Richard sat in the driver’s seat of his maintenance truck, eating lunch from a sack his wife had packed for him earlier in the morning. Looking at his watch, he started to worry they wouldn’t make it in time to the Senator’s house.
Picking up the radio, he called to his new hire, still not back.
“Have you collected that paper work yet? We need to get it to the Senator soon.”
“Yeah, yeah I got it.” The voice on the other end of the call sounded irritated. “I’m on my way to the truck.”
A few minutes later, the side door opened and Donovan climbed into the passenger seat. He was soaked from the rain.
“Why were you taking so long in the shuttle?” Richard scolded. “You have to do things quicker. The Senator is paying us to get this flight plan to him this morning, not the afternoon!” Richard was agitated.
“Well it’s here!” Donovan replied sarcastically, “Let’s go!”
“Well, I don’t think I like your attitude.” Richard pulled away from the shuttle hangar.
Once through the security gate and back on the road, the next stop was the Senator’s house. Richard’s company had done very well this year as a courier delivery service. He had known a commander in the Fleet who helped hook him up with several government contracts.
About three miles from their destination, they were on a stretch of road which was mostly open country. Richard realized something.
“Wait a minute! Where’s your duffel bag? You had it when you left the truck to get the flight schedule from the shuttle. You said it was your lunch. That wasn’t your lunch. You lied to me!”
He felt something touch up against his head. Turning to see, he was horrified to find the barrel of a hand held Electronic Pulse Weapon (EPW) staring him in the face.
“Pull it over! Now!” Donovan ordered.
Several seconds later, the van was stopped on the side of the road.
“I left ‘My lunch’ in the shuttle, on purpose.” Donovan sarcastically confessed. “That’s why I didn’t have it with me afterwards. Now get out.”
“Look, take the van, I don’t care. Please, just don’t kill me. I’ve got a wife and child.”
“Out!” Donovan calmly ordered. Richard obeyed.
Donovan slid across into the driver’s seat. Richard was already running, back towards the direction from which they’d come. Stepping from the vehicle, Donovan was screwing a longer barrel to the end of his side arm.
Seconds later raising the gun, he took careful aim and gently squeezed the trigger. The electronic burst hit the roadway just next to his target’s feet. It was an uncharacteristic miss, but still close enough to cause Richard to stumble and fall. He took a hard roll and was painfully struggling to get up.
Donovan calmly adjusted the gun’s sight. Bringing the weapon back up and steadying his arm against the side of the truck, he delivered a second shot, dropping his victim to the ground.
He made his way to Richard at the side of the road and dragged the body down into the ditch and out of sight. It would be days or weeks before it’d be found.
“Ah, but a wife and kid.” He thought. “At some point she’ll be wondering where her husband is.”
Fishing around Richard’s pockets, he pulled a driver’s license. It was the home address he was after. “I think I’ll pay them a visit after I’m done here.”
Next stop, the Senator’s house.
“Cut impulse engines.”
The Captain turned to radio conn. “Alert Sergeant Coren we’re approaching entry. Cleanup crews are removing the last of the recent meteor storm.”
The shuttle was now slowly drifting. Temporal scans showed all clear for the moment. The break in the storm would provide plenty of time for approach and landing, before the next barrage of space rock flung by the slingshot, would hit this sector.
Entry and exit was always interesting in the Dead Zone. Crews worked around the clock to provide removal services, clearing the slingshot’s debris. Large asteroid fields had to be broken up and carried away, so ships could safely pass in and out of docking stations.
With the exception of the continual clean up, Fleet life here happened mostly beneath the planet’s surface, deep enough to not be interrupted by the frequent meteor storms. The turbulence always ended though, leaving enough time to blast away the rock obstacles and permit space traffic to pass through again. It all moved along like clockwork.
“We’re cleared for landing Captain.”
“Activate propulsion engines. Helm, bring us in.” The Captain was now standing at his command station.
“Aye, aye sir.” Helm responded.
On the surface, steel blast doors opened an entry way which soon swallowed the shuttle as it passed through, descending down into the interior of the planet. Eventually the ship was docked and its passengers exiting.
Sergeant Coren made his way to the monitoring station on the Observation level. Entering the room, already activity was buzzing.
“Talk to me people”, Coren ordered.
“Sir”, one of the officers excitedly reported. “Long range sensors have picked up homing signals. We think it may be third contact”.
“Have short range scanners detected the signal as well?” Coren asked.
“No sir. The signal is too far; very faint, even for long range.”
Coren took a few minutes to collect his thoughts, then called for attention.
“Everyone, please, eyes on me.” Within seconds all activity was stopped and attention fixed on the Sergeant. “Three weeks ago, we made first contact. Then again a few days later, number two. It looks like number three has found us as well. This one though is a bit farther away, its signal very faint. It’s going to take all our effort and skill to see she also comes home safely.”
“You know what that means, shorter shifts rotating every four hours, until we have a lock on our pod. Any questions?”
Coren slowly looked around the room. Everyone understood their assignments.
“Very well then. Let’s bring this one home!”
A lone figure moved through the streets of River Falls, keeping mostly to the shadows so as not to be seen. No one was watching anyway. It was raining and had been for several days. The streets were empty, actually making for unexpected good fortune for anyone who wanted to sneak around.
Mendelark had been able to freely move in and out of the shift he’d established between River Falls and Edok. Santora would be pleased. In his possession were key photos, which were soon to be needed for access to Senator Michaels. Also was an unexpected added bonus, consisting of several pictures in and around the Senator’s home.
Business with Richard’s wife and kid was settled and now, having shed his work uniform and fake identity of Donovan Mackey, it was time to shift back to Edok with the photos and schedule he’d copied from the flight board. His mission was complete.
And right on time too. Tomorrow’s weather was predicted to be sunny and clear, which meant people would be out and about, especially after having been cooped up several days inside, because of the rain. All the added eyes on the streets would have made it harder to complete his tasks.
The sun’s light barely lit the sky as it dipped down beyond the harbor. Mendelark was a block away from his jump point which was hidden in an alleyway up ahead. In the distance, the faint sound of singing distracted him for a moment.
Rain was falling again, as he moved towards the window of the house where he heard the music. He could make out the words but really didn’t understand their meaning. The song was just ending.
“Happy birthday to you…” The tune carried over for several seconds.
A loud cheer followed the end of the song. Mendelark could tell many people were inside, but he couldn’t see well enough to know what they were doing.
“Don’t forget to make a wish Zee!” someone yelled.
The room grew quiet. Zee was deep in thought.
“I wish for my dad to make it home safely.” It was barely audible and no one could really hear what he said. There was a long, silent pause. Finally, Zee blew out the candles.
Brimley started to clap and everyone followed with loud cheering. Sarah, Zee’s mom, moved in with a knife and began to cut the cake and distribute servings to the guests. No one noticed the strange figure outside the window.
Having had enough eves dropping, Mendelark made his way back across the street from where he’d come and continued on to the jump point in the alley. He was sure that soon, there would be singing and celebrating for him, when he delivered this long awaited prize.
The guests were gone and the house quiet. Zee and Brimley sat in the family room, neither one talking.
It had been nine years since the attack on Teller Station. Brimley, now living with the Tucker family, was renting a room in the basement. Without John around, he knew they’d need his help and support.
No longer meeting the necessary requirements, they lived in the city, since only qualifying military families could live on post. For the first couple years, Zee greatly missed the meadow, but eventually everyone got used to the new pace of life.
Zee was nineteen years old today. A junior in Fleet Academy, he was the youngest student to be three years into his studies. In experience and maturity though, he was older than any of his classmates there.
After watching Zee go through what he did, Brimley recognized something special about the boy. Everyone who met him from the Academy agreed.
Within a year of getting back to Minas Terra after that fateful day, Brimley along with Sarah’s begrudging approval, enrolled Zee in the Fleet’s developmental program. It was designed specifically to work with young, but exceptionally gifted individuals.
The developmental program was a special, Pre-Academy military school. It served as Fleet Academy’s preparatory program for students being groomed in leadership. No one in Zee’s class knew he’d been enrolled, as student’s identities were often kept secret for security reasons. There were other things they didn’t know as well, such as the fact that he’d already been piloting small shuttle craft.
And soon, would be a special day in the life of every Academy study. As third year students, they would be making their first jump into the Slingshot. In this also Zee was way ahead of the curve, having ridden the current several times. He’d already experienced it more than many government officials and knew what was coming.
The Academy never prepared a student for first entry. In one weeks’ time, when it was mission “go” and they hit the current, all of them would be rendered unconscious from the force of acceleration. It was called hyper sleep. Zee had mastered the breathing techniques it would take to stay awake. When the time came, he would participate with his flight instructors in all the practical jokes.
It was tradition to cover the faces of the sleeping in shaving cream. This made him chuckle a bit. Of course he would have to cover his face as well to preserve his secret. But he’d have some fun with it and then pretend to be waking when the others began to do so.
Brimley noticed the quiet laugh. “It’s about time you smiled! What’s been bothering you?”
For days, Zee was depressed. Brimley noticed it even during the birthday party.
“I can’t see his face anymore. When I try, it’s just a blur. We’ve got to find him.”
“Zee, it’s been nine years. We don’t even know if he’s alive still.”
“He’s alive Brimley. I know it.” Zee protested.
“How do you know that Zee?” Brimley asked.
“I don’t know. I just do. I can feel him.” Zee was leaning back, staring at the ceiling. “Sometimes he comes to me, in my dreams, but I’m losing sight of his face and I don’t want to.”
Sarah entered the room. Leaning over, she gave her son a kiss on his forehead. “Happy Birthday honey!”
Zee smiled. “Thanks mom.”
“I need to get to bed.” Sarah yawned. “I’m tired from all this partying.” She dismissed herself for the night.
As Sarah headed upstairs to her room, she couldn’t help but think about next week, when Zee would make the hyper jump. She could never get used to it. And always in the back of her mind was a nagging fear that maybe he wouldn’t return, just like his dad.
She knew at least from Zee’s story that John was alive. At first she found herself hoping and believing, but now after so long? It was hard to imagine. Even if it were true, how would they ever get him back? They didn’t know where he was.
According to Zee and Brimley, he disappeared in a blue wave of light that swallowed their ship and transported him somewhere. But where? Years of research in the Territory libraries and Quadrant Archives still hadn’t produced any information, nor pictures that Zee or Brimley might recognize as being where her husband was left behind. After nine years, there was nothing.
Downstairs, Brimley and Zee were still talking. Brimley reached into his pocket and pulled out a photo. He handed it to Zee.
“This is for you, to keep as a reminder that I… am the king of the castle. Maybe it’ll help motivate you to get back here for a rematch, after your jump.”
Zee had to laugh. The picture was of the game room and dart board along the far wall of the family room. He and Brimley had been locked in battle only a couple nights before, with Brimley barely beating him.
“You’ll get your rematch old man, I assure you! It was pure luck you hit the center.”
Brimley lifted his arms, inviting a hug. He had become like a father and the open invitation was one Zee desperately needed. Tears flowing, he moved in and buried his face into Brimley’s chest.
“Zee,” Brimley spoke. “Don’t give up hope son. Find the next step and focus on that. It’s too big a thing to set your thoughts on finding your dad from where you are now.”
“Don’t lose sight of your goal, but never try to get there from here. Always look for what’s next. And when you’ve taken enough steps, you may suddenly find yourself engaged in what turns out to be your answer.”
Zee had heard the spiel so many times, he sarcastically repeated the last line with Brimley, “And hopefully that answer looks something like you want.”
They both laughed.
“I ovele ouye ikele a onse.” Brimley was thinking out loud.
Zee laughed through his tears, accidentally blowing his nose into Brimley’s shirt.
“Ahh!” Brimley pulled away.
“I’m sorry!” Zee laughed. “It just came out unexpectedly.”
Brimley laughed too. “It’s alright Zee. It just makes me more like a father I guess.” Brimley handed Zee a tissue.
“At least your pig Latin is still good.” Zee was reminiscing. “Remember how we used to torture Lilly by talking it in front of her.”
Brimley added, “She would scream cause she didn’t understand a word we were saying.”
There were a few more laughs and then silence. Brimley put his hand on Zee’s shoulder. “You’ve got to get to bed. And I’ve got to do laundry.”