Sarah held her stern expression as she waited for Lucas to respond to her greeting. Several responses flitted through Lucas’s mind before he settled on one.
“I have been a little detained,” he finally said, offering Sarah a diminutive smile.
Sarah’s tone told Lucas she was not putting on a show, his presence clearly upset her. What he did not know, and was afraid to learn was, what was she angry about. Was it that he vanished for a month, or was it because he bothered her when she thought she was finally rid of him.
“I just got off grounded,” Lucas finally offers.
Sarah’s features softened a bit, but she was still depriving him of that radiant smile he so treasured.
“Grounded for what?”
“I forgot to take out the garbage.”
“How long did you get grounded for?” Sarah asked in astonishment.
“A month,” Lucas looked down at his shoes, then back up into Sarah’s eyes, “my mom ungrounded me this morning.”
“You could have called.”
“I don’t have your number,” Lucas answered after a moments hesitation. For a moment, he wondered if she gave it to him and he lost it. Then he decided that if she ever gave him her number, there was no way he would lose it. “I just know you’re not allowed to spend a lot of time on the phone.”
Sarah looked at him with wonderment. Lucas thought maybe she was trying to remember if she in fact did give Lucas her phone number. “Your right about me not being able to yak on the phone a lot. Keep that in mind when you do call me.” She said, flashed Lucas a mischievous smile, turned and bolted into the house, leaving Lucas standing their dumbfounded.
She came back out with a small square of paper. Scribed on it with nearly artful handwriting was Sarah, and seven digits under that, the first three digits separated from the last four by a dash.
Lucas looked at it for a moment before carefully sliding the paper into his front pocket. “Your first three numbers are different than mine.” He says as he looks back at Sarah, “mine starts with 724.”
“Most of my neighbors start with 722, maybe it depends on what side of the 34th Avenue we are on.”
“Maybe,” Lucas replies after giving it some thought.
“I suppose you are going to put that in your little black book with all the other girls.” Sarah says, a challenging look in her eyes.
Without hesitation, Lucas replies with a guffaw, partially real, with some fake emphasis to make his point. “I don’t have a black book, and if I did, as of tonight, it will only have one number in it.”
In his mind, the words, “Just like my heart,” sprang forth, but nerves keep them from leaving his head. Instead he says, “I am pretty selective about the ladies in my life Sarah,”
Admiration alights in Sarah’s eyes, “Something is different about you.”
“Oh, how so?”
“You seem taller.” She looks him up and down before continuing, “I think you spent the last month working out.”
Lucas knew that the physical training the Galactic Federation was putting him through was starting to pay dividends. He never felt stronger, but until Sarah said something, he did not think anyone else noticed.
“What else are you supposed to do when you’re stuck in your room day after day.”
“It’s more than that. When I met you, you were cute. But now, well, you seem more confident, more assured of yourself.” Sarah blushes, “and the muscles don’t hurt.”
“I am just me Sarah,” Lucas replies, fighting down the warmth in his own cheeks.
“Anything change with you in the last twenty-eight days?” He finally asks after regaining his composure.
“Well,” she starts then looks down, left, then to here right before meeting his eyes, “I broke up with Giovanni.”
Lucas felt something soar in his chest. His physical response was so intense, Lucas was sure Sarah could see something happen. Yet, as he stood before her, a million questions running through his mind, she did not seem to take notice. His elation quickly died a quick death as one question settled into his mind.
“Are you going out with anyone?”
Sarah smiled warmly at him, “no,” she said, drawing out the o sound. “This really cute guy has been hanging around a lot lately…” She smiled and tipped her head in a way that always warmed Lucas’s heart.
“Anyone I know,” He asked, playing into the game.
“You might. I should say, he was hanging around a lot until recently, then he just sort of…disappeared.”
Lucas heart seized. He knew she was talking about him all along, but that last little bit, all his time, all his words, all his patients was going to get him the girl of his dreams. Now he just needed to ask for her. He needed to overcome all his insecurities, and ask her to go out with him.
“I think you will be seeing more of him.”
“I sure hope so.”
“Sarah,” Lucas froze on the next question, the one rolling about on his tongue. He was sure he knew the answer, but still he could not ask it. It drove him crazy how insecure he was around the opposite sex. Even someone who he knows as well as Sarah. He takes a deep breath, lets it out slowly, and draws in one more.
“Sarah,” she looked at him in anticipation, “will you go out with me?”
“No,” she said without hesitation.
Her response floored Lucas, this very moment defined his insecurity. Even when he was sure it was safe to expose his feelings to a girl…this.
Lucas was deeply embarrassed, his cheeks flushed hot, he could not meet Sarah’s eyes. He wanted to be anywhere but standing in the spot he currently occupied. How could he be so wrong? Was it the grounding?
“Lucas,” Sarah said hoping to pull Lucas eyes to her own, “Lucas, look at me.”
Lucas glanced from the sidewalk to Sarah’s cinnamon colored eyes, then quickly looked away again as her tender gaze ignited deeper pain.
Reluctantly he met her endearing gaze, and with the resolve Fartan was hoping to instill in him, he held her eyes with his.
“What,” he said, his voice just above a whisper.
“’No’ for now. Not ‘no’ forever.” She took one of his hands and pulled him closer. “I just broke up with Giovanni. I need just a little space before I can get involved in another relationship.”
“Please don’t say, ‘let’s just be friends.’”
Sarah answered with a meek smile, “we are more than that.
“Don’t stop coming around. Let’s continue to develop this, this thing we have. I really like you Lucas, and when the time is right, I will go out with you.” She said the last with finger quotes.
The whole thing still confused him, but his world was no longer sliding into the abyss. As he studied her eyes, her features, he processed what she said. She assured him they are more than friends. That is something.
“When do you suppose, the time will be right?”
“We will both know.” She says, tilting her head affectionately. A tilt that plucks yet another little piece of his heart, as it always does.
* * * * *
Lucas looked up from the display of holographic images. Images of flight manuals, survival procedures, and transcribed lecture notes. All positioned in a half hazard array above his desk. This was the first distraction from his studies he permitted himself since arriving at the space station a little over an hour ago.
Setting aside Fartan’s incessant demand that he focus, Lucas was a bit surprised he could after his life altering conversation with Sarah yesterday afternoon.
He looked down at the time displayed on his datapad. It is Friday, and test day for a couple of his ground school classes, then as is the norm, a half day in the simulator. The tests did not concern him. He knows the material, and when sitting at a desk, reading holographic test questions, his mind rarely wonders. The real test of yesterday’s conversation with the love of his life will be under Fartan’s strict scrutiny while flying advanced combat maneuvers.
In reality, his earth-bound life was going in the right direction. Sarah may have rebuffed him to a degree, but she also made it clear he better keep coming around. School was almost over, and from the sounds of it, he did not need to intercept his report card this quarter. His sim was doing a great job of turning his grades around.
Lucas wondered for a moment if a bunch of C’s and a couple of B’s might make his parents suspicious. Quickly he shrugged of the thought and resumed his self-analysis of his life.
Yup, aside from the impending advance of the Dark Empire, things were sure looking up. Now there is a distraction Lucas decided. However, it was one that just did not seem real. At least not yet. Sure, his whole reason for sitting at a nano-built desk, in a space station far out beyond sight of all Earth telescopes was because of the Dark Empire, but his training was becoming as routine as junior high. Aside from the few terrifying days of movies and reading up on the emergence of the Dark Empire, it just did not seem real.
“I just hope I am ready when it does become real,” Lucas says to the holographic displays before him. “I hope I am still here to face them.”
He looks at the time again, and realizes he need to get to his first class. He closes out of his study material, folds up his datapad, slips it into his flight suit thigh pocket, and heads out of his room. Later that afternoon, seated in the cockpit of his T-350 trainer, Fartan’s screechy voice rings in his ears.
“I want an A ride out of you this afternoon Lucas. Your time in a simulator is almost over.”
Lucas feels his heart pounding against his sternum at the thought of flying a real space fighter. He takes a deep breath, and waits for the simulated launch. Without effort, he feels his focus zero in on the moment.
Simulated gravity forces him back into the pilot’s seat, and before experiencing an all to familiar tunneling of his vision, he forces air into his lungs. As the aircraft clears the launch deck, he begins a systemic scan of space and his scopes. For the first time, since learning of them, he pays no heed to the sensors that track his eye and head movements, scoring his scanning technique.
Almost as quickly as the fighter itself, he picks up the appearance of incoming Hoard fighters on the scope. Lucas calls out the sighting to his simulated wingman, there are five incoming fighters. For just the briefest moment, Lucas wonders why all scenarios put him at a numerical disadvantage, then he dismisses the question, initiates the combat link with is wingman, and prepares to defend his home world.
The two flights converge head-on in a game of deep space chicken. Once the opposing forces are within range, the space between them light up in a torrent of amber and green energy bolts. Flashes of plasma energy splashing against forward shielding temporarily blind Lucas. Without a thought, he keeps track of the enemy using the ships sensors. At the critical point, when skill and reflex decide who becomes the hunted, and who is the hunter, Lucas executes a perfect rolling one eighty. Instinctively he grunts blood back into his head, forces air into his lungs all while G-forces pulls him hard down into the seat. Throughout the maneuver, he effortlessly tracks his wingman’s position, along with the five enemy ships.
All combatants are executing similar maneuvers in a space borne ballet for supremacy. The light show just moments ago was just that, a show. A volley of energy to let the enemy know you are here to fight. Fired at the approaching ships with the knowledge that they will likely bounce off dense forward energy shields. Maybe, if you are really lucky, catch a weakening shield, and take out at least one ship before the dance begins.
Twice Lucas can feel one of the Dark Empire ships getting the upper hand on him. The first time, his wingman peels the ship off his tail with a well-timed lance of plasma energy across the ships underbelly. The second time, some obscure maneuver from the early days of training flashes into his mind.
Forcefully he pushes down on the stick, nosing the ship down, then fires full reverse thrusters causing the ship to flip onto its back. Lucas’s own ship blockes his view of his assailant, but his scopes show him that Hoard ship sails right past him. Once again, Lucas pushes the nose over and slams the throttles to their stops. He feels his heart swell with elation knowing he has gained the upper hand on the enemy.
Now that he is on the enemies tail, he tracks the ship expertly, waiting for a clean shot. After a few moments, Lucas detects a pattern in the ships jigging. He studies it for a couple more gyrations, then setups the kill shot. For a millisecond, Lucas recalls being in this position before, having the advantage, only to screw it up by firing to soon, or waiting too long.
He suppresses the doubt, applies pressure to the trigger, adjusts his flight path for where he anticipates the enemy will be, waits, waits, then pulls the trigger.
Green energy bolts lance out, two quick successions of plasma energy from each T-350’s two cannons. One lance sails past the ship, giving Lucas a sick feeling, then the second and third hammer into the ships weak aft shielding. The first bolt splashes off the shielding, but not without overloading it and taking it down. The successive bolt rips into the aft engines of the Hoard ship, while the fourth shreds through the fuselage forward of the engines.
Lucas watches in amazement as the energy bolts rip into the ship. One of them hitting the fusion plant, and the world in front of Lucas ignites into a rapidly growing ball of radioactive energy. Instinctively Lucas pulls hard on the stick in an effort to evade the growing ball of radiation. Simulated G-forces pull him into the pilot seat, and he fears he is going to black out, spoiling his chances for an “A” ride.
The ships high radiation alarm sounds briefly, then is cuts off as he clears the still expanding miniature sun. Just as Lucas starts his scan of displays, everything shuts down, casting Lucas into a moment of disorientation. Before he can blink twice, he realizes the simulation is over.
“You have scored your ‘A’ ride,” Fartan screeches through Lucas’s helmets speakers.