“There are those days which seem a taking in of breath which, when held, suspends the whole earth in its waiting. Some summers refuse to end.”
“What?” Penny asked her brother.
“Something I read. Ray Bradbury. It’s like, this boy is starting to get older, and things are starting to change for him. Summer is coming to an end, but, he knew to appreciate a summer day when he was a kid. Like today. I think he was saying, if you just held your breath everything would just stop, and the day wouldn’t have to end. Because it’s perfect. But it will. It always does. Everything changes. Everything ends.”
“How old are you Will?”
“Yeah, eleven. Eleven going on forty.”
He looked away.
“Hey. I’m joking. You just don’t sound like a little kid sometimes.”
“I just read it and liked it. I’m not weird.”
“Will, you know I don’t think that. I love who you are.”
“Judy says I was born old.”
“You know she means that as a compliment, Will. You’re just…deep. Especially for your age. But Judy would never make fun of you.”
He didn’t sound convinced. Penny didn’t know what was wrong with her brother today. But he was like this sometimes. It was as if a great day like today was almost too much for him. He had to think of something to make it real. And real to him meant it was too nice to last. When he was in this mood Judy said they needed to get his mind out of his head. Penny knew how. “Ready, Will?” She smiled at him, holding her cup out.
“OK, but let me see how much you have left,” Will said.
“You don’t trust me?”
“No, you cheat.”
Penny held her cup out to him. Will looked inside. “OK. Close enough. Ready?”
“Yes,” she answered. “On three. One. Two. Three.”
Both children sucked on their straws as hard as they could until Will’s began drawing air. “I won!” He sat his cup down, stood up from the bench, both hands raised, fists clenched. Then: “Ow! Ow! Ow!” He sat back down and pushed his thumb just above his right eye. “Ice cream headache! Ow! Ow!”
Penny started laughing. “Why did you do that?”
“You waste your float, and you give yourself a headache,” She was still laughing.
The pain was easing. “You wasted your’s too,” He said. “At least I won.”
His sister clenched her lips together tightly, her cheeks puffed out as if she was trying not to explode. She wasn’t making any noise, but her eyes were full of laughter. Will frowned, reaching for her cup. Looked inside. “Penny!”
Her laughter was unleashed; it came so hard she laid down on the bench and clutched her stomach.
Will just watched his sister, still frowning, her Styrofoam cup in his hand. It was just as full as it was when they started their ice cream race. Finally she stopped laughing and sat up. “You can have mine, Will,” she said.
“Nope, I had one,” he handed her cup back to her. “I forget I’m Charlie Brown and you’re Lucy and everything is the football.”
“I’m sorry, Will. Are you really mad?” Now she felt bad.
“No. It was kinda funny,” he grinned at her.
“Seriously, you can have mine,” she said. “You didn’t even taste the rest of yours.”
“No, I’m good. Most of it was already gone.”
Penny slurped on her root beer float, stopped, said, “You sure? It’s really goooooood.”
He didn’t answer. He had moved on. She was used to this in her little brother. Their mom always told him his mind never hung around too long in any one spot.
“What are you thinking?” She asked him.
“What if dad doesn’t come back?”
“Dad always comes back, Will. What’s wrong? This isn’t like you, you’re always the one telling us he’s OK.”
“I don’t mean that,” her brother answered. “I mean, what if he doesn’t come home?”
“He’ll come home. He always comes home.”
“Yeah. But last time him and mom kept fighting. What if they get a divorce?”
“Then we have two Christmases, two Easters, two…”
“I don’t want two of everything Penny, I want our family to be together.”
She realized he was really upset. She put an arm around him. “I know, I was kidding. But they love each other. They aren’t going to get a divorce.”
“What if they did? Would we get split up?”
“Will, no one is going to split us up. I promise.”
“What about Judy? She would live with dad. He’s like her hero or something.”
“OK. What’s really wrong, Will?”
“Dad called last night to see how Judy’s track meet went when you were at Tori’s. He didn’t even ask to talk to me.”
“You know he was probably really busy, Will, and knew she was at State. It was kind of a big deal.” Even though he was only eleven, Will never talked like this, so Penny knew something was really bothering him.
“I know,” he said.
“Are you mad at him?”
“No. I just wish I was more like Judy.”
“Who doesn’t? She’s beautiful, she’s smart, and she’s like, the best athlete in school,” Penny said. She hadn’t realized that Will was jealous of Judy and their dad’s relationship until now.
“If mom and dad got a divorce, Judy would probably want to live with him.”
“Will, we have a really good family, you know? We all kind of have our issues, but when we’re together, we kick ass. Nothing is going to split us up.” But now she wondered if her brother sort of hoped Judy would leave to live with their dad if that happened.
“I know,” he answered, though, again, she didn’t think she had convinced him.
She rubbed his head, “Hey, you ready to head home?”
“Yeah,” He looked out at the park. They had been coming here since they were small children, when Judy used to bring them and push them on the swings, then buy them ice cream cones on the way back home. There weren’t as many people in the park as there used to be, but today was beautiful, even if the sky really wasn’t as blue as it used to get. The sun had burned off the smog and the air was nice today. They had masks with them but hadn’t needed them. They climbed on their bicycles. As they rode past the Dairy Bar, they waved to Mrs. Livingston who stood looking from the carry-out window. She smiled at them and waved back. The little ice cream place sat at the corner of the park, and Mrs. Livingston had owned it for as long as anyone could remember.
“You don’t think Judy would go live with dad, and she would kinda forget about us?” Will asked, as they rode. “We’re only like, her half siblings.”
“Wait. Stop.” Penny braked her bicycle and stood astraddle of it, waiting for her brother to turn around. He stopped his bike in front of her.
“Judy is our sister. And it’s not fair for you to say that about her. She has never acted like we weren’t her full brother and sister.”
“I know,” he said. Then she saw his eyes were tearing up.
“Will, what’s wrong? You have some issue with Judy today. Oh…wait. You’re not mad at Judy, you’re worried about losing her. Dad’s her hero, but Judy’s your hero, isn’t she?”
He didn’t answer for a while, just looked down at his bicycle tire, scuffing his shoe on the road, then he looked at Penny. “Last night I was jealous. And I wanted to be mad at her. I was in the other room trying not to listen to their call, but waiting to talk to Dad. As soon as he hung up, she walked in the living room where I was and looked at me and knew how I felt. So she played video games with me all night. And I knew she really had a bunch of stuff she needed to do.”
Penny smiled. “There you go. Judy loves me and mom, and dad might be her hero, but you’re her favorite human. You can never do anything to lose Judy.”
Eleven year old Will Robinson would forget about this day and his talk with his sister. It was months before their mother mentioned going to space, and before their father came home. Just a moment in time, a day like many others with a conversation between siblings who were trying to maneuver in a world of what-ifs, at a time in their lives when they had no control over the events that would shape their future. And they had no idea what the next couple of years would bring; how their lives would be forever changed.
But as memories often are, this day would be wrenched from the recesses of Will’s mind a couple of years later, when he wondered if what Judy had given to save his life would ultimately result in him losing her forever.
Part I: Summer's End
“The demon that you can swallow gives you its power, and the greater life’s pain, the greater life’s reply.”
—Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth
Will checked his time. Ten minutes. OK. He guided the Jupiter toward 4 Darius. It was a gamble, but beating the asteroid’s flight path was impossible and circling behind it at a safe distance would take too much time and he would never make the docking schedule.
He pointed the ship directly toward Darius. He recalculated the vector, concerned about the velocity now. His success or failure would depend on his accurate calculation of the asteroid’s angular momentum. He altered his course a few more degrees to starboard. His flight path now would take the ship in front of the asteroid. To any observers it would appear he would be heading directly on a collision course with 4 Darius. If his calculations were off, he would be caught in the gravitational pull and the Jupiter would crash. But it was an asteroid, not a planet. The low gravitational pull meant there was a possibility a full thrust could free the ship if he timed it correctly. The problem was that he would need to get much closer to the surface than he would like if this was going to work—and hope his math was correct. The gravity was the key. If he miscalculated the rotation of 4 Darius, it would all be over and they would think he deliberately crashed the Jupiter into the asteroid. That’s certainly how it would look. And—he admitted—it probably wouldn’t surprise them. But Darius was round, which meant it had enough gravity to form its shape. And it was composed of iron ore, increasing its mass. He briefly questioned his decision. Missing the docking time frame was one thing, crashing the Jupiter was something else entirely. He knew these were the kind of calculations that were completed long before a spacecraft was launched.
He didn’t have that luxury. He had ten minutes.
In the end, he decided the risk was worth it. They would call him reckless, but he had confidence in his skill set, as well as his math. He smiled to himself, remembering when his dad was teaching him to drive the Chariot. He had changed a lot in a year. But he felt like he had lived a lifetime in that year.
He accelerated, watching the asteroid on his radar screen grow ever closer. “Captain we have visual,” he whispered to himself in his best Spock voice, as the large body came into view in the flight deck window. He was flying directly toward its center now. He checked the attitude sensor and the gravimeter.
A little closer.
The emergency signal began blaring. His head would be pounding after this. The mechanical voice came over the intercom: “Prepare For Impact.” It was repeated over and over.
Now. He tightened his grip on the directional control, hit his thrusters and angled hard to port. The surface of 4 Darius was in Will’s view, so close he felt he could reach out and touch it: the craters, the prominent canyon, the low mountain range. Between the blaring emergency signal, the impact warning, and the vision of the huge asteroid passing so close, he almost lost concentration. He refocused. The Attitude Sensor registered drag. A gentle dual thrust corrected for it. He saw the first hint of space beyond the asteroid.
Almost there…almost there.
He counted down to himself. This was the critical part. If his timing was off, his calculations wrong, it would be all over. It was his last chance to abort. “Three…two…one,” he counted aloud, feeling a rush of adrenaline as he crossed his imaginary Rubicon. Now he was all in. He slammed thrusters full. The Jupiter was pulled past and whipped forward.
Now the Resolute was in front of him. He didn’t have time to celebrate his success, he had less than three minutes. He adjusted course as he left Darius behind but kept thrusters full. He began looking for his docking station. It was off C-Deck, which meant he had to pass through several levels of Jupiters and stay close enough to the big ship that he didn’t lose seconds. Nothing was easy.
One minute left. There was danger moving into position at this rate, but the clock was ticking. He gambled with the speed until he was in front of the docking station. Just before contact he hit the reverse thrusters. He guided the Jupiter into the dock, still a little faster than he should. He was watching his positional gauge. He would hate to get this close just to crash into the Resolute. He landed smoothly, felt the airlock grip and seal. He finally heard the mechanical voice: “Docking Complete.” He checked his time. He smiled. He took off his VR goggles, unbuckled from the simulator and stood.
He heard cheering and looked down at the bay room floor. Several of the students were applauding. The rest of them were just staring at him, a couple of them turning away and mumbling.
As he climbed down from the Flight Deck training station, a tall boy, four years older than Will, stood watching with two friends beside him. Jeff Curry.
Will ignored the three of them, but as he walked by, Curry said, “Was that you, or your robot mind-melding you?” The boy’s two friends laughed. Will just walked past them without responding.
“Will, can I see you?” Gary Sargent was standing near the training bay door. “In my office?”
As Will walked toward the door, he passed another boy, also three or four years older. Clark Duncan. Clark watched Will as he passed, but didn’t say anything or acknowledge him. Clark was an enigma to the other students. His father had been on the maintenance crew of the Resolute and had taken enough trips that he earned a place for his family. Clark was Penny’s age and in a couple of her classes, but she said he never interacted with the other students. He usually sat in the back of the room, never answering questions, seemingly oblivious to everything around him, sometimes sleeping.
Considering the qualifications needed to be able to immigrate to Alpha Centauri, only the best and the brightest—or those with the right family connections—were able to join the colony. Which meant most of the school was full of the type of kids Will never liked back home. It also meant the cliques and pecking order that you would find in any high school back on Earth were magnified here. Clark wasn’t a big kid and his family’s social status put him at the bottom of the food chain. But there was something about the boy that gave off a vibe that he wasn’t prey. Everyone left him alone. Will didn’t give him much thought, live and let live was pretty much Will’s point of view these days.
He followed his instructor down the hall. Gary Sargent had been a Navy pilot before he joined the Alpha program. He had flown on the first six Colony Missions to Alpha Centauri, and then became the flight trainer at the school. He had taken a special interest in Will since the boy arrived three months ago. All of the instructors had been filled in. The boy’s story was incredible, but like the students, the instructors and staff had mixed feelings about him. Gary knew Will wanted nothing more than to fit in with everyone else, but he was afraid that would never happen. Especially with guys like Curry and his friends.
Gary sat behind his long desk. His book shelf behind his chair was full, but the books were about philosophy and history. Other than the small model of the Resolute he kept on a cabinet across the room, there was no indication he had any interest in space—or science for that matter.
Will sat down in the chair in front of the desk.
“Well?” Gary looked at him.
“Well, I did it,” the boy answered with a grin.
If it had been any of the other students Gary would think he was being cocky.
“So, if it hadn’t been a training session, would you have done the same thing?”
Will thought about it, then asked, “Who’s on the Jupiter with me?”
“No,” Will answered without hesitation. “I would abort.”
“Yes.” Will answered this without hesitation as well. That bothered Gary.
“What kind of grade do you think I should give you for that little stunt?” Gary asked him.
“I don’t know, whatever you think I earned.”
He was quickly back to his humble self, Gary noticed. He was also sure Will really didn’t care about the grade. “You risked a two hundred billion dollar piece of equipment doing a slingshot maneuver around an asteroid.”
“Yeah. But the parameters of the exercise didn’t include the value of the ship. I was supposed to safely dock the Jupiter in the given time frame. That was all I was told,” Will argued. “That and not die.”
“No one slingshots around an asteroid. The gravitational pull isn’t there,” Gary said.
“4 Darius is almost a dwarf planet. And it was round and it’s composition is mostly iron ore. When I calculated the vector I decided it was possible. The problem is I had to get really close for it to work. To almost crash. But…” He stopped as he realized something. “No one has gotten through the exercise have they? I’m not bragging, I’m just curious.”
Gary knew the boy wasn’t bragging. “Why do you say that?”
“Because the slingshot took two minutes and forty seconds off my time. I landed with thirty seven seconds to spare. You can’t get the speed to travel the specified distance and avoid the asteroid in the exercise any other way. Everyone tries to beat the flight path of 4 Darius and pass in front of it. They think it’s a race. But that’s impossible. You could do it in a Phantom, but never in a Jupiter. And when they circle behind it they run out of time. The only way is with a gravity assist. And like you said, no one slingshots off an asteroid. With the limited gravity of Darius your speed and precision has to be…” He paused.
“Perfect?” Gary asked, finishing his sentence.
Will didn't want to say that. “So you didn’t calculate a gravity assist in the exercise. You designed it to fail. But still, you gave clues. The shape and composition of 4 Darius.”
Gary just smiled at him. “Failure is an important lesson in itself. And yes, I dropped a couple of clues that it was possible to slingshot, but that was more for my own amusement. I didn’t expect anyone to be able to make the calculations in time to do it.” He sighed. “Of course you’re getting an A. Not because I agree with what you did. But I agree that with the parameters you were given, you succeeded. And no. No one has done it before.”
Will didn’t seem happy about being right. “Maybe I shouldn’t have done it then.” He said this in a quiet voice, almost like he was speaking to himself.
“Will, you can’t change the way they’re going to treat you by dumbing yourself down to fit in.”
The boy didn’t respond to this.
“So…you know you’re the best student in the class. The best student I have ever had if I’m being honest. What about your other classes? There’s talk in the lounge.”
“I guess I have a hard time concentrating,” Will answered.
“According to your transcripts you were a straight A student on Earth.” Will didn’t respond. “You’re failing history, you’re failing geometry, you’re failing literature. You’re even failing geology. That’s supposed to be your subject. You have straight A’s in Flight Training, the hardest class in the school. Only third and fourth years have ever been allowed in the class. You’re the only first year. And you’re not even fourteen yet. You’re a year ahead of schedule for high school. But today you performed a maneuver to pass a test I designed to be impossible to pass. You had to have calculated the rotation, velocity, and mass in minutes, since the exercise was handed to you at lift off. Most people would say it was blind luck that you didn’t crash, but we both know that isn’t the case. Part of it was your piloting skill, but the rest was math. I have a hard time believing your other grades have anything to do with concentration.”
“I…I don’t know. It’s like some things just don’t seem as important anymore.”
“But Flight Training does?”
“Yes,” the boy answered.
“OK. Well, with your grades, they’re going to want to talk to your parents. Make sure you send them down here so I can put in a good word for you.”
“Thanks Gary…Mr. Sargent. And thanks again for letting me in your class.” He stood up to leave.
“It’s OK, Will. Hey, you’re still seeing Dr. Tagent tomorrow instead of coming to my class?”
“Yes. I see her tomorrow. They still make me see her last period on Friday’s because I’m crazy.”
“It going OK?” Gary asked, ignoring his sarcasm.
“I think so. She’s really nice. She wants to help me.”
“Is she helping you?”
He thought for a second. “I don’t think she can. But she tries. I have to try too.”
“Good boy. Stick with it.”
Will smiled and walked out the door.
Gary watched him leave, wishing there was something he could do to make it easier for him. If the stories were even half true, Gary had some experience with what he was going through.
As Will knew she would be, Penny was sitting on the stairs outside waiting for him. He walked up behind her. “You think I won’t be able to find my way home if you don’t show up sometime?” He asked.
She stood. “Yeah, well…considering how you disappeared last year, you’re lucky I’m not sitting in all your classes.” He smiled as she put her hand on his neck and they walked down the stairs together. They had always been close, but since his seven months away and his near death, they were closer than they had ever been. When she did let him out of her sight, she would always message him to see if he was OK. He felt she was over protective, but he knew she needed to do it for her own comfort as much as for his safety. He never protested.
“Speaking of classes,” she continued. “What did you do?”
“Oh. Mr. Sargent just wanted to talk to me. Sorry I kept you waiting.”
“Not that. What did you do in Flight Training? A bunch of the students were talking about it when they walked out.”
“Nothing really. It was just a flight simulation exercise anyway. Probably wouldn’t have worked in real life."
“Annoyingly humble as always,” she said.
They walked a block down the street. A little further was a cafe that one of the enterprising early colonists had opened to take advantage of the location of the school. During lunch and after classes ended for the day it was packed with students. The weather was perfect so the sidewalk tables were full.
Penny started to cross to the other side of the street. “Where are you going?” Will asked.
“Why don’t we walk on the other side?” She answered.
“I want to get a soda,” he said. “I need to take some medicine.”
“Yeah. The Emergency signal on the training Jupiter went off when I almost crashed. Triggered it.”
“You almost crashed and they were talking about some amazing thing you did?”
“Yeah but if I did crash they probably wouldn’t be.”
They were almost to the cafe.
“Come on,” he walked ahead.
Jeff Curry and three other kids were sitting at the table on the corner of the sidewalk, eating burgers and drinking Cokes. They looked at each other as Will walked past them and entered the colorful cafe, Penny close behind. The red and black interior was designed to look like a Fifties diner. It had small Jukeboxes on the tables and an old fashioned soda fountain behind a long counter with round stools in front of it. All over the walls were pictures of teenagers in long skirts and boys in leather jackets. Will thought it was funny. Few people alive remembered anything like this back on Earth.
The room was full with the after-school crowd. Several kids waved or called a greeting to Penny. A few of them looked up from their plates of fries and burgers and glanced at Will, but none of them said anything to him. As usual, he seemed like he didn’t notice. Penny knew that wasn’t the case though. He noticed everything.
The counter was crowded, kids sitting elbow to elbow on the stools. Will walked to the end where a young woman was handing a boy and girl milk shakes. When the kids turned they looked at Will, then saw Penny and smiled at her. “Hi Penny,” the girl said. Penny smiled back as they maneuvered around her.
Will walked to the counter and turned to Penny. “What do you want?”
“Medium Diet Coke,” she answered.
“A diet and a regular, both medium, please,” Will told the lady, thinking, it took his family a year and a half to finally get to Alpha Centauri, but Coca Cola Inc. arrived on the second mission.
“Four credits,” the lady said.
Will, pressed the button on his wrist radio and held it up for her to scan.
They took their drinks and walked back out of the cafe. When they got to the table that Curry and his friends were sitting at, Will made no attempt to go another direction. He just walked past them.
“There’s the Robot Whisperer,” Curry said. The other three boys laughed. “I hear he’s in your bedroom with you every night,” he said to Will as he walked past. “You sure you’re just friends?” At this, the other boys laughed loud enough that the kids at the tables around them started watching.
Will walked on by but Penny wheeled around. “Why don’t you shut the fuck up Jeffrey?” She said it with a sarcastic smile and in a cheerful voice, which made it more biting. And everyone knew he hated being called Jeffrey. The boy just gave her an evil look while some of the kids at nearby tables snickered.
Will had come back and he took Penny’s arm gently. “Come on, Penny.” She turned and walked away with him.
“Why do you do that, Will?” She asked.
“What?” He asked innocently. He had opened the bottle of pain medication that he always carried and popped two pills in his mouth and swallowed them with a large sip of Coke.
“We didn’t have to stop,” she said. “There are other places to get a drink.”
“We can’t get a soda because Curry’s gonna be there?”
“It doesn’t even bother you?” She asked.
They were in the busy section of town now. There were sidewalk stores selling just about everything you could buy on earth. Other than the small Ecars that were everywhere, in a few short years, the community was looking a lot like any modern, middle sized town back home.
“Would I prefer that kids accepted me for who I am?” He answered. “Not whisper when I walk by? Not think I’m some kind of freak? Would I like to have friends like you have? Of course. But does someone like Curry bother me when he says stuff like that? No.”
Listening to her brother Penny felt terrible for him. He never complained about these things. “Why doesn’t he bother you? I can’t stand him. How can you be so…so nonchalant about some dick treating you like he does.”
“Because I’ve been ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard,” he said.
“Come on Will. Don’t quote old dead people. Talk to me.”
“Penny, he means nothing to me. He came here three years ago with the first colonist group. His family got on the Resolute, went through the rift without even knowing it and was across the galaxy and on Alpha Centauri without anything happening to them. The person who got off the ship was the same person who got on. He didn’t have a chance to learn anything or change in any way. When I see someone like Curry, bullying people like he does, I just feel sorry for him. He thinks this is all life is. Look around. This means nothing. We traveled across the galaxy to build a strip mall. It’s all fake.”
“And you think what happened to us is better? Especially what happened to you?” She argued.
“I would give anything to change what happened. To feel normal…whatever that is. You know, Mr. Sargent saw a lot of things in the war, I think. One day I was in his class and had one of my black outs. I guess he asked me a question and I just stared at him like he wasn’t even there. They told me everyone was laughing at me, so he just dismissed the class. When I came out of it, he was sitting at his computer grading papers. Normally everyone tries to talk to me, wake me up. But he just let me sit there. He understood. So when I got up to leave, he said, “Will, I know they have been prodding you, testing you, running every scan imaginable. Just know, they are trying to help. But in the end, sometimes it’s all on you. Sometimes you have to swallow the demon.’ Pretty sure he’s quoting an old dead guy.” He smiled at her, but she was just listening to him.
“So I thought about what he said for a long time. And I think he’s right. Since I can’t change what happened, I try to embrace it. On Earth, Curry would bother me. I would go out of my way to avoid him. Now? I just think, what could he possibly do to me that is worse than anything that has already been done? I embrace that and then he doesn’t even exist to me anymore.
“And we have met people—all of us on the Jupiter 2—have met people who live their lives for so much more than trying to have a good job, have a nice house, acquire more stuff.” He walked in silence for a while, but Penny remained quiet, knowing he was thinking of something more. “That’s why I feel sorry for Curry. He really hasn’t lived. We have lived. That’s the thing. If I die now, at least I’ve lived. What’s he got?”
She put her arm around him as they walked across the street and down a grassy path leading to the Jupiter 2. “You’re the oldest thirteen year old boy in the universe, little brother.”
“And besides, you never know if the Jeff Curry we see is really the Jeff Curry he’s going to be,” Will added. “Good people do bad things. He might be a good person, somewhere inside.”
“Now you’re just being Willish,” she smiled at him.
The path led through a small patch of woods until the large lake was in view. “Lake Hope,” they had named it. Penny hated the name. Maureen’s position with Alpha Control made it possible for them to locate the Jupiter on the near side of the lake, so she was closer to her job. It made it convenient for the kids to walk to school. They would be in the Jupiter for the next two years before they could move into a house. Most of the colonists were on the far side of the lake, and used Ecars to get back and forth to town. Vijay and his family were already in a house in the residential section. As the elected representative of the 24th Colonist Group, Victor was on the council so would have had an opportunity to move in to a house sooner anyway. The fact that the Jupiter 4 was still back on the Amber Planet just expedited it.
It was two hundred meters, give or take, from the woods to the Jupiter 2. It was sitting in lush green grass twenty meters from the water. It was almost evening. As they walked toward the Jupiter, Penny messaged their mom, and got a quick response. “We’re on our own, she’ll be late again. You want me to cook?”
“No, I’ll find something. Thanks though.”
Penny jumped in the shower. When she got out she looked out at the lake and Will was sitting there with his guitar. He and John had started building the “outdoor refuge” next to the lake the first month here. They had cut down trees in the patch of woods and began building a circle of furniture with a fire ring in the middle. There were to be several chairs and a couple of longer benches and a picnic table. They had finished the table and one of the benches and a chair before John took his position with Security, and he was away more and more.
Will was doing most of the work himself on weekends now if John didn’t make it home. He was gone this week to the Sand Cliffs. There was a group of deserters out there, or at least that’s where everyone thought they were. They were reservists who had signed on for four years to cover their passage to Alpha Centauri, but once here they had deserted and made their living on the black market now. Security was trying to break their ring and either get them back in the service or send them back to Earth.
Penny walked down the garage ramp to go out by Will, but instead she stopped and sat at the edge of the ramp and watched her brother’s silhouette with the lake in the background and the sun setting over the mountain range far in the distance.
At times like these, watching her brother by the lake, thinking he was unobserved as he strummed the guitar and sang haunting lyrics that were meant for a voice and a soul much older than his, Penny had such love for him it almost made her cry.
So much about her brother was different. He was still kind and compassionate, but he was quieter, more philosophical, sadder. Penny wasn’t sure he was depressed necessarily, but definitely melancholy. And he never spoke about his future. He used to be excited about everything he wanted to do, but now it was almost like he was resigned to a life and a future that he had no control over.
Penny knew that he might never get over whatever it was that happened to him on the Amber planet, and his family was sure it had caused the changes in him. But she spent more time with Will than the rest of her family, and she felt these changes had as much to do with what happened to him after they had arrived on Alpha Centauri.
When they left the Amber planet, they had hopes that Will would be able to put much of the previous year behind him and be able to be a normal thirteen year old boy, finally. They had begun to see some of his hopefulness and boyish sense of adventure return as they grew closer to Alpha Centauri after Robot brought them through the rift. But that all ended once they landed and IA got their hands on her brother.
When they had arrived on the planet, Alpha Security directed them to land the Jupiter in their secure staging area. As soon as it was on the ground, the family had gathered at the windshield of the flight deck. Don was the only one of them to have ever set foot on the planet before, and after everything that had happened, they were excited to finally be here. But this wasn’t what they expected. Dozens of armored vehicles were speeding across the field toward them. There were other vehicles encircling the entire secured enclosure, with emergency lights flashing.
“One thing about traveling with you Robinsons,” Don said. “You get the best welcoming committees.”
The Jupiter 2 was boarded by forty people in HAZMAT suits. All were heavily armed. Robot stepped in front of two men who grabbed Will, and all of the people in HAZMAT suits pointed their weapons at the family. “No!” Will told the Robot. “You can’t hurt anyone. Stay here until I come back for you.”
The hidden meaning in the boy’s words were not lost on Maureen and John. The power Will had over the Intelligence Agency was his connection with Robot. He had just ordered him to remain on the ship until Will returned safely. Both parents looked at each other and smiled. He might not be the innocent boy who had left earth, but his survival skills had definitely improved.
They were all separated immediately.
They were thoroughly questioned—debriefed—that’s the term they used. But with Will it was relentless. They kept him in quarantine for almost a month. Three weeks longer than the rest of them. While in quarantine they questioned him every day, for hours at a time. And even after he was reunited with his family, for the first month it was the same. He had to report daily to Alpha Security where he was examined by medical doctors, psychiatrists and psychologists. When John and Maureen tried to intervene there were veiled threats to send him back to Earth because of the failed test.
They said it was for security purposes as well as Will’s mental health. Will would never complain or talk about it, but Penny found him sitting by himself beside the lake one Saturday afternoon after a security officer had dropped him off following several hours of “debriefing.” It was after Judy had taken up residence at the medical facility, so she wasn’t around much, and John and Maureen were in town. It had started to rain, and Penny looked out and saw him there, sitting in the rain like he didn’t even notice it.
He had not let anyone cut his hair since Judy had found him on the planet, so it was pretty long now. Penny figured he was going through a kind of hippie phase, influenced by his friend Bob on the Amber planet, and what had happened to him.
She had walked out, and he hadn’t heard her approach. His hair was wet and plastered to his head. She saw the dime sized scar on his temple. It was perfectly round. “Will, what’s that?”
She startled him. He quickly covered the scar with his wet hair. “Will, what is it?” Then she turned his shoulder so she could see the other side of his head. She brushed his hair aside with her hand and saw an identical scar by his other temple.
She was standing above him and put her hands on his shoulders. “They did this to you, didn’t they?”
Then he started crying. She sat beside him, ignoring the rain. She put an arm around him and the two of them sat there for a while in silence, watching the rain on the lake. Finally he said, “They want to know how I connected with Robot. That’s all they care about. They aren’t trying to help me. They don’t believe me when I tell them that I don’t know how. And no matter what I say, they just keep asking the same questions over and over again. If I complain they threaten to send mom back to Earth by herself for cheating. So I just keep trying to make them happy. But how can I tell them what I don’t know?”
“What are the scars, Will?”
“Some tests they do. On my brain.”
“Will, we have to tell Dad. He thinks they’re just sending you to their doctors. That they’re trying to help you.”
“You can’t. They might send Mom back.”
“Will, listen to me. I don’t want to make you feel bad, but you’ve changed. Your personality is different. You’re so sad all the time. They need to leave you alone. I have to tell Dad. He will know what to do. I’m not going to let this keep going on, OK? I’m talking to Dad tonight.” He didn’t answer, and she took that as permission.
She told John when no one else was around. Her dad didn’t seem angry. Actually she didn’t see any emotion at all. He just said, “Thanks for telling me, Penny.” Then he got up and walked down to Will’s room. Will told her he was lying on his bed, the door open as always, when John walked in and sat beside him. He put a hand on Will’s shoulder and said, “Will, don’t worry about this anymore, OK. I’m going to have a talk with them.”
The rest of it Vijay told her:
John contacted his dad, Victor, to find out who was in charge of the interrogation. Victor said he would find out the name, but only if John took Victor with him to confront them.
The next day they went to see the officer in charge of Intelligence, a Lieutenant Simmons. His office was in the large complex at Alpha Security. Intelligence had a wing of its own. Victor had found out where Simmons was located before they went, so they wouldn’t have to leap through hoops to get in front of him.
Before they entered the building, John told Victor it might be a good idea If he waited outside and let John go in alone. Victor just said, “Probably.” He got out of the small Ecar and led John in to the building. Victor walked past the front desk and started to push open a metal door, when the lady behind the desk asked if she could help them. Victor just smiled and said, “No thanks, Representative Dhar. I’m supposed to see someone.” He pushed open the door and kept going, John following.
They passed several other stations in the same manner until they were outside Lieutenant Simmons office. John said, “I’ll go first here, Victor.” He stepped in front of him and pushed the door open.
A man who looked to be in his mid thirties was sitting behind a large metal desk. He looked up in surprise when they came in unannounced. “Um…can I help you?” He asked.
“Maybe,” John said, pleasantly. “You’re Jack Simmons?”
“I’m Lieutenant Simmons.”
“I’m John Robinson. You know my son Will.”
“I’m just here to tell you you aren’t questioning him again. It’s done.” John was standing in front of the man’s desk, Victor slightly behind him.
“Well Mr. Robinson, you don’t get to decide…”
“I get to decide everything that happens with my son.”
Simmons stood, and said pleasantly, "Mr. Robinson, maybe we got off on the wrong foot." He reached out his hand to shake, but at the same time, went for a laser pistol on his belt.
Before he could raise it, John reached over, gripped him by his lapel and pulled him across the desk, while simultaneously knocking the laser from his hand.
Two security officers had come through the door and had hand lasers pointed at John’s back. “Drop him!” One of them ordered. John had Simmons across the desk, turned on his back. John’s hands were still on the man’s lapel and he twisted them inward, applying a choke with his fists in his larynx, using just enough pressure to keep the man from fighting. Simmons was gripping John’s hands, fear in his eyes.
“Careful guys.” Victor addressed the guards, taking a step so he was between the guards and John. “Either of you have children?” They looked back at him, unsure of who he was. “John has kids. And he’s not happy about how his son’s been treated by Lieutenant Simmons here. It might be a bad time to interfere.”
“Stand down.” The voice came from the door. “John, stand down. Please.” The voice was familiar.
John turned to the door. “Bennet? When the hell did you get to Alpha Centauri?”
“I was on the 22nd Colonist Group, John.”
“I haven’t seen you since…since when?” John asked.
They heard gurgling. “John...um…” Bennet pointed toward Simmons. “He’s a decent Lieutenant. I sort of need him.”
“This piece of shit works for you?” John hadn’t let go of Simmons yet, and it looked like he was about to direct his anger toward Bennet.
“Yes, but I assure you, I don’t know what’s been going on, but I will get to the bottom of it,” Bennet said. “If you kill him there’s a lot more paper work though.”
John looked down at Simmons, then let him go.
The man stood, grabbing his throat, looking menacingly at John. John said, “If you or one of your men even look at my son again, I’m not going to see Victor or Bennet, I’m coming to see you. Understand, Lieutenant Simmons?”
In the end, John agreed to lead a security team for a year. Bennet said he could make any charges Simmons might bring against him go away, and he promised they would stay away from Will as well.
Penny, stood up from the ramp and walked toward her brother. As she got closer, she saw he had stopped singing and was just looking at his guitar. He had blacked out. The spells were coming more often now. Normally, they would try to wake him up, but she remembered what Will had said about Mr. Sargent, so she just quietly sat on the wooden chair in front of him where she could see his face and waited.
Fifteen minutes passed, then Will’s head jerked up.
Penny leaned over and put a hand on his knee. “It’s OK, Will. I’m here.”
He had a flashback of Judy saying those words to him when she found him after he had been gone for seven months. He was lying in his bed on the Jupiter 2, knowing his family was dead and he was alone. But then Judy was there, lying beside him, facing him. And she said, “it’s OK, Will. I’m here.” He suddenly felt an overpowering love for his two sisters.
His eyes were glazed, but they slowly began to focus, and he looked at Penny. “Did I do anything embarrassing?” They said he talked to himself sometimes during his spells, but he had confided in Penny that he was mortified he would lose control over his bodily functions sometime. Though it hadn’t happened yet.
Penny knew what he was asking, but she said, “No, you didn’t talk to yourself. You just looked at your guitar strings.”
Gone were the days when she picked on her little brother like a normal older sister. Now she just protected him. She would never forget sitting by his bed knowing he was dying, and then hearing him whisper, “Don’t cry, Penny.” She felt like her brother had been given back to her and she would not take that for granted.
“What were you thinking about?” Penny asked. Sometimes he could remember.
“I don’t know. It’s all blank. I’m sorry, Penny.”
“For what?” she asked.
“For being crazy, I guess.”
“Damn it, stop it, Will. You’re not crazy.”
“Yeah, I’m just…different. You know, I always looked forward to being in high school with you. My big sister the senior. Now I just embarrass you.”
“Will! You’ll never embarrass me. I’m so proud of you.”
“It’s OK, Penny. I know. I know what they say about me. It doesn’t bother me, but I feel bad for you. You were so popular back home. Now you spend all day watching after me. People still like you, but some of my weird rubs off on you if you defend me all the time.”
“If it does it’s a good thing,” she said. “Listen, Will, you’ve been through a lot. The blackouts will end.”
He didn’t say anything, just looked out at the lake. They both knew the blackouts were getting worse. Besides, it wasn’t just the blackouts. Everyone had heard of him before he got to Alpha Centauri. A lot of people thought he had saved everyone—some thought he might be to blame. But none of them understood this story about the robot.
After a while Penny said, “you were singing something before you blacked out. You said, “you carry those bruises to remind you wherever you go.’ I think those were the lines anyway. Did you write that, Will?”
“No. I wish,” He answered. “Another old dead guy.” He grinned.
“But you do, don’t you? Carry the bruises wherever you go?”
He looked past the lake toward the mountains. He was thinking of another range. So vast he could get lost in it forever. Full of life and death and promise. He remembered snow capped peaks and rain on a tent roof and a girl with piercing blue eyes. “I guess we all do,” he said. “But who wants to go through life without bruises?”
“You don’t have to worry about that, little brother.” She reached over and put her hand on his arm. When Will turned his head to look back out at the mountains and watch the sunset, Penny could see the round, dime sized indention scar by his left temple. He kept his hair long enough now it was hard to see unless you knew it was there. Penny knew it was there.
She was glad she had told her dad about what they were doing to her brother, but she couldn’t help but wonder if things were just worse for them now. Their dad was gone again, and while he might only leave for a few days at a time, it seemed like he was always getting called away on weekends or during the night for emergencies. Their mom was back to working twelve hour days, or longer. But now Robot was with her as well. They were working on some breakthrough with the alien engine that might allow them to actually build one themselves. But all Penny saw was that Will’s only friend, Robot, was almost never around anymore. Often, Will would be asleep before Maureen got home. Robot was always by his bed through the night, but would usually be gone with Maureen before the boy even woke up in the morning. As far as Penny was concerned, Will didn’t need a protector, he needed his friend.
She thought of Judy. But she didn’t really want to think of her at all. They hadn’t seen her in a month. At first, when Judy moved to the medical facility, she was home almost every night for dinner, then she would come over a few days a week. Now she always made excuses. Again, Penny worried more about Will than the rest of them. He and Judy had shared some experiences on the Amber planet that they refused to talk about. So the one person who might understand everything Will was going through didn’t have time for him.
She was just furious at Judy most of the time, but she couldn’t discuss it with Will. He refused to say anything bad about her. He would just say “Judy’s really busy. She’s saving lives. That’s more important than hanging out here.” After the Amber planet, Penny knew there was something between her brother and sister that she would never be a part of. She was fine with that. She wasn’t fine with Judy acting like she was too busy to find out how Will was or what he was going through.
She looked at her brother. “I love you Will.”
He looked back at her. “I love you too, Penny. You know. Judy and I shared a lot of things on the planet. Things we don’t talk about.”
It was uncanny how often her brother seemed to know what she was thinking these days.
“I know you feel like you’re kind of kept out of it.” He went on. “But you know you’re my always companion, right? You’re there no matter what. Back home when everyone got so busy, you were always with me. I guess like now. We share things that no one will ever know about too. But…you have a life. You have Vijay. I don’t want you to miss anything because of me.”
“I wish you cared as much about yourself as you do everyone else. I just want you to be OK, Will.”
“Me too Penny,” he smiled at her.