December 15, 2195
Cadet Kai Sawyer shoved his best friend against the wall and pointed a finger in his face. “Hawk, I swear if this goes sideways, I’m blaming it all on you!”
“Relax. I know what I’m doing. Besides, this was your idea.”
Sawyer shook his head. “No. I changed my mind. There’s too much to lose. You’ll only get expelled from the Academy, but my father will jettison my dead body into space if I tarnish the family name.”
“Your dad scares the bejesus out of me too, but guess what? He’s not here.”
Hawk pulled Sawyer across the dark lawn between their guest dorm at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, and the museum’s back door. The concrete paths that wove between the buildings were well lit and too conspicuous, so the cadets darted between the scattered rocket and thruster monuments until they arrived at the Pathfinder orbiter. The shuttle stack loomed over the other monuments at the centre of the museum grounds. Perched high on a pedestal, it cast a shadow they could use to their advantage.
A security guard came around Miss Baker’s grave at the front entrance of the museum. Sawyer bolted behind a nearby thruster assembly, yanking Hawk along with him. “We’re cutting it too close.”
Hawk’s laugh cut through the night.
Sawyer clapped his hand over his friend’s mouth. “You’re a dick. You want us to get caught, don’t you? You think this is funny?”
Hawk lowered Sawyer’s hand and produced a small mechanical box into which he entered a sequence of numbers Sawyer recognized.
“That’s a skeleton security code box. How the hell did you get that?” asked Sawyer. “Shit. You stole it, didn’t you?”
“How else are we supposed to get in? I’m good, but even I can’t pick the triple sequential numeric-hybrid lock code keeping us from that solar panel. You remember why you wanted to do this, don’t you? I mean, if you want to back down, I’ll tuck tail and run back to the dorm with you, but I’ll forever consider you a pussy.”
Sawyer could almost feel the cool metal of the old Hubble Telescope laying beyond the museum wall and see his morphed reflection in its shiny solar cells. It wasn’t the entire telescope, only a section of one of its solar panels. Earlier, during their Time Ranger Academy’s class tour of the museum, Sawyer had nearly jumped the barrier to touch the artifact. It wasn’t just a part of history, but a part of space history, from back when humans had barely explored their own backyard.
“Come on, let’s go. We don’t have all night, time’s ticking,” urged Hawk.
Thanks to Hawk’s ingenuity, the emergency lights of the Space Flight Museum were disabled, which meant more security at any moment if they detected the problem. If Sawyer and Hawk were going to do this, they needed to move now. My career as a Time Ranger could end tonight, Sawyer thought. I could end up a freaking Space Fleet Regular. Is it worth the risk to touch a damn solar panel?
Sawyer drummed his fingers on the monument. A panel that’s seen further into the galaxy than any ship or probe known to man and survived to tell the tale? Hell yeah, I want to touch it. “All right. Let’s do this.”
They slipped out from behind the giant thruster into the cool December night and raced across the expansive lawn until they reached the museum’s back door. As a Spawn, a genetically enhanced human with exceptional stamina, speed, strength, and chosen genetics, Sawyer had expended little energy running across the lawn, and he leaned, calm and smug, against the wall as Hawk panted beside him. “Took that much out of ya, did it?” mocked Sawyer. “I thought you were in great shape?”
Hawk frowned. “Spawn-ass. Just because you’re a super freak, it doesn’t mean you get to belittle us regular humans.”
“Yeah, it does.” Sawyer pushed off the wall and crouched at the back door. “Here, let me do it.” His excitement got the better of him now that they were within range of their target, so when Hawk passed him the decoder, Sawyer nearly dropped it on the ground.
“Your damn hands are shaking so much you’ll probably set off the alarms instead of disabling them.” Hawk snatched the decoder back and pushed Sawyer aside. Moments later, the door popped open and they stood inside the dark, quiet museum. “Now get moving before security shows up.”
Sawyer led them down the back corridor into the main body of the museum, where they entered a room as large as a football field. Sawyer looked up at the rafted ceiling twenty feet above them, then surveyed the Apollo capsules on his left with their archaic push-button controls and cramped quarters. Scattered on almost every nanometre of wall hung images of Earth’s early astronauts with their tiny heads atop their bulky space suits. Moon landers and Saturn probes, the first faster-than-light engine, and a replica of the ship Dr. Langdon Jackson used to explore Earth’s main asteroid belt filled the room with not only steel, ceramics, and fibreglass, but history. “One day, we might actually get to see all this firsthand.”
“Not if we get caught.”
Sawyer crept deeper into the centre of the museum until Hawk grabbed his arm. “Hey, did you hear that?” whispered Hawk.
Sawyer shook his head, barely listening as he stared up at the seven-foot-tall panel display. Any light shone upon its silicon solar cells, whether moonlight breaking through an upper window or the glowing interface of a decoder, reflected back at him like a lighthouse guiding astronauts to safety.
“I swear I heard something. Maybe this was a bad idea.”
“No, this was a fucking fantastic idea.” Sawyer shrugged him off and stepped closer to the barrier poles protecting the historical artifact, their alarm system now turned off thanks to Hawk’s stolen security code.
Sawyer drew closer to the panel, his attention scope-locked. The Academy’s commandant, with them during the earlier tour, had warned them all not to touch anything. Sawyer had obeyed like he always did, but he didn’t care about rules when he was this close to touching a piece of space history.
His fingers grazed the cool, smooth panel, and for the first time in his life he felt connected to something bigger than himself. Even bigger than his family name. When he closed his eyes, he no longer stood in the closed museum but was floating in space looking out into the cosmos. He was looking deep into the history of the universe like Hubble had done over a century ago. Sawyer felt alive. Free.
Space and time; that’s what this panel represented. The ultimate mysteries of humankind. He turned to Hawk to share his epiphany and found him several feet away peering around Sputnik into the dark recesses of the museum display floor. “Hey, Hawk.”
Hawk crouched and pushed his back against the Russian satellite. He held a finger to his mouth then made a fist.
Squeak. Squeak. Squeak. Sounds of boots walking across a polished floor grew louder.
Sawyer dropped prone, crawled to Hawk’s position, and pulled himself up beside him. Sawyer risked a glance around the corner, where he saw a security guard now standing between them and the back door. Sawyer estimated the guard stood an easy six-foot-four-inches tall to his own six-one. He weighed two hundred and seventy pounds to his own lean one-ninety. And evidently the guard had eaten too many donuts working the graveyard shift. “No problem,” Sawyer said with a shrug.
“Maybe no problem for you, Spawn-Ass, but for me he’s more than enough.” Hawk leaned his head back and closed his eyes. “Shit, dude. I can’t handle getting expelled. I’ll end up here on Earth working at my uncle’s crappy wind farm. And that’s after I get released from prison.”
Sawyer scanned the room for an egress, knowing he could outrun both Hawk and the guard, then noticed his friend’s dour expression. Hawk’s confidence had shattered in an unprecedented moment, which bothered Sawyer more than he thought it could.
“Fuck it.” Sawyer sprang up and ran for the door on the far side of the room, sending a barrier pole crashing to the ground to create a distraction for Hawk to escape. But as the distance between Sawyer and the security guard widened, it dawned on Sawyer that he might actually be able to save himself as well.
Sawyer picked up his speed, turned a corner too fast, and stumbled over a display stand. Before he got his feet back under him, the hulking mass of the security guard landed on his back, propelling Sawyer to the ground where he smacked his face against the marble floor. The taste of blood on his lip ignited his anger, but his father’s number-one rule screamed in his head: keep calm and control yourself. Sawyer swallowed down his urge to retaliate, rolled over, and shoved the security guard off him. When Sawyer was on his feet and ready to sprint for the door again, the guard grabbed his ankle, toppling Sawyer back down to the hard floor.
Sawyer kicked and wrenched his ankle free from the guard’s grasp. “I will end you right now if you touch me again!”
The guard stood and hauled Sawyer to his feet by the lapels of his uniform. “Get your ass …”
An image of his father flashed in his head. He stood in front of Sawyer like the guard was now, angry and ready to swing. Sawyer couldn’t shake the image, couldn’t stop his instincts from protecting himself, and his fist landed in the middle of the guard’s face. As blood poured from the guard’s now crooked nose, he reached again for Sawyer, who punched him, again and again, and didn’t stop until Hawk’s arms wrapped around his chest and yanked him back.
“Whoa, Sawyer … you’re gonna kill him.”
Chest heaving, Sawyer looked down at the guard’s bloody face where he lay unconscious on the floor. Sawyer’s eyes ticked away for a moment then settled back on the carnage he’d created as guilt and fear battled for control of his nerves. “He touched me, Hawk. He fucking touched me. It was like my father was standing there … he was going to … I couldn’t stop myself.”
“I know.” Hawk held out his hands as if Sawyer were about to fall over. “It’s okay. It’s over. Let’s just get out of here. It wasn’t your dad, so let’s get him some help …”
Eye-searing pain forced Sawyer’s eyelids shut as the museum’s overhead lights bathed the room in a harsh white glow. Security guards surrounded him and Hawk from all directions. Sawyer hung his head and slowly raised his arms in the air, unsure what scared him more—what he’d just done to the security guard, or the beating he would receive from his father.