Children’s laughter could be heard from the meadow behind a row of government houses. The tenants, mostly military families, often found themselves lacking husbands and fathers who were deployed.
And so it was always at this time of year, that laughter would increase and a new vibrancy would ignite the neighborhood. Soon, their soldiers would be home and families re-united again. The seasonal deployment was ending and over the next few days, these families would return to some resemblance of normality, at least until the next send out.
Zee Tucker was ten years old and already a veteran of these moments. He had experienced the separation far too many times, enough to know how much he hated it. But now there was some relief as he anticipated his dad’s arrival tomorrow. It made him play even harder.
“It’s your turn Sawyer”, Zee was lying on the meadow grass.
Sawyer didn’t answer. He already had the barrel rolled halfway up the hill towards its launch point. At the bottom was a makeshift net, erected like a wall, to keep their space vessel from making landfall in the pond just beyond.
Their ship, an old oil drum, had the lid and bottom removed, leaving just the metal cylinder. A small mattress from Zee’s attic lined the inside.
From the top of the hill Sawyer called down to Zee, still sprawled out on his back recuperating from his last landing. “Launching in one minute and counting. Make sure you’re out of the way.”
It was a tight fit; the pad not leaving much room for a person. But somehow Sawyer managed once again to wiggle his way in.
“Here I go”, Sawyer yelled.
He began to jerk and move his body, inching the barrel towards the hill’s edge. After only a few seconds, it was rolling and bouncing its way down its next mission. Neither of the boys noticed the problem.
One too many landings had loosened a side post which held their containment wall in place. As the barrel hit the net, the post broke free. Their ship was now in the pond.
Sawyer only had time to yell Zee’s name and then the barrel went down, the mattress inside collecting enough water to not be able to float. It quickly disappeared under the surface.
Zee was already standing at the water’s edge. From his angle, he could see Sawyer’s feet furiously kicking, but no progress to get out being made.
“Sawyer”, he yelled frantically.
Air bubbles were breaking the surface where the barrel had gone down. Zee quickly removed his shoes and plunged in after his friend.
The pond wasn’t so deep, about seven feet. The barrel had come to rest on the bottom. Sawyer was losing air as he struggled in vain to free himself. The mattress which lined the inside was hard enough to squeeze in and out of when dry, but now completely saturated with water, it seemed impossible.
For a moment, he stopped struggling. He was looking up at the surface of the water and across the pond. Light rays painted colors and shadows across the underwater terrain. The strange beauty of the view calmed him.
He thought of his mother who would soon step outside and whistle for him to come home. Whenever they were playing, he could hear her whistle from anywhere in the meadow. It was loud and very distinct. Its call always signaled time to go home for supper.
“I don’t think I’ll be able to hear it from here”, he thought.
It was at that moment he felt someone grab his ankles. Together with Zee pulling and Sawyer pushing himself backwards from within, it didn’t take long to break free. His whole insides hurt from holding his breath as he struggled to swim upwards. Zee gave him a much needed push.
Breaking the surface, he gasped for air. Zee had come underneath his friend and now Sawyer was standing on his shoulders. Zee steadily walked along the bottom towards the edge of the pond. Moments later, both boys were able to stand in the shallows and breathe.
Climbing out of the water on hands and knees, they collapsed in the thick grass, coughing and sputtering, sucking in air. Neither tried to talk.
Several minutes passed before the familiar sound of Sawyer’s mom whistling, cut through their silence. He started to chuckle.
“Are you crazy?” Zee raised his head to look at him. “What are you laughing about?”
At that point, Sawyer broke into uncontrollable laughter, Zee joining him, though not quite sure what they were laughing at.
“I love that whistle!” Sawyer screamed.
For a couple more minutes, the boys carried on, then were silent again.
“I guess I’ll have to get that net fixed.” Zee blurted.
For some reason, this caused them once more to lose control.
“Thanks for saving me.” Sawyer was finally able to talk and the tone in his voice, obviously grateful.
Zee watched his friend disappear over the crest of the hill. Then it was his turn to get up and make the same climb.
By now the sun was almost gone and darkness about to cover the meadow. He could hear the sounds of its night life, crickets chirping and bull frogs croaking around the pond. It was hard to believe that just minutes earlier, Sawyer had almost drown.
Now there was just a peaceful calm. A gentle breeze started to blow and in his wet clothing, Zee felt a slight chill.
Sarah, Zee’s mom was deep in thought as she set the table. John would be home tomorrow. Her own sense of excitement was growing stronger. But there were still things to do and she had to get through one more night.
The house was clean. The kid’s rooms straightened. She looked at the clock; still plenty of time before they had to leave for the town meeting at the park.
“Lilly”, Sarah called. “It’s time for dinner. Wash up and come to the table.”
About that time, she could see Zee coming over the hill. She motioned with her hand, signaling for him to come. Zee saw her and signaled back.
“Wash up and come to the table”, Sarah spoke as Zee entered the house.
“Okay mom”, he closed the back door and quickly made his way to his bedroom, hoping she wouldn’t notice he was wet.
“The Teller System sits just outside David’s Sling. The slingshot is a current much like you’d find in the oceans of Minas Terra, but is instead running through space. Most military and only some specially approved non-military vessels are able to penetrate inside the current safely, while commercial traffic is restricted to the outer edge.
All ships make practical use of this river running through space, by carrying goods and passenger’s farther distances faster.”
Zee was glued to the television. He loved documentaries, and especially this particular one. He’d recorded it and was watching for the third time. Pilots and shuttle craft, blasting asteroids in space, the thought thrilled him. The story hadn’t even mentioned those things yet, but he knew it was coming next and leaned in closer.
“David’s Slingshot aptly named, throws asteroids, especially near Goliath, the largest star in the quadrant. The outer planets of Teller absorb the brunt of this debris activity making them virtually uninhabitable. The people of Minas Terra call this area the Dead Zone.
It isn’t really dead though. Military and Science specialists, members of the Fleet embedded deep below planetary surfaces, carry out important research and public safety services. One man space pods clear asteroid fields left by David’s sling, thus ensuring safe passage for other ships entering and exiting this sector.”
The TV switched off. Dinner was done and Sarah, finished cleaning the mess.
“We need to get going Zee.”
“Aw mom”, Zee moaned. “I’m on vacation.”
She understood and tried to console him.
“I know honey. But this is something special. It’s not every day one of your teachers is given such a great honor. And it’s the right thing we’d be there to send him off.”
Sarah leaned into the front closet and was digging around for shoes. She needed a match for the one now in her hand.
“It won’t be long. Mr. Carr has to catch his shuttle tonight to make opening ceremonies on Garen Four”. She found the shoe she was looking for and stood to close the closet door.
“And besides, we’re not going to the school. The meeting’s downtown in the park. After it’s over, we can stay for a little while and you and your sister can play. Here, catch.” She threw the shoes towards Zee.
“Then you know what tomorrow is, right?” Sarah reminded him.
Zee remembered. Dad was coming home.
John Tucker was Fleet Admiral, a highly decorated man who Zee was very proud of. It was his dream to be a pilot in the Fleet like his dad was once and one day also to be Admiral.
Zee nodded in agreement. It was time to head to the park.
As expected, the meeting didn’t last long. The school’s principle Clarice Shibley, spoke about the importance of artistic growth in children as a means towards greater social maturity and intellectual stimulation. She also told about what a great teacher of art Edmund Carr was.
Mr. Carr followed with a short speech of his own and of how happy he was to be nominated a VIP guest to the esteemed art festival. He mentioned exposure and the mentoring opportunities this would provide from the Garen Four Art Institute, to Minas Terra.
Afterwards, everyone went through a line, shaking Mr. Carr’s hand and congratulating him.
Zee didn’t care. “What good is art to a pilot anyway?” he thought. “Mr. Carr will be gone only two weeks and then back to school.”
His dad had been away much longer and with more important responsibilities as far as he was concerned.
After a short playtime at the park, Zee and his family were back home. It was late. Sarah tucked the kids into bed.
Zee pictured himself, a pilot in the Fleet, blasting asteroids in the dead zone. In his peripheral vision there was movement. Powering thrusters to max, he turned hard left on the stick. His ship spun out of the way of an incoming asteroid narrowly escaping collision.
Then there was Mr. Carr, showing the class artwork he carried home from Garen Four. Zee couldn’t quite make out the image, as classmates were in the way.
Moving closer, he finally could see it was a painting, or a photo. He wasn’t sure. There were sheep grazing in a grassy field. At least he assumed it was grass. The field and trees didn’t look like any he had seen on Minas Terra.
The painting was alive somehow, a glow about it and strange vibrancy. Suddenly, a student next to Zee screamed, sending a cold chill down his spine.
“The wolves know!” the student howled.
A blinding flash of blue light exploded from the image. Wolf-like creatures shedding skins of the sheep as if they were shaking off a blanket, flew out of the picture.
It was chaos in the classroom, kids scattering in all directions. Terrifying creatures were biting, clawing and tearing into the flesh of his classmates. Mr. Carr, clothes tattered and torn, bled from wounds all over his body.
Zee was left standing alone, staring at his teacher who now limped towards him. Each step labored, as he dragged one of the creatures clinging to his leg by long, sharp, needle like teeth.
“Do you want to pet my dog?” Mr. Carr was getting closer. “It’s okay, he won’t bite.”
“Stay away from me!” Zee screamed as he stepped backwards.
Mr. Carr was now so close, Zee was pinned to the wall and turned his head away, his teacher’s mouth at his ear.
It was a painful whimper, “Run Zee.”
Zee looked him in the eyes. They were filled with tears.
There was an ear piercing shriek and with a violent pull, Mr. Carr was dragged away, disappearing into darkness at the far end of the room.
Zee could feel his heart pounding. He lay in bed, paralyzed by the fear and began to quietly cry. Eventually, the shock of his nightmare began to subside until finally he could relax a little.
The room was dark except for the faint light of his alarm clock. The sound of crickets chirping outside calmed him.