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.
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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