He was two days off turning eighteen when his squad commander came to him with a man dressed in the grey of someone from the Galaxy Garrison. “Kogane!” Rick called to him, where he was perched in one of the lone trees of the base. “Come down ‘ere; I got someone who wants to talk to ya!”
That was new. No-one ever wanted to talk specifically to him. He was just a fighter pilot in one of the few warzones left behind after the Third World War. Why would a Garrison officer want to talk to him of all people? He knew what the other pilots called him, knew that he was considered deadly, other-worldly, because of his reputation, but what about his reputation would entice the Garrison?
He’d only been a fighter pilot for about two years. A recruitment officer had come to his middle school, looking for potential students for the academic side of the Garrison. They’d brought along a flight simulator with them. He remembered what the other children in his class had said when he’d had a go. He was the only one to complete the simulator, and the recruitment officer had recognised that, had asked after him. He remembered how the elderly teacher they’d had, Ms. Haight, had dismissed him, instead introducing James Griffin to the officer, who’d barely made it past the fourth level of the simulator, even while he was still going.
He’d dropped out after it was announced that James Griffin had been selected as the school’s scholarship student for the Garrison.
He’d never known his mother, and his father had died a hero, as a firefighter, when he was 10. He remembered staying up late with his hippo plush, waiting for his father to come home, only to have his father’s boss break it to him that his father had been crushed by a falling support beam and had burned to death. They wouldn’t care that he wasn’t at school.
The foster family he’d been placed with at the time only spent a week looking for him before giving up, when he was already out of the state, out of the country, working in the warzone between Russia and Kazakhstan as a trainee fighter pilot.
“Kogane! I’m not gonna ask again! Come on down!” Oh, yeah. Rick wouldn’t be happy if he stayed up in his perch, in his safe place. He shifted so his legs hung off the branch on one side and jumped down. He slipped his red aviator jacket off, tied it around his waist, and pulled the hair tie off his wrist so he could tie his hair up. Then he walked towards Rick and the Garrison officer.
“Whaddya want’ me for, Boss?” He asked, all too aware that he’d rather be sleeping back in his tree. “Sorry about that, Commander Holt. This is who I was tellin’ you about: Keith Kogane, but we usually just call him Samurai.” Rick said, half-turning to talk to the Garrison officer, Commander Holt. Where’d he heard that name before?
“It’s no problem at all.” This Commander Holt seemed way too forgiving. He took the hand that Holt offered him, shook it firmly like he’d been taught to do. “It’s very nice to meet you, Mr. Kogane. I’ve heard great things about you.” Rick looked too damn smug for his tastes. “Yeah, he’s our very best.”
He could feel the burn coming from his ears when he shoved his hands inside his pockets and looked down at his feet. “‘M not the best.” He muttered, knowing damn well what Rick was gonna say to that. He said it every time. “Coulda fooled me, kid. Even the squad’s fuckin’ terrified of ya!” He flinched - he didn’t like being reminded of the number of lives he’d taken.
“Anyway, Commander Holt ‘ere said somethin’ ‘bout wantin’ to give ya a job at the Garrison. Goin’ somewhere in the big leagues, eh, Kogane?” Rick, please, for the love of God, just shut up . But, now he was intrigued. Why would the Garrison send someone to offer him a job? “Ah, yes, thank you for reminding me, Rick. Your work is impressive, Mr. Kogane. How would you like to be a test pilot for my Garrison projects?”
A… A test pilot? For the Galaxy Garrison? “I… I, uh, is it okay if I think it over before I give you my answer?” He could see Rick out of the corner of his eye, looking at him like he was crazy. “Yes, of course,” oh thank God for that. “I’ll be here until Tuesday morning before I have to move on with relief aid. Is that enough time?” Holt asked.
He didn’t feel confident enough to speak, so he just nodded. Yeah, yeah, he’d have an answer before Tuesday.
Two months later, he was home . Back in America, back in Texas, ready to start his new job. Commander Holt, who insisted on being called Sam, had offered on giving Keith the guest room in his house. But Commander Holt had a fifteen-year-old daughter and a nine-year-old son, and he just knew he would be a terrible role model for them. Besides, he still had the keys to his old home in the desert, out of sight, out of mind for the Garrison.
Commander Holt took him on a tour of the Garrison HQ compound, then he wandered into town and hired a hoverbike that he drove into the desert, to home .
It was exactly like he’d left it eight years ago, just with an extra layer of dust over everything and a bunch more expired food. He spent the rest of the day cleaning the shack (because that’s all it could be called) and getting rid of the food, and trying not to cry when he discovered a box of his father’s memories.
Dinner was Cup Noodles and canned coffee as he went through the box. His father’s old off-duty uniform, an album of coffee-stained photos (mostly of him when he was younger), a blade made of a shiny black material like obsidian wrapped in a soft purple-red blanket Keith vaguely remembered sleeping with as a toddler and that Keith decided just had to stay with him. So many memories that Keith almost didn’t notice when his dinner lost its heat and when the sun slipped behind the towering rocks of the desert.
He was putting the photo album back in the box when a loose Polaroid slipped into his lap. He placed the album down inside the box and turned to look at the Polaroid. It was slightly burnt in one corner - his father had apparently taken it to work and then decided to leave it at home after it got burnt - but the picture was strikingly clear. Him as a pudgy-bodied toddler in a crimson top and his father’s helmet on his head, with his father’s arm wrapped around his shoulders.
“ God, dad .” He whispered from behind where his hand was covering his mouth.
James Griffin was just as much of an ass as he remembered. Being the Garrison’s poster boy now didn’t make matters any better.
He’d come across Lieutenant Griffin completely by accident, as he’d been walking through the Garrison grounds to where Commander Holt had told him to go to. He didn’t mean to walk into where he was supposed to met, where apparently it was field trip day, and Griffin’s class was clustered around Commander Holt, holding notepads and pencils and asking loud questions about whatever project that Commander Holt was working on at the moment.
It had been the Commander who’d seen him first, had said something to the children that had them turning around to stare at him in the doorway. He knew he stood out - Commander Holt had offered to give him a Garrison uniform to wear, but he’d declined. So, when he first saw Lieutenant Griffin , he was wearing his red aviator jacket, faded navy jeans that had ripped over time, his Doc Martens, an old white-grey shirt, and his father’s fingerless gloves.
The next thing he knew, he was swarmed by the children, all of them shouting questions at him, but… He… He couldn’t answer any of them, there was… There were too many…
“Alright, you lot, back up a bit. Let Mr. Kogane into the room.” Jeez , hearing someone say ‘Mr. Kogane’ made him sound so old . He watched as the students slowly deflated and moved back so he could enter the hangar-like room.
He could see Griffin out of the corner of his eye, watching him like he didn’t trust him with the students. It stung a little, but he could remember Griffin not trusting him as soon as they first met.
It was after the students had finished asking him questions and had been released to go explore the hangar, that Griffin stormed up to him and hissed, “ Never do that with my students again.” He didn't even know what he did.
Commander Holt and his crew spent nine months on whatever project it was that they were working on, then there were two months of safety tests and press conferences and Keith actually getting to do his job before the Commander was calling him on the cheap phone he’d bought at the closest convenience store. “Commander Holt? What is it?” He said, glaring at the half-broken microwave that seemed to be contemplating whether or not to heat up his dinner.
“Keith! How would you like to make history?”
Two weeks after that phone call, Keith was suiting up to go to space.
He knew the number of hoops the Commander had jumped through (and the number of strings he’d pulled) to get him to where he was today.
The Calypso mission . The Garrison’s youngest space pilot in the history of space travel, at just nineteen . History-makers .
So many titles, and yet he still felt like just… Just Keith , the test pilot that Commander Holt had brought in to help with his project.
God, it was nerve-wracking. Both because it would be the farthest humans had flown into space, and because he was the pilot at the helm of the mission.
Twenty minutes after stepping out onto the tarmac of the Garrison’s launchpad, he and the Calypso crew were just outside the atmosphere.
Nearly five years later, he was touching down and exiting onto the very same tarmac that they’d lifted off from, to claps on the back and cheers and camera flashes and questions and applause. And to the Holt family, smiling, waving, at him .