SAFE WORD • by Rebecca Birch

Six-year old John barely fit in the storage cabinet, even with his knees pulled close to his chest. Red light pulsed in tempo with the blaring alarm klaxon, bleeding in around the door’s edges.

Where was Mom? When the alarm had roared to life, she’d shut him in the closet and locked it, with a stern warning not to make a sound.

“John?”

John startled so hard his leg jerked forward, slamming a toe into the wall. “Miss Maisie?” The words slipped out before he could bite them back, but he knew her voice. Miss Maisie taught classes for all the ship kids. Surely she was what Mom would call a responsible adult.

“Thank goodness,” she said. “The captain’s ordered an evacuation. You need to come with me.”

There was an emergency latch on the inside of the cabinet — Mom had showed it to him weeks ago when they entered Mimic space — but he hesitated. “Mom told me not to move until she came back.”

“I know, John, and any other time, you should listen to your mother, but the Mimics are on board. We have to go.”

Miss Maisie had taught all the kids about the Mimics. Aggressive aliens native to this quadrant, they were shifters who could take on the appearance and mannerisms of any other life form, all the way down to the voice. Stealth was their method, infiltration their tool. They could be anybody. Any time.

John sniffled. Antiseptic lab-smell filled his nose. That was Mom’s smell and it made him sit up straighter. His hair grazed the smooth ceiling. “How do I know you’re Miss Maisie?”

“This morning’s lesson was subtraction. Now let yourself out and come with me.”

John gnawed on his lip. “The subtraction’s still up on the board. If you’re a Mimic, you could’ve seen it.”

“Johnny, you’re thinking too hard,” she said, her voice rising. “You’re a bright boy, but this isn’t the time to be clever.”

“And why don’t you use the master key?” John continued, inching away from the door, his heart thudding. “You should have one. If you’re really you, you could open this door by yourself.”

“John—”

The lab door whooshed open and hurried steps entered the room. “Get away from him!”

“Mom!” John shouted.

“It’s okay, sweetheart, I’m here.”

“John,” Maybe-Maisie said, her voice taking on the quiet calm she used when kids were about to get in big trouble, “that may not be your mother—”

Something hit the floor with a heavy thud.

In a moment, someone was fumbling at the cabinet’s handle. “Baby?” Mom’s voice was thick with tears. “Are you okay?”

John trembled so hard he thought he could hear the lab equipment shaking above his head. Safe word. He was supposed to ask for the safe word.

A metallic plink sounded. “Oh, fiber optics!” Mom swore. “I lost the key.”

No one else used that curse-word. Not ever.

John couldn’t stand the sound of her tears — not when he could stop them. He pressed the emergency release.

The door opened and he tumbled out into her embrace. She smelled of sanitizer and sulfur and he buried his face in her neck, but not before catching sight of Maybe-Maisie sprawled across the floor, blood seeping from a lump on her head.

“Is she dead?”

“I don’t know, baby, but we have to go. C’mon up.” She picked him up and he wrapped his legs around her waist, though she hadn’t carried him like that since he was a toddler.

She hurried toward the escape pods. Sounds of fighting rang through the corridors — shouts, screams, curses.

A door beside him hissed open. John looked up into an alien face, still fitting itself to human form. Mom’s form. The Mimic lunged, grabbing him by the neck with one hand. The fingers were cold, tipped with long, sharp claws. So very strong. John struggled to drag in a breath.

“Let him go!” Mom shrieked, clawing at the Mimic’s arm. “He’s mine!”

With its free hand, the alien slammed Mom across the face. She bounced off the far wall, reeling.

John’s hands tingled and the world went dark around the edges.

“No you don’t,” said a weak voice.

The Mimic crumpled. John hit the ground and rolled free, gasping for breath. Miss Maisie leaned against the wall nearby, a force-gun in her hand, the blood from her injury beginning to congeal. She staggered to Mom’s side, helping to steady her. “Take John and go,” she said.

Mom winced and leaned on her knees. “What about you?”

“I have to find the rest of the kids.”

“I’m sorry I–” Mom gestured to Maisie’s wound.

Maisie touched her head gingerly. “I would’ve done it, too. Now go. John, you take care of your mother.”

John nodded wordlessly.

“Thank you,” Mom said.

When they reached the pod, John snuggled close. “Will Miss Maisie be okay?”

The pod launched into space, the acceleration pressing John hard into Mom’s body. The ship shrank into the distance.

Mom chuckled, a strange, mirthless sound. Her body shifted, cold now, and hard. A claw-tipped finger grazed his throat. “You’ll forget her in time.”

John froze, an acid taste flooding his mouth.

The Mimic smiled and licked her lips with a forked tongue. “You’re mine now. Baby.”


Rebecca Birch is a science fiction and fantasy writer based in Seattle, Washington.  She’s a classically trained soprano, holds a deputy black belt in Tae Kwon Do, and enjoys spending time in the company of trees. Her fiction has appeared in markets including Nature, Cricket, and Flash Fiction Online. She is also a two-time finalist in the Writers of the Future contest.  Find her online at wordsofbirch.com.


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