the last tech says before closing and securing the hatch.

Everything is moving too quickly. I’m left with no choice but to trust whomever my co-pilot is.

We are last in line for launch. All I can do is my job.

This. Check.

That. Check.

Every question asked of me and every answer is given by me.

“T-9 minutes to launch,” ground control says.

The cockpit remains silent.

“Hello…” I try but am immediately shushed by control.

The next nine minutes are filled with a weird balance of anxious anticipation and time speeding faster than I thought possible.

“T-90 second. Close and lock your visors. Initiate O2 flow. Have a safe flight to the mother ship.” I am relieved knowing my escape is almost complete.

As the final countdown starts and the ship shakes, my mind clears.

“T-minus ten…” is said into my ear. “nine… eight… seven… six… five… four…”

“God speed, Slaven.” It’s my copilot.

“Dobbs?” I say, shocked and relieved.

“Two… one… Ignition, and lift off.”

Rocket boosters fire. The G-force punches me into the back of my seat, and I can barely breathe. I concentrate on my breath as the ship pushes higher into the sky.

When we break through the atmosphere, my body is weightlessness, and I let out a beefy sigh.

”Where are Mitch and BA?” I ask the second we’re clear.

“Look out the window before you miss it,” Dobbs says, voice calm. I can hear him shifting around, flipping switches, and pushing buttons.

The Earth is a blue and green glassy ball, dotted with white clouds. It’s dazzling.

“Are they still on the ground?” I ask despite the tranquility of the sight.

Instead of replying, he hums. The song is familiar, but I can’t place it. My frustrations come back.

“Answer me,” I demand, bracing myself for one of his quick comebacks. There is none. The energy around him is calm, almost reserved.

The radio crackles to life. “All fighters check in.”

Neither Dobbs nor I move to respond.

“Sh,” he says after a moment. “Just listen.” I hear another switch flip followed by, “Velquen.”

Quietly, two voices respond, “Velquen.” Mitch and Beth Anne. They’re in another fighter, and, most importantly, they’re safe.

“See, they’re fine. Now, be a good girl and look at your visor,” he instructs with that same calm voice. “Look at your visor. All your answers, they’re there.”

“What? How?” I ask, anxious. His voice, so very, very calm triggers an attack.

My ears ring and vision blurs.

“The screen, just look at it.”

A scream peels from my throat. It feels like my brain will explode.

“Don’t fight it. It’s all the final pieces.”

My eyes struggle to focus. Finally, I lock on a single focal point, a small gray square, a millisecond before a million of images burst before me. My eyeballs dart from one to the next as the pain expands down my spine. Everything is there. Every image I’ve ever seen during the blackouts and tons more.

My mother is there, my father, too. They’re inside our home. It’s our royal home near the capital. We have two. I see launch day with Mitch on the deck of a ship. He grins at me and I at him. I’ve known him since we we’re kids. He’s always had a crush on me, but while my family is liberal, my marriage has to be to someone of the right class. Mitch doesn’t fit the role, plus he’s too young, and I’ve never been in love with him. I love someone else.

Dobbs.

Jason Dobbs dressed in his silver issued space suit talking to my parents. I know why he was so angry the day they took me in to Command Center Earth. He spent a whole year frantically searching for me. The day he finally goes to retrieve me, there I am kissing Mitch.

I feel like a cheat.

Learning what a faculty is explained why we had been stuck on Earth for the last year. Without me, no one could go home. Without me, we couldn’t find the rest of the crew. I am the source. I burn brighter than other Commfreians. I am the key. Each exploration team has a faculty. It’s a position you’re born into. I’m the first one born of royal blood in over one hundred years.

That was why I can feel Mitch and Dobbs when they are near me. I’m an antenna that collects all of our energy and make our deep space trips possible. The fact that I was born a faculty on top of who my family is to our people, is why they didn’t tell me the truth.

Would you believe you’re a space princess that works as a physical and organic ansible? Me either.

Blinking my eyes clear, I look into the pure blackness of space as tears run down my cheeks. A small lake is forming inside my helmet.

“Dobbs, Slaven, what’s your status?” ground control tries again. “Report.”

“Why have you been so mean to me?” I ask, “I didn’t know, and the entire time you did but never said a word…” Every moment of my sixteen years–-no, every moment of my twenty-two years are clear in my mind.

“My orders were to get us off land and you know the rest now. I couldn’t jeopardize that by telling you the truth.”

“What about my amnesia?” I look around the cockpit at the all the buttons and knobs. It’s weird seeing them so tangibility within reach after months of working with their virtual counterparts.

“I figure it was caused by the crash. We’ll have you checked out once we’re on board.” He pauses, “I tried to find you. We were supposed to meet up in Los Angeles. That was the plan we agreed on, but you never showed. By the time I knew what happened the Americans put you in foster care as a minor instead of locking you in a hospital as an adult. Where I was looking for you.”

“You let them take me?”

“No. You didn’t show up for our rendezvous, so I sent Mitch out while I managed to get inside the government. He found you, but short of adopting you, I couldn’t figure out how to bring you to me.”

“I’m sorry about Mitch.”

He goes quiet. “It’s not your fault. You didn’t know about me. I’m sorry for overreacting.”

“You didn’t,” I assure him. “Thank you for everything, even if you were a little bit of a jerk at times.”

“Someone had to light a fire under that butt, or you would have opted to stay and become a Bitch Manifesto groupie.” He laughs and I want to pull off my suit and crawl into the back of the ship to be with him.

There’s guilt when I think of Mitch, but it will go away. I hope.

“No one left behind, my love,” Dobbs is saying. “When we went down in Russia, our objective became survival. I did what any of us would have.”

When he says Russia, I’m pulled back to that day in March.

Everything is on fire. Flames lapping the side of our craft as it broke apart. Our ship slammed into ground, creating a nest of dirt and debris. I’m trapped among the torn wreckage. My foot is caught under a crumpled chair, and Jason and Mitch work together to pull me free. Thinking back, I’m not sure how we survived.

“Can you move?” Dobbs asks. There is blood on his face, and I’m too stunned to answer. “Split off it two groups,” he orders, yelling in a direction I can’t see.

Pulling me up, I look around at Mitch and the rest of our crew. There are six of us in all.

Jason releases me, and move close to Mitch and the other when a man calls from the distance.

Ty v poryadke?” the man yells.

I don’t understand. It’s Russian. My Earth languages are limited. I know English and Spanish the best.

Ne dvigayutsya ya pomogu tebe,” he screams. Eyes narrowing, squinting to see what he looks like. All I make out is his red flannel. Our suits aren’t thick, and the chill in the air causes my teeth to chatter.

Mitch takes my arm pulling me with him, and Dobbs yells at the rest of the crew.

“Otto, Roney, and Blais. Once you’re clear, hone in on the ansible and find us,” Jason orders.

“Yes, sir,” Otto replies. She’s our second in command. Shoulder length pink hair, with a streak of blond in the front—we were chosen for how common we looked.

“Kristen,” Jason calls Otto by her first name. “There’s no time. You have to move.” The metal of the ship creeks from the intense mix of hot and cold, it wasn’t build to deal with both temperatures simultaneously.

“You heard our commander. Move.” Roney, another woman petite and slender like me, takes off running. On her heels is Blais, the third man on our mission who seems to be built out of solid muscle. Otto runs out last, cutting between Roney and Blasi, leading them into the tree-line.

In the distance, mountains tower veiled in snow, the wind kicks up, and I’m sure we’re going to freeze to death.

Mitch, Dobbs, and I make it to a dense cluster of trees as the helicopters arrive. We hid behind a set of thick tree trunks, and the Russian swoop in, scooping up Otto, Roney, and Blais.

Helplessly, we watch our friends dragged away.

My memories jump to an airport in Moscow.

As safety precaution, we chose three different flights to America. Mitch leaves first, and Dobbs chooses to go last. When my flight is called, he pulls me to him, lowering his mouth to mine. I don’t want to go. I don’t want to leave him.

I flinch, my head hurts, but I ignore it. All I want to feel are his lips, and his breath, intertwine with mine.

An airport attendant calls my flight number a second time, and I wrap my arms around Jason’s neck, removing what little space was left between our bodies.

A soft moan escapes his lips, just before breaking the kiss, and the waiting passengers whistle, congratulating us on our recent nuptials. Blushing, my head drops to his chest.

“I love you,” I say, hands tugging on his coat.

“And I love you.”

I fall asleep on the flight. Somewhere between Moscow and Los Angeles my memories are lost. Waking at LAX, I don’t know who I am or where I’m from. I wander the terminal for two days before the authorities declare me a runaway and arrested me for loitering. That’s how I ended up in the group home where I met Beth Anne.

Our ship rocks, bringing me back to our escape. We may be off the ground, but we’re not safe. Not yet.

“I remember Russia,” I tell Dobbs. My mind drifts to CCE and settles on Thom. Thinking of him makes me cringe. He hated Mitch over a crush. I can only imagine what he would have done if he found out who Dobbs was to me.

I rest my head back inside my helmet, replaying the last year of my life, and gasp.

“The ship I shot down…” I won’t blame Mitch or Beth Anne. I killed my own people.

“It was a rouse,” Dobbs admits. “The ship’s fine. When you engaged, they recognized your movements. They helped me stage everything for Command Center Earth’s benefit.”

That’s why my attack felt so instinctual. It was a training pattern we practiced in basic mission prep.

“I thought you haven’t been in touch with anyone?” I say.

“Come on, Rocky. You know we don’t fly this far without having contingency plans.” He laughs low in his belly. “I was almost certain it was you when I sent the invitation, but knew for sure when I recognized your moves. I hailed them, they played along.”

“You rigged it?”

“Would you have rather killed your own people?”

It’s a fair point. Of course not.

A siren fills the cabin, making me flinch. I lean forward and silence it. Soon, Command Center Earth will know something isn’t right. We need to run before they can stop us.

“Any more questions?” he asks.

“None that can’t wait.” I understand everything, now.

I remember everything.

“Jason?”

“Yes?”

“Thank you for bringing Beth Anne with us.”

“No one left behind, Rocky.”

My lips curl at the sound of my name.

“What about the other three in Russia?”

He banks to the left just enough I can see the second ship flying tandem with us.

“Do I need to go down and draw them in?”

“It’s being handled.”

Immediately I understand. There are boots on the ground. Another faculty is in play. One the humans aren’t aware of.

“Does that mean we can we go home now?”

He responds by firing the rocket boosters.

-THE END-

“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.