Somebody had to do it. Holes in the N.E.V.E.R. shield were to be expected - you couldn’t put something so close to the sun and not expect a few holes to appear now and again - but even so they needed be filled. That meant requisitioning an atmospheric cruiser and a solider. One of those was easier to come by than the other, so it was good or lucky that the need only arose every half century, give or take.
Nobody ever wanted to be the one chosen to patch the holes.
This time, though, it was a boy of only seventeen who volunteered. Before the lottery was even announced, he stepped through the heavily tinted doors of the Department for Atmospheric Management and asked to speak with Commander Rivera.
Petty Officer Cooper would tell the story later. How the boy walked in with a smile on his face and stole the air from the room. How the dust that seemed to settle on everybody’s shoulders, had somehow missed his, leaving his uniform a dark and unfiltered blue. How certain he’d been and how selfless. How Commander Rivera told her with tears in his eyes that the boy was the bravest soul they’d ever know.
The story hit the news before the all the appropriate paperwork had made its way through the system. “A boy to save the world!” they shouted across every feed still available, “A boy to do what men feared to!” How could such a boy exist and could he really know what it was he had committed himself to? Some, perhaps many, doubted he’d follow through. Cynics called it nothing more than a cruel publicity stunt and argued that the lottery should continue as scheduled. Others demanded he be evaluated for illness and others still called for someone else, someone past the prime of life to step forward and take the boy’s place.
The morning of the launch, the boy arrived at the hanger early. He wore the same jumper he’d been assigned on his first day of training a year ago. Though it showed signs of wear around knees and elbows - he was a still-growing boy, after all – it was clean and adorned appropriately. His hair was perhaps a touch longer than it should have been, brushed back into a dark cloud behind his ears. Nothing about him spoke to the importance of the task that lay just ahead, and though everyone in the hanger stopped to watch him walk to the center where his cruiser stood in a halo of light, he didn’t seem to notice.
With the sort of practiced disinterest of someone who’s logged hundreds of hours of flight time, he inspected his new cruiser. It was old. Not so old that it wouldn’t make the trip, but old enough that it would handle differently. More weight in the nose would require a certain amount of adaptation, he knew, but he’d taken more easily to flying than anyone Flight Deck Officer Darl could recall. He’d have preferred one of the newer models, of course; the cruisers that could punch through the atmosphere without even trying. For volunteering he might have gotten it. The DAM was so stunned by his unprecedented offer that they might have given him his pick of birds to ride the back of the wind, but sending new tech up to the shield was a waste.
Only one person was brave enough to be near the boy that morning. Airman Evans was at the top of the ladder, leaning over the prow of the cruiser, polishing the windshield one last time. She’d been going over and over the craft all morning, constantly tinkering with anything her fingers touched. If the old girl didn’t fly, Evans would take the blame and her birds always, always flew.
“Ever gone up in one of the ancients?” She called down to the boy. Even at the top of the stairs, she was small. More than once in her term as resident grease monkey she’d been mistaken for a child. The boy, though, knew that powerful things often came in small packages and had never underestimated Evans.
“Not like this,” he answered, running one hand over the nose where the cruiser’s name, Second Star, was painted in blue and yellow. Though scratched and faded, the words were still legible and fitting, he thought, for the work at hand.
“She won’t let you down,” she said as though this were any other flight on any other day. “I’ve made sure of it.”
The boy’s smile was clever. She had never let him down and he was very well aware that without her, he wouldn’t fly at all. “What a good team we’ve been.”
Quickly then, she descended the stairs and wrapped her arms around his neck, and with great emotion, she spoke into his ear, “The nanogel distribution pods for the N.E.V.E.R. shield are already loaded and ready to go. When you’re outside the shield, all you have to do is locate the hole and drop the NPDs. Drop and run, got it? The sun’ll do the rest and more if you’re not fast. I’ve pushed as much fuel into this thing as it’ll hold. If you burn hard, you might be able to make it back through. If anyone can do it, you can.”
Everyone in the force knew what it took to patch the shield even if no one ever wanted to do it. It was long before their time that the sun grew too hot and the atmosphere too thin. The shield was designed to make life bearable on Earth in the absence of natural phenomenon meant to do the same. Those things were more myth than memory these days. The boy and Evans had only ever seen things like snow and ice caps in old photographs, films, and paintings. The shield was a masterpiece of atmospheric engineering and when it operated properly, it hardly mattered that the earth hadn’t seen snow in more than a century. But every once in a while, it would succumb, much like the ice sheets had, and require attention.
The review wasn’t necessary. Evans seemed to say it more for her own comfort than anything, but the boy was patient. He pulled his arms tight around her waist and nodded his nose through her curly, blonde ponytail. “Understood.”
If there was sadness in him, he didn’t recognize it and therefore, decided there was none. He didn’t regret his choice. It was, in fact, the most selfish decision he’d ever made. That was why he refused to speak to the press and why he’d politely declined all efforts made to throw him a pre-launch party.
“Good.” Evans pulled away, searching the boy’s face for something to keep with her when he left. She didn’t find it. “Oh, God love you, why are you doing this? They could have found someone else. Someone older, you know? Like they usually do. Someone with an incurable disease with two months to live, or like last time, that convict who murdered those kids and wanted redemption? Someone who’d already lived.”
The boy knew his answer wouldn’t satisfy her, but he gave it still. “I want to go.”
“But why? Please, just tell me why because I don’t understand.” She took a small step back, pushing fisted hands into her hips.
Outside the hanger, the sky was dusty and hot, a claustrophobic sky with no room for hope. He wanted to be above it, where history promised something wide and open and blue. As blue, perhaps, as Airmen Evans’ eyes.
“I want to touch the sky,” he said, placing a hand on the ladder railing. He imagined how incredible the sky would look through the polished windshield and his smile was uncontainable. “And I never want to grow up.”
Thank you for reading! Come back on Monday for a new Tangle started by Lacey!
Photo by Global Jet via Flickr Creative Commons