Mom and Dad talked for a while, though not before sending me off to a corner of the room to read. I had finally calmed down enough to begin once again daydreaming of the strange, shiny ship being prepped a dozen meters down the corridor from me. I felt ashamed that I had cried like a baby, but my mother forced me to admit I’d sneaked enough looks at the holos on the Wire to have a terrifying grasp of what the Kai did to their enemies.
Both Mom and Dad admitted to being just as frightened. When I asked how come they didn’t seem scared, my dad looked away when my mom said they had both done their share of crying over the last few years and didn’t have much—if any—tears left in them. The thought of crying so much that I couldn’t cry ever again scared me almost as much as what I’d seen the Kai do to our colonies. The only thing more terrifying, according to Dad, was how once the Wire went dead, truly awful things happened.
There were rumors the aliens harvested humans for food, used them in disturbing genetic experiments, even dissolving every living person in giant vats of acid. The tales that made me shiver were the ones describing how the Kai set everyone on fire.
I’d burned myself with a nanosolder tool when I was eight. It took almost a month for the wound to completely heal, and hurt even with the pain blockers the doctor prescribed. I shivered again at the thought of that kind of pain all over my body.
I tried to listen in on their conversation, but gave up after a few minutes. I could only catch a few words or phrases, and while interesting, I couldn’t hear enough of the other words to fit them all together into something that made sense. Operation Nightfall sounded sinister, but the looks on my parents’ faces seemed to be unconcerned by the name. Genesis sounded interesting, but I couldn’t place it beyond the context of the various bibles that talked about it. I didn’t think my parents or the Navy were going to create a new universe to escape the Kai, and was unable to guess at what else it might mean. For the first time in my life, I wished I had brought a dictionary instead of an old science fiction story about robot wizards battling space pirates.
I eventually fell asleep, my mind too full of questions to get back into the book I held in my hands, but somehow not too busy to become bored enough to shut down for a while. I was nudged awake by Mom, who asked me if I needed to go to the bathroom before we boarded the ship. I nodded sleepily and she helped me to my feet, grinning at the imprints on my arms and face from the various edges and corners of the books I had napped on.
“Come on, Denny,” my father said with a smile. “Let’s go hit the boys’ room and then we can go check out that ship.”
“I’m hungry,” I said, hoping it didn’t sound like a whine. My stomach rumbled in displeasure as if suddenly remembering it was hungry only after I’d said something.
“Can you wait until we get settled in on the ship?” he asked me as he led me down a small corridor to the bathroom.
“I guess,” I said noncommittally.
“Are you sure?” he pressed. “It could be a few hours. I think I might have some snacks in my desk, but that will have to last.”
“Okay, Dad,” I said with surety in my voice. “I promise not to be annoying about being hungry.”
Dad grunted a chuckle and opened a metal door in the concrete corridor. Inside was a short row of stainless steel toilets along one wall, stainless steel sinks lining the other.
“Hurry up and do your business,” he said before turning around and watching the door as if a crazed alien might burst through it any second.
I did my business and washed up, then let my father lead me back to his office. Mom waited inside with three small travel packs. A small bag of sugar cookies sat on top of my bag. I gave her a quick hug then practically inhaled the sweet, sugary treats. Something poked at the lining of my bag. I wiped my hand on my pants then ran it over the bag. My face must have lit up when I realized my comm unit and the other items I’d packed at home had finally arrived.
“Keep it in the bag until we get strapped into our seats,” Mom ordered.
“Yes, ma’am,” I said, getting a growl and a smile from her.
I was too excited to pull out my comm and start fooling around with it. I had a ship to board. My brain reminded me why I was boarding a ship, which stifled the excitement as I realized what was about to happen.
“I can’t message Dya or Lonny to say goodbye, can I?” I asked dejectedly.
“Oh, Denny,” Mom said, sweeping me up in another hug. “I’m so sorry.”
“It’s okay,” I said before bursting into tears once again.
This time, the shame of being a baby rebounded off the hard shell of loss that surrounded me. My two best friends, Dya and Lonny, were going to die. They wouldn’t even know what was coming until the alerts were pushed across the Wire, or worse, when the Wire went completely dead. Once that happened, Daedalus would be cut off from the Coalition in every conceivable way. The sheer terror of knowing the Kai were about to begin orbital bombardment made me glad I’d gone to the bathroom a few minutes earlier. I had nothing left in me to have it scared out of me.
“Shhhh,” my father said, once again joining our sad family hug. “I know it’s an ugly thing to not be able to say goodbye, to not warn them. It’s even worse to know we’re going to at least have a chance to escape.”
“It makes me feel dirty inside,” I said through sobs. “Why can’t we bring them?”
“Because we don’t have enough space on the ship. It’s going to be full beyond capacity as it is.”
“I don’t care!” I shouted. I struggled to free myself of their arms but they held me tight.
“I know, Dennis,” my father said softly, once again using his iron grip on my jaw to force me to look him in the eyes. “Your mother and I… we have to leave behind everything and everyone we’ve known for almost twenty years. Including your Uncle Donovan. Our home, our friends, everything and everyone but the six hundred who will be on the ship with us.”
“It’s not fair,” I said.
I felt like shouting, but the grip my father had on my jaw made me come to terms with the unfairness, the evil, ugly truth that everyone I knew other than my parents were going to die. We would get to live. I hated it, but at the same time, it was reality.
“No, it’s not fair at all,” my mother said gently. “Come on, let’s get going. We can dedicate some time to sadness and mourning once we make it to safety, but for now, we’re on a tight schedule.”
“Right,” my father said, standing up and resuming his serious Admiral Shaw demeanor. “If the Kai spin down on top of us before we launch, our odds go down significantly.” He looked down at me, his face as serious as I’d ever seen it. “Will you be okay, Dennis? Can you be a big boy for a few more hours?”
“Okay,” he said through a grin that tried to be a grimace. “Just checking. Let’s go. We’ve got to get to Level 19.”
The walk from Dad’s office on Level 41 up to Level 19 took almost an hour. It seemed as if a huge Marine (or more often than not, a squad of five scary, huge Marines) stopped us every ten seconds to check ID’s. The elevator took so long to arrive on L41 that Dad decided to take the emergency stairs.
We stopped every ten minutes to give our legs a rest and remove the rubbery feeling that crept into them every third level. Most of the time we climbed the concrete steps in silence, but on L25 my father told me about my second True Responsibility.
“You like to write stories, don’t you?” Dad said as we took a two minute break before continuing on.
“Yeah,” I answered, wondering if he was trying to take my mind off the cramps that were lodged so deep into my leg muscles they was ready to burst into a fit of whining.
“Well, because you’re going to be so bored for the next few hours, maybe the next two weeks if we are able to translate out of the system, I’ll let you in on a secret. One you can record on your comm, sort of like a historical record.”
I narrowed my eyes with interest. “Like ‘Escape From Daedalus’ or something that kids would read in school?”
“Sure,” he laughed, then his face became hard as stone. “I doubt there will be schools like you’re used to where we’re going, but where we’re going, your record of events might be the only thing we have to link us to our past.”
“I don’t understand,” I said, feeling excited yet confused at his cryptic words.
“Where are we going that there won’t be schools?” I asked, pressing for more information.
“I’ll explain later once we get on the ship. For now, think about how you want to tell the story of our ‘Escape From Daedalus’ if that’s what you want to call it. It will keep your mind occupied during all of the boring wait times while the ship preps for launch.”
“I hope it takes him longer to narrate a story than it does to finish launch preparations,” my mother said, breaking her silence. “He’ll drive us crazy with boredom and a million questions.”
“Not this time,” Dad said, giving her a toothy grin. “I’m going to link his comm into the command channel for Icarus and let him listen in until we…”
He closed his mouth as if he were about to give away a secret. He ruffled my hair then hupped at us until we picked up our packs and continued up the stairs. When we finally made it to Level 19, I was tired, sore, hungry, and could feel myself about to become the cranky child I no longer wanted to be. Mom and Dad seemed to know and did their best to keep me talking while we made our way down another long corridor.
“I’m hu—” I started to say after almost ten minutes of nothing but a narrow concrete hallway filling my vision.
My words were cut off by the sight of at least a thousand humans scurrying around a boarding platform. There were a lot of scientists and engineers, their white jumpsuits with blue armbands standing out in contrast to the dull greens and blues of the sailors and Marines who were doing any number of duties, from checking ID’s to moving supply pallets into a cargo bay. The ones who held my attention though were the Marines in their CR-31 combat suits. They seemed gigantic compared to the unsuited humans around them. They looked absolutely lethal with their oversized plasma rifles and black composite armor.
Mom squeezed my shoulder then peeled away from us, soon becoming lost within the knot of bodies in front of us. Dad led me along the platform until we stepped into the boarding line. A CR-31 swung toward us, its servos and gears silent in the background noise of the busy platform. My father paid it no attention, handing his ID to an unsuited Marine who looked ready to attack anyone and everyone. The soldier snapped to attention when his comm displayed my father’s rank, as did almost every soldier within ten meters.
“At ease,” my father said, taking back his ID.
He reached out and shook the soldier’s hand before giving the angry-looking man a salute. The sound of at least twenty soldiers returning a salute before resuming their duties surrounded me. The Marine who checked our ID’s motioned for us to step forward. A minute later, I heard feet and cloth snap to attention again. I glanced behind me, then froze in place.
“Close your mouth, Denny,” Dad whispered to me.
I looked away from where I’d been staring in awe at the soldiers standing at attention as my mother passed through them. She looked embarrassed as she nodded at each of them. I sensed that while my father was one of the highest ranking officers on the planet, my mother was a legend who commanded respect that officers in training at the academy can only dream of.
I heard and felt the click of my teeth as my jaw snapped shut. Mom winked at me when she stepped into the line beside us, then handed me a food container. I gave her a hug and a questioning look.
“If you can’t wait, eat it while we’re in line,” she said. “But don’t get crumbs everywhere.”
I nodded and ripped the plastic lid off. I didn’t care if she’d brought me boiled Kai brains on a bed of moldy straw. I grinned up at her when I saw that it was two chili dogs and a slice of chocolate cake.
I popped the last of the second chili dog into my mouth when the first blast rumbled through the mountain hangar. Nervous titters were mixed with the shrill cries of a few small children as a second explosion somewhere near the mountain produced a second minor shockwave. I shuffled my feet nervously, wondering why it was taking so long for everyone in front of us to board the ship. I marked our progress by how slowly the crates near us fell behind.
I even dug out my comm and opened the clock function to watch the seconds tick by. At one point, I would have sworn the digital numbers completely stopped. I held my breath, waiting for the seconds to begin ticking backward.
After an eternity, I finally saw the airlock a couple of meters ahead of us. I could feel the stirrings in my body that let me know a trip to the bathroom might be necessary soon, but did my best to clamp down on that thought. Within another two minutes, we passed into the ship. I shivered on my way by the two CR-31’s tracking us at the airlock entrance, but both soldiers had their visors up and both smiled and winked at me. One even made the servos in his free hand grind a little as he gave me a small wave. I’d spent the last few years of my life wanting to be a combat pilot. Suddenly I wanted to be a Terran Marine.
Mom nudged me forward and I finally had to turn away and pay attention to where my feet were going. It took us almost fifteen minutes to wind our way into the passenger section of the ship, though it was unlike any ship, bus, or other mode of transportation I’d ever seen. The seats were strange, not really seats so much as what looked like beds, or maybe even some kind of pods. I clutched Mom’s hand, my brain once again wondering if this was all a big ruse and the Kai would rip their human disguises off right before chucking me into a food storage chamber.
Mom looked down at me and gave me a wink that let me know there was nothing to be afraid of. I never actually searched the Wire to find out if the Kai could wink, but decided in that instant it was a uniquely human gesture. My mind wandered into a story about how the Kai used genetically altered spies to infiltrate humanity, but they were defeated after humans found out the aliens couldn’t wink or give a thumbs-up sign.
We finally came to a stop in the fourth room full of pods. Dad went over to a group of officers to talk while Mom leaned down to explain what was happening.
“Dennis, your father and I really need you to be a big boy for just a little longer,” she said from one knee in front of me. “Don’t interrupt,” she said with a frown when I started to complain about the big boy thing again. “This is important. You’re going to have to make the flight in a creche by yourself. We all do.”
I gave her a confused look, not understanding what a creche was, until she nodded toward the pod behind me and tapped it with her knuckles.
“Why can’t I ride with you?” I asked, hearing my voice become shrill at the end. The sudden fear of being alone while the ship tried to escape Daedalus and the attacking Kai wiped out the story I’d been daydreaming about.
“Because that’s how the ship was designed. All of us have to use a separate creche. It will form itself around you, and for a moment you’ll think you are suffocating or drowning, but don’t panic. It’s just the gel material tailoring itself to your body so during acceleration, the pressure won’t turn you into peanut butter.”
She smiled and gave me a light shove on my shoulder to let me know I shouldn’t be frightened. The thought of becoming a Dennis Butter Sandwich was funny enough that I giggled.
“But it’s important to stay still while the program is running. Pilots have had their bones broken by the gel when it turns rigid because they were goofing off. Do you understand me?”
“Yes, but I still don’t understand why we won’t be together.”
“Listen, champ,” my father said, coming to a stop behind my mother. “The ship we’re on is… sort of like a Wyvern that had a baby with a cruiser. It’s not a combat ship, but it’s not a capital ship either. It’s a new design. One that you can read all about once you’re sealed in your creche.”
I had to debate the offer for a few seconds. I wanted to do anything but be sealed inside of some pod that would drown or suffocate me to keep me safe, but I was more curious about the ship. The fact that I would get to listen in on Icarus’ command channels made me forget most of my fear at being alone during an escape attempt that might not succeed.
“Okay,” I said. My voice barely wavered.
Dad motioned for one of the techs to come to us. “This is Sgt. Valmon. He’s going to get you situated. Do as he says. We’ll be back before you’re fully immersed.”
My parents turned and walked across the room while the soldier in a blue jumpsuit motioned for me to step up a retractable ladder and into the pod.
“Don’t sweat it, kid,” he said with a smile. I was shaking enough that he could feel it when he gave me a steadying hand. “I’ve done this at least a hundred times. Trust me, when this baby gets going, the creche is the safest place to be.”
“How fast?” I asked as I lowered myself onto a soft couch that seemed to sink in for a few centimeters before becoming solid.
“I’ve hit nineteen g’s before in a Piranha,” he said, his expression grim as if it wasn’t a very pleasant memory. He leaned in a little closer and whispered, “Rumor has it that Icarus can top thirty g’s.”
He nodded solemnly, putting a finger to his lips as if he’d just revealed a dangerous secret. At that moment, a deep, ominous sound resonated through the mountain, followed by a few seconds of rumbling and shaking. More cries from the younger children filled the room but I was too interested in Sgt. Valmon’s description of how the creche worked. I sat back and relaxed as he told me about how he’d fought the Kai at KT-71 in a Gryphon light bomber and how he’d barely made it back to his carrier with only seventeen percent hull integrity.
Each time an explosion aboveground rattled the mountain and shook the ship, Sgt. Valmon would talk a little louder to keep my attention on him. When he did a test seal, I panicked for a few seconds as the gel closed around me. I’d nearly drowned when I was six, and that memory flooded through me for a second until I remembered to breathe. My brain fought me for another couple of seconds before relenting and allowing my lungs to inhale.
It’s unnatural for humans to breathe underwater, so I wasn’t surprised that I didn’t want to breathe the gel in. It made me feel strange for a few seconds before feeling like I was breathing normally. My mind had a hard time accepting that I was breathing liquid instead of air, especially for the fact that the gel somehow wasn’t wet. My clothing, comm, backpack and hair was dry, as was my skin, yet my skin knew it was submerged in liquid.
“Weird, isn’t it?” Sgt. Valmon’s voice said in my ears as if we were only inches apart.
“It’s crazy!” I said, expecting my words to come out weird and bubbly as if I were trying to talk from the bottom of a swimming pool.
The sergeant laughed and pressed a button. The gel immediately retracted back into the couch. He reminded me to breathe again, and it took another moment for my brain to stop fighting me, as if it were afraid I would die without the strange gel in my lungs.
Sgt. Valmon laughed again and ruffled my hair. He gave me a wink and went off to find my parents to let them know I was ready to be “zipped up.” I felt around the couch, trying to find holes or slots or something the gel came out of, but the material was smooth like soft vinyl, cool to the touch. If I pushed my finger into it slowly, my hand would sink down to the wrist. If I pushed too quickly with too much force, the couch would give a little then become rigid around my finger.
“All right, kiddo,” my father said after returning with my mother and the sergeant. “We don’t expect to spend more than a few hours in the tank, but it might be longer. If you have to go to the bathroom and can’t hold it, just go.” I made a gross-out face at him, but he kept his serious face on. “I mean it. The system will take care of it, and you won’t breathe or swallow any of it, so get that look off your face. If it looks like we’ll be in transit for a long time, we’ll hook you up to the waste system properly. But trust me, it’s not a pleasant thing, especially your first time. Let me see your comm.”
I handed him my comm and he jacked something into one of the expansion slots on the side. After a few swipes on the screen, he flipped it around and handed it to me.
“I’ve logged you into Icarus’ command system. It’s only one way, so don’t get any ideas of commandeering the ship and becoming a hero by kicking the Kai back to their home system.”
I looked up from the screen long enough to grin at him. In the few seconds I’d paid attention to the comm, I knew I’d quickly forget about the gel, the rush to the base, or anything else for hours. Maybe days, even weeks. The data flowing across the comm’s screen was incredible.
“You’re on a one-way connection, so you can hear, see, and extract information from just about any system on the ship, but you can’t send messages or manipulate any of the ship’s systems. You’re going to hear a lot of words and terms you won’t understand—”
“—And a lot of bad words,” my mother added.
“Yes, you’ll hear plenty of profanity, no doubt. You might also hear reports coming in from the planet and the other orbitals and platforms from within the system. They’ll be very unpleasant, no doubt. Try to keep yourself busy. There’s a ton of data for you to discover about Icarus and where we’re going.” He put his arm around Mom and rested his other hand on my cheek.
“I love you, Dennis,” Mom said through tears.
“I love you too, Mom. Dad. I’ll be all right.”
“We’ll see you in a few hours,” Dad said.
He leaned in and kissed me on the forehead, then Mom did the same before sliding my comm’s companion goggles over my eyes. The pod filled with gel again, but I barely paid attention. I was already sifting through Icarus’ database.