Sunlight came through the window brightly lighting the room. From high overhead, the sound of aircraft reached adolescent ears. Zee began to awaken.
“I’m not afraid anymore.” he noticed. “Why was I so scared last night?”
He bolted to a sitting position and looked at the clock.
“Still time.” Zee blurted excitedly.
Quickly dressing, he ran to the garage and in a flash was riding his bicycle as fast as his feet could pedal. Lilly, his sister was already outside on her bike and saw Zee ride off.
She was in hot pursuit and yelling, “Wait for me Zee!”
Several blocks later, Lilly could see Zee’s bike lying at the edge of the woods just up ahead. She stopped and dropped her bike beside his.
Pushing into the bush, long finger like branches grabbed at hair and clothing as if to hold her back. She let out a scream, finally forcing her way through into a clearing. Before her, stood a chain linked fence with its huge hanging sign.
“GOVERNMENT PROPERTY. KEEP OUT. AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY.”
Zee was on the other side already, “Not again Zee. You know you can’t do this.”
“Are you coming or not?”, Zee shot back.
“No way”, Lilly objected.
“Suit yourself.” Zee was off and running, quickly disappearing from sight into the thick woods.
It didn’t take long for him to reach the light house. Stopping at the door to catch his breath and listen, the faint sound of aircraft could be heard.
Entering, he raced up the spiral stairway never stopping till the top. Flinging open the hatch, Zee stepped onto the gang plank which circled the tower light. From the west, over the ocean, he could see the outline of an approaching shuttle craft.
Zee climbed onto the surrounding hand rail and leaned over, waving both hands furiously in the air. The sound of the passing shuttle and its engines was deafening. To him though, it was the sound of a beautiful symphony.
Within seconds, it was gone, beyond the trees and landing at the air strip. It was time to go.
Closing the light house entry door at the bottom, Zee turned for the woods and ran straight into the belly of a Fleet officer. The collision knocked him to the ground.
“Hello Zee, nice to see you! You know you shouldn’t be here.”
“I know”, Zee said begrudgingly. “I just wanted to see my dad.”
“Well, that’ll happen soon enough,” the officer replied, “but for now, you’ll have to come with me.”
Zee climbed into a patrol car and within minutes was at the shuttle terminal. Exiting, he expected to go and greet the passengers who had just arrived. Instead, they bypassed the terminal and minutes later Zee found himself sitting in a jail cell.
He sat for what to a young boy seemed forever and eventually cried himself to sleep on the cell bed.
Mendelark had arrived on Garen Four with the painting.
The location was an old office building, situated in the heart of the yet older Canberry Business District. Surrounded by several abandoned warehouses, it proved a perfect location for activities meant to be hidden from view.
“It’s about time you got this”, barked the Lieutenant. “It should’ve been here a couple weeks ago, not the day before.”
“Quit your complaining. It’s here isn’t it?” Mendelark was defensive.
“Yeah, well news is out; some store employees were brutally murdered on Tridia.”
“Yeah, so” Mendelark now was indignant and shrugged his shoulders.
The soldier moved in closer to him. Stooping down he pulled Mendelark’s dagger from his boot. There were still traces of dried blood.
Holding it up to the light the lieutenant continued, “They say, it looks like the wounds were inflicted by a sharp blade.”
Mendelark grabbed the soldier by the wrist with one hand and the weapon with the other, quickly taking back his knife.
“I should kill you right now you worm!” threatened the Lieutenant, embarrassed having been so quickly disarmed by a civilian. “But I have strict orders not to touch you. The General wants that pleasure for himself.”
“What do you mean?” Mendelark nervously questioned.
The Lieutenant pulled out some papers.
“Apparently, one of your victims didn’t die. You were careless. Now he’s babbling about a painting being stolen. No one knows what he’s talking about since he’s pretty doped up after surgery. Authorities are just waiting for him to recover enough so they can question him. You need to make sure he doesn’t recover.”
Mendelark caught the papers as the Lieutenant threw them his way. They were his next set of orders. Nothing within him wanted to go back to Tridia, but he knew as far as the General was concerned, this would be his only chance to get this right.
Zee felt a gentle hand stirring him awake. For a moment, he was disoriented and confused, not knowing where he was or what was going on. Slowly his mind began to fill in the blanks.
“I’m… in… jail?” he blurted out.
In a panic, he looked up to whoever it was that woke him, ready to plead his case. To his relief, his dad was sitting there. Zee jumped into his arms. John hugged him tightly, kissing Zee on the back of his neck.
“Zee, you shouldn’t have done that. It’s very dangerous and you’re trespassing, which is against the law. I don’t ever want it to happen again. Do you understand me?”
Zee nodded “Yes”.
No one in the police station said a word as they made their way to the front door. Instead, everyone was full of smiles. Zee somehow knew they weren’t angry, but rather happy for him.
It had been seven months since the Admiral was last home. That would take a toll on any kid whose dad was gone for so long. Seven months. That leaves for a lot of catching up.
Except for one trip to Teller Station in a couple days, Admiral Tucker had no responsibilities. For the rest of the week he’d be with his family and was completely theirs. He wasn’t Admiral Tucker, he was just dad, and John.
The scout had been secretly watching the hotel night clerk for three days. Now was time for the approach.
Claudio was tired and ready to get home. But first, he needed his ritual coffee at the nearby stand. The scout was already there and waiting.
“Give me the usual”, Claudio was totally unenthused.
The barista made up the coffee and with a disposition that matched his customer, handed it to him across the counter.
Claudio fumbled around his pocket for some money. A stranger stepped in. Pulling bills from a wad of cash, he handed them to the clerk, “This is for his and make me the same.”
He turned to Claudio and smiled.
“Well, thank you very much! I really appreciate it.” Claudio replied.
“No problem. I’m happy to do it!” said the stranger.
Moments later, the clerk handed the coffee and change across the counter.
Claudio was curious. “Why?” he asked.
“You remind me of my son.” the kindly stranger explained, “He loves his morning coffee too and I just wanted to get it for you.”
“Again, thanks!” said Claudio. He raised his cup towards the stranger, as a grateful gesture. There were sounds of sipping, each one drawing in the hot liquid.
“I’m Charles, by the way!” The stranger reached out his hand.
Claudio reciprocated, shaking Charles’ hand. “I’m Claudio. Nice to meet you!”
“I don’t mean to be nosy,” Charles apologized. “But I find myself always curious as to what other people do for a living?”
Claudio was a bit embarrassed to talk about his job. He didn’t see it as very prestigious work since it required no real skills, which he didn’t have anyway.
Hesitatingly he replied, “I work at the hotel down the street from here. I’m the night attendant and just got off. I usually stop here for a drink before I head home.”
“Oh, that sounds interesting. I bet a guy in your position meets all kinds of important people. You’re probably very good at what you do.” Charles was pouring it on, trying to draw Claudio in. It was working. “It takes a lot of responsibility to be the night manager.”
For the next five minutes Claudio name dropped important clientele he’d served. He talked about what he liked and disliked about his job, but mostly disliked.
“I am really fortunate to meet you!” said Charles.
Claudio was confused.
Charles looked around, being deliberate to communicate to Claudio through his body language, that what he was about to say was for their ears only. He now leaned in and talked more quietly,
“Look, I don’t tell hardly anyone what I do. They can’t handle it. But you’re different. I feel I can trust you.”
There was a slight pause and then the scout continued, “I work for an investigation agency. You might call it spy work. I’m here to follow up on a person who’s arriving tomorrow night for the Art Festival. He’s actually staying in your hotel.”
“What does that have to do with me?” Claudio quietly asked.
“Well nothing really,” replied Charles. “It’s just that it’s such an incredible coincidence we’re meeting each other. A smart lad like you, I thought maybe you’d be interested in making some extra money. Good money mind you, to help me gather information on this gentleman.”
It sounded initially interesting. He could use the extra money too, but Claudio wasn’t sure.
“What would I need to do?”
“Son, this would be the easiest money you could make. All I ask is you deliver a package for me. Once you’re in his room, just simply look around. Take note of what he’s doing. See what he has with him. After you leave, call me and let me know.”
“That’s it?” Claudio asked.
“That’s it!” exclaimed Charles. “I told you it’d be easy. Maybe if you do well, you might have a future in investigation. I could help you get started. You know, introduce you to some people.”
“Finally”, thought Claudio, someone who saw something in him and recognized his potential.
“Maybe I can get out of that stupid hotel.” The idea made him smile.
He was in.
There was laughter in the Tucker household. Having woken early after his first night home, John had the whole day ahead to play with the children, take some time to himself, read and nap.
That evening Sarah prepared a feast. Now dinner was eaten and the family gathered together in front of the fireplace. A large bag sat close by John. He reached in and began to pull out treasures, gifts for his family he’d been collecting over the months of travel.
One particular item that took on special meaning for Zee was a neck chain with a single pilot shuttle craft attached. It reminded Zee of the pods used to clear asteroid fields around the Dead Zone.
“This was the first type of shuttle I flew Zee. Maybe one day you’ll fly one too!”
Zee put it on. He immediately loved it.
For another hour, gifts were handed out which had come from all over the galaxy. Occasionally some needed explaining or John had a story about an item.
Sometimes one of the kids or Sarah, would ask a question, which turned into a story. All in all it was a great night; the best Zee could remember having in a long time.
In bed, Zee found himself flying solo. It was a small craft with only room for himself. The sun was shining bright. He was happy and free. No asteroids here as all was clear on the horizon.
Zee was breathing heavy. Deep sleep had come upon him easily.
John and Sarah finally had time to themselves. The kids were in bed and now they were able to talk, to share an intimate moment and whatever else they cared to do.
“I know you have to go in tomorrow for a little bit, but I was wondering something.” Sarah paused, hesitant to ask the next question. “Do you think there’s any way you could take Zee with you?”
John started to object but Sarah interrupted.
“I know you’re busy and all but it’s just that… well, Zee, what happened at the light house. He desperately missed you and craves an adventure.
He wants so bad to be like his daddy, to fly, to see space. I thought maybe tomorrow would be a great time for him to visit the Space Station. It would mean so much to him.”
John was silent, thinking about what Sarah was saying. Zee would be thrilled. He only had paperwork to do before the Fleet arrived.
Brimley, a longtime family friend and fellow Fleet officer, was back from the Dead Zone and assigned to the science research team. Perhaps he could show Zee the science ships after he showed his son around the station.
“You’re right. Tomorrow would be a great time. I already know how I can make it work.”
It was late and they would need to wake early. Normally a flight schedule wouldn’t matter. The shuttle was specifically for the admiral and he could come and go whenever he wanted. But tomorrow was different. Part of the Fleet was arriving at the station by mid-morning. John felt he needed to be there beforehand to welcome them in and say something, hopefully inspiring.
Zee would finally get to see Teller Station in person rather than just seeing pictures in a book. He decided he’d keep things secret and not tell Zee all the details, to let it unfold as they went. It would be fun to watch his reaction.
Lights went out and both he and Sarah were quickly out themselves.