The next morning, Jalen woke early. The sun was barely up but he threw back the covers anyway. Anticipation for the day ahead wouldn't let him linger in bed. After a quick shower, he took a look at his data pad. According to his newly uploaded schedule, he didn't have any physical requirements for the first half of the day, so he dressed in the uniform he'd been issued: black pants with a large cargo pocket on the side of each thigh, perfectly sized for his data pad, and a short-sleeved black button-down shirt with red epaulets and red piping alongside the buttons.
He clipped his name badge to his left breast pocket, just below the Beals logo. Above it he pinned the silver wings which identified him as a member of the Air Force. There was no hat for the Beals Corp uniform, so once he had his black shoes on and laced, Jalen left the room. The door slid shut behind him with a smooth, nearly silent hiss.
Others on his hallway were leaving as well, and he joined the loose crowd of people heading down to the first-floor dining hall where they'd eaten dinner the night before. The food there was served school cafeteria style, with multiple stations set up so that the lines didn't grow too long. Jalen moved along the second station, indicating to the friendly servers which dishes he wanted until he had a plate piled high with scrambled eggs, bacon, toast, and cantaloupe. Once he had a tall glass of ice water balanced on his tray, he looked around for a place to sit and eat. He was about to pick whichever table was closest with an empty seat when he spotted an arm waving on the other side of the bustling room.
It was Shane, signaling him to come and join him. With a smile, Jalen headed toward his friend.
"Good morning," Shane greeted him.
"Morning. This is a nice breakfast nook," Jalen said as he sat down. The sun had set by the time yesterday's presentation concluded, so he hadn't grasped the full beauty of the glass enclosed room while eating dinner. Although last night the space was impressive with the night sky and twinkling star lights visible in the huge skylight overhead, today they saw misty gray skies above, the near black of the forest stretching behind them, and of course the jagged peak of Mount Hood far in the distance.
A man in a cart drove alongside the wall of windows, spraying the roses as he went. Jalen assumed it was with the patented Beals Corp fertilizer, manufactured to be safe for the environment, while increasing the size and bounty of crops to levels that made plants and vegetables from centuries ago look like stunted cast offs.
Shane laughed. "I keep waiting for someone to pop up and say they spared no expense." He took a drink of his orange juice, neatly wiping his mouth before continuing. "Sorry I didn't find you last night to see how your physical went. I fell asleep as soon as I returned from my own. You'd think I'd be up late due to the time change, but too many all-nighters preparing for this program must have taken their toll."
"It went well. Nothing abnormal and I was sorted into Class O. A lab tech said I was perfect for it but got prickly when I asked what that meant." Jalen chewed and swallowed a bite of bacon. It was crisp, just the way he liked it.
"That information is classified," Shane said with a nod.
"You sound like you have practice saying that to a few squids." Jalen got a shrug from his friend for an answer, amusement gleaming in Shane's leaf green eyes. "So, what's your classification?"
"Class B. And I don't have a clue what it means either."
"Maybe we'll find out more this morning. I have another medical appointment scheduled at 0800 in Lab G to receive that shadowy enhancement we signed off on yesterday."
"So do I. I think at the same time and location." Shane pulled out his data pad, swiping to get to the correct screen. "Yep, Lab G, at 0800."
"Cool, we can go together then," Jalen said. They finished their breakfast, catching up on more of their lives as they ate. Truthfully, there wasn't too much they didn't already know, as they'd kept in contact with each other once they'd gone their separate ways after military school. And that contact had increased over the past year as they'd applied and taken the steps to gain entry to the Beals Space Exploration Program. But texting and video chats weren't the same as being in person, so Jalen was glad of the chance to catch up with his friend.
As they talked, he couldn't help but take notice of all the ways Shane had changed over the years. He'd always been big, it was why he'd been a fullback tasked with protecting Jalen when they'd played football together. But the youthfulness from those long-ago days had vanished completely. His jaw was clean shaven, square and hard, as though he was already determined about something at 0730.
Full, deep-pink lips drew Jalen's eye again and again as they talked, their sensual fullness an interesting contrast against Shane's authoritative way of speaking. As he'd risen through the Navy ranks, he'd adopted one of the more relaxed military hair styles, cut low on the sides and slightly longer on the top with a side part. The color was still the rich brown Jalen remembered, while his skin glowed tan from the Hawaiian sun.
Shane's face had definitely matured but it was his body that had changed the most. The black material of the Beals uniform top clung to Shane's torso, clearly outlining the defined muscles of his chest. His shoulders were so broad, arms so thick with muscles, Jalen didn't know how he'd come in under the maximum size requirement to become a Navy pilot. Maybe they'd had a special, extra-large cock pit made just for him. That thought made Jalen laugh to himself, but some of his amusement must have shown on his face because Shane looked at him with an eyebrow raised in question.
Jalen ate his last bite of buttered toast and shook his head. "Just laughing at an inside joke. Are you ready?"
"Yep. Let's go."
They rose together, and after depositing their trays on the collection carousel, headed down the hall to Lab G. So far everything they'd seen at Beals Corporation had been smooth. However, when they arrived at their destination, there was a small commotion underway. One of the program recruits stood just inside the doorway, feet planted wide and fists tightly clenched as he loudly argued with the med staff. Security guards stood nearby, close enough to keep things from escalating, but thus far not interfering.
"I don't care what form I signed!" The recruit shouted at the anxious looking group of lab techs. "I'm not agreeing to let you inject me with anything without more information on exactly what you're putting into my body." He crossed his arms over his chest and glared.
The dark-haired woman Jalen remembered from yesterday as Dr. Bakshi approached, the little knot of lab coats parting to allow her to stand in front of the angry man. Her response to him was quiet yet firm.
"Mr. Sobelman. If you don't agree to the injection, you cannot remain in the program. All of your access will be revoked. You'll be removed from campus and escorted to the hotel for those who don't pass the requirements, where you'll be sequestered until the recruitment period is over. In addition, you won't be allowed to rejoin the program in the future. Do you understand?"
Tense silence stretched as they all waited for Sobelman to make his decision. He answered by yanking his ID badge off his shirt.
"Fine. Revoke my access."
Dr. Bakshi pursed her lips before accepting the badge and nodding at the two guards. They stepped up, one moving to grasp the now former recruit by his elbow.
"Don't touch me," Sobelman snapped. He uncrossed his arms, pushed his shaggy brown hair back from his forehead, then spun around and walked out with the two guards trailing closely behind.
When the trio passed by, Jalen stood stiffly, keeping his eyes locked straight ahead. Once they were out of sight around the corner, Dr. Bakshi turned to face Jalen and Shane. Jalen expected to see her flustered after the incident, but she looked as calm as though she'd just had a soothing cup of tea.
"I'm sorry you had to see that upon your arrival, gentleman," she said.
"No problem, ma'am," Jalen replied as he relaxed his stance.
She smiled at them both then walked away. As her soft soled footsteps disappeared around a corner, a relieved looking lab assistant came over to lead Shane and Jalen to neighboring stations. Each one had a cot and a small rolling medical cart next to it. A long countertop with built-in cabinets beneath it ran nearly the entire length of the room. Everything was shiny and white, the overhead lights so bright they nearly gave Jalen a headache. Of course, the headache teasing at his temples could also be from nervousness over what was about to happen, but Jalen resolutely pushed his worry about it to the back of his mind.
He sat down on his cot, Shane doing the same next to him. Once they were settled atop the small beds covered in waxy, white paper, their shirts removed and folded across their laps, their vitals were checked and recorded by their assigned med techs. Jalen's swiped to a new page on her data pad.
"Okay, Captain Morgan. It says here you're Class O. Our first today," she said with a pleased smile.
The tech's tone and pleased expression came across as though Jalen was a puppy who'd just performed an adorable trick. Jalen didn't love the way that made him feel, but he kept his questions behind his teeth as ECG electrodes were pressed to his chest. Eventually, someone was going to tell them what the classifications were. He just had to be patient.
The tech entered a code on the cabinet's keypad lock, then pressed one of three buttons on the countertop. As Jalen had come to expect by now, the button was labeled with a glowing red O. A lock clicked and the tech opened one of the small cabinet doors. Dry ice rolled out, indicating that whatever was stored inside needed to be kept very cold. When the fog cleared, Jalen saw several syringes stored upright in a metal rack. The fluid in each was clear with a light blue tinge and appeared slightly gelatinous.
The tech snapped on a pair of gloves before selecting one of the syringes. "This will pinch just like any other shot. After which, you'll feel a cool sensation in your arm as the enhancement enters your bloodstream. It will last for a few minutes. Make a fist, please."
Jalen balled his fingers up into a fist, squeezing slightly to help raise his veins as the tech tied a bit of rubber tubing around his arm. The tech gently rubbed a spot on his inner elbow with an alcohol-soaked pad, then with practiced efficiency she snapped off the tube and slowly injected the blue liquid in Jalen's vein. Cold flowed up his arm, from the injection site, all the way up his bicep until the sensation pooled under the skin where his throat met his shoulder. The feeling lingered for a good thirty seconds before it slowly started fading away. Nothing else happened. The assistant alternated between eyeing the monitor Jalen was hooked up to and closely watching Jalen himself.
"Okay." She noted something on her pad. "I just need you to sit for a bit so we can continue monitoring you. If everything checks out, you'll be good to go. I'll come and let you know when you're done."
After she left, Jalen looked over to Shane, whose tech had already stepped away. "How are you doing over there?"
"I feel fine." Shane paused, then looked around and lowered his voice before continuing. "It's strange they won't just say what this enhancement is. I'm sure the guy we saw coming in isn't the only one who wants to know more about it. A little information might alleviate issues like his abrupt departure."
"It's probably something to protect against any illnesses we might be exposed to," Jalen said with an unconcerned shrug. "Or maybe we're about to be turned into an army of space Banes."
Shane barked a laugh that he quickly hushed when an attendant across the room looked at them with a frown. "I'd rather not be turned into a genetically mutated villain," he said in an amused, yet quiet tone.
"I'm sure we're not. But if you start noticing your strength rapidly increasing, start worrying."
* * *
As they lay there with monitors beeping, Shane softly laughed at Jalen's dry humor. He'd always cared for Jalen, more than he'd publicly expressed. To go through this experience with him felt right, as though the years apart were simply necessary filler to get them to this point. After all, how many people grew up together with the shared goal of becoming astronauts, then twenty years later were actually in a position where it was close to happening? Not many.
They'd taken separate paths, Jalen as an Air Force fighter pilot, Shane flying in the Navy, but they'd ended up here, in this lab, laying on cots next to each other as Beals Corp dosed them with a medical enhancement that would help them stave off the effects of prolonged space travel. Shane didn't recall ever having used the word fate to describe anything in his life, but this, here and now with Jalen, certainly felt like fate was involved.
Putting thoughts of fate aside, Shane looked down at his arm, where a cotton ball was bandaged over the spot where the needle had pierced his skin. The injection had been cool as it entered his blood stream, ending with a tingle just above his collar bone, but other than that he'd barely noticed it. Now he just had to wait for the med staff to release him.
It wasn't long before the lab tech came back. He checked the monitor of the machine Shane was hooked up to, then gave him the all clear to sit up.
"While I was gone I did a double check to make sure you were supposed to receive a Class B injection," the tech said as he quickly typed on his data pad. "But it looks like everything is in order."
Shane didn't bother to ask what the classifications meant since Jalen had already reported he'd been shut down when he brought it up. So, he just smiled politely as he sat there waiting for the tech to finish typing and remove his electrodes. Shane did a quick check-in with his body. He didn't notice anything odd or different or experience any dizziness. He'd almost wonder if he'd been selected to receive a placebo for whatever they were testing, if his non-reaction hadn't been what the med staff seemed to expect.
Paper crinkled as Jalen slid off the cot next to him. Shane rose too, and they stood there facing each other with less than four feet of space between them as they drew on their shirts. Shane had to make a focused effort to keep his eyes off the strip of smooth brown skin rapidly disappearing behind buttoned black cloth.
"What's up for you next?" he asked his friend.
"I've got time in the flight simulator scheduled. Apparently after the first few tests, they'll determine what class pilot we'll become. I'm aiming for fighter class of course. I figure if hurtling through the skies is a rush, doing it in space has to be even more intense. And if I ever fight in an actual space battle, I will consider my life peak perfect," Jalen said with an excited grin tugging at his lips. "How 'bout you?"
"I'm off to the Zero G chamber."
Jalen's brow shot up. "It's a good thing those injections didn't have any side effects. Can you imagine doing weightless training if you were already feeling woozy?"
Shane mock shuddered at the thought of it. "I'd rather not," he said as they left the lab together. When they reached the end of the hall, they stopped.
"Good luck on your first training."
"You too." Another grin flashed across Jalen's handsome face. "If I find out you vomited I'll never let you live it down."
Shane laughed, and after a quick handshake, they went their separate ways. Shane scanned the map mounted at the corner of the hallway to make sure he was on the right path. He was looking forward to this training. An actual Zero Gravity chamber was a relatively new technology, only put into use in the last seventy-five years, and developed by Beals Corp of course. Beals had created what was previously thought to be impossible. Prior to their invention, weightlessness could only be achieved in flight doing parabolic arcs. Still, this new technology was expensive, and most programs utilized water walks for their zero-gravity training.
Shane was the first to arrive at the designated area. As he waited, he looked around. There was a small control station podium, another medical cart, this one large enough to have three separate monitors, three chairs, and what looked like elevator doors to his right.
Shane was mentally going over what he'd read about the Beals zero gravity technology when a tall man approached. With his hair buzzed down to a burr and his precise bearing, he was obviously military. Since the recruits were all dressed in the black Beals Corp uniform, Shane had to look to the familiar globe, eagle, and anchor symbol to confirm he was a Marine. He noted the man's eyes drop to take in the Navy emblem pinned to his own chest.
They nodded in greeting, quickly sizing each other up. Small talk about their first day on campus was exchanged, but before they could discuss anything else, the third recruit arrived. He didn't have a military emblem pinned to his chest, which effectively marked him as a civilian. The Beals staff member in charge of running the unit showed up on the heels of the civilian.
He quickly checked their ID badges to verify they were present at the correctly scheduled time. Once the staff member finished, the civilian asked a question.
"Why are we starting off with the Zero G chamber? Shouldn't that be something we work our way up to while practicing water walks? Or does Beals consider that an outdated methodology?"
The staff member responded with a smile. "Not at all. We have a water walk pool facility here and those who advance in the program will spend time training underwater. However, in order to quickly weed out those unsuited for space travel, we're using the chamber to test initial reactions."
Shane thought that was a little odd but apparently his armed forces brother didn't agree.
"Quiet before they change their minds. I want to float," the Marine said with a cocky grin.
Shane felt a flicker of something, that gave him a hint that the Marine hid a small bit of nervousness beneath his excitement. But before Shane could fully grasp that feeling, it disappeared.
The assistant started running down the instructions. They were to stand against the wall and hold the hand rail while the red light was on. Once the green light clicked on, they would be able to move about freely. At the yellow light, they would be given thirty seconds to make their way back to the wall to prepare for the "return of gravity" to the chamber. He explained the physical sensations they would experience and concluded with assuring them they would be monitored with video and sound, and the training would stop if anyone experienced extreme duress.
The three of them shook their heads so the assistant pressed a button on his stand. The door slid open, moving heavy and slow in their tracks.
Feeling like he was entering an amusement park ride, Shane followed the other two into the chamber. It was a fairly small space, slightly longer and wider than a full-size van, with walls padded for safety. He claimed a spot on the wall, gripped the bar, drew in a deep breath through his nose, let it out slowly and waited. After a few moments of quiet anticipation, there was a deep hum. With his back against the wall, the sound vibrated in Shane's chest then rose in pitch until it was a barely perceptible whine.
His body sensed that the chamber was rapidly spinning and rising, even though nothing around him appeared to move. It was a near sickening feeling. His muscles wanted to clench up and reject the disparate sensations between what his body felt and what his eyes saw. But he stayed calm, keeping his eyes open because he knew it would make the sensation worse if he closed them. He'd gone up in the Vomit Comet before. The first time he'd lost his lunch, but after that he'd learned to handle it. He put that knowledge to use now.
Focusing straight ahead, he watched the red light. It changed to green a millisecond before his stomach lifted slightly. The feeling was akin to the surge when an elevator descended floors. Shane didn't recoil or fight it. He relaxed his muscles and took another deep breath. As he did so, his feet left the floor. Heels first, then toes lingering before he slowly floated up into the air. Shane grinned, pushing off the wall so he could drift across the room. It wasn't space, but it was a damn close step and he was lucky to experience this technology.
Unfortunately, his chamber mates weren't doing as well as him. The meaty Marine repeatedly cursed with one breath then apologized for his language on the next. The civilian looked to be adversely feeling the effects as well. He moaned, head hanging low on his neck, with an arm braced across his stomach in the familiar pose of someone who was fighting not to vomit. Shane stepped up and took control of the situation. He wanted to help his fellow recruits, but he also didn't want to have someone else's puke floating at his face.
"Stay calm, men. Relax. Breathe. You'll adjust." The civilian squeezed his eyes shut. "Eyes open." Shane commanded. The guy's eyes immediately popped wide open at the order. "Stay aware of your surroundings, allow yourself to accept the weightlessness, don't fight it. And keep breathing," he said as he patiently coached them through their time in zero gravity. The Marine got himself together first and eventually, the civilian did as well, until the three of them were all floating along with smiles on their faces.
The Marine folded his hands behind his head. "Can't wait to tell my wife about this. Of course, I'll leave out the parts about the cursing and near vomit."
Everyone laughed just as the light above them glowed yellow. Groaning in disappointment, they made their slow, drifting way across the room to grab hold of the handles on the wall. A few seconds after they were secure, the red light clicked on and Shane landed hard, both feet hitting the ground with a jarring impact that clacked his teeth together.
"Their technology could use a little work on the landing," he good-naturedly groused as he worked his jaw back and forth.
The doors slowly re-opened and the three of them stepped out of the chamber. Shane had a moment of vertigo before his balance returned. Two more staff members had arrived as each of them had to have their vitals checked before they were released.
"You all did great. Especially you, Commander Thomas," the first staff member said. "Nice work calming everyone down."
Shane nodded in acceptance of the compliment but didn't make a big deal of it. He'd simply done what needed to be done. Once he was dismissed, Shane started off down the hallway. When he reached the juncture where he could go right or left, he started to go right, but something pulled at him to go left instead. Following his instinct, he turned left and immediately ran into Jalen.
"Hey," he said with some surprise. "How was the flight simulator?"
"Pretty damn close to being up in the sky. The tech here is amazing. Now I'm even more excited to get out there and fly one of their real birds."
"Cool your jets, Captain. You've got several weeks’ worth of tests and training to pass first."
Jalen smiled, his dark eyes sparkling as excited happiness radiated from him.
“I'm not worried. I'll ace every one of their tests."
"I don't doubt it." As Shane smiled down at his friend, a warm, tantalizing scent teased his nose. He looked up, expecting to see someone approaching with a plate of baked goods or something, as odd as that would be. But there was no one there. Jalen drew his attention again.
"I'd better get going. I've got some pen and paper type classes to get to."
"Okay, see you later," Shane answered somewhat distractedly.
Jalen continued on down the hall, and before Shane could determine the source of that wonderful smell, it faded away.
PREV - NEXT
Author Note: Oooh, a mysterious injection! I wonder what it could be? ;-) The lab scene where Shane and Jalen were laying on cots next to each other was inspired by a scene from Firestarter - one of my favorite movies when I was a kid. If you've seen it, you probably know the scene.
For the Zero G chamber, it played out in my not at all an engineer or scientist brain as a combination of a rapidly descending elevator and the Tom's Twister, a ride we had a Six Flags St. Louis. It has other names at different parks, but it's the one where it spins really fast, and the floor sinks away while the motion of the ride keeps you against the wall. Has anyone ridden a version of that? I did as a teen. I got off, stumbled to the side and lost my lunch in the bushes. Won't be riding that one again!
Next chapter posts next Sunday. =)
Thank you for reading and let me know what you think in the comments!
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Childhood friends Jalen Morgan and Shane Thomas have long dreamed of becoming astronauts. They've worked hard to reach their goal, and now thanks to the Beals Corporation Space Exploration Program, they have a real chance of making it. But the Beals Corporation hasn't shared the full truth of the program with its eager recruits.
Circumstances bring Shane and Jalen together in a way they never expected, a night of passion hotter than the brightest star. But can they trust their recently revealed feelings?
April - 2774 A.D.
Shane Thomas sat on a private bus with about fifty other high-level military personnel and talented civilians, riding to a special, new campus for the Beals Corporation. Tiredness from the five-hour flight from Honolulu to Portland tried to pull his shoulders down into a slump, but the excitement buzzing just under his skin kept him alert. Everyone on this bus, as well as the people on the other four buses in their caravan, had been selected to participate in an amazing opportunity. The military had granted all participants leave for the duration, while Beals Corporation had generously paid three-month salaries for all recruits. With that kind of money at play, Shane knew this was a serious undertaking - not just an experiment.
He looked out the window as the bus slowed and turned off the main highway. The long, curving drive to the campus was lined with trees, so many he couldn't see beyond them to the building yet. Mount Hood stood far off in the distance but still dominated the horizon. He caught glimpses of sunshine sparkling on glass over the tree tops. Finally, they were close enough for him to see the entire campus. The lane widened and the trees parted, revealing a tall, gold glassed building with wings on each side. A smaller tower rose behind it, connected to the main building by a glass walled skybridge. The bus stopped in a huge circular driveway with a fountain in the center, behind another bus that had pulled up moments before them.
"We have arrived," the driver said in the tone of a showman unveiling a majestic wonder.
The dramatics weren't unfounded, Shane thought as he looked over the beautiful campus. Huge beds of red roses fronted the main building on either side of the doors. The center fountain also had a raised bed of roses surrounding it. Castoff drops from the water's spray sparkled on the deep-red petals of the flowers. There was an impressive statue in the middle of the gentle arcs of water, a stylized space ship crafted from bronze, with the Beals name and logo emblazoned on the side, blasting into the sky. Mount Hood served as the perfect backdrop, towering above the forest of pine trees behind the campus, its peak still white with snow. And the setting sun cast its rays over the entire scene, turning the gold glass building into a blazing beacon in the center of it all.
With the bus stopped, recruits were on their feet and slowly moving down the aisle. Shane sat in the middle, so he waited until most of the people in front of him had exited before standing to leave himself. He stepped out onto the red bricked drive, taking a moment to let it settle what he was there to do. This was it, his chance to achieve a lifelong dream. He planned to do everything in his power to make sure he was successful. Shane went to retrieve his duffel bag from the bus's luggage compartment. He'd just slung the straps over his shoulder when a third bus drove up. It parked with a hiss of brakes and one of the first people to step out brought an immediate smile to Shane's face.
"Jalen!" he called out.
The young airman turned at the sound of his name, smiling when he saw Shane. He waved, then signaled he was going to get his bag. Shane waited, happy to see his friend. Jalen's arrival wasn't a surprise since they'd applied to the program together, discussed the process several times over the past year and a half, and celebrated when they'd both been selected. But seeing him immediately upon his arrival felt like a good sign.
Once Jalen had his bag in hand, he crossed the courtyard to Shane. He looked good in his Air Force uniform. Although he'd filled out from the lanky teenager who'd first worn it, Jalen was still slim, and he hadn't gained much in height either. But Shane knew from their days playing football in military school that his small build hid explosive power and speed. His face was the same as Shane saw on their rare video chats, smooth light-brown skin, military-short black hair, full lips that easily parted in a charming grin, defined jaw and high cheekbones that had made him a legit poster boy for Air Force recruitment, and dark eyes that sparkled with life and happiness. For a wistful second, Shane wished all of that happiness was for him, rather than the adventure they were about to embark on. That wasn't even remotely true, but he'd settle for the fact that at least some of Jalen's happiness was for him. They met next to the fountain, greeting each other with a warm handshake that turned into a quick one-armed hug.
"It's been too long, Lieutenant Commander Thomas," Jalen said as they parted.
Shane grinned at the use of his newly achieved rank. "I don't make it over to the mainland nearly as much as I'd like. How's your family?"
"My parents are doing well. They made it back from a cruise of the Mediterranean just in time to say goodbye. And the twins are finishing up their last year of residency at Dallas Mercy Hospital. What's Big Shane up to?"
The childhood nickname for his dad brought a fond laugh. When they were kids, Shane Thomas, Sr. had seemed like the biggest man alive. Now, at six-foot-two and a muscular two-hundred-twenty-two pounds, Shane matched his father in height and weight, but the nickname had stuck. "He's doing well. Churning out the best cadets in the country. And his azaleas win prizes every spring."
"That's great to hear."
With the catch up on family news out of the way, both men turned and looked at the huge, golden building in front of them.
"Are you ready for this?" Shane asked his friend.
Jalen adjusted the strap of his duffle bag, hitching it higher on his shoulder. "Ready for a chance to go into space? You know I am."
"I see things haven't changed much," Shane teased.
"One goal, Thomas. That's all I've ever had. And you were right there with me, dreaming of the same thing: becoming an astronaut."
"You're right and my goal hasn't changed either. Come on, let's go."
They crossed the drive, queuing up with the rest of the arrivals to enter through one of the three double doors opened to welcome the crowd. Just inside, employees in khaki slacks and dark gray turtlenecks with glowing-red name tags pinned over their left breast moved around the large lobby, guiding the recruits.
"Any check-in point is fine, please join the shortest queue."
Shane and Jalen stayed together and went toward the table in the center. The set up was in keeping with the grandeur they'd already seen. Rather than using a plain folding table stacked with cardboard boxes and file folders as the military was wont to do in situations like this, Beals Corp had gone all out and created mini-office spaces.
Each station had a desk with a burnished gold metallic base and cream marble top. A state of the art computer sat atop it, and knotted pine shelving units stacked with plastic wrapped bundles stood behind it. At their selected station, the attendant was also dressed in one of the dark gray turtlenecks, and he sat in a coffee colored leather chair. Straight black hair brushed his collar and the name tag pinned to his shirt read Luke. When they reached the head of the line, Shane stepped up first.
"Good evening, and welcome to the Beals Corporation Space Exploration Program. Your name, please?"
"United States Navy Lieutenant Commander, Shane Thomas."
The attendant rapidly tapped through his touch screen computer. When he finished, a plastic ID badge with Shane's picture, name, and Beals Corporation Space Exploration Program Recruit slid out from a small black machine. Luke attached a clip to it and held the badge out to Shane. "Okay, sir. Here is your Beals identification. All of your information is keyed onto it. You can use this badge for all entry points where you have clearance, and it's also the key to your room. Just hold it over the red sensor to gain entry." He spun around in his chair to grab a shrink-wrapped package from one of the shelves. Another quick spin had him facing Shane again. "Here are your uniforms, according to the sizes you submitted. If your measurements have changed and something doesn't fit, please let us know and we'll provide you with new uniforms."
Shane accepted the package, impressed with Beals's efficiency.
"And last, your data pad."
Luke handed Shane a sleek, gold electronic tablet. It was slightly bigger than his hand, and nearly as slim as a credit card.
"This is to be on your person at all times. It has your schedule for the first week already entered. Any new information will be uploaded to it daily, so please check it first thing in the morning. Your personal identification number opens your room and unlocks your data pad. Please memorize it and don't share it with anyone. You'll be given a guest code for your room if you request it."
Shane's eyebrows rose at that. Was that tacit approval for fraternization? he wondered to himself.
"Please place your luggage on the cart," Luke said, indicating the half-full mobile luggage cart to his right.
Shane followed the instruction, then watched as Luke scanned a tag then clipped it to the straps of his duffle bag.
"Thank you. Your belongings will be taken to your room." Finished with Shane's check-in, Luke folded his hands together on the marble desk top.
"I'm impressed we've got private rooms," Shane said.
"Beals Corporation only provides the best." This was stated in a slightly admonishing tone, with Luke's nose slightly tilting up in the air.
Shane and Jalen exchanged a quick glance before Shane stepped to the side to allow Jalen to go through the check-in process as well. A few minutes later he finished, and they followed the crowd into an auditorium. A pleasant voice coming from hidden loudspeakers floated over the milling crowd.
Welcome to Beals Corporation. Please be seated. The presentation will begin shortly.
By now it wasn't a surprise to see how nice the auditorium was. It wasn't opulent like a theater to showcase the fine arts. But it was sleek, immaculately clean, and boasted cushioned seats wide enough to be comfortable for someone of Shane's size. Spotlights shone down on a currently empty stage with a glossy black floor.
Shane led the way to seats halfway down the aisle. He and Jalen sat down next to each other, quietly discussing what they'd seen so far while the auditorium filled up. About five minutes after they sat down, the lights dimmed and a giant screen descended from the ceiling above the stage. A presentation began, with a deep voice rolling out from speakers all over the room.
Beals Corporation. Unparalleled leader in developing technology to make our planet a better place. Number one in exploring the majestic black and bright stars of space.
Pictures flashed on the screen of all the innovations of Beals Corp over the last three hundred years, set to a soundtrack of fast-paced, triumphant music. Prosthetics that connected to the patient's neural pathways, allowing the manufactured limb to function just like a biological one. Planes that flew at speeds that shortened the duration of a cross country flight by half, without being so overpriced that only the very rich could afford it. A dramatic shot of Beals Explorer Eight, a space ship that had traveled farther than any before it, rising into the air, a cloud of afterburn leaving a trail of fire against the dawn sky. The astronauts aboard had been lauded as heroes when they returned, although some had fallen ill due to the effects of prolonged time in space. Vincent Beals and multiple members of his family before him were responsible for many changes that had revolutionized society the world over.
Jalen leaned over and whispered in Shane's ear.
"Why didn't they just go all out and have a laser light show? Maybe even bring in a smoke machine to really cap it off."
Shane grinned down at his friend's familiar sarcasm before returning his attention to the presentation.
The baritone-voiced narrator continued lauding Beals Corp, focusing on Vincent Beals and the accomplishments of the company under his leadership in particular. The presentation ended with a flourish, prompting applause from the audience. Once the lights went back up and the screen retracted, a tall figure stepped onto the stage. The man himself, Vincent Beals. He was dressed the same way he usually appeared in his photos: slouchy earth tone cardigan with a solid V-neck beneath it, dark corduroys paired with expensive tennis shoes, horn-rimmed glasses, and an Afro pushed back from his forehead with a slim black band. The look gave off the vibe of a quirky, approachable genius.
"Well, I don't think there's much more I can add after that. Props to my PR department for making my job so short and easy." He clapped and the audience politely joined him in thanking his staff. Beals continued once the applause tapered off. "As you saw in the video, we have the technology to not just travel into space, but to live and thrive in space. To explore farther than anyone on this planet ever has. But what Beals Corp needs is the people. That's where you come in." He clasped his hands together, extending his index fingers to point at the crowd. "You've all been chosen through a highly selective screening process as candidates for this mission. Teachers, scientists, pilots, engineers, farmers. All of your skills and knowledge are needed. Over the next few months, you'll be tested, poked and prodded as we determine your fitness for a life in space. Many of you will be selected. Some of you will not. That's the truth. If you are selected, your life will change in ways you never imagined."
His lips pursed and curled in a smile that promised secrets and excitement. "Now, I'm just the idea man, so let me bring out the team that is actually responsible for running this dog and pony show." He turned slightly to look into the wings and five people came out to join him on stage. After they lined up next to each other, Beals began introducing them. "Director Nelson, formerly General Nelson of the United States Army, is the supreme ruler of the Exploration Program. The buck stops with her. Dr. James Oliver is in charge of all medical testing and exams. Former Olympic Coach Adam Staggs will be in charge of physical requirements, and Dr. Burbage will oversee all skills and knowledge related testing."
There was one person on the stage that Beals hadn't named. The entrepreneur stood there silently, smiling that secret smile again while the anticipation built. Finally, he completed the introductions.
"And of course, Tevoris of the Alwan Clan, from planet Zareen."
A ripple went through the crowd. They were in the presence of a real-life alien. Of course, Tevoris was in the presence of aliens too. But even after the arrival of his space ship seven years ago, confirming that there were in fact other species and populated worlds beyond Earth, it was still surreal to be in the same room with someone from another planet.
Shane observed how human Tevoris appeared. Two arms, two legs, torso, head. Features all in the same spots as humans, skin tone close to that of someone from South Asia. But there were a few differences. His hair, worn in a long braid over his right shoulder, was pure white, a color that for humans would be at odds with his youthful face. He was big; even in a room full of military types, he stood out due to his height and the breadth of his shoulders. And his eyes were a bright, glowing silver. Shane had heard the Zareenians eyes glowed with powerful emotions. He wondered what the man was feeling right then.
The murmuring ceased as Dr. Oliver stepped forward and addressed the crowd. "Before we begin, you'll need to sign a waiver and fill out a survey. Please enter the personal identification number assigned to you on your data pad and you can begin."
"Another waiver?" Jalen asked in an exasperated tone.
"Guess they forgot to include it with the five-hundred-page packet they originally sent us."
Jalen snorted. "Don't exaggerate, Shane. It wasn't five hundred pages. More like four hundred and ninety-seven."
Shane laughed as he tapped the screen to turn on his data pad. It glowed bright red before the color faded to a readable white background with black font, asking for his access code. He entered the seven-digit number he'd been assigned and thumbed the submit button. The medical waiver was the first screen on the pad. Shane quickly scanned the doc, looking for the gist of the waiver. He found it in a single line near the end of the second paragraph: You consent to medical testing and to receive physical enhancements from the Beals Corporation medical staff. Shane's eyebrows rose at that. "Enhancements? What are they going to do, put us on steroids?"
"Space steroids," Jalen muttered as he read.
Shane laughed, but the consent request made him hesitate. He hated that it wasn't explicitly explained. Enhancements could mean anything. But he didn't want to be expelled from the program when he'd barely set foot in the door. Space was his dream. It had been since he was a kid. Squaring his shoulders, Shane dragged the tip of his finger over the screen to input his electronic signature. Then he typed in his ID code to verify it and hit submit. The document whooshed off the screen, then a twenty-question survey faded in. The first few were questions he didn't expect to see from a program testing him for his fitness to go into space.
1. How would you best describe your personality?
B) Easy Going
2. How do you handle conflict?
C) Let Others Handle It
3. Do You Prefer to Be the Leader?
The questions went on in the same general vein all the way through twenty. Shane shrugged and truthfully answered each one. After he finished answering the last question, the document whooshed away, and a thank you message momentarily appeared. The data pad went back to the home screen, a black background with Beals Corp in glowing, red letters. Shane tapped the screen to send it to sleep, then glanced over at Jalen. He was still working on the survey, his brow furrowed in concentration. A few moments later he finished and tapped his data pad to sleep as well. Jalen sat back and looked at Shane.
"Those were some odd questions."
"Yeah. Felt like one of those relationship quizzes in teen magazines."
Jalen's eyes grew wide with curiosity, but Shane headed him off before he could voice any questions. "Don't ask. Just know that life can be tedious on a ship and sailors entertain themselves any way they can."
"No judgement," Jalen said while clearly holding back a grin.
A few minutes later, a woman in a gray turtleneck began directing everyone out, so Shane and Jalen rose and filed from the auditorium with the rest of the crowd. Jalen had his head down as they walked, looking at his data pad.
"The next two hours are reserved for dinner and physical exams. Looks like we're scheduled to go in waves. I'm in the first group of physicals."
Shane looked at his own schedule. "I'm in the third. I'll go and check out my room, then have dinner before I'm up."
"Okay, see you later." Jalen gave him a small, casual salute then headed down the corridor.
Shane watched him go for a moment before he went his own way. Following the posted signs, he went towards the back of the building, and took the elevator up to the glass-walled skybridge. Night had fallen during their time in the auditorium, so he couldn't see anything beyond the softly lit grounds as he walked. At the other end of the bridge, he took another elevator, this time down two levels. It swooped him along so fast he barely had a chance to turn and look out at the star-filled sky before the doors were sliding back open.
The elevator let him out onto a quiet hallway with only a few people about. The walls were the same cream color as the main building's interior, although they were bare of the artwork and promotional posters that graced the walls in the lobby. The doors were pine, but from the overly glossy look to them, Shane assumed they were merely manufactured to look like wood. A third of the way down the hall, he came to room 314, his assigned quarters. Shane entered his code into the keypad lock just to verify that he'd memorized it correctly. He'd use the ID badge and sensor next time.
The door slid open and Shane stepped into a decent sized room. It was bigger than his college dorm, definitely bigger than his cabin onboard ship, but smaller than his bedroom at his home on the base. There was a surprisingly large bed, a small dresser, desk and chair, personal fridge, and a private bathroom. The room was utilitarian, but they didn't need much more since they'd only be here a few months during the testing. Shane was grateful and still surprised that they weren't living in barracks. This place must be massive and a lot of funds allocated in order to give individual rooms to the crowd of recruits.
As the attendant had stated, his bag and uniform packet were already there. He unpacked, setting his toiletries up in the small bathroom and neatly stacking his own clothes and the uniforms provided by Beals in the dresser. He slid the last drawer closed with a decisive snap, then wandered over to the window to look out at the night sky. It wasn't the complete black and sharp stars of the sky over the high seas, but they were far enough away from the city that light pollution was at a minimum. As he stared at the twinkling constellations, Shane clenched his fists with determination. He was one step closer to flying among them.
* * *
Jalen strolled toward the lab named on his schedule, fingertips tingling with excitement. He'd known in his heart from that first joint press conference with Beals, the military and NASA confirming the arrival of extra-terrestrials on their planet that he would be part of the first wave of people who would set foot on an alien world. And now, five years later, as his footsteps took him past sleek framed posters of Beals astronauts, his belief that he would be named among them was stronger than ever. Jalen grinned to himself. Actually, both he and Shane would be among them. His friend's presence in the program felt like it was pre-destined, the stars aligning to make their long ago dreams of going to space together a reality. Jalen pressed his lips together, trying to reign in his grin. The excitement of the day was making him dramatic.
After traveling two long hallways, Jalen stopped at one that dead-ended in a set of double doors. A posted sign read Medical Exams: Lab H. A short line had already formed, three people chatting quietly as they waited. An Asian American woman with a cap of short, black hair, in Air Force service dress like Jalen, a Hispanic man with dark brown hair cut in a high and tight, and dressed in Army dark, with gold trim glinting in the overhead lights, and a blond civilian in a dark gray suit. Jalen nodded hello to the small group. The civilian who'd been talking when Jalen approached reopened the conversation, this time including Jalen.
"We were just discussing how amazing this place is."
Jalen looked around at the spotless hallway, with its gleaming floors and wall of windows that looked out onto large beds of red roses lit by warmly glowing spotlights. "Well when you're a private company that can afford to send a colony of people into space, it makes sense you'd have a facility this nice."
The woman laughed. "That's the truth." She held out her hand. "I'm Lieutenant Peyton Wu, originally from Atlanta and currently stationed in Germany."
Jalen accepted the firm handshake from his fellow Wingnut. "Captain Jalen Morgan. Born and raised in Dallas and stationed in Colorado. Nice to meet you." The others introduced themselves as well. Major Mike Sanchez was an engineering specialist stationed in Missouri. Aaron Cooper was a teacher from Connecticut.
After the quick introductions, the four of them continued with small talk for a few minutes, discussing the eighteen-month long process it had taken to get to this point. The conversation had just shifted to speculation for the role the Zareenians would play when the door opened, and a woman wearing a pristine white lab coat, with thick, black hair in a braided bun perched regally atop her head, greeted them with a professional smile.
"Hello, I'm Doctor Bakshi. And you all are Morgan, Wu, Sanchez, and Cooper correct?"
"Yes, ma'am," Jalen answered for the group.
"After reviewing your files you've all been sorted into different classes. These classifications may change over the next few days. But for now, Lieutenant Colonel Wu you're Class A. Major Sanchez and Mr. Cooper are Class B, and Captain Morgan you are Class O." She named off the classifications without referring to a chart or data pad. "Please follow the appropriately marked tracks for your physical exams." She turned and held a hand out, indicating they should enter the lab.
Jalen nodded goodbye to the three he'd been waiting with and moved where directed. The smooth, white floor was lit from beneath with two parallel lines glowing a muted red. Between the lines, the letter O repeated at regularly spaced intervals. At the first station on the track, a small white screen was set up for privacy. Two assistants waited behind it. One sat on a small rolling stool, while the other stood next to a small cart of medical equipment.
"Please remove your uniform down to your briefs," said the seated blond woman.
Jalen did as requested, neatly folding his dark blue Air Force dress uniform over the back of a chair. The seated assistant asked him basic questions about his health while the other, a young red-haired man, took his height, weight and blood pressure. None of the information requested had changed since he'd first supplied it on the application to the Beals Exploration program. He was five-foot-nine, one hundred and seventy-five pounds. No history of any medical issues other than allergies to tree pollen, which they joked he wouldn't find in space anyway as they noted his stats.
The assistant pressed a stethoscope to Jalen's chest and listened to his heartbeat. "Your measurements are perfect for Class O," he said with a smile.
"What's Class O?" Jalen asked out of simple curiosity.
The man's friendly expression closed off somewhat. "That will be explained at a later time."
Jalen had merely been mildly curious before, but that reaction had him intrigued. However, he'd been in the military long enough to realize he wouldn't get answers for information he wasn't cleared to receive. With that in mind, he simply redressed when told, and followed the next steps along the O track, giving blood, taking a vision exam, and having his hearing checked. When he finished he thanked the last assistant and left the lab. But as he made his way to the residence tower, he was still curious about Class O.
Author Note: Agggh! I'm so excited to finally start posting this story. Okay, I was super nervous, but still excited. What do you think? Obviously we can all guess what Class O is going to be but how do you think we'll find out? Step up and place your bets! Lol. Next chapter posts next Sunday, same Bat time, same Bat channel.
Thank you for reading!
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Hello! Welcome to my new blogged book, First Alpha. I decided to write this serial because I'm starting a new series that's space opera with giant mecha and it's omegaverse. And as I was plotting book one, I kept thinking about how humanity got to this point with the omegaverse and space travel and this couple popped up in my head. They were the ones who were part of the program that set all of this in motion and they were the first alpha and omega humans.
So I thought it might be cool to do a little prequel to explain all of this sort of world building and back story with this couple. Plus, it's a way for me to let readers know I'm trying a new genre, since up to this point I've only written contemporary.
The story shifted a little bit from my OG plot bunny, because it was trying to grow into a full novel and I wanted to keep it as a novella. Basically we have childhood friends Shane and Jalen and they've always dreamed of going into space. They get a chance to try with the Beals Corporation Space Exploration Program. But of course, there are shenanigans afoot and maybe they fall in love along the way. Friends to lovers, yay!
That's it! Chapter One is live and you can read it here on my website. There are eight chapters and each will post on Sunday mornings. Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoy First Alpha!
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