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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