06 — Home

“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, holding the box close to his face, scrutinizing every detail. The image printed on it featured a bowl of cornflakes and milk, cobs of corn and two gunnysacks of kernels casually placed, everything color-adjusted to arouse consumer’s taste buds. Lucas scoffed. Spending resources in flavoring the damn cereal would be far more appreciated than a slick box decor. Furthermore, gunnysacks were only found in history books. It all seemed like a tasteless joke. Contrary to the picture, soggy flakes floated in the still milk in his bowl, uninviting. “I can always imagine it is strawberry,” Lucas tried to encourage himself every morning. It never worked, but at least helped him get started. He shoved a spoonful into his mouth; a taste so familiar that passed unnoticed. Reluctant jaws moved in a robotic and repetitive chewing motion, unnecessary to swallow his pastelike day starter.

One more spoonful and Lucas’s mind rooted for an escape. Sitting there, staring blankly at nothing, he drifted away into his troubling memories. Muffled growls and explosions materialized in the quietness of the kitchen. He was back in Centauri Ab, choking as oxygen gushed off his suit. Commander Viktor, Lieutenant Casper, and Captain Annie were all shouting through the radio, but he couldn’t make any words. Blank. Lucas then appeared in the airlock of the Zenith, blood, and dust drifting everywhere in the debris. How much time had passed? The last thing he remembered was Commander Viktor looking at him with a serene expression. Something had gone terribly wrong. The Commander said something to him—something important, but Lucas couldn’t remember. He had spent many nights awake scavenging memories, but that one was missing from his registry.

“You’re hopeless,” Lucas said to himself every time. 

Questions besieged his broken psyche. He had leaped into hell alongside two of the most skilled men the Atlas Mission had seen in a hundred and fifty years, and only he had survived. Whichever way he saw it, a useless brat like him was the last one to deserve such leniency.

A rescue vessel salvaged the Zenith from the pandemonium.

As paramedics hauled Lucas off the ship on a stretcher, he reckoned Captain Annie Wallin next to him, her face and suit drenched in sweat as if she had run for miles, her hair all messed up. Somebody called Lucas’s name—it was Director Amelia Walker, who appeared beside him, asking Annie about the missing Commander and his friend. Annie fixed a trembling stare in the Director’s eyes. She didn’t say a thing; the soul-ripping cry of a shattered heart answered instead. A few feet away, Lieutenant Casper’s wife, Elina, broke into tears as officials delivered her the news of her late husband of twenty years. Their son couldn’t do more but watch in confusion. Yet one more memory to haunt Lucas’s sleepless nights.

A rogue chew and Lucas’s molars thrust into his cheek, waking him from his daydreaming. “Agh,” he grunted as the taste of iron overtook 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,” somebody said from behind him.

Lucas turned around to find his girlfriend, Tatiana, in her underwear leaning on their bedroom doorframe, arms crossed and a lifted eyebrow. “I’m sorry. I’ll clean it up,” he said, opening the sink tap. The water dissolved his cereal spit into a nasty spiral flushing into the drain.

Tatiana broke character and snorted. “I’m screwing with you, silly.” She went to him and on her toes to deliver a warm kiss on his cheek. Her hypnotizing natural scent loosened every muscle in his body in an instant. “How’s that head feeling today?” she said, checking Lucas’s bandages wrapped around his head.

“It’s feeling a lot better. Thanks.” Lucas pushed against the sink as she came closer to reach his head; even after years of relationship, she still made his pulse go haywire. “I can’t remember some things, but at least it doesn’t hurt anymore.”

“All normal, then. You’ve always had a hard time remembering stuff, anyway.” Tatiana’s lips curled mockingly.

Lucas chuckled. “All right, you got me there.”

“You have your appointment with Doctor Harris on Monday. I added a reminder to your calendar, so you don’t forget.”

As she walked to the cupboards and went again on her toes to reach inside them, Lucas’s amused eyes followed her along, delighted with every one of her movements. Her pale skin and black hair combined with her pink undies to perfection. The mere sight of her dispelled every burden from his mind. “I hope I didn’t wake you up,” Lucas said, forcing himself out of the trance of her figure.

Tatiana scrambled the contents of the cupboards, searching for something. “Nah. It’s okay. I have a ton of paperwork to review from last night—gotcha!” Her hand found her prey: a sealed box of pancake mix. “Things have been crazy at Medical lately.”

“Crazy?”

“Yeah. People who go nuts and attack others. We only had two or three cases at first, but they kept coming. High ranks are speculating it might be a case of mass hysteria. Sounds like something boiled down in case they have to go public. That’d be so like them—” She paused and stared back at Lucas. “Wait one second. What are you doing up so early on a Sunday?”

Lucas’s eyes darted from side to side, caught off guard. “Um, they called us all to Research. They didn’t say what is it about, but I’m sure they’re debriefing the mission to the whole staff.”

“Oh, crap. How do you think folks will take it?”

Lucas sighed. “Not sure. I’m still having trouble myself believing what we found there.”

“Yeah, aliens.” Tatiana scoffed. “That’s some crazy shit right there. You think they’ll buy into that?”

“They’ll have to. Nobody will argue considering the mission took the lives of two people.” Lucas leaned back on the sink, eyes planted on the ground.

Silence embraced the room for a few long seconds.

“Baby, you can’t keep torturing yourself over what happened.” Tatiana placed a comforting hand on his shoulder. “It wasn’t your fault.”

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“I know, it’s just… I wish I could have done something more for them. Instead, I was just a liability.” His fingers gripped the countertop tighter. “Hell, they had to carry me back to the ship.”

“You came back home. The Commander and the others did their part, and now it’s up to you to see the mission through.”

Lucas looked at her, puzzled.

“You still have to find out what’s that thing you guys found, don’t you?” Tatiana continued.

“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.” He paused, his sight planted back on the ground. “And who knows? Maybe they’re right.”

Tatiana shrugged. “It’s always a possibility. But you need to do your job and find out. 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 dropped at the realization. “Crap, you’re right,” he shrilled, ratifying the hour with his mobile phone. He tumbled his way out of the kitchen but stopped halfway. His sight shifted from 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 paused his haste to kiss her on the cheek. 

She waved him goodbye as he bolted through the front door.

Having made it out of his apartment building, a sea of people in jumpsuits of many colors met Lucas, swirling through the Main Avenue of Residential Section C. Everyone greeted and cheered like if they hadn’t seen each other in years. Across the street, another apartment building loomed six stories tall with people watching from their balconies; these buildings spanned along the curvature of the generation starship Goliath’s immense rotating habitat. Some more feet above for a total of two hundred and sixty from street level, the curved, translucent ceiling filtered the solar radiation of Alpha Centauri into a pleasant warmth. The rest of the habitat arched in the distance, anchored by four masts to a central hub. Valhalla—another craft of likewise design and of the same colossal dimensions—, sailed along through the infinite void of space, its habitat’s revolution almost imperceptible from this far. The third and last starship of the fleet of the Atlas Mission, the Phoenix, cruised 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 going for a morning run as he fought his way through the never-ending crowd. The worst came at the park at the intersection of Main Avenue and Central Street, which cut the section along and across, respectively. “Coming through,” his voice fell deaf on hundreds of indifferent ears. Children ran and played, calling for attention from their parents resting on the benches of synthetic wood. “Ugh, sorry,” Lucas said tumbling for balance as he dodged a kid in his haste.

Three large screens atop a 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 cheerful woman in a white jumpsuit reported, her voice echoing all over the park. “Like every year, we’ll be delighted with the traditional speech by our Chairman of Atlas High Command, Mr. Arthur Solomon. We’re expecting him to address our long-awaited arrival to the Alpha Centauri System, after one and a half centuries of travel.”

Lucas rushed past the screens 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 exact point, and at the most inconvenient of times. The massive containment wall dividing Section C from D arose high ahead. From the gate at the bottom, more and more people flowed in like a river as if the place wasn’t packed enough already.

Past the gate, Section D offered a less-suffocating setting. Something significant had to be going on at 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 other one of the five in Goliath: apartment buildings, a small park in the middle, one avenue and a street cutting in fourths. A soothing, 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. “Hey, 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, man, just look at you—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, good to hear that. Oh, wait, where are my manners? This is my niece, Amy.” Aaron looked down at the 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 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 guy.” He extended a hand at Lucas as if introducing to her the man who had single-handedly built the entire ship.

Amy remained quiet, examining Lucas while fidgeting a foot in the ground.

Aaron shrugged. “Oh, well. She’s a bit shy. Anyway, 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? She went to the shop a few times—she looked dead worried. You should really—”

“Hey, look, um… it was nice to see you, but I’m—”

“Running late? Oh, you guys are always busy—even on weekends.” Aaron let out a throaty laugh. “Don’t sweat it, man. Off you go.”

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, man,” Aaron yelled and waved, startling some people who passed by. “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 earlier. He looked back, forcing a smile at Aaron. It wouldn’t take him long to realize that running without seeing ahead was a terrible idea. The hollow noise of his face bashing against metal halted him dead as he ran into a lamppost. He dropped on his butt, his eyes squeezing shut to the pain.

“Woah. Careful, boy. You okay?” a worried voice asked.

A middle-aged man in a teal jumpsuit looked down at him, adjusting his thick-framed, taped glasses. His brown hair and beard showed some grey and an urge for some grooming. He tended a helping hand at Lucas, who hesitated at first.

“Um, thanks,” Lucas said back upright, his forehead and nose feeling as if someone was squeezing 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.

Behind the man, a girl pointed at Lucas and gave him a dramatic stare. She was about twelve, green eyes, freckles, and a head full of messy red hair falling on her shoulders.

“Izzy, hun, go with your mom. I’ll be there in a second,” the bearded man said.

“Is he going to die?” the girl pressed on.

The man rolled his eyes, finally looking back at her. “Honey, please.”

She approached and patted on her father’s shoulder, shifting her stare at him from dramatic to encouraging. “All right, old 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. There, her mother met her with open arms and a loving smile. It was Director Amelia Walker—her eyes and hair matched her daughter’s; no room for doubt on their kinship.

“I’m sorry about my daughter; she’s got a loose lip.” The man sighed. “Anyway, your head doesn’t look too bad. Some new bandages and analgesics should do the job. Get to your section’s infirmary and tell them I sent you—they won’t give you any trouble.”

“Oh, thanks, sir…” Lucas trailed off, not recalling the man mentioning his name.

“The name’s Nathan. Nathan Clarke. But you can call me Nate.” The man extended a robust but soft-looking hand with a wedding ring at Lucas.

“Lucas.” The boy shook that hand as firm as his slender limb allowed.

“Nice meeting you, Lucas. Take it easy from now on.” And with everything said, the man walked off waving once. He met his family back at the crowd, 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; he hadn’t even pondered the thought. He often pictured high ranks as gloomy, emotionless people made of stone. That sight made Lucas long to have something like that with his girlfriend someday. He wasn’t sure how Tatiana would feel about that, being practically allergic to children herself.

A distant bell snapped him back to reality; he was out of time. “Shit, it’s nine already.” With two more sections to go, he shifted to a race towards the next gate.

· Index ·

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