Hello fellow writers,
I posted the first chapter a while back in the young adult section, but I think it should be here since it's sci-fi/fantasy. It's lengthy (three full chapters) so I hope that I catch your attention enough to read it. I appreciate any feedback, but I know these are the areas I need the most help with:
- Passive voice (do I use it too much?)
- Am I giving you enough to keep you interested without giving away too much information?
- Am I bombarding the reader with information?
- Does the structure make sense?
- As of now, I'm planning to do most chapters from the viewpoint of Max or Leed, but I might throw some chapters from the viewpoint of minor characters, too - what do you think?
There shouldn't be too many typos/grammar things as I work in corporate communications, but if there is anything please point it out! Thank you in advance for any advice - I truly appreciate it. Oh and don't mind the *planet references, I haven't chosen a name yet.
PrologueThe darkness stretched before him as far as the eye can see, with twinkling lights dotting the blackness of the never-ending space. At home, Leed spent many evenings staring into the sky above him, connecting the stars overhead to form pictures. Once, he swore he saw his own face staring back at him, roughly outlined in glowing dots. But today, Leed paid no attention to the thousands of bright white spots indicating stars. Today, he was on a mission, wrapped up in his sudden freedom and responsibility. Mesmerized by the swirling white mist he knew to be clouds and the gentle movement of the colors below, his gaze was transfixed, straight ahead, on one particularly radiant, blue and green planet. It took him a few moments to remember his duties and he reluctantly pulled his eyes away and began taking notes.
On that very same day, Max found himself staring into that very same night sky, greatly interested in the sparkling white stars peeking through the surrounding darkness. Specifically, he was staring at one brightly shining star which he knew was high above him, although it seemed close enough to hold in his hand if only he could stretch another inch. Max had been watching that bright light in the sky for as long as he can remember, as did his father before him, and his grandfather before that. Staring out into the empty space, he dreamed of green, bug-eyed aliens and spaceships zooming around the galaxy. One day, he thought, he would have his very own flying machine and then he would visit the far reaches of the universe. He let his mind wander as he dreamed about an adventure through space and soon he drifted off to sleep on his makeshift observatory platform that sat shakily on the roof of his grandmother’s old, red barn.
“Are you sure you’re ready, Leed?” asked Professor Immich in a stern, but gentle way that Leed thought seemed fatherly. In many ways, Professor Immich acted more like a father to Leed than his own.
Professor Immich was tall and dreadfully thin with small square spectacles that slid down his long, pointed nose. His short gray hair formed a ring around the shiny pink spot on the top of his head, doing little to hide his age. Leed estimated his teacher to be nearly eighty years old but he didn’t know for sure. It would be rude to ask. Still, in his long white scientist’s coat and polished black shoes, Leed couldn’t help but marvel every time his professor entered the room.
“Yes, sir,” Leed replied with all the energy and vigor of youth.
“You’ll be out there, alone, for nine days,” warned the professor.
His emphasis on the word ‘alone’ made Leed’s stomach do a flip, but his excitement remained nonetheless.
“Of course, you can contact me whenever you want with your telescreen.”
“I’m ready, Professor Immich. I am!”
Leed had difficultly not jumping up and down right then and there. He wanted to run to the front of the room and give his professor a big hug. But that kind of behavior was not acceptable and he knew a scolding would follow if his father found out. With much effort, he convinced his limbs to stay still, at least until class let out.
The professor continued spouting off warnings, tips for the mission and the assignment, but Leed wasn’t paying attention. He had heard it all before. In fact, he’d been hearing it for more than a year now. He was ready. He couldn’t stop thinking about his first solo mission. He imagined himself, all alone with the wonders of the galaxy before him.
It seemed like ages – though less than ten minutes passed – when Immich finally let him go for the day. Immich instructed him to arrive back at the classroom the following morning at sunrise to prepare for departure. The butterflies fluttering in his stomach were threatening to burst free. He could barely contain his excitement. Tomorrow morning his greatest wish would come true.
Leed got his emotions under control and quietly, and at a respectable pace, gathered his books and telescope. He waved goodbye to Professor Immich as he nearly sprinted out the door, overcome with excitement. He dashed down the stairs, took a right at the drinking fountain and skipped past the lunch machine before coming to a stop in front of a large, wooden door with peeling green paint and an ornate metal handle.
Leed looked up and down the hall to ensure no one was nearby as he slowly opened the door. When he deemed the coast clear, he slid inside and limboed through the familiar piles of old telescopes, surplus specimen jars and long-forgotten research reports until he reached the dangling string that lighted the dusty, flickering bulb. Leed entered his secret place – a place where he could be alone to daydream. Here he could voice his feelings without fear of being overheard and read to his heart’s content without worry of being found. This tiny room was the only place Leed felt truly free.
He learned long ago never to show emotion. Showing emotion publicly was not tolerated and discouraged even in a private family setting. Hiding emotions seemed to come naturally to everyone else, perhaps they were even born with this intuition. When little children scrape their knees on the sidewalk, they simply wipe away the blood and walk to their mother or bandage themselves. Young couples on dates talked about superficial things – news, their classes or jobs. The only feeling allowed to be expressed out loud is pride: pride in yourself, the planet or your career.
Leed still vividly remembers his father punishing him for crying when he lost his favorite toy on the playground, one of his earliest memories. He couldn’t have been more than three, but the harsh scolding taught him to bottle up his feelings. Leed never again expressed his fear of failing his training or his bewilderment at the unfair treatment of his friend Molly Terran who could never talk to her family again because of the Leaders’ stupid rules. He never told anyone about his hatred of his father, the jealousy he felt of his sister’s success or his desire to run away to another world. He often thought these things, but had no place to voice his emotions, nowhere safe at least. He had never said any of it aloud, until the day he found his secret place.
It was nearly three years ago now, on a Friday after school. He was only eleven then and had not yet begun his training. All children take the same general classes before declaring their profession, but many already knew what they would choose. Those from Professional families often spent their afternoons volunteering with the career they plan to pursue, to get a leg-up. Leed visited the science building after school that day to watch the scientists send a new satellite into orbit.
Despite being from a prominent Professional family, Leed had never been popular in school. He was small for his age and less muscular than the other boys in his class. Leed did like his deep chestnut eyes that nicely complemented his light brown skin, but that was all he liked about himself. His straight black hair hung in his eyes and always needed cutting, his ears were too big and stuck out on both sides, and he often tripped over his own feet. He didn’t speak much in school, though it was because he didn’t have anyone to talk to rather than a lack of things to say. His mother said he was just shy, but Leed knew that wasn’t it. He liked meeting people and considered himself very friendly when given the chance. No, Leed knew deep down it was because he was different – he just didn’t belong.
And he wasn’t the only one who felt that way. Many of the other students in his class agreed that he didn’t fit in, and often took it upon themselves to remind him. Bullying is not tolerated in *planet, but that didn’t stop Abegnail and his crew. Abegnail Abermathy was tall and muscular with perfect light brown hair. All the boys looked up to him as if he were a god, but he was pure evil. His gang was always picking fights in the schoolyard, though they never got caught.
Abegnail’s mother was a Leader, so he was immune to most punishments bore by the Professional and Laborer classes. Abegnail’s crew usually targeted the Laborer children in their cruel taunts, but he made a special exception for Leed. The bullies constantly made life miserable for Leed, so much so that he had made it a habit to turn in the opposite direction at the slightest sign that Abegnail was nearby.
On the day Leed stumbled across his secret hiding place, Abegnail and his crony Malarg had followed Leed as he was leaving the science building. Malarg had a shaved head and bulging eyes which looked as if they could pop out of his head at any moment. Taller and lumpier than Abegnail, he solved all his problems with his fists. But it didn’t matter because he was also the son of a Leader.
Leed had just exited the science building to return home for dinner. An ear-to-ear smile plastered on his face, he thought about the satellite launch he had just witnessed. Its shiny metal body and long, flat wings fascinated him. Just as he imagined it high in the sky, transmitting data only the scientists could decode, he heard Abegnail’s voice. His first instinct was to run.
“Hey, Leed,” Abegnail sneered. “What are you doing out here alone?”
Leed didn’t reply, but continued walking, quickening up his pace. He did not want to be caught by Abegnail and Malarg near the rocky outer banks behind the science building.
“Aww look he’s going to run home to his mommy,” Malarg called after him. The boys’ cold, harsh laughs echoed between the mountainous terrain behind him and the hard stone buildings in front.
“Leave me alone,” Leed shouted back, on the verge of tears.
“Or what?” barked Abegnail. “You’re going to sic your sister on me?”
At that, Leed turned around. “Don’t talk about my sister,” he said, much more calmly than he felt.
Abegnail picked up on Leed’s anger and ran with it. “How does it feel to have the famous Brin Sayari as a sister? She’s so hot! And she’s smart, while you’re just a sad, little loser! Are you sure you’re even related?”
Behind his back, Leed’s fists clenched. He wanted to punch Abegnail in the face, but he knew that would result in a week’s detainment and he certainly didn’t want that. He’d never been sent to detainment, but he’d heard horror stories. Still, it was almost worth the risk to give Abegnail what he deserved. But, then again, he was barely two thirds Abegnail’s size, and surely Malarg would join in the fight. That would be two against one, he thought as he debated his next move.
In the seconds it took Leed to weigh the risks and benefits of punching Abegnail square in the mouth, Malarg had already made his decision. It took a moment for Leed’s brain to register the pain. Malarg’s thick fingers left a bright, stinging red mark on his cheek as he tumbled to the ground. Leed looked around in horror for the police, but only Malarg stood before him, with a malicious grin. They weren’t being detained. Malarg hadn’t been caught. Of course he hadn’t, those two never get in trouble.
As if the injury wasn’t enough, Abegnail felt the need to add insult to the mix.
“I bet you won’t even be chosen for training. They’ll just send you straight to the Laborers. Then you’ll never see your precious sister again,” he said with a twisted sneer that made his ash gray eyes narrow into dangerous-looking slits. With that, they ran off laughing.
Leed knew he couldn’t go home with his face still red. If he didn’t get caught by the Police on the way, his father would make sure he was punished, and it would be just as bad. And if caught crying, his punishment would be even worse. He would be sent to emotion therapy to rid his body of feelings. But his eyes quickly betrayed him so he made a rash decision to head back toward the science building. Holding back tears as best as he could, he meandered through the empty halls – it was well after 5 o’clock – as he tried to find somewhere to hide. It was then that he saw the green door for the first time.
It seemed in better condition then, magical even. The door’s façade was painted a deep green, the color of the moss-covered stones at the bottom of the river. Nearly everything in *planet was the natural grey, pink and yellow hues of the stone and metal found on the planet. It was very rare to see things painted, which made Leed’s find even more beguiling. The big brass handle’s wavy design extends several inches above and below the knob, much more than necessary. In *planet, nothing is more or less than is necessary.
The green door didn’t seem to fit in with anything else in the reticent science building. While all the buildings are made of stone, the science building was even colder and darker than most. The building has very few windows and burnished metal covering nearly every surface. Twice-daily cleanings – because so many experiments get out of hand – leave a permanent sterile feeling throughout. Even Leed’s classroom, though it has windows and light yellow stone walls, seems dark.
But in this rarely used hallway, the green door stood as a beacon of hope, a remnant of a better time, standing out among the cement and steel. Leed doesn’t know how the door came into existence, and he’s never heard it mentioned. He, of course, has never brought it up fearing his secret place would be exposed. It’s been his clandestine fortress for years, a place of mystery in a world full of knowledge. “Knowledge is Life.” The Leaders’ slogan instinctively butted its way into his thoughts, but it was easy enough to push away. He’d been doing it for years, unwilling to accept his society’s ultimate goal.
He often came to his secret oasis to ponder the meaning of life. He didn’t know the answer, but he was certain it wasn’t knowledge, though he’d never say that out loud or even write it down. The dark storage closet safely tucked away behind the mysterious green door was his place to shout his feelings and rant out loud, speaking to no one but himself. Here in this quiet space that seemed to only exist for him, he could cry or sing, or dance, or laugh. Yet, there were some things he wouldn’t do even here for fear of being caught.
He had long since learned it was soundproof and rarely, if ever, entered by anyone other than him. In the years he’d been hiding out here – even before he was selected for his training – he had memorized every towering heap of junk, every stack of books. He could navigate his way through the tottering piles with his eyes closed, and he often did just for fun. Among the piles he found Olan’s book – the only remaining copy as far as he knows.
But today he had no time for reading. No time for daydreaming. No need for crying, or writing or singing. Today, he just wanted to smile. Smile as any fourteen-year-old would just hours before his dreams come true. Today, Leed wanted to shout from the top of his lungs, for tomorrow was his very first solo mission to observe Earth.
Distant screams pierced the darkness. Max ran as fast as he could, trying to find the source of the sound. He ran and ran, but couldn’t reach them. They continued to yell desperate pleas for help, but he couldn’t save them. He collapsed on the ground, tears streaming down his face.
Suddenly, a brightly lit hallway with big glass windows looking into the high-tech lab sprung up from the darkness. The terrible screams were replaced with the happy shouts of a young boy.
“Mom! Dad! Guess what? I got an A plus!! Miss Harmon loved my experiment – she said it was the best in the class!” the young boy yelled gleefully as he skipped down the hallway. He stopped short at the door to the lab where he expected a proud hug from his mother and the familiar ‘at-a-boy’ and head tousle from his father.
Instead, the doorway was blocked by a tall man wearing a dark blue jumpsuit with the letters “EMT” written in yellow across the front. When the man saw the boy, his gentle eyes instinctively looked downward, avoiding the child’s gaze. He took a deep breath and squatted down low so he was eye level with the little boy.
“Are you Max Whitman?” he asked in a kind, but serious voice.
“Yes,” answered the confused child.
He quickly turned the boy away from the doorway and led him down the hall toward the lobby in the front of the building.
“Come with me. Your grandmother will be here in a few hours.”
“Just sit here,” the man said, handing the boy a Highlights magazine. “I’ll stay with you until she gets here.”
The young boy wiggled out of the man’s grip and ran toward his parents’ lab. Now there were lots of people in the hallway, all wearing the same navy blue jumpsuits. He saw his parents’ secretary, Rita, through the lab window, but couldn’t make out his mom and dad’s white coats. An EMT stopped him before he got close, but it was too late. He saw them rolling two body bags out of the room. Even at that young age, he knew enough from television and movies to know what that meant. Tears immediately welled up in his eyes and he let himself be dragged back to the lobby.
Beep. Beep. Beep.
Max sat up abruptly, drenched in sweat. He’d had the nightmare again. He wondered if it’d ever stop.
Begrudgingly, Max hit the button on his alarm clock. On nights he had the nightmare, he felt like he didn’t sleep at all. Today would be a long day, he thought. He took a few moments to calm himself down before getting up to take a shower and start another day of high school.
As Max got on the school bus, he had little hope that his day would improve. The sun’s warmth was faltering and he knew this would be one of the last days of summer. In a few short months, snow would replace the sun’s warming rays – winter comes early in Iowa.
The school year had just begun, but Mrs. Harrison was already out sick. Max wondered whether she was really ill or just sick of his obnoxious classmates. He would understand if it was the latter. Max was liked by the boys in his class, but he didn’t share their enthusiasm for football, parties or videogames and therefore hadn’t made any close friends. Max was painfully shy, especially around the girls in his class. He didn’t have the confidence that one would expect from someone as good-looking as Max.
He was tall and lean – not too muscular, but toned from hours spent doing hard labor on his grandmother’s farm. His shaggy light-brown hair always managed to have that care-free, tousled look people spend hours on without him even trying. His bright green eyes and easy smile lit up the room. It was easy to see why all the girls liked him, but Max wasn’t interested. At fourteen, all Max cared about was taking care of his grandmother and focusing on his studies. He wanted to become an astronomer, just like his parents.
The substitute teacher played a movie in lieu of the planned lecture on the Constitution which was a nice surprise as Max always dreaded government class. In fact, Max didn’t really like any of his classes, except math and science. He exceled at the other subjects and earned mostly As, but he just didn’t care about the difference between an adverb and an adjective or who won the Battle of Gettysburg.
What Max loved was science. In biology class, they were learning about the microscopic atoms that make up all things. Max could listen to Mr. Tielday talk all day about protons and electrons. He aced every test and did all the extra credit assignments, too. Max wanted to be a scientist one day, like his parents. He often thought of his mom and dad in Mr. Tielday’s class, but today he couldn’t focus on anything else. As painful as his nightmares were, he liked remembering his parents.
After his last class of the day finally ended, Max boarded the school bus to go home. Nearly every day of Max’s existence was the same old routine. He lived in a small farming community in northwestern Iowa where the annual Sweet Corn Festival was about as interesting as the town got. Now that the festival was just a memory and the warm evenings were quickly fading as summer slipped into fall, Max once again realized how boring his life in Iowa was. He couldn’t wait until baseball season began in March just so he’d have something else to do.
It had been almost four years since he moved from California to live with his grandmother here on the farm where his father grew up. His grandmother was his only living relative now, after the accident that killed his parents. He loved his grandma and happily helped her out on the farm, but he missed California. He missed spending weeknights exploring his parents’ lab while they worked on groundbreaking experiments, and, most of all, his missed his mom and dad. Now the only thing Max looked forward to was climbing to the roof of his grandmother’s barn with his telescope and an old, scratchy red blanket to gaze up at the stars.
Max had considered becoming an astronaut; it was his boyhood fantasy. But now that he was fourteen and had been through three summers of Space Camp, Max realized he would rather be in the control room guiding an unmanned space probe to Mars than spend months cooped up in a tiny ship. Every night he’d lie in bed imagining the secrets of the galaxy that he’d find when he became an astronomer.
Actually, Max found that his mind wandered to space quite frequently, which may explain his B in algebra last year. He’d always been good at math, but Mr. Cotter’s monotone lectures nearly bored him to tears. Just as he promised himself he would try to focus on geometry this year, the bus came to a stop in front of his house.
His backpack was heavy with schoolbooks and made a loud thud as he dropped it on the hardwood floor in the kitchen.
“Grandma?” he called.
“Grandma!” he yelled again, peering around the corner into the familiar living room.
Still no answer. Max looked out the back window and saw the rusty blue Ford in the driveway and his grandma unloading groceries from the enormous trunk. Max quickly ran outside to help.
“Thank you dear. Be careful not to drop the eggs like last time,” she said with a wink.
Elisa Whitman was just a year shy of seventy, but you’d never know it. Even with her silvery gray hair, she looked much younger. She had been raised on a farm and knew the benefits of hard work. ‘Working hard keeps you young!’ she’d always say to Max when he complained about chores. Elisa’s husband, Wilbur, had passed away many years ago so she’d learned to maintain the small, family farm on her own. They used to have dozens of cows, chickens and pigs that they sold to local merchants, but even now with only four milk cows, they get by. They also have Clarence the pig, but Max became so attached to him when he first moved to the farm that Elisa couldn’t bear to send him to the slaughterhouse. Max had already been through too much.
Max came to live with Elisa when he was eleven years old. Max’s father, George, was Elisa and Wilbur only child. George was a well-respected astronomer who had contributed to many significant discoveries about the universe, but he was best known for his ‘doomsday’ predictions. Convinced that the Earth was going through a series of cataclysmic changes that would one day culminate with the destruction of the planet, George developed a research facility to prepare for an apocalypse of catastrophic proportions. Despite founding his predictions on years of research, he was mocked by the science community.
Annalee, George’s wife and Max’s mother, worked as a research astronomer with NASA for many years before joining George’s private research firm. She was well-liked in the science community where she often chaired fundraisers and served as a spokeswoman for NASA studies. Tall and shapely with the same sandy-brown hair as Max, she could have easily been a model or an actress, but instead she dedicated her life to science. The world remembers her as a promising researcher who helped advance the public image and mission of space exploration, but Max remembers her tucking him in at night, telling him stories and cheering him on at his Little League games.
Max brought in the remaining bags and began putting the groceries away.
“I had the dream again last night.”
“I’m so sorry, dear.”
“I really miss them.”
“I know you do. And I know they miss you, too. They’ll always be watching over you. You’re lucky to have two guardian angels who love you.”
Max hadn’t gone to church back in California. He didn’t even know much about religion. But when he moved in with his grandmother, she made him attend church every Sunday. Elisa reasoned that it was better to be safe than sorry, despite being on the fence herself about the existence of one true god.
After a few minutes of silence, Max muttered, “I hope I make them proud.”
“What was that young man?” Elisa demanded.
“Nothing,” he mumbled.
Elisa stopped washing the fresh asparagus she was preparing for dinner and put her hands on Max’s shoulders.
“Now you listen to me, Max. Your parents would be so incredibly proud of you. You are a kind, level-headed, ambitious young man. I am honored to have you as a grandson.”
“Thanks, grandma,” he said, perking up. “So…what’s for dinner?”
Elisa smiled. “Now that’s more like it! We will dine like kings tonight with rosemary-glazed chicken, a side of asparagus with creamy hollandaise sauce, mashed sweet potatoes picked right from our own garden and for dessert – drumroll please – your favorite: handmade, fresh raspberry pie.”
“Yep. So you better go finish your homework. No pie unless it’s all completed!”
Max put away the last of the groceries before spreading his schoolbooks out on the dining room table. The sweet smell of his favorite treat baking in the oven encouraged him to finish quickly. Of course, Elisa would have to inspect the work to make sure it was all done properly. It was and so they ate a delicious meal. Elisa was always a great cook.
“Thanks for the pie, grandma. It was delicious.”
“You are very welcome, sweetie.”
After placing his dishes in the sink, Max headed out to the barn to do his evening chores. Over the years he’d perfected his routine and could complete it all in fifteen minutes. He’d fill the feed pail, walk over the cows’ trough and dump the meal in. Then he would grab the water hose and place it in their water dish before turning it on. He knew it took six minutes for the hose to fill up the water trough, so he used that time to scoop out the cow pen. On his way back from turning off the water hose, he’d grab fresh straw for the floor of the pen. Then he’d take a moment to pet each one of the four cows. Elisa milked them each morning and sold the milk at the local markets. His grandmother also fed Clarence, his pet pig, in the morning, but Max still liked to go by his pen each evening to say hello.
Once his chores were complete, Max climbed the rickety wooden ladder to the barn’s hay loft. Crawling along the loft’s ledge, he felt like Spiderman as he clung to the side of the building, shimmying until he could flip one leg over the edge of the slanted roof. Then he crawled up the angled shingles to the pointed peak where his grandfather had built a small platform many years ago.
Max had a hard time believing his grandfather used to climb this way to the barn’s roof, hanging twenty feet above the Earth. He chuckled to himself as he tried to picture it. He didn’t really remember his grandfather, expect through photographs and stories his grandmother told him. Still, he couldn’t imagine the round old man with the bushy white beard and thick spectacles making the treacherous journey.
But, he had. As did Max’s father. The rooftop observatory had been a family tradition that began shortly after Elisa and Wilbur bought the family farm. When they were newlyweds, Elisa and Wilbur would have picnics in their backyard that often lasted until nightfall. During one of these evening picnics, Wilbur first noticed the particularly bright star. Feeling romantic, Wilbur dedicated the star to his wife, who he said was “even more radiant than the brightest star in the heavens.” They agreed to make it a tradition to look up at that star each night and say one reason why the love each other.
After that declaration, the newlyweds couldn’t wait for nightfall so they could see their special star and exchange loving words. The first night, Wilbur told Elisa she always knew just how to make him feel better when he had a bad day. The next evening, Elisa told Wilbur she loved how strong he was. The third night, Wilbur took Elisa into his arms and told her she danced like an angel and they did a waltz right there in the backyard, to the song of the cows humming and crickets chirping.
On the fourth evening, Elisa was giddy with excitement, for she had an extra special night planned. She intended to tell her new husband that she loved him because he was going to be a wonderful father! She prepared an evening picnic of babyback ribs, baby carrots and a cake she decorated with blue and pink frosting to drop the hint. But when they went out that night, her special star had disappeared.
They brushed it off, thinking it was the light from the new supermarket down the street drowning out the stars, and Elisa told Wilbur the good news. Their happiness overwhelmed them and they quickly forgot about the star. It wasn’t until the night they brought their son George home from the hospital that they thought about the special star again.
As they walked to the house from their brand-new blue Ford with a smiling baby in their arms, Wilbur looked up and noticed the bright star.
“Well, isn’t that fitting,” he said. “Elisa, your star is back in the sky, welcoming home our son.”
But the next night, the star disappeared again. Stumped, Wilbur decided to build the observatory deck on the top of the barn to get a better view of the night sky. Every night, Wilbur would climb to the top of the roof to look for the special star. He researched the area, read every book on constellations and even met with an astronomer at the university fifty miles away, but no one could explain the disappearing star. So Wilbur decided to track the star – when it appeared and when it disappeared. He soon found a pattern: nine days it’d flicker high in the sky, then as suddenly as it appeared it would be gone, only to return again twenty days later.
Tonight, Max raised his telescope and searched the sky, but the star wasn’t there. He knew it wouldn’t appear until the next night. Its pattern only faltered once in the decades the Whitman family had been watching it: the fifteen years it disappeared completely. Of course, that was well before Max even existed. Still, Max was careful to write down his observations each and every night. He couldn’t explain why, but he knew continuing his family’s records of the disappearing star was of utmost importance. In his heart, he knew he’d need it one day soon.
Chapter 3On the first day his first solo mission, Leed barely noticed the thousands of bright white stars surrounding his tiny ship. His gaze was fixed on the blue and green planet below him: Earth. His imagination ran wild wondering what life was like on the watery planet. Of course he knew plenty about Earth already. He dedicated his studies the planet, after all.
But in his career classes, he only learned about the chemical makeup of the planet, the size and shape of its water and land masses, and the resources that lie within its atmosphere. In school, they had talked a little about the humans of Earth, but it wasn’t a popular subject. Every person on *planet already knew the history of the Earth humans and why we separated from them. Little was taught about their undeveloped culture, but no one seemed to care. Leed knew there were lots of Earth humans and that they were primitive and didn’t use technology. At least that’s what he learned in school, though he wasn’t convinced it was the truth.
Out there alone, staring at the planet, Leed couldn’t stop imagining a world so similar, yet so different from his own. In his secret place, he had found a book written by the infamous prisoner Olan. Many years ago, before Leed was born, an Earth scientist named Olan Thistner visited the planet – strictly against orders. He came back with a wealth of information on how the human race had evolved in the years since we left them alone on the rocky, watery planet and he wrote a book detailing his journey. But before long, Olan was imprisoned, publicly denounced as a liar and the Earth science program shut down. His book was deemed “fantasy” by the Leaders and all copies were destroyed – except, as far as Leed knew, the one hidden in his secret room. Leed didn’t know of anyone else who had ever read the book or even seen it, though everyone knew of the rumors Olan spread.
Leed loved the fanciful stories in Olan’s book. He read it nearly every day. He didn’t know if it was true, but he hoped it was. In the book, Olan wrote about his time living among the Earth humans. He claimed that they were advancing quickly and had robust civilizations similar to our own. He said they were using technology, too – satellites, communication devices and telescreens used only for entertainment. Olan wrote of their elaborate school systems where people could study anything they want or nothing at all. Leed was blown away by the first-hand accounts and hand-drawn pictures of tall buildings, a variety of delicious foods and funny animals grazing in fields of bright green grass. The report described earthlings as similar to the people of *planet, but much smaller in stature. They spoke many languages and wore colorful clothing that varied across the land. It all seemed so magical to Leed.
After the Leaders squashed all of Olan’s rumors, people didn’t seem to care about Earth anymore or the people who live there. In fact, a hatred of Earth came from the Olan incident, or rather the Leaders’ reaction to the incident. In response to Olan’s book, the Leaders implemented their own studies and created materials documenting the inaccuracies of Olan’s claims. They sent their own scientists to Earth’s atmosphere for observations and found that there were in fact hundreds of thousands of people, but they were not advanced and had no formal community organization. Their scientists claimed they had no schooling, used only primitive technologies to hunt and cook, and lived in small societies based on family lines. Of course, the word of the Leaders is fact. Those reports are still used in schools today.
The Leaders also combated Olan’s rumor that the Earth humans had used space technology. They said that the satellites Olan had witnessed were in fact *Planet satellites that they had put into place years ago to gain a closer observation of the people of Earth. They claimed to have dozens of satellites constantly collecting information, yet no one, not even the Earth scientists, have seen any reports from them.
Alone in his one-man ship, Leed was scheduled to survey Earth for five days from his post one lightyear from the planet and report back his findings, if any. Since Olan’s disobedience, access to Earth is heavily restricted. Venturing any closer than half a lightyear from Earth is illegal and only scientists with special permits are allowed within two lightyears. All business and leisure traffic in the galaxy is routed to steer far away from the swirling blue, green and white of our almost-homeland. Entering Earth’s atmosphere is considered extremely dangerous to *planet, our people and our way of life. *Planet broke away from the people of Earth for a reason and they are not eager to return. Olan’s exploration of the surface cut off all funding to research Earth for more than a decade. It took fifteen years for the science community to convince the Leaders to reinstate the Earth studies department. The first scientist to return to view Earth after the Olan incident was Leed’s mentor, Professor Immich.
*Planet had once been the protectors of their brothers and sisters on Earth. The whole Earth science department was once dedicated to ensuring their safety and survival. But now *planetians were indifferent and uncaring. Over the last fifty years, there have been talks about *planet invading Earth and stealing its resources. Just last year, in Leed’s first week of training, a military group raided his classroom and demanded all the reports on Earth’s minerals. They brought their case to the Leaders and asked for permission to lead an attack on Earth, but the Leaders simply said that we did not need their minerals and *Planet would be better served by continuing to observe Earth.
***Leed wasn’t quite sure how long he had been out here studying the tiny planet or if he had slept at all. He couldn’t see his home star, Tellin, so it was difficult to calculate time. He had tried to determine the time based on the movement of the large star behind him, but he couldn’t quite remember the equation to convert it to days.
“I’ll sleep when I’m tired,” Leed thought to himself. “Besides, I don’t want to miss any of this beautiful view and I need to focus on my homework.”
Leed was supposed to be recording electrical waves, atmospheric pressure, heat output from the nearest star and any unusual occurrences noticeable on the planet’s surface. His eyes were glued to the surface of the planet, looking for any signs of change. He was hopeful that his first mission would be eventful and he would be commended for his work. He secretly wished that he would make a startling discovery that would allow him to skip the rest of his classes, and most importantly his career exam. He imagined himself with the title of “Scientist” before his fifteenth birthday.
It rarely happens, but a few kids have been exempted from career training because of their achievements during school. In fact, it had happened with Leed’s own father who earned his career title a few months shy of his exam. When it does happen, everyone celebrates with a two-day festival honoring the newest member of the upper class – those chosen for careers as Professionals. People get time off work and kids get a break from school. There are exclusive parties in the capitol city of *City with feasts of real food. Of course, everyone at home throws parties, too, but even in the Professional class real food is rare. Most Professionals celebrate with a simple meal of real meat, vegetables and bread, while Laborers receive an extra food tablet ration.
Leed let his mind slip to thoughts of indulging on succulent osmir meat, warm spiced alarams and sweet white bread. Once, Leed’s family had been invited to a feast in the Capitol when he was very young. Still, he can still remember the warm, creamy sauce of cooked granas – a fruit he learned about in books and had never seen whole. He often dreamed of again tasting the granasauce – sweet and bitter with just a hint of spice. That’s why Leed liked the spiced alarams. Though much more common, the warm alarams remind him of the granasauce he had tasted as a child.
Drooling, Leed cursed his choice in career. Other than a few storms and one giant explosion many years ago, there has been very little to report on Earth in centuries. If he had followed in his father’s footsteps as a radiation technician, he might have had a chance to join the career early. After all, his father was the foremost authority on radiation in all of *planet and had developed many of the programs he would have been studying in career training.
Still, Leed couldn’t imagine sitting in a small, dark office when he could be out here, exploring the vast, abundant space. Leed wasn’t the least bit interested in the “normal” career paths. Most Professional children train for jobs in the technology or medical industries, or train for the military. While sciences and research are also respectable positions, studying *planet’s distant cousin, Earth, was often criticized as a pointless endeavor for romantics.
Leed thought about his friends, or really, his classmates as he never really had any friends, sitting in classrooms for their career training pouring over textbooks and manuals. He shuddered when he thought about the difficulty of the tests they would have to pass to avoid being sent to the mines.
Before training begins, children of each class attend school together. On their thirteenth birthday, all the children of *planet must declare their chosen career. Almost everyone gets to take the career classes they choose, but sometimes students must make a second choice if one career is too popular in a given year. The children born at the beginning of the year have the biggest advantage. They get to choose their career first. Leed’s birthday is the last week of the year, but he wasn’t worried because his chosen career didn’t have much competition. Studying Earth wasn’t a popular career choice, but Leed had always been fascinated by the deep blue oceans and green hills of the planet.
Each student begins their career training on Career Day – the first day of the year following their thirteenth birthday. Students train for four years for their chosen field then must pass the career exam to join the Professional class. The exams are difficult and each year more than thirty percent fail.
If you fail the career exam, you are automatically sent to the Laborors, regardless of your family’s class. Laborers are assigned a lower class job, usually in the teryllium mines, and are forbidden from speaking with anyone in a class above them unless it’s related to their job. Just a few years ago, the daughter of our town’s mayor, Molly Terran, failed her exam. Her father tried to communicate with her in the mines by slipping a note into her week’s food tablet ration. When he was caught by the police, he was publically tried, found guilty, and hung on the steps of the town hall – one floor below his former office, now occupied by our new mayor. It didn’t matter that he was a Leader. Rules are rules.
A jolt of fear shot through Leed as he considered his own fate. The chances that he could be ripped from his family for failing the test were overwhelming. He wouldn’t miss his father, but he couldn’t imagine never talking to his sister again or his mother. Living alone among the Laborers would be unbearable. And as the smallest one of his class, he was not prepared to do the manual labor required of those who fail their career placement tests.
He tried to push the thought away as he gazed out through the large window in front of him. He decided to get straight to his work and began taking measurements and recording them in his notebook. He would later transfer them to the computer, but he enjoyed writing by hand on paper. The thought distracted him and he was soon lost in thought.
The notebook was a gift from his mother many years ago. Paper was a rarely-used, pricey commodity and indicated your status to anyone around. But status didn’t matter much to Leed. He just loved the feel of the soft paper on his fingertips. Nothing in *Planet was soft. Everything had hard edges, shiny screens and cold walls. Everywhere you go you’re surrounded by the gentle hum of electricity; computers sending commands to one another in a language Leed couldn’t understand.
“I hate *planet!” he shouted without thinking. The sound echoed in the tiny ship.
Leed immediately regretted his outburst and instinctively looked around to see who may have been watching. While it’s not technically illegal to speak ill of *planet, you can be punished if you anger the Leaders. Luckily, his telescreen monitor was off. No one heard. Shaken, he went back to recording his measurements – working diligently until he was finished.
After putting the finishing touches on his Day One log, Leed found himself getting sleepy. He glanced over at the telescreen where his professor’s face would appear the next day to check in on him and he hoped he would awaken naturally before the disembodied voice yelled at him from the monitor. He checked the navigation instruments to ensure they were set correctly and finally climbed up to the bunk above the compact ship’s tiny bathroom. He gazed out the window and drifted off to sleep dreaming of Earth.