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The thing about Pops is that he was always so organized and prepared for things. I kept wondering why he never prepared for this. But how could he prepare for the eventuality that his grandson would have to go gallivanting off into space to search for him? That I would be sitting here, pouring over his journal filled with meaningless scribbles, trying to figure out a clue that could lead me to him.
It sounds ridiculous when I put it like that. It seems like I’m on this grand adventure with an amazing story to tell. This is just my life. If I heard any of this from anyone else I suppose it would sound like a gripping, action packed story. But for me, I’m simply scared and confused. A guy, barely old enough to call himself an adult, sitting in a borrowed space ship leafing through a journal written by my grandpa, trying to figure out where in the universe he could be. The symbols danced across the pages, mocking me.
Zo thought the scribbles were some sort of code. Shorthand, she called it. She’s read her fair share of books so I believed her. She said that shorthand had been out of date for centuries, long before voice dictation took over even. Of course it had, I thought with frustration. So how did we figure out what it meant? How did we figure any of this out?
Why is it that so many television characters seem so confident? They may mess stuff up, but they seem pretty sure of themselves as they go. Maybe they were created that way because no one enjoys the feeling of being out of control, especially when it means you have no control over your own life. And that’s how I feel, spinning out of control like a ship without navigation in deep space.
I’ve always been a pretty confident guy. Okay, okay, maybe there were those few years in school, back before I met Zo, when I was hardly confident enough to tie my own shoe laces. That was before they came out with autofitted jump boots, but I digress. All this drifting through space feeling is just bringing up my childhood. I spent plenty of time feeling lost and don’t care to feel that way as an adult.
Back then, hardly a day went by where I didn’t come home dripping in toilet water, or on especially unfortunate days when the lads didn’t want to see me washed “clean” in a swirly, blood.
I watched Zo walk around the cockpit, pacing, trying to figure out our dilemma. She knew what it was but we had no way of deciphering it. But if anyone could figure it out, it was Zo. An overwhelming feeling of gratitude washed over me that I had her. I may be feeling like I’m careening off into space unguided, but at least I’ve had Zo trying to right the ship.
I still remember the first time I met her. She was a short, slightly heavy, bespectacled nerd and the goon squad made sure to point out each of those features in mocking tones. I had seen her around, but we had never talked. The halls between classes weren’t for socializing, our tutors pointed out harshly. Though all of them turned a blind eye when Haxley and his crew of thugs jeered and shoved their way through the halls. I thought it was unfair that they got special treatment, until I realized that Haxley’s parents were the Mayoral Couple of Jango. It still wasn’t fair, but it made sense and I stopped spending time stewing about it. Though Zo never quite let it go.
While most of the thugs wouldn’t stoop to hitting a girl, mostly because they knew they would get a fine as well as detention, it didn’t stop them from verbally accosting her. The day I met her, that restraint was called into question. It had been a rough day. Our exams proctor had given a sample exam and I had failed it miserably. Our solar histories tutor caught me doodling when I should have been taking notes and took my pad away. To top it all off, I had forgotten my lunch at home and was so hungry it felt like my stomach had decided to snack on itself. As I was filing out of school with the masses, I realized I had forgotten my pad with my solar histories tutor. Once I got it, I was well behind the usual crowd I clung near in the hopes of making it home unscathed. By the time I made it to the school gates, my stomach ache had been trumped by the throbbing in my head upon realizing I would have to study all weekend for our fifth-year exams and hanging out with Pops at the docks was not going to be in the cards. "In the Stars," as Pops would say. Even at twelve I wasn’t much into Pops starry-eyed religiosity.
I had never been good at school and was dreading my weekend spent with my nose glued to my pad doing nothing but reading and highlighting passages. The gates were padlocked using retina recognition and coded with voice analyzers. I did my customary personal code, “May the Force be with you.” And glanced up at the cameras so they could clearly scan my eyes. A locker sprung open that allowed me to collect my transportation home. Students were allowed a hover scooter or bike to ride to school. My locker was empty as it always was though it opened anyways. Pops didn’t have the extra cash for stuff like that. He said he walked to school uphill both ways, in the snow- whatever that was, and I could walk one mile on smooth-paved streets on my own. It was good for me, he’d said. I slammed the locker shut and the gates swung outward. I stepped out onto the street.
I trotted down the grey street as quickly as I could. I had long legs and big feet for my age so I was rather ungainly. Though I am thankful now as it means I’m tall, back then it wasn’t exactly an advantage. Especially in moments where I needed a quick getaway. Just like I had called the trouble to me by thinking it, I heard a familiar shout from behind me.
“Oy!” It was Haxley’s top minion Krute.
I didn’t bother to turn around, I knew the sight of the jeering thugs that would greet my eyes. Looking back would only slow my escape. I ran, full out wishing desperately for a bike. It didn’t matter, Haxley had hidden out in the alley ahead of me and stepped into my path. I came to a crashing stop after colliding with his wide girth. He was four years older and already large for his age. Why it happened that bullies are always huge, and strong and impossible to get away from is beyond me. He could have beat someone up older than him; I never understood why he went after puny twelve-year-olds but I guess logic doesn’t factor into a bully’s decision-making process.
Whatever the reason, he proceeded to shove me to the ground.
“Hey twig, what’re you doing down there?” He chortled as he mocked me.
His cronies who had caught up to us snickered as if he had said something incredibly clever.
“You gonna cry?” He mocked.
The fact was, I wanted to, but I wouldn’t give him the satisfaction. I sucked it up. I had my fair share of beatings by the time I was twelve. I braced myself for a punch to the face, my palms and wrists smarting from my landing on the steel-grey road.
“Hey! You kids!” I looked up, shocked at the interruption. The librarian wasn’t exactly an intimidating man, but he was a respected member of the community and could easily share news of Haxley bullying kids to his parents. The Mayoral Couple were all about reputation and they would not be pleased to hear their only child was roughing the other kids up. Though there were always rumors, Haxley seemed to manage, despite his thick skull, to keep his behavioral issues under the radar.
Haxley was quick to pull me to my feet and brush me off, albeit a bit rougher than need be. “Oh, hello there, Mr. Wallace.”
“What are you kids doing out here?”
“Oh, we were just saying hi to our friend, Vel here. Isn’t that right?” He nudged me and I nearly stumbled with the force, but reluctantly nodded.
“They were not!” Zo stepped out from behind Mr. Wallace, face furious. “I heard them planning to jump Velik on his way home.” The look on Haxley’s face was pure rage and his fists clenched. Had Mr. Wallace not been there I doubted very seriously that the bulky oaf would remember the law about hitting girls. He collected himself faster than I thought possible.
“We would never do something like that! Velik here lost his balance and as you can see sir, I was just helping him up.” Haxley put on his greasiest smile, the one that got him out of trouble with all the tutors.
Mr. Wallace looked back at Zo. He was caught in a tough position, Haxley being the Mayors’ kid and all. He was no fool though and trusted Zo, who was in his shop daily, I learned later. “I’m inclined to believe the young lady here. Why don’t you all clear out.”
Mr. Wallace stuck around to make sure the thugs left. “Why don’t you scoot on home, kid.” He suggested. “Tell your Pops I said hi and he can keep that book as long as he likes. No one borrows real books these days anyways.”
Zo walked home with me and we had been inseparable ever since. We weren’t always lucky to have someone like the librarian around to spook Haxley, Krute and the gang, but Zo had quite the tongue on her and she found she could lash them into embarrassment in front of a crowd of kids easily. They didn’t enjoy being laughed at, so they left us alone at school, but the retaliation was often swift and brutal afterwards. When Pops finally pointed me in the direction of some weights and taught me how to throw a few punches, I never looked back. I got big enough to protect me and Zo whenever nobody was around but Haxley’s thugs. They eventually stopped messing with us, but the instinct to protect one another stayed with us.
The memory of the day washed over me as I sat in Zo’s parent’s ship. That book Mr. Wallace had mentioned, I remember seeing it. It went with Pops everywhere, except for the shop. He’d never let a book get grease on it. He never took it back to the library and Mr. Wallace never asked for it back. It finally clicked into place, I had seen it every day but never thought to commit it to memory so it hadn’t occurred to me before. It was a book on symbols in the stars and constellations. And it was sitting on Pops’ nightstand. I cursed myself for not thinking to grab it along with his journal.
I looked back at the mess of scribbles on the pages. I knew they were symbols detailing some hidden meaning in the stars, but Pops’ shorthand was making those findings impossible to fathom. I sighed in frustration and Zo looked up. The look on her face was all I needed to know that she didn’t have the answer, but she said it anyways.
“Im sorry Vel, I don’t know. I just can’t figure it out.”
I swung out of the chair and slammed my fist on the wall. Zo jumped. “I’m really sorry, Velik.”
I ignored her apology. I wasn’t mad at her, but I couldn’t speak enough to convey that yet. I bowed my head, the vent above me cascading recycled air over my head and whispering through my hair. I wanted to gag on it. That smell of air that had been pumped through a filtration system over and over again made me want to pass out or hit something. I couldn’t take it anymore.
“Land the ship.”
“But we don’t know where we-”
“Just do it, Zo!” I spoke more harshly than I meant to but I couldn’t let my anger go. Not yet. My Pops, that I spent years thinking was dead, was out there. Somewhere. Something had kept him from communicating with me for two years. Now we had all the tools in our hands to find him, but were still nowhere near being able to decipher anything. And all I could think about was the stupid air conditioning. I needed fresh air to think.
Zo brought us down to a vibrant green planet, the computers assuring us that it had plenty of fresh oxygen. The moment the hatch opened, I barreled out. Heedless of taking anything with me. Oh, how I wished I would have remembered my water skin, some food, or maybe a blanket, but most of all, my blaster pistol.