"Alice, are you going out to the forest again?" My mom leaned over the stove in the room next to the door, fussing around the oven. Some whitish powder was sprinkled in random spots all over her apron and shirt. She wasn't looking anywhere towards me, but I knew she was watching me with those motherly eyes on the back of her head. Something smelled like cookies.
"Yeah," I plopped down on the floor, leaning on the back of the door, slipping on my tennis shoes.
"As always," She sighed, smiling. "My monkey baby. You have your phone on you, right?"
"Um, I am not a baby, and of course. I promise if I get raped or some axe-murderer slash Freddy-wannabe is roaming the forest or if I fall and scrape my knee all call you ASAP." Sarcasm laced my voice. I stomped on my shoes with finality. "Be back before dark."
"You better. Have fun, honey. I'll try not to eat all the cookies before you get home."—she stuck her tongue out at me—"Do you need a coat?"
"It's the middle of summer," I groaned. "Mom, I'll be okay. Promise. When has anything bad happened to me in the forest? Love what you've done to the whole diet plan by the way, stick it to the man. See you later."
With that, I walked out.
Maybe it's a bit morbid, "emo" I guess someone my age would call it—but I liked my solitary walks to the forest. I lived in a quiet town, not necessarily small, but a nice neighborhood. Good for kids and that kind of thing. I knew almost all the people within our subdivision, which meant people always tried to greet me, or I'd pass a friend's house and they'd ask to walk with me. It irked me. I'd always give them some random excuse of why they probably shouldn't walk with me. I hated denying people, but they always got over it either way.
A little ways out of city limits, about two or three miles, there was a thick oak forest. My parents used to take me out there a bunch as a kid, so I'd known how to climb trees for as long as I can remember. It was a beautiful place, but in the current time and age no one likes exercise or the outdoors so there was naturally not a ton of visitors. I had always loved it. It was my safe haven. During the summer time I'd just clamber up a tree, close my eyes and lean my head against its trunk and sit there for a little while, listening to the undisturbed forest atmosphere. And that's exactly what I was planning on doing now.
Like I said, it's a pretty lengthy walk to the forest, there and back, so I normally stop at the local party store and grab some random beverage so I don't get dehydrated and die like my mom thinks will happen.
The bell jingles as I step on the Christmas-themed welcome mat inside the store. God only knows how long it's been there. The place is family owned, and all the cashiers know me by name because I go to school with them. I'm one of their "regulars."
"'Sup, ginger." says the guy at the counter, Brad, as I enter. "Going to go worship the tree spirits again?"
"Don't say it like it's an insult; we gingers are cooler than you'll ever be. Tree spirits and everything." My hair was actually naturally carrot-colored, like my mom's, but I always dyed it so it looked like an epic dark red color. One of those hair colors that makes people's heads turn when I was out in public and one that gets a lot of positive comments. And gives people who know me well enough the power of calling me ginger. "Ring me up for a water,"
"Nah, this one's on the house. You're one of our regulars, you should be rewarded. Plus, I can't charge a cute ginger." He grins and gives me a wink.
"Brad, we've talked about this. You flirt with anything that looks remotely female. Some girls think it' cute, I think you should stop. Take the money." I placed a dollar on the counter. "It's not like I'm paying for much here."
"You are definitely not remotely female. By the way, ouch. Rejection. Couldn't you be a little nicer? Not that you ever are, to me at least." He picked up the dollar with a sigh. "If you insist,"
"Don't act like it's not true," Chuckling, I turn to walk out. "See ya later, Bradleypants."
"Don't call me that, ginger!"
Without replying I let the door shut behind me and wave over my shoulder, hiding a smile.
I always take my time getting to the woods. I would gulp down in my scenery around me; listen to the gentle flow of the wind, breathe in the pure fresh noon air, hear little kids arguing in the distance. It was a cloudless, eighty degrees, perfect summer day and I wouldn't want to miss a single detail about it. The shining sunlight brought a cheery, optimistic attitude to me, and I couldn't help but smile at all of it. If I wasn't out in public where a bunch of people could see me, I'd probably have been skipping. It was just one of those days where absolutely nothing could go wrong. Even when the annoying cashier at the party store flirted with me for the fiftieth time that week, it was alright. Because today was a good day.
When I finally made it to the forest, I took a deep breath just to taste it in the air. The hint of the woodland surroundings that one could feel in the very atmosphere is exactly what told me I was home. I wandered onto the semi-path that I'd basically made myself over the years and enter.
The trees were so dense that they cut out the sun almost completely, but there was always enough light to see. The scene was flawless. I heard birds chirping in the distance, squirrels and other critters scampering about; I trekked through various piles of leaves, twigs, dirt and everything else one would normally find in a forest until I reached a large, ancient oak tree that towers so high I couldn't even see the top. That could have been because of the thick canopy of all the other tree branches, but I doubted it. The thing was gigantic.
It was my oak tree. Years ago, when my mother had first started allowing me to come to the forest by myself, I started going deeper into the forest and exploring. I found this beaut and instantly fell in love.
Judging by the tree's overall hugeness, it was probably a hundred years old—possibly older, I climb trees, not study them—and could have breezed through another hundred years. Its branches' fanned out thick and low, an easy climb for anyone; its trunk sturdy and thick and holding the possibility to be the same span across as a small sumo wrestler. I couldn't even begin to define its tallness.
I grasped a lower branch, pulling myself up expertly. I knew this tree, and I knew where I was headed by pure muscle memory. I reached up, grabbing branch after branch, and made my way higher up the tree. To me, climbing was second nature; about as much of a challenge as breathing. Instead of climbing, I just floated up in a big green and brown bubble of leaves and bark. I was nimble as a ninja, another squirrel hopping from branch to branch.
Finally, I arrived at my branch; I knew by not only my initials boldly carved straight into the oak that I now felt the indentation of under my fingertips, but just by the familiarity. I had spent too many hours up here not to know it. Here sat my Haven.
Haven was up more towards where the jamboree of trees all met together and fought each other for sunlight beams and space to grow. There was quite a bit more sunlight than the forest's floor, as I was higher up and there was less sun coverage. The branch itself wasn't too thick or thin; if I really wanted to I could have lied down on it. Instead I had let my feet dangle loosely off the side and leaned my head against the central trunk with my eyes closed.
Without the distraction of the hike up here, I could finally listen. I heard the leaves rustle, speaing a language I only wish I could understand; the birds twitter back and forth, gossiping happily; the cicadas murmuring hum, and undertone to everything else. I could hear the world spin on its axis, all from this one tree. Up in my Haven, I could find a place between consciousness and non-consciousness—just smiling and no real tangible thoughts. If it weren't for curfews and an overly paranoid mother, I could have stayed here forever.
Instead, I sat there for a while in a calm peacefulness, checking my watch often and occasionally taking a drink of water. An hour rolled by and I was going to get ready to head home, when I heard an out-of-place shuffle somewhere beneath me. I hopped up and glanced down.
There was another person on my oak.
Something like ice hit me and I shuddered deep from my core. How did I not hear them come up? I thought. Even I hadn't been that quiet getting up here, and the forest was like my natural habitat! Perhaps it was merely a trick of the light, but I could have sworn they were glowing too. Strange.
They stood on a relatively thin branch with perfect balance, attention focused directly on either the ground below them or their wrist. I wasn't close enough to make out distinguish any details; but my curiosity compelled me to edge my way down the oak to get a better look at the intruder.
I realize now that maybe I should've stayed put and waited for the person to leave. But curiosity, one day, will be the death of me.
There was something like adrenaline rushing through my veins as I moved. The calm, serene backdrop I had been dreaming in moments ago abruptly exploded into a pulsing heartbeat and loss of breath. I was probably just getting worked up for nothing, perhaps I'd actually been sleeping when they came up, but paranoia had already taken hold. I swung my body into a niche slightly behind and several feet above the person and squinted down.
I held a gasp. There was no person in front of me. It was some sort of…creature.
The creature had a normal, human, figure; two arms two legs etcetera, but from one look I could tell it wasn't human. The features of its face were quite feminine; pointed chin, unnatural smooth looking pale skin whose color even devoured its lips. Its eyes were nothing aside from haunting, pulsating with an inhumane cyan blue color overtaking nearly the entire pupil; the most interesting feature about them was the black lines that delved from the far corners of its eyes and created intricate, dancing patterns down the creature's entire face. It sported a black body suit that clung to its sleek figure, also embellished with a complex, almost robotic pattern and glowing in time and hue both with the blue in her eyes. Its hair was the same shade as its suit and facial tattoos, black, short and cropped, perfectly framing the face, bangs hiding its forehead. The thing stood with excellent posture, (which was something I normally wouldn't even notice but it was like a statue,) only slightly bending over its right arm, which its attention was purely focused on. Its pale skin-like body covering contrasted like the full moon to a dark sky.
No, I hadn't been asleep when it had come up. I was still asleep, and the being in front of me was a figment of my imagination. Clearly, I was only dreaming. My brain wouldn't except any other conclusion. I felt the urge to obnoxiously shout at it just to see what would happen; to mock my fear. My fear itself, though, stapled my mouth right shut.
"Mira." A voice broke through the silence, but the humanesque thing's hadn't moved. I jumped. The voice was deep, bulky, and manly, and filled the air mysteriously.
"Yes?" The intruder finally spoke, and in that one word my breathing stopped. In a way its voice was girlish, as it was higher pitched than an average man's. On the other hand, the real sound of it was actually difficult to describe; it was like an electronic glitch, fitted into consonants and vowels.
The other voice began to speak again in a heavy accented, unrecognizable language. I discovered that the voice was coming from the creature's wrist, where a blue square flared in brightness according to the tone of their speech.
She—it, spoke again; responding in the same language that had been spoken before by the other.
The other voice responded, in a tone that recommended dissatisfaction.
"I apologize, Colonel." It clicked something on its suit's arm and glitchy-voice spoke again in English. "My communicator keeps malfunctioning, if you can't hear that; I'll have to have Rydon take a look at it when I get back. But yes. Two of each them. Juveniles. Specific builds if possible. I'm quite aware of how picky he is. I'll get them as soon as possible. Over." The last word held a sense of finality, and the throbbing blue square vanished into the suit.
"Two EDs," It muttered, grinning. "Easy as pie."
It kicked its heel at the base of the branch, launching up into the sky. The suit trembled and erupted into something I could only describe as butterfly-esque. Long flaps of excess material hung below its arms, wider towards the hands and getting narrower closer to its torso. The creature was flying; dashing back and forth and looping in circles I could barely keep up with. It stopped mid-air and laughed, examining its new growth.
And of course, at that exact moment my fingers slipped only slightly from my support branch; slightly enough that I had to take a step back to catch myself. Without my hand's assistance in holding up me up, the somewhat slim branch underneath me screamed under the pressure of my full body. And cracked.
The fallback step I'd taken instantly became a stumble, a screaming plunge into space. My hands scrambled for a hold. That was all I needed; a single protruding branch to catch me from a splintered skull on the forest floor. The shades of the woods blurred all before my eyes. Smaller branches lunged for my sides and scraped at my face and arms, leaving searing pain wherever one hit.
My hungry hands found a limb, a ray of hope and survival. I latched on greedily, praying it could hold my weight. It shook stubbornly but didn't snap as I scrambled up, sitting with my legs off one side of the branch. No longer tumbling through the sky, I sighed heavy and hugged the tree's trunk.
After finally catching my breath, I took a damage report.
I was bleeding in a few places, and would most likely have bruises tomorrow, and mom would probably ask me what happened and after she realized I was perfectly fine, yell at me for ruining a good pair of jeans and tee shirt—
"That was pretty impressive," The girl robot thing was floating above my savior tree limb. Her eyes watched me carefully. "Not only that, but from the area you fell from, I assume you'd been eavesdropping on me. Correct?"
I stared—more like gawked—at her for a full three minutes before she said: "What are you, brain-dead?"
"N-no," I spat out, scared stiff. My thoughts had stopped completely. What question was I answering again?
"Good to know you can speak."
She glided in a few circles around me, tiny pupils going this way and that, evaluating me. She moved her wing-flap-things in a slow up and down movement, kind of like the way a little kid pretends to fly when playing a game. Only she'd actually managed to make gravity a suggestion, rather than a law. Occasionally, she muttered to herself inaudibly in what I thought was another language. A blue ray popped out of her wrist as she held it up and it scanned—I guess?—me promptly. I twitched. Damn sci-fi crap was freaking me out. She glanced at her wrist, a million numbers catching the reflection in her eyes, and smile slid across her face.
"Perfect." Her head snapped up, haunting smile turning to me.
Before I could react, she came at me in a blur and the entire world went black.
☼ ☼ ☼
A woke up to two obnoxiously loud handclaps.
"Wake up, wake up!" Said an unfamiliar voice, male, exuberantly. "Damn, she is out! You sure you didn't kill her or anything? Because I'm pretty sure that would be a problem."
I groaned. "What the hell…?"
"Oh my god, she's alive! Praise Buddha or Allah or Jesus, whatever religion she believes in,"
"Where am I?"
I looked around slowly, trying to take in everything. The thing, I didn't know what to call it, was sort of like the interior of a car, but instead of a radio and steering wheel and all that like normal, there was a multitude of flashing button and knobs. The girl-robot from the forest held what was sort-of like a car steering wheel but more like an airplane's. She had a serious look etched on her face. There was a dome over the driver's seat and all the buttons, a Plexiglas wall separating them from the rest of the vehicle. From what I could tell, there were no doors; only the glass over my head which looked out into total blackness. The internal seating and walls were a beige color and kind of felt like leather. I was strapped in by two back bands of fabric I'd never felt before that created an "X" across my chest. The entire thing hummed quietly.
A kid, probably the one that had woke me up, sat to the left of me and gave me a wide grin. His hair was pitch black and fell into his bright blue eyes a little. He adorned a gray short-sleeved shirt with splotches of oil-like stains in a couple places and plain blue jeans. His skin was sort of tan and sort of not; definitely not as pale as mine. "Good morning."
"Hello…?" Confusion rang clear in my voice.
"The name's Leon, how about you?" He stuck his hand out in a friendly gesture, completely disregarding my confusion. His nails were short and looked bitten.
"Alice," I replied slowly, shaking his hand with caution. It was warm. "Where are we exactly…?"
"Alice. Cool name," Pulling his hand away and knotting both his hands behind his head, Leon nodded and gazed wistfully out the 'window.' "I'm not exactly sure. I can tell you one thing though; we're not on Earth anymore."
"Excuse me…?" I didn't understand. Not on Earth? Like, instead, in some spacecraft floating around the galaxy or something? What?
"Not. On. Earth." He articulated slowly. "You know. The planet. Our planet. She's—" he pointed to the driver's chair in front of him—"some kinda alien chic and we're like being abducted or something. Getting anal probes or some shit. I dunno. We're floating somewhere in space headed to the mother ship so they can taste our delicious, soft flesh. I keep banging on the glass and trying to ask her what's going on and she just tells me to shut up."
The 'alien chic' slapped the glass. "Mother ship? You imbecile, this isn't Star Wars." She growled loudly, her glitch-voice muffled by the barrier. "And, I'm not going anywhere near your anus, don't worry. How many times do I have to tell you to shut your trap?"
"Somebody's PMSing," he snorted.
"The more you say that the less funny it gets, and it wasn't even funny the first time."
Leon grunted and crossed his arms in response.
I felt incredibly disorientated. First, I nearly die after falling off a tree in what I thought was my safe haven because of a strange robot/alien/inhuman intruder, thought I was dreaming, and lastly come to wake up in the apparent vast void of space, evidently in some space craft, next to a strange young guy and the same intruder from the woods. Maybe I'm still dreaming? I thought to myself. It was a comforting thought, but something told me it wasn't true.
"This sucks." Leon kicked the side of the…spacecraft. "It's so boring being trapped in this rolling space turd. I think I'm developing claustrophobia,"
I remained silent, not sure what to say. He turned his attention to me.
"You look perplexed—look, I can use smart people words alien girl!"
She pretended to hear nothing. "I don't know what to think," I told him.
"Yeah, it's a pretty odd situation to find yourself in, huh? I never really thought I'd be abducted by aliens, but then again, nobody thinks it's going to happen to them until it does right?" He exhaled deeply. "Still, this is all pretty weird."
"Yeah," I agreed, mystified.
An awkward silence filled the air for a few minutes before Leon said: "So, I don't know where we're going or what's going on, so tell me about yourself. Just to pass the time, have something else to think about, y'know? I think we might be here for a while."
"Um, sure," I paused to think. "I don't know what to say."
"Like, where are you from, how old are you, hobbies, favorite animals, I don't know, random stuff. I'd offer a game of I Spy, but I don't think that'd work too well," He smiled uncomfortably.
"Okay…" I gave him an awkward laugh. "Well, I was born and raised in Malone, Washington, which is one of those super small towns that no one ever hears about. I'm sixteen and going to be seventeen next April. In my free time I don't really do much except climb trees and listen to music, and my parents are really strict half the time so I don't get to ever have friends over or anything, which makes people think I'm weird. I was on my high school's varsity swim team last year. My favorite color is green. I'm a natural carrot-top, but I dye my hair this dark red color 'cause it looks cooler. I like birds and stuff…Yeah. I don't know, being random…" I trailed off.
"Climbing trees and swimming, you like exercise I guess?" He chuckled. "Sixteen, jeez. You look older than sixteen. Not being creepy or flirting, but seriously."
"I'm just kinda tall…" I felt myself blush, embarrassed. "How about you?"
"Alright well." He hesitated, thinking. "I'm nineteen. Dropped out of high school at sixteen—" He smirked at me mischievously as I gaped at him—"Got kicked out of my house a few weeks later. I haven't seen my parents since then, either, and I don't give a damn. I lived in this abandoned old building that one of my friends and I turned into an auto shop—note the oil stains on my shirt—to get cash. I don't really do anything but mope around there and occasionally fight random people when I get really bored. Or drink. I like to draw, but I'm not like Van Gough or anything. My favorite color is blue. My natural hair color is brown but I dye in black because…Well I don't know why, I guess it just looks better. I'm from Orlando, Florida. I'm not a quiet person, if you hadn't noticed that yet."
I bit my lip, uncertain about how to reply. "Well…You've had an interesting life so far…"
He cracked into a laughing fit. "I must sound like a serious badass to you,"
"Kind of," I admitted nervously. "Like I said, I grew up in a super small town. I've only heard stuff like that in movies,"
He chuckled again. "Trust me, that stuff isn't just in movies,"
I laughed with him, feeling extremely stupid.
There was another silence settling in, but Leon wasn't about to let that happen.
"So, this thing chauffeuring us around the universe found me right as I was about the beat some guy into next week. Dickwad tried to steal some old lady's purse. Who does that? She flew, literally, flew in and slammed into the guy, and he hit the brick wall behind us so hard that I think he cracked it. Brick wall. Some blue beam came out of her wrist after a second and she was talking to herself until I heard her go "yes!" and something happened and I blacked out and woke up here. How'd she find you?"
"Well basically the same thing—excepting the superhero-save-old-lady-from-scary-robber-man cliché." I responded teasingly, eyebrows high, awkward smile still in play. "There's a forest on the out skirts of my town that I always walk to, a few miles away. I was sitting high up in one of the trees, about to leave, when I heard like a twig snap or something below me. I sneaked down the trunk of the tree to investigate and there she was, talking to some dude via Star Trek edition wrist-communicator. She was obviously about to leave but then she transformed into some butterfly thing and started flying everywhere and I was so startled I fell off my tree branch. Luckily, when you climb trees all the time like me, you're reflexes are amazing so I caught myself. I think it was more of chance though. But when I scrambled my way back up she was right there, watching me." I explained, shaking my head. "I don't know how long I've been out, but I have a feeling it's been a long time. My mom's probably worried sick…"
The sudden thought of my mom struck me like lightning. My stomach dropped. My paranoid mother, who already hated when I went to the forest in the first place, was waiting anxiously for my return. She'd check the window every five minutes as the sunset grew closer and hours passed even though the longest I'd ever been out was 3 hours, hoping that she was just being paranoid as always and knowing that just maybe the fear was correct and I wasn't coming back. I'd disappeared without a trace. She'd call the cops and they'd question the entire town, investigate the forest and find nothing. What would she do when the cops didn't find any clues?
"—hey, you okay?" I hadn't realized Leon had been speaking.
"Oh, crap. N-no, I'm fine. Just started thinking about how freaked out my mom probably is right now," I said, distantly. "What were you saying?"
"Never mind, I'm sorry about your mom. If you don't mind my asking, what about your dad?"
"Eh," I shrugged dismissively. "He left when I was like, 10. Packed a suitcase and walked out the door and never came back. Deadbeat. We were better off without him."
"Jeez, that would suck—"
"Okay," The alien barged in. "Sorry to interrupt your pleasant little chit-chat, but we're about to break out of your universe and break into mine, which is your universe's neighbor. I'm telling you this because this requires a lot of speed and power; therefore I suggest you latch on to something to steady yourself. The seatbelts should hold you together. In my opinion, this is the worst part of the ride, especially for the first-timers. So good luck and enjoy."
Leon and I exchanged puzzled glances, her sudden announcement startling us. I watched as she pressed a few multi-colored buttons in a sequenced order and flipped a switch, and then the spacecraft roared and we were soaring. Gravity kicked in, like a kick to the ribs, rattling my bones. The act of breathing itself became a challenge and the sheer force of the air pushing against my pulled my skin back and made it ripple, like those really strong hand dyers I've found in random public bathrooms all over; the difference was that I felt it on my entire body, ten times as hard, and I had a serious urge to blink but I couldn't even manage that. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the alien gripping the steering wheel rigidly.
The loudest noise I'd ever heard filled my ears then, like the ripping of a piece of paper times a million; the ship shuddered and jittered, and I feared it would break apart. The girl slammed a few more buttons—I found it miraculous that she could even move—and something click clicked, the spaceship taking one final lurch.
It stopped even more suddenly than it started, and this time we had no warning. The spacecraft reeled into a rapid stop, choking me against the seatbelts. Whiplash claimed my head and it lolled like a ragdoll. The motionless ship's roaring became a gentle hum like normal as we all sat and caught our breath.
After a couple minutes, when I could feel my face and remembered what air was, the alien girl turned to face us and a portion of the Plexiglas slid into nonexistence for a moment.
"Alright, now that we're out of that trashy place and we're all alive, welcome to my universe; it has a few names but the main thing you need to know is the Sectors. We're going to Sector 19, where all military actions mainly take place. I'll clarify this more when we actually get there along with, well, everything else. By the way, you can stop calling me 'weird glowy alien chic.' My name is Mira Poeloga, brigadier general of fleet 7. Nice to meet you."
The glass panel slid back up before either of us could get a word in. Mira twisted a lever and we started puttering into our old speed before the universal break through (or whatever that was), and Leon turned to me and said: "Well, that was an interesting experience,"
"Yeah," I replied sarcastically. "Interesting. I've always wanted to know what dying felt like."
"We're not dead."
"Which is a miracle."
He laughed. "What, were you actually scared?"
"Duh," I retorted. "Don't tell me you weren't."
"Caught me." He shrugged his shoulders as best as he could under the seatbelts, palms facing up, grinning. "Guilty as charged. If you weren't scared, you'd be fucking insane."
"Agreed," I laughed along with him this time.
"By the way, did she say military? I didn't get abducted by an alien to just get used as some army guinea pig,"
"I believe she did, and hey. I'd rather be some alien army brat than getting an anal probe,"
He didn't reply. His eyes caught were fixated on something in front of us, jaw dropped low. I turned to see what the commotion was about, immediately feeling the same shift in my expression.
We were headed towards some sort of city. The entire place itself was built on top of what looked like an asteroid's rigid surface instead of a smooth surface. It was only city-like in the way the buildings were all uniformly next to each other and reaching for the sky at different heights, and by the way people swarmed around on the streets like little ants. The little people were all different, whether it was shape, size, color or clothing. (From what I could tell at our distance, at least. There were probably more differences up close too.) The buildings were all oddly shaped, exteriors curved in different angles and directions; some dramatically bent to copy a crescent moon and others just slightly leaning. It gave the image that the entire city was dancing. All of the buildings were metallic colored; shiny cobalt blues coupled with gleaming silvers. The road systems were seemingly there, but invisible; I could see the traffic moving consistently, but I could see no road. It was as if every spacecraft-car-thing knew the road was there, even though it wasn't, and followed that.
Coming up in view was a large, almost dome-like building in the core of the bustling metropolis. It was obvious, from a distance that this was where the city was most congested; the car-things were jammed bumper-to-bumper and people came into and exited the dome at nearly every second from different places. The majority of the pedestrians wore the same thing; Mira's suit was similar.
I'd never seen anything like it.
Mira turned to Leon and me, smiling at our stunned faces.
"Welcome to Sector 19."