Lost Boy, Found Boy
Jenn Polish © 2018
All Rights Reserved
The boys knew they slept in pods because it was cheaper than having the oxygen on all night throughout the home.
But there was a rumor, too.
A rumor the pods were programmed to choose them. One at a time.
The younger boys believed it with wide-eyed fear and obedience.
The older boys believed it with solemn remembrance and, sometimes, defiant irreverence.
The middling boys fell, often, somewhere between utter panic and steadfast denial. It was the middling boys who were chosen.
Peter was a middling boy. Mir was middling, too, and placed with the boys.
The morning after Central glitched and only projected one sunset into the sky, Mir—who used to cradle their right forearm while they slept, to protect it from the pod; to protect it from the choosing—found their former protection was too feeble, their old desires long since changed.
The ship’s emblem was burned into the tender flesh of their forearm. They’d been chosen.
They grimaced and closed their eyes, allowing a solitary tear to drop, to sizzle on the still too-hot burgundy disruption in their otherwise-smooth golden-brown skin.
“Peter.” They frowned. Their oldest friend was a light sleeper. They pressed the comm button inside their pod again, making sure it glowed its signature azure, letting them know their voice was, in fact, being transmitted from their pod to Peter’s.
“Peter.” Louder this time, more insistent. Their attention didn’t move from Peter’s face. They wanted to see, just one last time, what the boy looked like when he woke, free of the worry lines that already plagued his face during his more alert moments. Mir wanted to, needed to memorize the way Peter’s crisp green eyes opened sleepily, the way they blinked out of a dreamland and into life. The way they flashed with all the magic of the stars of old the moment his gaze landed on Mir’s face; the way they only sparkled like that for them, the way Mir always made Peter’s mouth tug up into a sleepy, a happy, a blissful smile.
Mir wanted, needed, to record all this, make sure they never, ever forgot the uninhibited joy they and they alone could pull from the boy’s eyes.
Because once Peter saw the bloodied emblem on their forearm—and worse, when he found out why it was there—Mir knew his eyes would never light up like that again. Not for them, anyway.
Sure enough, Mir’s whisper-shout roused the boy this time. He jumped, the artery in his neck leaping with him, pulsing like it was trying to pull his body into flight.
Peter turned on his pillow toward Mir, peering out at them through the untinted glass of his pod. Finding Mir’s eyes waiting, watching him intently, Peter smiled. First in his eyes, with that sparkle that made Mir’s eyes water, that made Mir’s core swoop and their heart bellyflop; then in his lips, the left side first, then the right. He fumbled with sleepy fingers for his comm button.
“What’re you awake for, beautiful? Don’t you know there’s a war on? Sleeping in conserves oxygen reserves,” he quoted blearily, mockingly. Lovingly. He was whispering, even though Mir knew none of the boys could hear them—their comm signals only routed to each other’s pods. Peter had programmed them just for that purpose himself. Still Mir glanced around furtively at the other six pods in the windowless room. They were all tinted to near full darkness, but they imagined the other children’s sleeping forms tucked inside them nonetheless. Oblivious to them, and oblivious to Peter.
Mir didn’t answer, their throat one massive, painful lump. They just stared at Peter, stared at the boy who’d held their hand when they took their first step outside, the boy whose never-ending determination to make play out of even the most mundane tasks made him quite desired amongst all of their friends. They tried to open their mouth, but they nearly choked on their own saliva. Their forearm had long-since stopped burning—they hadn’t even felt the pod marking them, choosing them as they slept, but it stung now—and as they took in Peter’s eyes, they became acutely aware of each new striation in their skin, of the slight swelling surrounding the ship’s emblem that would take them away from Peter forever.
Peter squinted at Mir’s silence.
“What is it?”
Mir’s eyes just got wider, and Peter squinted across the room at them, watching them swallow. Wishing there were no pods—no air at all, for that matter—between them.
“Mir. Tell me.”
Wordless and shaking, Mir lifted their forearm, rotating their palm so Peter could see the tender underflesh where the choosing had left its mark.
A combination of disbelief and terror settled into Peter’s features, his rounded cheeks and angled chin, his wide eyes and his very, very pink lips. His head shook back and forth like he had a hinge loose in his neck, and his hands haltingly lifted to the glass of his pod, his palms pressing, pressing, trying to traverse the spaces between them.
Peter’s horror somehow settled Mir’s resolve, and they gulped, readying themself.
“I’ve been called to the war, Peter. The Hub needs pilots.” They paused. Peter was still shaking his head in shock, tears steadily streaking down his otherwise still, unblinking face.
No point in beating around the subject now. Best do it while he can’t say anything, anyway, Mir figured. They took a deep breath.
“The Hub needs pilots, and Peter…Peter, this isn’t a random choosing. This wasn’t the draft. I submitted my number for priority consideration last rotation. Right after my sixteenth birthday. I don’t want to fight in any war, Peter, but I need to fly. I need to fly, and the only way I can is if I serve the Hub for a few rotations. I need you to understand.” Mir’s voice broke, and they curled down into their blankets. “I need you to not hate me.”
Neither child knew how long the silence stretched between them, but neither child moved and neither child dared to even breathe too loudly, though Mir shuddered a couple of times.
Even through their shudders, Mir didn’t look up, not once in all their silence; they didn’t shift from their almost bowed position, like one of those ancient carvings of servants before royalty.
When Peter finally spoke, his voice was flat, distant, hollow. He sounded like someone else, someone else entirely. He sounded like a shadow would sound, if a shadow could sound.
“If that’s what you want, then good for you, Mir. You’re sharp. You’ll be a good pilot. A good fighter pilot. A good fighter. You fought to get them to let me into the boys’ podrooms when they said I didn’t have the proper documents, not to mention getting yourself in here. You’re already…you’re a good fighter.”
“Peter.” The sound was ragged, full of gravel and full of grief. Mir lifted their gaze to look into Peter’s, now, but Peter was staring down at his interior pod controls. He punched in a few numbers before looking up and smiling, the forcedness, the fakeness sending shivers down Mir’s spine. But at least his voice sounded more like his own, with that musical quality, that earthy ebullience underneath it, holding it up.
“And then when you’re done, you can come back and I can program you the fanciest ship to ever enter Hub space.” Mir tried not to flinch away from the vacant flicker in Peter’s eyes, even as he just kept smiling that fake, twisted smile, punching away at his pod’s keypad.
But Peter was gone, the communications cut. Peter had overridden his pod’s safety protocols and popped open the top, despite the surrounding air being devoid of oxygen.
Peter didn’t offer so much as a backward glance to Mir, who just stared, helpless. Who just pounded lightly, open-palmed, on their own pod door, unable to override the safety protocols without help from Peter. Trapped and mandated to sleep until the podroom was oxygenated again at artificial sunrise.
“Dammit,” Mir whispered. “Dammit.”
Peter, for his part, didn’t bother waiting for the air lift as he held his breath through the oxygen-free corridor. He could override its nighttime protocol easily enough, but he needed to get out and fast, and not just because his lungs were starting to burn. He bitterly relished the feeling, truth be told, the rush of his head getting lighter and heavier at the same time as he kept one breath all the way out of the podroom’s airlock, down the ramp, through the boys’ house corridor, and out into the Commons. Finally, a place oxygenated by law at all times.
Outside, he let out an explosive breath and inhaled in the ashy air of the Commons, dimly lit by the holographic moon setting in the north. He let swears tumble out of his mouth, panting through his gasps for air.
Several people swerved and some jumped at his outburst, but the thing that united the speeder flyers and the walkers were the looks of disdain they shot the supposed girl dressed in boy’s clothes, in fabric rather than synthab, as Peter clutched at his knees to catch his breath and sobbed without restraint. He let his grief and the words of scandalized passersby wash over him.
“Where in the sky is her keeper?”
“Honestly, you’d think the Hub would be more restrictive of their ability to just show up places.”
“Shouldn’t she still be in her sleeping pod? I swear, Sylvia, the youth don’t know how to cherish a blessing when it smacks them in the nose: Hub says they can sleep half the day away in those things, and there they go crying about it instead of taking the rest when they can get it.”
Only one voice in the crowd seemed to care about the boy’s feelings, but Peter, still shaking, barely registered it as he slid down the cold steel wall by the door he’d forced open with a few quick thumpings of the keypad. With fury, with betrayal, and with all-consuming grief.
“Hey, that boy is crying! Why’s he crying?” the voice asked as her speeder slowed, even as its other passenger scoffed and rolled his eyes. “We should—”
“Hush, girl, don’t talk to her. Him. Whatever. He’s a ward boy, let he—him be. His keeper should be about to collect him soon enough.” The man put a pale hand on the girl’s darker one and pushed her to accelerate the small ship away from Peter. She rolled her eyes, but satisfied herself—for now—with a backward glance at the boy, collapsed in his shuddering tears, his fists tight against his face.
Mir’s hands were, meanwhile, clenched into hard fists, too. But theirs weren’t against their face. Their hands were braced in front of them, the tender connecting point between their fingers and the base of their palms facing them. The better to see their forearms.
Left, their skin looked as it had when they’d gone to sleep the night before. Hairless and smooth on the underside of their arm, with the muscled veins from their artificial gravity exercising with Peter beginning to protrude.
Right, they were forever changed. Anyone looking would know they belonged to the Hub, now, that they belonged to the Hub forever. Because even when they completed their four rotations in the war—they didn’t dare to think in terms of that shifty word, that dangerous word, that terrifying word: if—the mark of the Hub’s lead ship would still be carved into their skin. Even its hull looked foreboding, all sharp edges and cold surfaces.
It would be there, they realized with a sinking dread, even if Peter wasn’t.
Because if Peter didn’t come back soon, he wouldn’t be in time: in time to see them off, to give them his final blessing. To wish them goodbye and good hunting, safe soaring.
They had to report to the Hub’s Command Post in a few short hours. If they didn’t, the mark on their arm had ways of compelling them to.
They closed their eyes and breathed in deeply, pretending—not for the first time—their pod was their very own jet. That they weren’t imprisoned, waiting for their keeper to give them the air they needed to breathe outside this damn transparent coffin. They pressed a couple of buttons and the pod tinted into darkness.
Mir sighed, flinching when they realized how soaking wet their pillow had become with tears they didn’t know they were shedding.
Peter would understand one day. He had to.
Didn’t everyone want to fly?