The sound of Cheerios crunching between his teeth vibrated through his jaw and into his skull. To him, it sounded like the world reverberated with the sound, but years of sneaking cereal late at night assured him, the sound only existed in his head.
Even though his eyes scanned the pictures and words of the cereal box, his mind was not registering them. Instead, it was recalling snippets of events from the last several days. Interspersed between those snippets, were flashes of Amanda’s face the last time he saw her, just moments before they all climbed into their cockpits. Then something connected, the crunching stopped and Lucas’s eyes widened as clarity blossomed within his mind.
He swallowed, “Missing children,” he said, his voice barely a whisper, “we will be missing children, and runaways who never came home.”
Lucas looked down at his Cheerios and then out the kitchen window to the junior high school he never attended. Within the confines of the old empty brick building waited a shuttle pod. A shuttle pod that will whisk him off to a distant space station for yet another day of training. Training that is only a couple of months along, but has claimed one casualty.
“Have there been other accidents?” Lucas wondered. “Would they tell us if there was?”
Lucas thought hard on this. There have been a lot of kids sent home because they could not cut it, memories wiped of their time in training. However, it seemed for everyone sent home, two more replaced them. The Gaffed space station was becoming increasingly crowded as the Federation ramped up training. But, of all the classes he was aware of, of all the students he made friends with throughout the course of business on the station…did any just disappear?
None of his Terran classmates or friends were a part of the Terran Defense Force training program. At least not that he was aware of. Maybe some ninth grader he never spoke to was out there in the space station when he was, but no one he knew or cared about was in training. Because of this fact, there was no terrestrial relationship he can turn to, to discuss what was happening in other classes.
Was that privileged information? If he asked Portia whether anyone else from south Minneapolis was in training, would she tell him.
Still, he was developing several growing friendships with kids from other training cycles. There was Josh, he hailed from Texas and Lucas met him in the mess hall. Shannon, she lived somewhere in Michigan. She was the outspoken redhead who interjected herself into a hallway conversation he was having with Travis, another of his classmates. The debate was whether the T-350 was more like an X-Wing, or an A-Wing fighter from Star Wars. Shannon so passionately took up his side, Lucas could not but help hail her when he saw her in the mess hall a few days later.
There were others, but of all the fellow trainees he knew, none talked of an accident like the one that claimed Amanda. Lucas forced his train of thought back to its original track.
They have only been in the real T-350 Avian for a couple of weeks. Until then it was all simulator, and a good thing too, he thought, there was a spell where if he was flying the real thing, he would now be a missing child. Everything before fold training was just basic flight maneuvers.
Lucas shoveled another spoonful of Cheerios into his mouth, crunching on the now softening O’s once, then twice, and stopped. “Was it really painless.” He said aloud after forcefully swallowing his partially chewed cereal.
There were no painless deaths in the battles within the Star Wars universe. Every ship that went down during the Death Star battle scenes involved death throes. The one exception might have been the Tie Fighter that exploded in spectacular fashion during the battle between the Millennium Falcon and a handful of Tie Fighters. That guy just ceased to exist.
Lucas shivered as he recalled the absolute nothing of a fold. With the push of a hidden button, reality ceased, and for an eternity of seconds, you hoped it returned. What was it like for Amanda? Did she count to three, then nothing? Was she counting at all? Why did she activate the fold? Lucas’s scope was shading red, he was sure of it. He noticed, why didn’t she?
“She was such a good pilot.” He said after swallowing a mouth full of milk and mushy Cheerios.
A deeper sadness wrapped icy fingers around Lucas’s heart as he realized he did not know where Amanda hailed from. As he looked out the window, contemplating her last seconds of life, it dawned on him, he could go to the library, and maybe find a newspaper from whatever city she called home. Possibly find out what the Gaffed are planning to do with future dead children.
“I only knew her name.” He whispered, then looked around to make sure he was still alone. His mom left minutes ago, leaving his eighty cents on the counter. He could see the silver coins gleaming in the early morning light that filtered its way through a canopy of Elm trees.
His brothers must still be in their room getting ready. Would the Galactic Federation try and recruit them when they got older? Lee was two and a half years his junior, Roy, four years. What if I am killed? Would it matter to his brothers? Probably not, Lucas decided. There was no love lost between him and Lee, while Roy was in an age group all his own.
It did surprise Lucas that the thought of his two brothers dying in the cold vacuum of space deeply bothered him. Lee was always getting into trouble with his big mouth. Picking fights with kids much bigger then Lucas. After getting his ass kicked, Lee would inevitably say, “You’re my big brother, you’re supposed to protect me.”
To which Lucas would often reply, “Pick fights with kids who won’t kill me, and maybe I will.”
Yet, that was not life or death. It was school yard bullies, and a brother who is blind to the size of the kid he is mouthing off to. Receiving a black eye was not permanent. Dying in space, possibly horribly, well, Lucas did not want his brothers subjected to the possibility.
“Better take care of this Hoard thing before they’re of age.” Lucas said as he scooped up his cereal bowl. “Hey guys! You better get your butts in gear, you will be late for school.” He called out to Lee and Roy. Lucas liked seeing them leave ahead of him for two reasons. It assured him that they were in fact headed to school, and it eliminated the chance that they would see him sneak into Nokomis, or possibly catch sight of his SIM.
With his brothers a half a block in front of him, Lucas allowed his thoughts to return to their previous track. Live fold training was on hold for his class. Instead, it was mind numbing drills in the simulator. According to Tabspo, that was the schedule for the remainder of the week. He paired up the students, and their flight instructors linked the simulators. Fake fold space was far less terrifying than real fold space, but Lucas lamented the quality of training without the real thing.
“It will come soon enough,” Lucas said as he watched his brothers disappear around the south side of Nokomis Junior High. He stood there for a moment, gazing at the spot he last saw them before crossing the street towards the massive screechy gate that failed to keep him out of the old school.
* * * * *
As Lucas turned down the alley leading to Sarah’s house, he could not help but notice, for the countless time how drained he was after an afternoon of flying, simulator, or otherwise. Yes, the endless simulated fold training was monotonous, but it was far from boring.
Yet, as he tried to nail down what it was he was feeling, he kept coming back to clouds enveloping his brain…a fog. It felt as though a layer of cotton separated his brain from his skull. His thoughts are still clear, there is just something filtering the inputs and outputs to his brain.
Maybe filer isn’t the right word, he decides. It’s more like the wheels just are not turning as quickly as they normally do. As though his thoughts are dragging through some sort of sludge. He still arrives at conclusions, formulates answers to questions, but just a tic slower.
Without realizing he trekked the whole alley, Lucas finds himself standing at Sarah’s back door. Because Sarah was busy with family all weekend, this is his first visit since Amanda’s accident late last week. As he knocks on the door, he acknowledges that Amanda’s death weighs heavily on him, but he hoped he could conceal its pull from Sarah.
“What’s wrong?” Sarah asked before he can say even say hi.
So much for that, Lucas thinks, as he formulates his next move.
“What makes you think somethings wrong?” Lucas fired back, hoping he kept his tone as light hearted as Sarah was accustomed to.
Sarah responds with a reproving look before continuing, “Come on Lucas. You have been coming around here for over a year. I know you better than that.” She crosses her arms and a scowl darkens her features. “Let me guess, your tired of waiting for me to go out with you, and some little floozy over there at Sanford has captured your attention.”
Sarah’s words take Lucas by complete surprise. Jealousy was not an emotion Sarah wore well. She is an intelligent and beautiful girl who is aware of both these assets. As a result, she carries herself with confidence, sprinkled with just enough humility to avoid coming off as stuck-up.
Lucas smiled, “I have been chasing you for this long, and now you think I am just going to wonder off the first time some girl bats her eye lashes at me.”
“I am sure there are a lot of pretty girls over there at Sanford.”
In response to her statement, several pretty faces flash across his mind. Sarah is right, there are, and some have shown an interest in him, “I have one prize in mind Sarah, and I have yet to win her.”
“A prize am I.” she replies, uncrossing her arms and tilting her head in that way Lucas so adored.
“You are, and once I can call you my own, I will never let you go.” Lucas said.
“Is that what is bothering you?” She asked as she stepped closer to him. “That I still have not agreed to go with you.”
Lucas wanted to put his hands on her hips and pull her closer. But the proximity of her parents’ house and who may be watching from inside stopped him. He was grateful for the distraction, and the direction the conversation had taken. Yet, he still did not have an answer to her original question. He could not tell her the truth as to what was weighing so heavily on his soul. Lying really was not an issue for him, if it kept him out of trouble. But with Sarah, he hated the prospect of even a little white lie.
“No Sarah, I told you I would wait as long as you needed me to.”
“I can see it in your eyes,” she said, putting a cool hand on his cheek and gently stroking the lines of fatigue under his right eye with her soft thumb. “What troubles you?”
“A friend of mine was killed in an accident last week.” Lucas finally admits, hoping he can skirt the truth without actually lying.
“Oh dear…Lucas, I am so sorry.” Sarah pulls Lucas into a hug he readily returns while his minds whirls for more half-truths. “Was this a friend from Sanford?”
He knew anything local would show up on the news, which Lucas really was not sure Sarah watched. His whole world with her revolved around the back door of her parents’ house to this point.
“No, she was someone I met at that stupid camp my mom and step dad drag us off to every summer.” Lucas said, suppressing the sting of the lie.
“She,” Sarah shot right back.
“Just friends Sarah, or at least we were.” Lucas said, looking her in the eyes to impart the truth of his words and feelings. Her look told him to explain further.
“She was kind of a tom boy, you know I am not interested in those. Otherwise I would be chasing after Theresa, or dating Brenda, from Folwell,”
Sarah wrinkles her nose at the mention of Brenda. She was a girl who Lucas played football with when he was still into sports. For the last six months, Brenda was stopping by Lucas’s house and hanging out, trying to get him more interested in her. Lucas was not biting, and he told Sarah about it to keep her from hearing from someone else.
“We played sports together at the camp, and she was kind of a science fiction geek like myself,” Lucas finished with, again looking Sarah in the eyes.
“How did you find out?”
“Mutual friends,” he replied, again trying to avoid the lie.
“Again, I am so sorry.” Sarah said, pulling Lucas into another hug.
Lucas felt relief wash over him now that the emotional burden of Amanda’s death was no longer an issue between him and Sarah. It was amazing to him how empathic Sarah was. He also noted to himself; he needed to figure out a way to better guard his emotions from her. At least when it came to Terran Defense matters.
“Any chance I can play on your sympathies to get you to say yes to going out with me?” He said as Sarah unwrapped herself from him.