‘Corn Cereal,’ the box read, white and dull like everything else on Doctor Lucas Sundberg’s apartment. Bowl and spoon before him, he sat on his pajamas at the dining table examining the box closely. Whose breakfast would look like that, was the first question that popped into his mind with the picture printed on it. A bowl of cornflakes with milk, three cobs of corn, and two sacks of kernels casually placed, and everything color-adjusted to arouse consumer’s taste buds.
Flavored cereal would be a lot better than a neat box decor.
Back on the bowl, mushy flakes floated in the still milk, uninviting. “I can always imagine it’s strawberry,” Lucas said to himself every morning. It never worked, but at least helped him get started. He shoved a spoonful into his mouth; a taste so familiar it wasn’t anymore. Reluctant jaws moved in a robotic and repetitive chewing motion, unnecessary to swallow his pastelike day starter.
Another spoonful and Lucas’s mind sought for escape.
As he sat there staring blankly at nothing, he drifted away into his troubling memories. Muffled growls and explosions slowly fade in the silence of his kitchen. He was back in Centauri Ab, choking as oxygen leaked from his suit. Commander Viktor, Lieutenant Casper, and Captain Annie shouted through the radio, but he couldn’t figure which words.
Lucas was now in the airlock of the Zenith, blood everywhere in the debris, and Commander Viktor looked at him with a serene expression. He said something to him—something important, but Lucas couldn’t remember.
He spent entire nights awake scavenging memories, but when he hit that part… nothing.
“You can’t even do that right,” Lucas said to himself every time. Questions besieged his broken psyche. He had dived into hell alongside two of the most skilled men Goliath had ever seen and only he had survived. Whichever way he saw it, he was sure a useless brat like him didn’t deserve such leniency.
A rescue vessel salvaged the Zenith from the hellfire.
As emergency personnel carried Lucas out of the ship on a stretcher, he remembered Captain Annie Wallin next to him, her face, hair, and suit drenched in sweat. Someone called Lucas’s name, and Director Walker appeared to his other side, asking Annie about the missing Commander and his old friend. Annie didn’t say a thing. The soul-ripening scream of a shattered heart answered for her as Casper’s wife, Elina, broke in tears over her husband in a body bag on another stretcher.
One more memory to haunt Lucas’s sleepless nights.
A flawed chew and Lucas’s teeth thrust into his tongue, awakening from his daydreaming. “Agh,” he grunted as the taste of iron spread through his mouth. He spat a mouthful of bloody cereal paste in the sink and wiped with the back of his hand.
“Well, that’s just gross,” a voice said from behind.
Lucas turned around to find his girlfriend, Tatiana, in her underwear leaning at the bedroom entrance with arms crossed and a lifted eyebrow. “I’m sorry… I’ll clean it up, don’t worry,” he said, opening the sink tap. The water dissolved his cereal spit into a nasty spiral that flushed towards the drain.
Tatiana broke character and snorted. “I’m screwing with you, silly.” She went to him and stood on her toes to kiss him on the cheek. Her hypnotizing natural scent loosened every muscle in Lucas’s body in an instant. “How’s that head feeling today?” she said, checking Lucas’s bandages wrapped around his head.
“I—it’s feeling a lot better, thanks.” Lucas pushed against the sink cabinets as his girlfriend leaned on him. Even after years of relationship, she still made his pulse go haywire. “It’s hard to remember some things, but at least it doesn’t hurt anymore.”
“Nothing to worry about, then. You’ve always had a hard time remembering things.” Tatiana’s lips curled mockingly.
Lucas chuckled. “All right, you got me there.”
“You have your follow-up appointment with Doctor Harris on Monday. I added a reminder to your calendar, so you don’t forget.”
As she walked at the cupboards and reached inside one of them for something, Lucas’s amused eyes followed her along, delighted with every one of her movements. Her pale skin and hair black combined with pink undies perfectly. The mere sight of that woman dispelled every burden from his mind. “I hope I didn’t wake you up,” he said, forcing himself out of the trance of her figure.
“It’s okay,” Tatiana said, scrambling the contents of the cupboard. “I have a ton of paperwork to review from last night.” Her hand caught something. “Gotcha!” It was a sealed box of pancake mix. “Things have been crazy at Medical lately.”
“Crazy,” Lucas asked.
“Yeah—people going nuts and even attack others. They were only two or three cases at first, but they kept piling up. High ranks are speaking of a case of mass hysteria. But I’m not buying into that—” She paused and stared back at Lucas. “Wait one second. What are you doing up so early on a Sunday?”
Continued below …
Lucas’s eyes darted from side to side. “Um… they called us for a general meeting at Research. They’re probably disclosing details of the mission to the whole staff.”
“Oh crap, how do you think they’re gonna take it?”
Lucas sighed. “Not sure. I’m still having trouble believing what we found there.”
“Yeah, aliens. That’s some crazy shit. Do you think they will believe that?”
“They must.” Lucas leaned back on the sink, eyes planted on the ground. “Two people lost their lives that day.”
“Baby, you can’t keep torturing yourself for that.” Tatiana placed a comforting hand on his shoulder. “It wasn’t your fault.”
“I know, it’s just… I wish I could’ve done something more for them. Instead, I was just a liability.” His fingers tightened against the countertop. “Gosh, they had to carry me back to the ship.”
“But you came back home. The Commander and the others already did their part and now is up to you to complete the mission.”
Lucas glanced at her in confusion.
“You still have to find out what’s that thing that you guys brought back.”
“The device? We haven’t even been able to power that piece of junk back on. Some people are saying I must’ve imagined it speaking to me.” Pause. “And who knows? Maybe they’re right.”
“It’s always a possibility,” Tatiana shrugged, “but you don’t get to quit your job just yet. Speaking of which, aren’t you late already?” She glanced at the clock on top of the fridge. “Preparations for New Year’s Eve start today and streets must be packed by now.”
Lucas’s stomach became stone at the realization. “Crap, you’re right,” he shrilled, ratifying the time with his mobile phone. He tumbled his way out of the kitchen but stopped halfway. His sight shifted between his cereal bowl and his girlfriend arching brows at him.
“Go. I’ll get it,” Tatiana said with a wink.
After snatching his green jumpsuit from his bedroom dresser and hopping into them, he grabbed his cell phone from the table and strode at the main door.
“Forgetting something?” Tatiana called him to a halt.
“Right, sorry,” Lucas turned back and kissed her on the cheek. She waved at him without looking as he bolted off his apartment.
A sea of people in jumpsuits swirled through the main street of Residential Section C, greeting and cheering like they hadn’t seen each other for the whole year. Across the street, another apartment building loomed six stories tall with people watching from their balconies. A few more meters up, totaling eighty from street level, a curved and translucent ceiling filtered the solar radiation of Alpha Centauri as a pleasant warmth. The rest of Goliath’s rotating habitat arched in the distance, anchored by four masts to a central hub. Valhalla, another generation ship exact to Goliath and of its same colossal dimensions, sailed close by through the expanse, its habitat’s revolution almost imperceptible from this far. The third and last ship, Phoenix, cruised along to the opposite side right below Lucas’s feet at this time of day.
Back on the ground, Lucas regretted every morning he spent oversleeping instead of waking up for a run as he fought and strode through the unending crowd. The worst came at the small park at the intersection of the main and central streets, which cut the section along and across respectively. “Coming through,” he said to dozens of indifferent ears. Children ran and played, calling for attention from their parents resting on the benches of fake wood. “Ugh, sorry,” Lucas said tumbling for balance as he dodged a young kid in his haste.
Three large screens atop a thick pole broadcasted the live coverage of the preparations. “We’re just one week away from the New Year’s Eve celebration, and preparations are on schedule,” a woman in a white jumpsuit said on screen, her voice echoing all over the park. “Like every year, we’ll be delighted with the traditional speech by our chairman of High Command, Mr. Arthur Solomon. We’re expecting him to address our long-awaited arrival to the Alpha Centauri System, after two-and-a-half centuries of travel.”
Lucas rushed past without paying much attention; the second half of Section C awaited him, just as taxing as the first. Twelve thousand people dwelled that ship, and they all seemed to be gathering at that point, and at the most inconvenient time. The massive containment wall dividing Section C from D arose tall just meters ahead. From the entrance at the bottom, even more people flowed like a river as if the place wasn’t packed enough already.
Past the gate, Section D presented a less-suffocating setting. Something significant had to be going on in the first sections to pull everyone there—and very much in Lucas’s favor. The place had the same layout as the previous section, and every one of the five residential sections in Goliath: apartment buildings, a small park in the middle and two streets cutting in fourths. A sweet, melodic voice seized Lucas’s ears as he approached a crowd gathering around a female singer backed up by a man playing a steady rhythm on his guitar.
“Luke,” a voice called Lucas, “oi, Luke!” An overweight man in a blue jumpsuit pushed off the crowd and hurried at him. It was Aaron, holding a little girl wearing pigtails by the hand. “Geez, man, it sure’s been a long time.”
“Aaron, hey,” Lucas said, hands on his knees and panting his lungs out. “How’re you—”
“Damn, mate, just look at ye—all professional and that. How’s life treating you at Research?” Aaron patted him on the shoulder excitedly.
Lucas wheezed out a forced chuckle. “Um… quite busy but it’s going good so far. I’ve been—”
“Awesome, I’m glad to hear that. Oh, wait, where are my manners? This is my niece, Amy.” Aaron looked down at the little girl who sought shelter behind his leg. “She’ll be starting training at the Production Ring next year. Can you believe it? She was profiled as a producer, just like her uncle! Man, I’m so proud of her.” His eyes sparkled as he spoke, and then he crouched next to his niece. “Amy, hun, remember that guy I told you about before your tests? The one who got transferred from Prod to Research? Well, this is the chap!” He threw a hand at Lucas as if introducing the man who had single-handedly built the entire ship.
No words. Amy stared right at him with her head hung low, fidgeting a foot on the ground.
“Oh well, she’s a bit timid a’ight.” Aaron stood back up showing hands. “Anyways, rumor has it you were out on a mission. A mission, man, geez. How come you didn’t tell me?”
Aaron’s words came fast one after the other; way faster than Lucas could process.
“And how’s Tats doing?” Aaron went on. “She went to the shop a few times—she looked dead worried. You should really—”
“Hey, look, um… it was nice to see you and meeting your niece, but I’m—”
“Running late? Oh, you guys are always busy even on weekends!” Aaron let out a throaty laugh. “Don’t sweat it, mate. Go already.”
Lucas wouldn’t give him room to change his mind; that unexpected encounter had cost him ten minutes he didn’t have. He strode off, waving at Aaron and his niece.
“Come visit sometime, mate,” Aaron yelled, waving back. “Everyone misses you at the farms. I’ll give you some of that cereal you love so much—free of charge!”
Lucas’s stomach churned at the thought of the cereal paste he had for breakfast just moments ago. He fixed his face and looked back, smiling at Aaron. It wouldn’t take him long to realize that running without seeing ahead is a terrible idea. The clank of his face bashing against metal halted him dead as he ran into a lamppost. He fell on his butt, his eyes squeezing shut to the pain.
“Woah, careful boy. Are you okay?” a worried voice asked.
A middle-aged man in a light blue jumpsuit looked down at him, adjusting his thick-framed, taped glasses. His brown hair and beard showed some white and the urge for some grooming. He tended a helping hand to Lucas, who hesitated at first.
“Ugh… thanks,” Lucas said back upright, his forehead and cheekbones feeling as if someone squeezed them hard. “I’m okay.”
“Come on, let me have a look at that.” The man grabbed Lucas’s head with both hands and examined his bandages. He wasn’t as tall but just enough to reach just fine.
“Don’t worry about it. I’m fine.”
“Easy, boy. I’m a nurse.” The man pulled up his glasses and gave his forehead an even closer look. “You shouldn’t go easy on these things. Some people suffer brain trauma without realizing about days later.” He paused and continued in a somber tone, “by then it’s already too late.”
Lucas’s eyes widened in restrained panic.
“Dad, his forehead is bleeding,” a young female voice said.
Lucas looked up at a girl standing behind the man, with a dramatic stare and pointing at Lucas. She was about twelve, green eyes, freckles, and messy red hair falling on her shoulders.
“Izzy, hun, go with your mom,” the bearded man said. “I’ll be there in a second.”
“Is he going to die?” the girl pressed on.
The man rolled his eyes, finally looking back at her. “Honey, please.”
She approached and placed a hand high on her father’s shoulder, shifting her stare at him from dramatic to dramatically determined. “All right, big man, do your best. Don’t let this one go.”
“This one?” Lucas shrilled to himself, choking a bit.
And so the girl went off to the crowd gathered around the duet where her mother met her with open arms and a loving smile. It was Director Walker—her eyes and hair matched those of her daughter. No doubt about their kinship.
“I’m sorry about my daughter,” the man said, “she’s got a loose lip.” He sighed. “Anyways, your head doesn’t look that bad. A change of bandages and some analgesics should do the job. Get to your section’s infirmary and tell them I sent you—they won’t give you much trouble.”
“Oh, thanks, sir…” Lucas trailed off, not recalling if the man mentioned his name at some point.
“The name’s Nathan—Nathan Clarke. But everyone calls me Nate.” The man extended a thick but soft-looking hand with a ring at Lucas.
“Lucas.” Lucas shook that hand as firm as his slender forearm allowed.
“Nice meeting you, Lucas. Take it easy from now on.” And the man walked off waving once. Back at the crowd, he met with his family, kissing his wife on the forehead while his daughter cheered and demanded his attention. A happy family. Lucas wasn’t aware Director Walker was married; not even pondered the thought. He often pictured high ranks as gloomy people made of stone. That sight made Lucas see himself and his girlfriend like that someday, although he wasn’t sure how Tatiana would feel about that being practically allergic to children.
A distant bell snapped him out of it. “Shit, it’s nine already,” he said.
With two more sections to go, he shifted to a rush towards the next connection gate.