It’s funny, the way in which a mind records its memories. The most innate occurrences, often coupled by unrelated features of minimal significance, find themselves indelibly etched into the brain’s deepest corners. Even more interesting is the first perceptible sensation that is chosen, cataloged and lovingly remembered by the mind, to be recalled at a moment’s notice for decades to come. The reasoning seems devoid of logic, as there would be no way for the mind to know what would be useful to retain far in the future. Rather, a system of blind luck would be more likely, although without the infinite mystery which surrounds the newly-formed creation.
The early mind lacks the foresight to understand what might be useful in the future; everything is shiny, new, and important. Instead, it grabs onto features at random, stashing them away for a time when their recollection might be of use. As memories mount, the lesser ones fade with age, until they are little more than noise against the infinite sea of possibilities and subject to dismissal or manipulation. Only in times of ecstasy or desperation are those earliest memories recalled to provide a measurable edge to survival.
The room was light, the morning sun casting its familiar rays from the large, arched window on the facing wall. The child’s eyes flashed open, greeted at once by an expected sight. He knew the surroundings, the pictures mounted to the walls, as well as the faces which orbited his presence. A small arrangement of models hung in the air above his head, twisting softly in the slowly moving air. On the lowest level of the mobile rested a pair of objects he had seen most every day.
One was an orb, painted a dull yellow in several competing shades swirling among each other to represent a moving system upon its surface. It was bisected by a plastic disc, nearly undetectable by his new eyes, and extenuated by a ring of glitter sprayed about the sphere. There were others like it on the display, of course, but for some reason, this one touched his heart whenever his eyes drifted across it. The accompanying models on the toy felt distant and nameless, like the fruit of the tree beyond the window that would list to the side with the rush of every gentle breeze. This model, this small yellow sphere, was his, and in a way a constant guardian of his minuscule existence.
The other object nearest to him looked to be a long, silver tube marked at regular intervals with strange black etchings and symbols. It contrasted the sphere perfectly, the straight lines being carefully planned as they symmetrically raced up the tiny fuselage. From the child’s vantage point, the object appeared to orbit between the various spheres of the mobile, moving in to get a closer look at one or the other before accelerating back away from the subject. However, as much as he willed their rendezvous, it never reached the yellow one.
Those days he spent in peace, carried in the arms of the one whose presence was always near. The modest home was meticulously kept, despite his best efforts otherwise, and the comings and goings of a small circle of relatives enamored with his every movement were managed. He noticed little the occasional passing car down the sleepy rural drive and would stare out at the world in silent amazement at every presented opportunity.
Each night was greeted in much the same way. The wide windows installed within his room gave an expansive view of the sky above the fields and scrubby trees, and he found himself reaching to the silver objects that flew aloft far from his tiny world. As his eyes grew heavy in the twilight, he increasingly felt drawn to the unknown beyond their humble abode.
Adam knew every crevice of the farmyard, finding every disparate handhold and loadbearing rock as he scrambled over the low stone wall between the pair of fields. As the sun set, he dashed away from the line of trees, across the gently rolling plain, and toward the mound of rock that stood apart from the others. The sun had slipped below the horizon, leaving the field nearly in darkness, but the journey was familiar, to say the least.
The bare wall of stones which had been laid generations ago crested a slight rise in the field and had strangely remained devoid of plant life, providing an unparalleled view of the southern sky. On previous adventures to the site, he and his friends had taken it upon themselves to add stones to the center of the wall, creating their own version of a medieval fortification. Even though they were able to scale the sides in seconds, the fantasy remained that they could use the battlement to hold back the imaginary hordes of faceless invaders.
“Are you crazy? Where are we going?”
“Just trust me. You’ll see.” Adam said through a suppressed grin, gripping Becca’s hand tighter as they reached the destination and hiked up the final incline of rock. He wasn’t too concerned for their safety; there were no snakes or dangerous animals to speak of, and with the noise they were making, even fewer would venture out to find them. On top of that, it had been over a year and a half since the property had caused an injury. That was by the official count among his friends, although Adam had to admit it was Will’s own fault for sprinting through the woods with a pellet gun and driving his knee into a broken tree branch.
Becca was her own person and increasingly special in Adam’s eyes. They had struck up a random conversation on the way out of school at the beginning of the year and since then had spent increasingly more time together. Her family lived closer to town, but it was only a few minutes via bicycle in each direction, which made their friendship all the more accessible. Adam looked back at her as he led the way, freezing as he caught the gaining starlight flicker across her hair.
She caught his glance and flashed a smile. “What?” she asked.
Adam stopped, feeling himself lost in her darkened eyes before he shook away the sensation. “Oh, nothing… Come on,” he said, covering for the flutter in his stomach. Together they reached the top of the mound and carefully stepped across to the southern face, taking seats beside each other on a large, flat field stone that had been smoothed by millennia unseen to become the perfect cap of his cadre’s adolescent fortification.
“If you’re trying to impress me, I can’t say it’s working. I’m seeing stars…” Becca said, taking in the sweeping canopy above. “It’s a new moon, so quite a few constellations, and the arm of the galaxy. This isn’t news to me.”
“Just wait,” Adam insisted, an edge of excitement to his voice. “Watch that tall group of trees down on the next field over it.” He pointed down across the grassy field. “You’ll see a cluster of stars rise out of it.”
“Okay…” Becca said, watching the horizon. As Adam had said, a small grouping of stars did indeed rise from the area of the trees. As the last of the sun burned off into twilight, the sky continued to darken into inky blackness. She sighed, watching the unremarkable formation as much as Adam’s intent staring on it. “Is that it? Come on, it’s getting cold,” she added, shifting to get to her feet.
Adam held her hand tighter, interlocking it between his own. “No, watch.”
Becca rolled her eyes but complied, returning to the chilly stone settee. As she quietly scanned their surroundings, she caught an odd glint of light in the corner of her eye. It had flashed brilliantly, but in a blink was gone. “What was that?” she asked, seeing that Adam was beaming, although he refused to answer.
The flash of light was followed with a second, this time higher up and streaking above their heads, then a third. Her eyes flickered about as the bits of light sliced high through the night sky all around them. Becca’s mouth dropped. “What is all of this?”
“Meteor shower,” Adam stated matter-of-factly, although his eyes remained wide and transfixed above the horizon. “Earth is passing through the trail of a comet, and tonight we’ve got a prime position to see it.”
Taken by the sudden explosion of activity, Becca continued to watch the show, which had increased in rate into the tens per second. As her host had said, the particles seemed to emanate from the area near the cluster of stars, as if they were being thrown off by the glowing bodies themselves. Becoming lost in the majesty of their world, she relaxed and rested her head upon Adam’s shoulder.
The boy felt a sharp jab through a nerve in his back and his heart rate quickened. He had watched his sky turn on a thousand nights before, but this was the first time he had the fortunate opportunity to share it with someone else—someone with an angelic smile, gentle hands, and hair with the scent of wildflowers. For that moment, the universe aligned and he at once was complete.
“Adam, wake up.”
The words were a familiar opening to every school day, calling him to rise and face the challenges that would arrive along with the morning’s sun. His mind tumbled from sleep and fought against the inevitable loss of his peaceful state. He clenched the blanket tight and pulled it over his head. The fabric between his fingers lost its texture, melting away as his leading knuckles traced across a dome of plastic above his body. The sensation was strange but so alien that his mind rejected it as a mistake.
The second time he heard his mother’s voice, Adam’s mind shifted to fright. The tone changed and she sounded more urgent than he had thought possible, as if she was announcing a house fire or natural disaster. His eyes remained shut, but he sensed the lights flickering between a deep red and pure darkness. Instinctively, Adam’s pulse quickened, as if preparing to wrench his body away from the snarling jaws of a terrible nightmare.
“Adam, WAKE UP!”
The voice came upon him again, turning to a deep baritone, and Adam’s eyes snapped open. Instead of his nondescript bedroom, he was surrounded on all sides by a cocoon of glossy white metal. He jolted forward and slammed his head against a glass panel situated inches before his face. The crack jarred his senses, the pain sharp and clean, and he stopped to wrap his arms around his pulsating cranium.
Was he awake or still asleep? Something in between? The incongruent surroundings would have been at home within his overactive subconscious, but there was a newfound clarity to every sound and sensation that he was unprepared to experience. Adam winced, forcing his tearing eyes to open and gather more data on his confounding circumstance. Gone was his home, his clothes; in their place was a gray void and an equally gray bodysuit wrapped tightly around his midsection, terminating above his knees.
“Adam, you’re not safe here. You need to get out.” The now-distinctly-masculine voice came in clearly one more time, emanating from a speaker within the cocoon. Adam looked about to find its source and deduced it was hidden by a silver grate in the end of the coffin-shaped tube above his head.
“Where?” he mumbled amidst the blaring alarms, stinging tears, and the growing storm within his head.
“This section of the hull is compromised. We need to get you to the next compartment. I need you to do exactly what I say. Can you follow my direction?” The voice was as metallic and artificial as the rest of the surroundings, although it mimicked a sense of human urgency.
Adam’s body shook as he cowered in the tube. He nodded and whispered, “Yes…”
“Good. There has been a fire and the air is thin, so you’ll need to hold your breath. Pull the two levers beneath your hands to release the canopy, drop to the floor, then turn left toward the bulkhead. There’s a doorway ten feet away. Crawl through and I’ll seal you out once you’re on the other side.”
Adam’s heart raced as he wrapped his hands around the pair of controls at his sides. He looked through the glass and into the volume of wafting gray smoke, illuminated only by the pops from a blaring siren. Adam took a deep breath and put his weight against the levers. They gave way and the canopy released with a sharp click.
Instantly the wall of palatable gray smoke flooded over the broken seals and wrapped itself around Adam’s body. His eyes felt as if they’d caught fire and he stumbled to the ground, tripping over the pod’s lip and landing hard against the stamped metal floor. Terror overtook him as the onslaught continued, but he forced himself to take in his surroundings.
There was little he could make out, but within a few inches of the deck, he could see beneath the hanging fumes. To his right, Adam only saw gray nothingness, while to his left looked to be a shiny metal wall. He crawled toward it, as the voice had commanded, and quickly was able to make out a futuristic hatch set on thick hinges that looked to be straight off a submarine. Adam got closer, feeling a dull rumble through the floor as the hatch released and swung aside as if expecting his arrival.
Bright white light poured through into the foreboding nightmare of a chamber, and Adam felt a renewed sense of urgency, as if the world would rethink itself and lock him out just as quickly as it had spurred him forward. Not wanting to test the universe’s patience, he wrapped his fingers around the lip and heaved himself over the edge, rolling into the clean space and accompanied by the choking gas.
Adam felt the hatch slam shut and lock in place with a click that echoed in the distance and reverberated through the deck. He lay still where he had fallen, daring not to move without the nightmarish voice’s instruction. His hands were damp, yet cold against the metal floor, and his heart began to steady. Expelling the initial payload of oxygen, he gulped air in short, jagged breaths, willing the shrieking and persistent experience to end.
The noise of the sirens faded into the background, leaving Adam in relative solace amidst the pounding in his head. He took the chance and slid his eyes open, ready once again for the stinging onrush of smoke, but no such oppressor greeted him. Instead, he found himself in a perfectly clean compartment, covered on all sides with white panels intermixed with polished aluminum supports. Near the ceiling, the last of the smoke drifted toward a line of vents and quickly dissipated, leaving a blank scent of clean, combined slightly with the sweet off-gassing of fresh plastic.
His mind continued to fight with itself against its perceived reality. It must be a dream, right? Adam told himself, battling the combined returns of his senses. Visions of childhood adventures swirled in his memory. If it was a dream, then he could define it how he wished; if he wanted to, he could fly. Adam let his mind release its hold on the floor and pushed upward, forcing the world to bend to his will. He expected to float, to fly, to be lost in his ever-expanding imagination, only to be jolted awake in his bed back home. The memory might echo for minutes, but that’d be the end of it. Adam pushed harder against the floor, forcing his will to overtake the vision, but felt nothing change beneath his feet. Gravity kept its grip against his rising indignation.
The siren above blared again, followed by the mechanical voice. “Adam, you need to keep moving. You’re not safe yet.”
“What are you talking about? None of this is real,” Adam insisted.
“Yes, it is, and if you don’t want lose your life, you must do what I say.”
“Okay, okay,” Adam replied, struggling to his feet. His balance felt off, as if he was meandering along the deck of a ship and every muscle in his body burned with searing fury. “I can’t hardly stand. Why does it hurt so much?”
“It will pass,” the voice stated. “All of this is new. Keep going; we need to get you suited up before you do any more damage to yourself.”
Adam looked over his sleek, silver attire, apparently woven or formed from a single thread that stretched effortlessly like a second skin as he advanced down the passage. His arms and legs tingled in the cool air, the metal floor steadily pulling energy from his bare feet. “Please tell me there are shoes.”
“Yes, there are, but we have larger concerns ahead,” Adam’s guide replied, the voice emanating from small speakers placed every few feet along the passage’s ceiling. “The lab is compromised, so you need to get out. At the next junction you’ll find a hatch in the floor. Open it and follow the ladder inside down to the next landing.”
The voice, as distant as it seemed, knew the area well, and to a surprising degree, Adam’s location. He found the hatch, outlined in safety orange, and swung the lid aside. Inside, ladder rungs descended into eerie shadow. He swallowed hard, his head reacting to the idea of climbing through the tight space.
“It won’t harm you, but you need to move,” the voice demanded again.
Adam complied and carefully made his way downward, feeling each formed tread dig into the soles of his feet. At the bottom, he stepped away and into a much larger pod, flanked on one side by a massive assembly of cabinets that resembled a library catalog and on the other by a flat black wall, which stretched from floor to ceiling and every inch of the length. Here as before, the lights were dim, aside from an emergency strobe at each end. The pinpricks of amber light cast long shadows across the hardened surfaces, while leaving crisscrossed reflections above Adam’s head.
“Your uniforms are waiting in the locker farthest to your right.”
“A uniform?” Adam asked, making his way along the row of containers.
“Yes, to identify you as the commanding officer of the station.”
“What are you talking about?” Adam corrected. “I’m fourteen; I can’t even drive.” He opened the last cabinet door to reveal a bundle of pearly-white suits adorned with blue highlights, strapped in place against the wall. A matching badge with his full name was attached with Velcro on the chest, along with an embroidered set of pilot wings. Adam stopped and brushed his hand across the stitching, lost once again. “What is this?” he asked again. “Where am I?”
In an immediate response, the blank wall across from him erupted in blinding light, bathing every micron of the room in its receiving glow. Adam clamped an arm before his eyes, slipping to the ground at the sudden stimulus. His eyes slowly adjusted, and amidst a racing heart, he carefully moved his hand aside. The wall had turned transparent, and where the black surface had been now rested an awesome sight.
Stretching the full length of his field of vision and beyond rested the swirling yellow mass of the planet Saturn’s gaseous surface. The image was unmistakable, and Adam stopped in place with mouth agape, in awe at the sight. Every cloud along the surface swirled in an infinite sea of churning gas and vapor, each one playing its part in an epic visual symphony that he found beyond words to describe.
His jaw loose, Adam stood and slowly approached the glass panel. Forgotten was the cold metal deck, the stinging aftertaste of smoke in the pits of his lungs, and the vague sensation of seasickness. His brain fought the onslaught of impossible stimuli with all the energy it could muster. “This isn’t real,” he said, knowing full well there was no way he couldn’t still be asleep. He was alive and it was all for real. “What is this?” he whispered a final time.
“Adam, you are home.”