Authors: Eve Silver
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There’s a boy calling my name.
Déjà vu. Sort of.
“Miki,” Luka Vujic says. “You okay?”
Wrong pitch, wrong tone.
There was a moment weeks ago when a different boy was calling my name, his voice inside my head, where no one else could hear.
That was the beginning, and the end. End of the known and familiar. Beginning of my new reality, where I jump between my life as plain old Miki Jones, and an alternate world where I fight the Drau—beautiful, terrifying alien predators bent on conquering Earth.
I don’t understand it. I don’t get how it works. All I know is that one minute I was trying to save Janice Harper’s little sister from getting hit by a speeding truck; the next I was lying in the road, broken and bloody. Dying. Dead. I woke up in a grassy clearing called the lobby, alive, healed, not hurt at all, lying on my back, staring up at a handsome face and old-school, mirrored aviator shades—both of which belonged to Jackson Tate.
Everything that’s happened started because of him. He was the one calling my name inside my head that day in the field behind Glenbrook High. He was the one crouched beside me when I came to in the lobby.
He tricked me, betrayed me, traded my freedom for his, offering me up to the Committee to take his place in the game.
God, I hate that word. I can almost hear Jackson’s voice, insisting it isn’t a game. He was right. So right.
It’s life and death, horror and fear, and dragging me in was his only way out.
Maybe I should hate him for that.
But I think of the way he watched my back and saved me more times than I can count. He made me find the strongest parts of myself deep inside. He teased me, challenged me, believed in me.
He climbed through my bedroom window, made me laugh, made me smile.
He kissed me.
Told me he loved me—
my heart feels like it’s being crushed by a giant fist
—and then he—
the pain almost makes me scream
I force a breath past the lump in my throat
—for me. In my place.
He just needed to hang on for thirty seconds after he took the Drau hit. Just siphon off enough of my energy to hang on for thirty stupid seconds. But he didn’t. I wonder if he
not to because it might have meant killing me.
Am I supposed to be grateful for that? Am I supposed to forgive him for leaving?
I snap the thought in half.
I’m not so great at forgiveness.
I glance around, forcing myself to focus on something—
—to help me keep it together. Slate tiles, yellow walls, the smell of cheese and grease, a woman behind the counter, a man making pies in the back. The pizza place is exactly as I left it before I got pulled. That was days and days ago. Seconds ago. Time passes differently in the two distinct versions of my current life.
“Miki,” Luka says, urgent now. He’s about ten feet away, standing beside the empty booth we were all sitting in . . . before. Before the battle, the terror, so many people dead.
I nod to let him know I hear him, and the tension in his shoulders eases just a little.
I’ve known Luka since we were kids. We were friends until fourth grade, until his mom died. I was a clueless nine-year-old who understood next to nothing about loss and grief, and I let our friendship fade away. He moved to Seattle for sophomore year. We lost touch. Now he’s back, but we really only found each other again in the game. We’ve both been conscripted. I don’t know how Luka’s been balancing the crazy for a whole year. Between the time shifts and alternate realities, the aliens and the body count, I can barely keep it together after just a few weeks.
, we’re back,” he says, his night-dark eyes focused on me. Three little words that tell me I need to pull my shit together before I give something away. There are rules that say we don’t talk about aliens and battles and scores in real life. Breaking those rules might get us killed.
I clench my teeth so hard I swear I shear away a layer of enamel, and I nod again to let him know I get it.
Luka rakes his fingers back through his dark hair. His sleeves are pushed back and I stare at his forearm. No cuts, no blood. Last time I saw him was in the abandoned building in Detroit after the epic battle with the Drau. He had blood on his face, his hands, his arms. His shirt was torn, one eye swollen and purple. Scratches and cuts marred his skin in a dozen places.
Now, he’s fine. No wounds. No bruises.
I drop my hand to my thigh, half expecting to find sticky, warm blood and the shattered edges of my bone. But I find only smooth denim, soft from dozens of washings.
We don’t bring our injuries back with us. Only our regret.
“Hey,” my best friend, Carly, says as she squeezes my arm.
With a jolt, I turn toward her. Until that second, I’d forgotten she was there, right beside me. For her, no time has passed. For her, it’s been seconds since I jumped up from the booth and darted for the door. But for me it’s been days of battle and blood.
The first time I got pulled, a girl on my team—Richelle Kirkman—told me that the hours we spend in the game get banked, that we get them back. We do. We restart our paused lives down to the precise second and reclaim the missing hours.
If we’re alive to come back at all.
Richelle was kick-ass, the best player on the team. She made it out every time. But not that last time. That mission ended with Richelle gray and still on the cold floor in a Vegas warehouse, her con full red.
Red like Jackson’s con.
Can’t think about that yet.
“I’m okay,” I mumble to Carly. A lie I need her to believe. I don’t dare freak out right now. I don’t know who’s watching, listening. Judging.
One brow arches delicately in that special Carly way, the pink streak in her #11 Extra Light Blond hair falling forward over her cheek. She just put that streak in a few days ago, but it’s already fading. No big deal. Carly’ll probably change it to purple or blue before the week’s out.
“You’re okay? Really?” she asks, the words dripping attitude and snark. It’s a front. She’s worried, and I hate that I’m the cause. She’s been so angry with me lately, our friendship yet another victim of the game and the secrets I’m forced to keep, but right now the only emotion mirrored on her face is concern.
A face so familiar. So special to me. She’s not part of my other reality; I never want her to be part of it, to fight, to die. I want to grab her and crush her in the tightest hug, but that would just make her worry more.
“I’m fine,” I say, trying to force my brain back up to speed. Missions demand one kind of focus. Real life demands another. This is my real life, the one where I run five days a week at the crack of dawn, vacuum the carpet in tiny, neat sections, iron the bedsheets, and wipe the kitchen counter even when it isn’t dirty.
Because I can. My choice.
No one else’s.
“Do you want to go outside? Get some air?” Carly asks, then glances over her shoulder at Luka, either looking for approval or making sure he heard her.
“You think fresh air’ll help?” he asks Carly, but he’s watching me, his fingers curled into tight fists, the muscles of his forearms corded and taut. “You’re fine, Miki. Everything’s fine.” He dips his chin to the table beside him. There’s a pizza there and four unused plates, a key ring, and some bills that Luka must have tossed down to cover the cost of the meal no one will eat.
Nothing important there to see, so why did he want me to look?
Luka scoops his keys from the table and walks toward us. His gaze holds mine, his expression intent, and he lowers his brows like he’s doing a Mind-Meld thing. Problem is, the connection’s down at my end.
“Earth to Miki.” Carly snaps her fingers near my face. The faint scent of cigarettes carries from her fingers, a reminder of the distance that’s been building between us. She knows my history and she’s been smoking anyway. A lot of people who get lung cancer aren’t smokers, but Mom was. A pack a day. And now she’s dead.
Like Gram and Sofu and Richelle. And Jackson.
I swallow, but the lump in my throat stays exactly where it is.
“Miki.” Carly tightens her hold on my arm as Luka steps up on my other side. “Breathe. Just breathe. You know what to do. You’ve done this a million times,” she says.
I have. In the two years since Mom died I’ve had tons of panic attacks. I know the signs, and I’m experiencing a bunch of them right now: the feeling that a sword of doom’s about to cut me down, the urge to escape, get out, run. The trembling. The shaking. The vise squeezing my chest.
They’re known and familiar enemies, and that’s why I recognize the subtle differences. This is no simple panic attack. It has extra special layers: it’s me battling for control, trying to balance the game with my life, locking the door against the agony that’s scratching to get in.
I can’t think about him yet.
“Outside sounds like a plan,” I say.
Carly wraps her arm around my waist and I cling to her, aching to spill it all out. The lobby. The battles. The aliens. The scores.