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As I opened the pod I began to tear up again. The last time I had seen my mother, she was closing a pod on me, and now it ended with me opening her’s. We hugged, for the first time in forty years. I never wanted to let go.
She kept her promise. I couldn’t believe she kept her promise.
I had a mother, a father, a sister and a dog, all who I loved, and who loved me. My mom was the head of SETA, a company working with NASA towards technologies to help make space travel easier. My favorite was the Worm Hole Generator. You could travel halfway across the planet in the blink of an eye. My least favorite was the Age Suspension Pod or “The Freezer” as our family nicknamed it. You went into the pod, and nighty-night. You might wake up a week after, a month, or even years. There’s nothing scarier than that, the fact that you are trapped in a space just big enough to hold your body while everyone else is aging, growing, and dying. I hated the idea, missing something important.
There are some who say that they knew that it was coming, others still say that it was foretold in some sacred and ancient text, but I could guarantee that nobody was saying “I told you so” when they took their last breath.
That day was stamped into my memory. My mother pulled me and my sister out of bed, threw us into the hover car in our pajamas, and zoomed off to SETA headquarters.
“Mmmom,” my sister said, half asleep, “where are we going?”
“We’re going to mommy’s work,” my mother replied.
“Mmmmkay,” my sister mumbled as she drifted off to sleep.
But I couldn’t sleep. The way my mother was driving, the way her shoulders were tense, and the wobble in her voice told me that something was wrong.
“Mom, is everything okay?” I asked.
“Yes, everything is fine, just fine,” Mother said.
That was another way of saying something was very, very wrong. I looked out the hover car window and noticed that there were an awful lot of cars in the sky for the middle of the night. Some sort of event, maybe? At night, occasionally, there are Alternate Reality Games by the movie theater. You put on a virtual reality helmet once you enter the building and challenge other participants to a game. The game is displayed inside the helmet, and it’s up to you. It could be virtual soccer, or tennis. It could also be a card game, or a video game, whatever it is, the winner of the challenge gets points; ten points if you issued the challenge, five if you defeated the challenger, if I remember correctly. Anyone who isn’t in a challenge gets to watch a challenge in their helmet. Mother didn’t let me go because it started at such a late hour and the games got rather rough, but tonight wasn’t one of those nights anyway. And it turns out that I would never be able to participate.
We hovered over the SETA building and gently landed in the parking lot on the roof. My mother had to practically drag my sister out of the hover car, a tactic she used often.
“Please don’t make this difficult, mommy is very busy, and daddy is here too. You’ll get to play with the other kids. You like playing with them, don’t you?” Mother pleaded.
“I don’t wanna goooo. I’m tired mommy.” My sister kicked the seat.
“Sis, you might not like it, but these meetings don’t last long. Come on, you don’t want to be stuck in the car for an hour, do you?”
Sister listened to me, she always listened to me better than Mom or Dad, maybe because I’m ten, only three years older than her and she finds it easier to listen to someone closer to her age.
We met with Dad in the main hallway of the building. He looked happy to see us, and at the same time, sad that we came. Why, I thought, why is Dad unhappy? Was it something we did? I decided to lighten the mood with good news.
“Hey, Dad,” I said excitedly, “I got an A+ on my spelling quiz!”
He patted my head gently, “Good job, my little genius. Keep it up and you’ll be smarter than your mother!”
I smiled, “You mean that?”
“Of course, honeybunch,” my father said.
He smiled with his face, but not his heart. Something was missing. Something was wrong. We all went into the locker room. Because SETA dealt with a lot of delicate technologies and test subjects, everyone who entered the lab had to strip, put on special white clothes, and go through the Sterilizer, a machine that gassed you with something that smelled like gunpowder. Since my sister was still afraid of the machine, we had to accompany her.
From there, we went to Mother’s office. She sat in her chair, let out a big sigh, and looked at the clock nervously. Something was going on, and I wanted to know.
“One hour,” Mother said, “we barely made it in time.”
“In time for what? Mom, what’s going on? There’s something you’re not telling us.” I put my fist on her desk.
She stood up, grabbed my hand and let me outside of her office, leaving my sister and father.
“Listen, I’m going to tell you something very important, and you mustn’t under any circumstances tell your sister, do you understand?” Her voice was wobbling again.
“Yes, mom. I won’t tell anyone, I promise.”
“You know that we work with NASA, right? We’re a division under them. They take care of spacecraft, we take care of space technology and extraterrestrial communications. As you know, we received a message from another planet, many, many, many light-years away. It’s considered one of the biggest finds of the twenty-second century. And recently, we were able to decode it, and it didn’t say what we expected. They’re going to try to take us over, in a couple of years. We are going to have a space war on our hands unlike any you’ve seen in the movies. They might wipe us out, honey. So, we have selected certain children to be put in the Freezers, you and your sister are two of them.”
My stomach fell to my knees. “The Freezer? Are you serious? You know how much I hate that thing. What if I never see you again?”
Mother hugged me tightly, “Honey, I know that you don’t like it, but there’s no other way. It’s for your safety.”
I rarely ever show weakness. I stand up straight, I talk politely and clearly, and I never cry. But this one time, my fortress was beginning to crumble.
We walked back into her office and waited there. My sister was playing with her dolls, not a care in the world, but I was stuck somewhere between scared and betrayed, debating whether to run for it, or face my fate. Soon, after that, my fate was sealed. Mother walked my sister and me to the room with the freezer pods. She tucked my sister into one; singing her a lullaby like we were at home, and then she placed me in another. My sister was never scared of the pods, she found them fascinating, and would often hide in them when we were playing hide-and-seek.
My eyes were beginning to mist up. My mother brought her hands up to the lid and was about to close it when I grabbed her sleeve. The tears were coming now, full force. I was ashamed of my weakness, but I had to check one thing.
“Mom,” I said between sobs, “promise me. Promise me you won’t die. Please, I don’t care how long I’m in here. Just don’t leave us alone!”
She smiled gently as she ran her hand through my hair. I could barely see it through my tears, but she was crying too.
“Alright, honey. I promise. I’ll be here when you get out of the pod.”
I let go of her sleeve, “Don’t forget, it’s a promise!”
She nodded, and shut the pod. I wasn’t sure if she was going to keep the promise or not, but it felt good knowing she was going to try. As I lay there, I smelled something sweet, like nectar going through my lungs, and slowly, very slowly, I lost consciousness.
I’m not really sure if I had any dreams and I couldn’t tell how long I was in there, to me it felt like three or five seconds at most. I just remember a black darkness, thick as the midnight sky out in the country where my grandmother lived, I wondered if I would see her again. I felt like I was drifting through that sky like a helium balloon, no string or rope to hold me down.
The next thing I knew, there was a red rectangular light blinking over me, the letters spelling “PUSH” flashing in my face. I did what the light told me to do and opened the pod. I felt a sudden warmth rush into the small area and clearer air fill my lungs up. I pushed my body out of the pod and onto the floor. I felt weak, like I had just gotten over a stomach bug. I could barely walk, and I couldn’t see because it was dark. I stumbled across the room to the switch and flicked on the lights.
The other pods were moved out of this room. Where exactly, I had no clue. I opened the door and entered the SETA building.
The place was empty, like everyone just got up and left. Computers were still blinking, machines still humming, but the people were gone. Even in the late hours of the day, there’s usually at least one person working. I looked all over the building. In the communications room, in the laboratory, in the conference room, in all of the offices, but the more I looked, the more panicked I became. Where was everybody? Where were my mom and dad?
I rushed through the Sterilizers, and checked the lockers for my clothes. Not only were the clothes not there, but the locker room was ransacked, pants and shirts and shoes and socks scattered everywhere. Most of the lockers were open, including mine, but some were still closed. What happened? I thought, it looks like everyone left in a hurry. I wish I knew where everyone went.
My next stop was the parking lot on the roof. Perhaps our hover car was still there. I went up the elevator to the top floor and took the staircase to the roof. I opened the door, and our hover car wasn’t there, nobody’s was there. I was half expecting a tumbleweed to blow across the parking lot like in those ancient back and white cowboy movies. I took a mental checklist, trying to keep calm. All of the pods were moved out, nobody was in the building, the lockers were a mess, and there were no cars in the parking lot. This could only mean one thing.
The war didn’t go well.
I had to check one last thing before I could jump to that conclusion, though. I walked to the edge of the roof and looked out onto the city. The place was empty, completely empty. The place is usually bustling with life, tons of hover cars flying around, along with the hover trams and busses, and those obnoxiously loud jet bikes and jet packs whizzing around. And below all of that, thousands of people on the streets, trying to get from point A to point B.
There were no cars, no people, no noise, no smells, just a suffocating silence. I was alone, and boy did that feel weird. I have never been alone in my life, not even in my own house, and even when my family was out, I still had our dog. Needless to say, this was a hard concept to wrap my head around, and it wouldn’t be the first.
Still, I was determined to find someone, anyone at this point. I didn’t care if the person was a complete stranger, I just didn’t want to be alone. I took the elevator down to the lobby and exited out onto the street. I couldn’t see the ground well from the top of the SETA building, but now I could. It looked exactly like the locker room, only everything looked a little more aged. Store windows with faded pictures, soda and beer cans, rusted and crushed, streetlamps looking ready to topple over at any second. I could tell that the electricity in the city was out, lucky for me; the SETA building had back-up matter/anti-matter generators. Not a single light was on, not in any of the windows, and even though it was the middle of the day, some of the streetlamps stayed on, none of them were on. I couldn’t see any forms of life, not a cat or a dog, much less a human, and then I found something.
And it wasn’t alive.
A human skeleton. The clothes were so deteriorated that I could tell it was rotting for a while, but that wasn’t the most disturbing part. The skull was cleaved open. I cracked. I completely lost my cool. My legs felt like they couldn’t support my upper body, my knees gave in, and the next thing I knew I was on all fours, crying my eyes out. My lungs felt like they were trying to cough up the grief stuck in my esophagus, and all I could think about was my sister’s missing pod and my mom’s promise. There was no way she could have kept it. Twenty, no, thirty years must have passed while I was in the pod, maybe fifty. My mother was probably killed or she might have died from old age if she wasn’t, same for dad. The dog for sure was long gone, and my sister, where was she? Her pod wasn’t in the building, where was she moved? All of these thoughts flooded into my brain, and nothing was stopping them.
I managed to get up onto two feet again, though I was still sobbing. The most logical thing to do now was to head to my house, and see if there was anything there. I started walking, I felt even weaker now, fragile, like the wind could shatter me into pieces. But as I was walking through the streets, I could hear something through my sobs. At first I thought it was my imagination, but I was definitely hearing what sounded like a construction site, people talking loudly, machines clunking and thumping, I also heard something else: screams of pain.
I looked ahead and saw that the street and the buildings just seemed to stop abruptly, I looked up and saw a rust-red bridge being built over the city. That’s a change, I thought, a big change, but I can hear people! I have to see what’s going on! I rushed over to where the road ended, and stopped. There was a huge hole in the middle of the city, and in it was a huge white ship that looked like an oversized grain of rice and round red tents. There were people, loads of people who were hauling metal and other materials towards the bridge, and forcing them on, like slave drivers, were little men in white suits and bubble-like globes on their heads.
One of the men in the suits looked up and spotted me, pointed and shouted something. I backed up slowly, ready to make a run for it.
“What’s going on here?” I whispered to myself, “Who are these people?”
I felt a sharp pain in the back of my head, and I blacked out.
The first thing I heard was a strange language, what sounded like a mix between Chinese, Russian and French. I cracked open my eyes and saw three of the strange men with globes on their heads crouching over me. We were in one of the tents, it seemed like. Now that I was closer I could see what they looked like, and boy did they look ugly.
They had sun-burnt red skin and slit-like black eyes. Their mouths were small and lipless, and their noses were on the top of their heads, and all of them had a symbol on their suits and their foreheads, a red triangle with a red circle inside. One of the strange men noticed that I was awake and spoke.
“How you escape?” He said with a heavy accent.
“Excuse me?” I asked, confused.
“How you get on top of hole?” He questioned.
I realized if I told him the truth, everyone in the pods would be in trouble, if they weren’t already.
The man saw through my lie, “you not climb, hole too high, watchmen always looking.”
I persisted, “it’s the truth, if you want, I can climb it again for you.”
He squinted his eyes so they barely looked like lines, “you no escape again, small human. You work with other humans. We watch you always.”
I didn’t like how this was going, “Work? What am I doing? What’s going on?”
The man grabbed my arm tightly, pulled me up, and dragged me out of the tent we were in.
“No questions, just work.” He said as he shoved me into a group of sad-looking humans.
I stood there, unsure of what to do with myself, when one of the people spoke up.
“You’re lucky, you got put into the skilled labor group. We don’t get it as hard as the others.” He said as he hammered a piece of the red metal.
I walked up to him, “excuse me, but do you know what’s going on?”
He smiled at me, thinking that I was joking, “what do you mean, what’s going on? The Red Men are constructing a Dimension Bridge, any blockhead can tell that.”
I was confused, “Ummm…what’s a Dimension Bridge, and who are the Red Men?”
He looked at me, dumbfounded, “young lady, when were you born?”
“Me? I was born in the year 2123. Why do you ask?”
His eyes grew wide, everyone nearby gasped and gathered round, “Y-you should be graying by now if you were born in ’23! That was forty years ago! Unless…unless you were frozen in one of those pods I’ve heard about.”
I looked down at my feet, “Yes. I was frozen, and well, all of this is quite a shock. I was expecting to see someone in the city, but instead…”
He completed my sentence, “you saw their space craft. Well, that explains the white suit you’re in. I hear that only the children in the pods wear those, and that they would come out to save us from the invaders. Let me tell you, it’s about time.”
I shook my head, “no, no, no! I don’t want any part of this! I just want to curl up in my bed and pretend this is all a dream. I want to see my mom and dad and sister! I want to go back in that pod!”
Behind us we heard the crack of a whip and one of the Red Men shouting, “back to work”.
The man leaned in closer to me, “listen, kid. Whether you want to or not, you’re stuck here until we can execute the plan.”
“Plan? What plan?”
He grabbed my white suit, “Shhhh! If you give it away now, we’re never getting out of here. Here’s the plan.” He looked around, making sure nobody was snooping, “The Red Men have better weapons and better machines, but there’s one huge weakness that they have. You know how most of our atmosphere is nitrogen? Well, nitrogen is poisonous to them. That’s why they wear those globes on their heads. So, if we can manage to break them or pull them off, we’re home free!”
I nodded, “okay.”
“Oh, and by the way, a couple of years after you guys went into the pods, around the time the war started going downhill, they also put some adults in the pods as well. Mostly important people, but your mother might be in there.” He added.
I smiled for the first time that day, “I know she’s in there because she’s the head of SETA. Where are the pods?”
The man looked at me in awe, “your mother is the head of SETA? Well, isn’t that a surprise! The pods used to be in the SETA building, but then the entire operation got moved to Mexico. That’s one of the few places on the planet that hasn’t gotten taken over.”
“In that case, once we get out of here, I’m heading to Mexico.” I told him.
We spent quite some time together, the old man and me. He protected me from the Red Men on multiple occasions, and even took a couple of blows in my stead. He would always tell me afterwards that, “I was one of the children of the pods, and needed to be protected for everyone’s safety”. He was the unofficial leader of the resistance in this city. He taught me all about the invaders, like the fact that their blood was black like a squid’s, or that their eyesight was their weakest sense. He also told me about their strongest weapon, a gun that shot grappling hood-like bullets that latched to your head and split open your skull. That explained the skeleton in the street. In better days he might have been a doctor, or a government official, he seemed like that type.
The time came, the trap was set, and our getaway was planned. Overnight, a small group was to take out the guards, and steal the weapons, then, the next day, we would work as normal until the signal was given. Each of us would have a gun, and we would fire at the Red Men’s globes. The invaders would be destroyed, and we would make a speedy escape before they called for backup.
And so, in the dead of night, five of the workers crept across the construction site, keeping in the shadows. Two of them took out the guards in front of the armory tent while the other three used their shirts to bag up the guns. We were woken up and the guns were handed out to us. We hid them under our clothes and went back to sleep.
The next morning, work went by normally, but then, one of the workers dropped a piece of the red metal from the top of the bridge. Everyone took out their guns, and following their lead, I took out mine. That was the first battle I ever experienced, and it kind of reminded me of the Alternate Reality Games, the globes looked like the helmets, and the guns made it seem like a video game, but it wasn’t. As I fired the gun at the invaders I watched them all frantically grab at their globes, and fall to their knees, and even though I knew that the Red Men had done so many terrible things to humans, I felt a little guilty watching them suffocate, unable to save themselves and thought about being in their situation.
We slaughtered them, not a single casualty on our side. They just didn’t expect it after twenty or so years. The next question was, just how were we supposed to get to Mexico? I had a plan.
The old man spoke, trying to calm down the crowd, “listen, everyone! Here’s the plan: we are going to hijack their space craft and f-“
I cut him off, “And we are going to create a wormhole.”
Everyone gasped and started talking to one another in whisper tones, the old man pulled me over, “what are you saying? Are you crazy? How are we going to make a wormhole?”
“Do you know what their ships run on?”
“A matter/anti-matter engine. Why do you ask?”
I turned to him, “That’s perfect! I can make a wormhole using matter and anti-matter, I’ve seen my mother do it thousands of times. Besides, do you think that all of us can fit on a spacecraft that small? There’s almost a thousand of us!”
“I guess you’re right…tell us what to do, and we’ll do it.”
I looked up at the bridge, like I often did when I worked. The function of it eluded me. It was plenty wide, but only as long as a block or two.
“I have another question, what is a Dimensional Bridge? I see the bridge part, but why does the bridge stop so early? Is there a reason?”
He nodded, “There is. A lot of the Red Men’s spacecraft are very large, so if they were to just put a wormhole in the air, the craft would have to land on top of their settlement. The bridge acts as a dock, of sorts. They were about to add in the wormhole when we took over.”
Using this knowledge, I went up to the bridge and inspected the far side. There were pillars and one hole in each pillar, one for matter, one for anti-matter. As well as a screen set into the bridge, depicting different locations on the planet. I told them to go onto the ship and get one matter and anti-matter canister, and put them into the hole. I programmed the screen to show Mexico City, the heart of the human settlement.
I remember when my mother taught my sister and me how to make a wormhole. She told us that you simply needed to combine matter and anti-matter in equal amounts, and then quickly, before it turns into a black hole, make another black hole inside the first one. The two black holes stabilize each other and create a wormhole, capable of transporting you anywhere in the universe. The real trick was teaching the wormhole where to go, a trick that the Red Men mastered.
The instant they put the canisters into place, I initiated the two explosions and the wormhole started to form. At first, it looked like the slit-like eyes the Red Men had, then a regular eye, and last, a full circle. I could see into the hole, different colors, red, orange, blue, green, twisting around and forming a huge tunnel.
I turned to the people of the construction site, “alright, everyone! The wormhole is ready! We’re going to Mexico!”
Everyone cheered, and climbed up onto the bridge, the man smiled, “What you’ve gone through was incredibly difficult for a ten year old. You got captured by aliens, forced to do hard labor, went through war, and then, somehow managed to create a wormhole for our escape. You’ve really come a long way, haven’t you?”
I tried to hide the fact that I was blushing, “It wasn’t anything I couldn’t handle, especially with you around to help me.”
The old man nodded, “It wasn’t just me. You’re strong, that’s the mark of a leader.”
We all walked through the hole, like I used to when I still had a family Walking in it is the strangest sensation. It feels like you’re stepping on plastic wrap. It stretches and expands as you take a step, and shrinks as you reach the other side.
We emptied out in a street somewhere downtown, the wormhole shrunk and closed behind us. I got us into Mexico, now I needed to find my mother.
“Where are the pods?” I asked the old man.
“They’re in the middle of the city, underground. You need to be one of the workers or have special permission to access them, though.” He replied.
“That isn’t going to be a problem.” I said, walking towards the middle of town.
Mexico City hadn’t changed much over the past forty years. It was still a poor city with poor people, stuck almost a hundred years in the past, but towards the center of the city, it got a little more modern. I started seeing hover cars and jet packs, and large skyscrapers. The rest of the construction workers dispersed to find families and jobs; it was just me and the old man now. The building we stopped in front of was the tallest in the city, and on the top of the building were four capital letters spelling SETA.
Mother, here I come.
Once we entered the lobby, security guards swarmed us asking “who are you”, “where did you come from”, “where is your ID card”. I told them, “I’m the daughter of the head of SETA. Do you know where she is? Is she in a pod?”
One of the guards saw my white clothes, and realized who I was, he took my hand and led me to the elevator.
There was silence, then he spoke, “the head instructed us to open her pod when a child in a white suit came to the building and asked for her mother. She set your pod to open early,” he looked at me, sympathy in his eyes, “this entire ordeal must have been very scary for a young lady, like yourself.”
“A little,” I replied, “but it wasn’t anything I couldn’t handle.”
The elevator slowed to a stop at the basement floor, opening to a network of grey concrete tunnels. We went straight, until we reached a locked steel door. The guard typed a code into the pad next to the door, then a laser beam scanned us and a voice coming from a speaker somewhere said, “entry confirmed”. The door clicked open, revealing a room with hundreds and hundreds of pods, each equally spaced from each other.
“Where is my mom?” I said, looking at the sea of sameness.
We walked to the fourth row, second one over. The security guard pressed a button and I could hear something that sounded like gas escaping from a pressurized can. The lid began to lift up, and in there, was my mom.
“Mother, Mother, wake up!” I called.
She opened her eyes slowly, “is that…my daughter?”
I began to tear up again. The last time I had seen her, she was closing the pod on me, and now it ended with me opening the pod on her. We hugged, for the first time in forty years, and I never wanted to let go.
She kept her promise. I couldn’t believe she kept her promise.