My mother held my hand so tight it began to hurt. She gave me a soothing look, but I could see the fear in her eyes. I didn’t really understand what was happening, but I knew all of the adults were scared. The thunderous booms that filtered down through the underground complex resonated regularly. Every thump caused Mom to jump a little, and each time she would squeeze my hand even tighter.
“Mom, you’re hurting me,” I said after another powerful explosion made the world around us vibrate.
“I’m sorry, honey,” she replied, relaxing her grip, then giving me a quick hug while holding a small smile on her face for a few seconds. “I’m just nervous.”
Another boom, this time louder than any previous, rumbled down the walls. I could hear other children crying, whimpering in the line all around us, along with the voices of parents doing their best to soothe them. Just like my mother was doing for me. I wondered again if I was dreaming.
A week ago, I was playing in the park, beating my friends at video games, and practicing with my school’s basketball team. At twelve years old, I didn’t pay much attention to the adult things like the news unless my father left the tablet screen open to the cartoons, though some of the cartoons made no sense. Chancellor Ryley was a woman who looked almost like my mother, and I didn’t understand why some cartoons showed her as a donkey, or why the aliens we were at war with were stuffing apple pies into her exaggeratedly large mouth.
Sometimes I liked to read the sports section. Earth was two hundred light years away, but they had all of the best sports leagues, as some sports couldn’t be played on colony worlds if the gravity or atmosphere wasn’t right. Once in a while my own name was in the local sports section, along with those of my teammates. Sometimes we got our pictures in the news as well. My father printed a hardcopy of the time I made the news by scoring the winning basket in the championship game when I was eight.
It was a distraction from the hushed whispering—sometimes even shouting and shoving—the adults did over what was happening in the Coalition. All of us kids were told not to worry about any of that, only to focus on the next game, the next day, the next homework assignment. It was easy for me, though it made me uncomfortable around certain adults, as they sometimes forgot to stop worrying and focus on the next game, day, or work assignment.
Thirteen hours earlier, Mom woke me up when it was still dark outside and instructed me to pack a couple of changes of clothing, a couple of books or comics, my comm unit, and a toothbrush. I could immediately tell that something was wrong, but Mom wouldn’t talk about why we were in a hurry to leave. I refused to move at first, demanding to know what was going on. All I could think of was that we were in trouble with the police and had to run, but that was secondary to the worry that I wouldn’t see any of my friends or teammates again.
Mom lost her temper when I sat on the floor and wouldn’t budge. She never lost her temper. We both began to cry, and she apologized while telling me I needed to hurry, she would explain when we got wherever she was taking us.
Once we were packed, she hustled me into the car and drove toward The Ring, the beltway surrounding Daedalus Prime, the capital city of the Daedalus solar system. I had a million questions, but I didn’t want her to scream at me again, not while the tears were still drying on my cheeks. I’ve never seen my mother so scared or angry.
We left the city after taking The Ring to the Western Tollway, the highway my parents took to work. It was slow going for a while, and I felt terrible that my mother seemed to cry for most of the drive, though she did her best to hide it from me. Tears would streak down her face, but she remained silent, the rasp of her coat sleeve as she dragged it across her cheeks every few minutes the only sound other than the muted world beyond the car.
By the time we hit the cutoff and began the slow climb into the Spineback Mountains, her right sleeve was soaked like a dishrag. She glanced over at me every so often, but she didn’t say a word until we turned down a road and came to a stop at a roadblock with a giant iron gate behind it. Four very scary looking soldiers stood around a little shack near the gate, all armed with shiny plasma rifles.
“Keep your hands where the soldiers can see them,” Mom instructed me before rolling down her window as the soldiers fanned out. One of them approached our car.
“This is a restricted area, ma’am,” the soldier said, his tone all-business.
He leaned down and glanced across her to me, no doubt seeing the obvious signs that both of us had been crying as if we’d just watched a sad movie, then back to Mom. The soldier’s eyes softened the otherwise hard look all soldiers are supposed to show potential enemies. Mom reached into her coat pocket, which caused the soldier to take one hand off his rifle and put his arm out to his side, his fist raised in a ninety-degree angle.
The other three soldiers immediately looked even more alert. They didn’t raise their rifles, but they were definitely paying attention, and I was sure they could easily fill our car with plasma in an instant. Mom pulled out a plastic ID card and handed it to the soldier next to her window. He removed a comm unit from a leg pocket and slid the card through the device’s slot. We waited in silence for a few seconds until the comm chimed. The soldier handed the ID card back to Mom.
“Please drive forward to the officer’s parking area then approach the main doors on foot, Captain,” the solder said.
He gave her a snappy salute before walking back to the shack where the others stood, rifles still pointed halfway between the ground and our car. Mom didn’t say anything, but she returned the salute after rolling up the window, then drove slowly through the opening gate. I was so full of questions, even more than before, but I still didn’t want to risk another outburst of anger from her. I especially didn’t want to make her cry again.
We drove along the paved road for ten minutes before coming to another gate. The soldiers on either side didn’t try to stop us, only saluted Mom as we drove past. The soldier on my side gave me a wink and a smile as we passed. I saluted him back, mostly as reflex from having grown up as a military brat. I didn’t smile though. Mom saw my salute and reached over to ruffle my hair. She tried to smile but gave up after seeing the confused, frightened look on my face.
“I’m sorry Denny. I didn’t mean to yell at you earlier.”
She began to cry again. I couldn’t stop my own tears after seeing hers. We held hands for the rest of the ride to the parking area, neither of us saying anything. A soldier directed us to a parking spot when we pulled up to another gate, this one a simple steel barrier that could be swung to the side. Mom shut off the engine and we sat in silence for a while. I almost started in with my questions, but she turned to me, letting go of my hand to grab my shoulder.
“Denny, listen to me. I’ll answer as much as I can as soon as I can, but for right now, I need you to be a big boy—”
“—Mom,” I interrupted, hating once again when she tried the “big boy” thing on me. I’d outgrown it by the time I was seven, feeling that I was smart and mature enough to already be a big boy. She knew I hated it, and hadn’t said such a thing to me in years.
“Denny, listen to me. Don’t interrupt.” Her tone edged back into a growl, the same as it had before losing her temper earlier. “I’m sorry about asking you to be a big boy, but this is important. I need you to walk with me into the complex, and I need you to not say a word and keep your hands to your sides. The people here are very serious, and while they understand kids will be kids, they won’t understand if you decide to wander off or touch anything until we get to where we are going. I can’t emphasize how serious these people are, Denny. I don’t think they would shoot a child, but right now… It’s best you do exactly as I say. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Mom,” I said in a small voice.
“I mean it. Just follow me. Someone will come for your bag. You can take a book or a comic, but you have to leave everything else in the car for now.”
“Why?” I asked, already irritated that I wouldn’t be able to keep myself entertained with my comm while adults talked about boring things.
“Denny…” She looked like she was about to get angry, then said, “They have to scan everything that comes into the complex to make sure you aren’t bringing a gun or a bomb in, or worse, a computer virus.”
With that, she pulled the door handle and got out of the car. I did the same, then walked around to her side and grabbed her hand. I thought she might tell me to keep my hand to myself, but she just looked down, gave me another smile, and began walking toward the two huge doors set into the side of the mountain.
At the doors, another soldier swiped her card then instructed us to follow the yellow line on the floor. It took almost two full minutes for the doors to open, but they were eerily silent. In all of the movies I had watched, giant doors like these were always clanging and banging and squealing as they opened or shut. The only sound I heard was the hiss of escaping air.
When we stepped inside, the temperature dropped enough to make me shiver, and the air smelled funny. Not bad, just different. It reminded me of what a hospital smelled like, which brought back a terrible memory of my grandmother lying in a hospital bed connected to tubes and machines that seemed to take up the entire room. I didn’t want to think about that.
A big yellow line led us down a series of corridors. I was fascinated by the line, as it seemed to change depending on where we were supposed to go. It looked like it was painted on the floor, but no paint I could think of was able to simply disappear or change directions like this one did. I almost broke my silence to ask about it, but I was a big boy, and I could follow directions. We didn’t see a single person until we finally arrived at another set of doors, these ones larger than a normal door, but nowhere near as humongous as the ones that we’d come through from the outside. This time there was no soldier standing guard, only a small slot for Mom to slide her card through.
It turned out to be an elevator. I had always loved elevators. I loved the funny feeling in my stomach as the car lurched and began its descent. My friend Erin Bagosian once told me that if the magnetic brakes failed and the car plummeted down the shaft, all someone had to do was jump in the air just as the car hit the bottom and they would be safe. I was so sure this was true—based on Erin’s serious, matter-of-fact tone—that I announced it one night at the dinner table.
Mom just laughed, but Dad gave me a queer look and said that Erin was so full of shit her eyes were brown before taking another bite of his mashed potatoes. I giggled because my dad rarely cursed around me, but Erin didn’t giggle at all when I told her what he said. In fact, she didn’t talk to me for almost three weeks.
I didn’t know how far underground we were going, but the ride seemed to take forever. I started shuffling my feet, becoming antsy and bored until Mom put her arm around me, which calmed me down. I still didn’t know what was going on, but whatever it was, I knew it must be more than serious. I tried to imagine what it could be. Were the aliens invading? I discarded that, as last I had paid attention, the Kai were two hundred light years away, getting their behinds kicked out of Korvali by Terran Marines and the Navy.
My brain tried to come up with another answer, but it always came back to the aliens. I’d seen videos of them from the time I could remember, though my parents never let me watch any of the war footage that was popular all over the Wire. I began to imagine that Mom really was an alien in human form, and I had passed all of her tests and was found worthy to take an interstellar voyage to her home planet. From there, it branched into imagining that she had already eaten my father and was waiting until we returned to her place of birth, showing me off to her kin before having me as the main course at the Emperor’s galactic dinner party.
I decided I would never be eaten by a bunch of slimy, toothy, scaly aliens. I was halfway through plotting how I would bonk Mom over the head, steal her plasma rifle, shoot my way out of whatever castle or mansion the dinner party was being held at, hijack a ship and fly back to Earth to warn everyone, when the elevator car shuddered to a halt. A chime dinged above us and the doors opened.
I nearly had an accident in my pants when I saw what was on the other side of the elevator doors. It was almost prophetic, and I wanted to scream in fright. Instead, I jerked away from my mother and gave her an accusatory look. I didn’t really think she was an evil alien intent on eating me on her home planet, but suddenly I wasn’t so sure. Mom looked surprised at my refusal to budge from the elevator.
“Denny, what’s wrong, honey?” she asked.
“Are you going to take me somewhere to eat me?” I asked in return, shying away from her.
Mom just laughed as if it were the funniest thing she’d ever heard come out of my mouth. She reached out for me, and for a moment I imagined a greasy, clawed alien hand trying to grab me. But it was just my mother, and I let her give me another hug before stepping out into the massive room.