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Lucas Ballard: "Choices" Chapter 01

From Our 'Verse

Lucas Ballard
Choices
Blackrock
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© 2015, John "Blackrock" Magruder. All Rights Reserved.


•••


"Your mother would have been very proud, Lucas."

Mr. Stephen Ballard was standing at the cargo ramp of an old Series Two Firefly that was heading out to the Central planets. Standing in front of him was his youngest son, Lucas, wearing his cleanest coat. He had been awarded a scholarship to go to school at the Science Academy on Albion, an honor awarded to very few from the Border planets. All three of his sons were bright, but Josh and Mitchell had always taken after him, and Lucas... well, Lucas was just like his mother. Always had his head in a book or in the stars.

Lucas Ballard was born on a small planet named Priam, which was half of a binary planet (two planets orbiting each other) in the Georgia system out on The Border. When he was very young his mother died of consumption, and his father moved him and his two older brothers to Hera, a planet also on The Border in the Murphy system. A mild mannered child, he lived and worked like everyone else out in the fields and on the machines needed to keep the farms going. He also took every opportunity to help out on the garden haulers used to deliver the crops to the rest of the 'Verse. They lived in a town called Serenity View along the edge of a wide valley called Serenity Valley, and he spent many a day camping there with his two older brothers.

Mr. Ballard was proud of his son's accomplishment, because he knew that Lucas had truly earned it all on his own. Growing up on The Border had never been an easy affair, and the indifference shown by the people who lived on the Central planets did not make that any easier. Everyone out on The Border or the Rim had to fend for themselves. So his distrust of them and the Alliance government at first clouded his judgment about Lucas leaving home. But the truth was the boy had dreams and aspirations beyond The Border, much like his mother, and he knew that he could not fulfill them by holding him on Hera. So when the time came, he begrudgingly helped Lucas pack his things and walked him to the transport along with his brothers.

He grasped his son by the shoulders and looked him straight in the eye. "I'm proud of you, too. We all are."

Lucas let out a nervous breath and said, "Thanks, Dad. I'm grateful you're letting me do this. I won't let you down."

"You never have, son." He pulled his son close and hugged him tightly. "You never have."

He backed up and held him at arms length. "You be careful, now. Watch out for people tryin' to take advantage of you. Take nothin' for granted. Remember, only trust somebody..."

"Once they've earned it." Lucas nodded. "I'll remember."

Mr. Ballard looked over his son's shoulder and saw the captain waiting patiently at the top of the ramp and nodded to him. "Alright, son. I love you." He patted Lucas on the shoulder and stepped back. Lucas' brothers stepped up and they said their goodbyes. Then he watched as Lucas picked up his bag, turned and walked up the ramp into the cargo hold and out of sight.

He never looked back.

•——

Years later Lucas came back to Serenity View to visit his family before starting his graduate studies, and found that there was a growing atmosphere of frustration among everyone he talked to. The Alliance had been trying to bring The Border and Rim planets under their control for decades, but those planets had been pretty resistant to the idea. So in recent years, the Alliance had been increasing restrictions and tariffs on the all of the products that those planets exported to the rest of the 'Verse, and easing them on planets that towed the line and accepted more Alliance control. Needless to say, people were feeling rather cross. He had even heard some people on the transport telling stories which hinted at formation of an independent government for all Border and Rim planets, to turn away from the Alliance altogether. He had always heard such stories growing up on Hera, but they were increasing in frequency and in the angry tone with which they were delivered. His father was thrilled about how well he was doing, but he was also firmly on the side of independence, and kept wanting him to come back to stay.

The family decided to have a campout in the Valley to celebrate Lucas' return. The air was cool and crisp in the valley they way it always was, but a heated discussion started up between them regarding the Alliance as they sat around the fire.

"They bùnéng bèi xìnrèn," Josh was saying. "They keep asking for more and keep giving us less in return. They're slowly bleeding us dry out here, and they just don't care. Just a bunch of zìsī de húndàn."

Lucas shook his head. "Look, I know that there are inequities, and that there is bias. Hell, I hear it when I walk by some people, calling me a 'border rat' behind my back. But I can't let that bug me. I think—"

Mitchell grumbled, "This isn't the same as calling people names, dumbass."

"Hah. You've almost gotten funny in your old age, Mitch. And I wasn't trying to suggest that. But come on, not everyone in the Central planets feels or acts that way." Lucas looked around the fire at them all. "I don't know why the Alliance is doing what they are doing, and just because I am going to school on Albion doesn't make me a spokesman for them, either, okay? But it's not enough to talk at each other, which is all anyone seems to be doing nowadays. When was the last time the planetary representatives actually sat in a meeting with parliament? There—"

Josh threw his hands up in disgust. "When was the last time the planetary representatives were actually on the planets they were supposed to represent? They work for the parliament and most of 'em come from the Central planets now, with how they've been rigging elections. They know nothing about The Border or The Rim. They don't care, 'cause they're all just a bunch of Alliance shills. They just want everyone to do what they're told and stop being so troublesome."

"Look," their father said, clutching his hands and staring into the fire. "It's not just about being disagreeable. Everyone disagrees. That's the wonder of humanity, our limitless capacity to think every other person out there is a ben dan. Now it's gone beyond what they think... it's what they're doing to us out here that's the real problem now."

Lucas sat up. "I get it, and I don't like it anymore than you do. Look, I'm going to school for terraforming, to make new worlds for everyone. I'm not in political science. But there is benefit in being part of the Alliance. Imagine the technology, the medicine, the stability that would come with being full members." He saw the angry looks grow on his brother's faces, and he quickly added, "And yes! There are drawbacks too! No doubt. But I can tell you that there's a lot less chaos in the Central planets than there is out here. More cooperation, too."

Josh spit into the fire. "More conformity, you mean."

"No," Lucas shook his head vigorously. "No that is not what I mean. Gaisi, don't twist my words and try to pit me against you. I'm not here to fight. I'm just trying to present a different viewpoint. We all know that if people aren't talking with each other then nothing will change."

Mitchell crossed his arms and frowned. "You've changed. You're becoming more like them all the time."

Lucas felt the heat bloom in his cheeks when he realized that Mitchell, who had always been his biggest defender, was looking at Lucas as though he had been dipped in shit and lit on fire. That hurt. A lot. His hands balled into fists in sudden anger and he leaned forward. "If it means that I can think more than three límǐ zài wǒ miànqián, then yeah, I guess—"

Mr. Ballard leapt up and threw his teapot into the fire with an explosion of sparks and steam. "Xiànzài nǐ de háizi huì chénmò!"

They were.

He sighed. "You boys are blood. How's about you try to keep that in mind, alright? Bad enough what's happenin' without you tearing at each other like a bunch of fènnù de gǒu." He fished the pot out of the fire with a branch and sat back down. "I moved us out here after your mother died 'cause I needed to find better work to raise you boys. There were good jobs here, much better than on Priam. Our crops are good, but nowadays we can't afford to export 'em, 'cause the Alliance is making that harder and harder every year. Simple fact is that the Border and Rim planets aren't going to abide by that for much longer. Things are gonna happen, and people are gonna have to make choices they never thought they would."

He looked right at Lucas. "And being a student isn't going to shelter you from havin' to make a choice."

Lucas' skin grew cold. "Whoa whoa whoa... Is that what this has become? You're either with us or you are against us? You just said we were family, but in the next breath you are drawing a line?"

He stood up and looked at them all just staring at him. "That is not fair. You can't throw a guilt trip at me about my choice to go to school. You said you were proud of me and now you're pressuring me to leave it all. Aren't you?"

Mr. Ballard held a hand out. "Son, come on. I'm just trying—"

"Bullshit!"

They all went silent.

Lucas stepped back and pointed at them. "I call bullshit." Then he turned and walked away into the night with his father calling after him. The next day, Lucas stepped on a transport bound for the Central planets.

He never looked back.

—•—


Lucas worked his way back to the Science Academy on Albion, where he threw himself into his studies. Towards the end of the year he and a couple of other graduate students were selected by a top professor to do research out in the field. Her name was Karrin Blackstone, a woman in her mid-fifties who had the appearance of someone who had spent her life working in the field and not behind a desk. She was a well respected member of the citizenry among the Central planets and had decided to take a sabbatical from teaching the classroom and get back out to the work she founded her career upon. So for nearly three years he had the opportunity to work side by side with the professor as she went from system to system, gathering information on the planets and moons not yet terraformed, as well as checking on the status of the newest planets.

They got about in an old Cormorant light bulk freighter that was owned by the Academy, and it became his job to be the pilot. Lucas had grown up around ships and had earned his pilot's license before he started grad school. The professor was a pilot herself, but just wasn't that interested in piloting ships anymore, and the other graduate students had never flown anything bigger than a speeder.

He also took to calling it "The Turd," on account of the Cormorant's uncanny ability to turn almost every flight into what could be best described as being an unpleasant gǒu shǐ tiánchōng tǐyàn. He made sure to remind the professor on a regular basis about how old and difficult to maintain Cormorants were, and especially this one. During his last trip with the professor, they had a particularly scary incident where they barely made it out of atmo while trying to leave the unterraformed planet, Ghost. Once he finally managed to wrangle the ship into orbit, he looked over at Professor Blackstone from the pilot's seat and said, "You know professor, when we came to Ghost I didn't think we would nearly become ghosts ourselves." He nervously ran his fingers through his hair. "I hate to keep repeating myself, but this turd should've been towed to Ita a long time ago."

The professor, looking a little sweaty and gripping her chair a little tighter than necessary, looked over at him and pushed her grey streaked hair back out of her eyes. "Perhaps you are right, Lucas." Then she unbuckled herself from her chair and staggered to the bathroom with her hand over her mouth.

Nearly four months after they arrived back on Albion, Lucas was a nervous wreck preparing for his dissertation. His graduate studies were nearly complete, and he was starting to wonder about the state of his résumé. He did not look forward to what the future held for him, because for the first time in many years, he did not know what was coming next. His time was nearly up, and soon the professor was going to get herself a new crop of grad students to take with her on her trips.

One day, Professor Blackstone found Lucas down on the floor of the lab, working on some of the portable gravity sensors that the professor was going to use on her next trip. He had been so busy that he had forgotten to keep up with the maintenance schedule, and if he did not get them ready soon there would be hell to pay. Besides that, he needed a break from his books.

She stood in the doorway watching and listening to him mumble and grumble on about some tool, before yelling out, "Lucas!"

She was rewarded with a loud bang, a clatter of metal, and an admirable string of curses. Then Lucas popped up from behind the workbench, rubbing his head. "Yes, Professor?"

She smirked. "Follow me, please." Then she walked out the door and headed towards the hangar where The Turd was located. He scrambled after her, knocking over a tray of wrenches in his haste, which was quickly followed by a heroic string of curses.

"So after our last trip to Ghost," she started, "I have been thinking a lot about how things could be done better. We had too many issues—"

"You mean like how we almost died?" Lucas interrupted.

"Like I was saying, we had too many issues." She walked up to the hangar door. "So I talked with the engineers and asked them to do some work on The Turd, as you so colorfully labeled it." She stepped through the door and then turned around to watch as Lucas stopped in his tracks and dropped the wrench he was holding.

She could not help but smile. "Specifically, I had it towed to Ita."

Lucas looked at the professor, who simply nodded, then he walked out into the hangar towards one of the sweetest sights he had ever seen. Standing before him was a Kepler science ship. It looked for all the 'Verse like a fighter, with a pair of oblique vertical stabilizers and a long, pointed nose. But it had a small cargo bay underneath and was the size of a freighter. He walked around the ship once admiring its lines, and as he finished his circuit he found Professor Blackstone standing at the top of the cargo ramp. "Come on in," she said.

Chained down inside the cargo bay was a MF-225 single seat speeder and a MF-950 Flying Mule, both using small gravity drives for levitation and propulsion. Taking the stairs up out of the cargo bay, he stepped through the bulkhead hatch and found a pressurized shuttle bay sitting directly above the cargo bay, with a standard short range shuttle inside. There was also a hallway going to the engine room around the other side of the shuttle bay. Forward of that was the main galley, which had a kitchen as nice as any he had seen in any house. Next to that was a common area with a table and a big comfortable couch. In the front section of the ship there were two nice state rooms, and two smaller crew cabins below them. He stopped walking when he got to the door of the bridge. It had a single pilot's seat up front with a wrap-around console and wide screen displays between the slot windows on each side, and behind that was another seat and science console to the right. To the left was a set of stairs that led down into the nose of the ship where the full survey sensor suite was. It was a marvel of modern technology, with all the bells and whistles that money could buy.

Professor Blackstone entered the bridge behind him. "I made sure this was loaded to the tippy-top, and with an extended range engine package so it won't be so reliant on outside assistance." She crossed her arms and leaned against the console. "So, what do you think? Seems like a decent replacement."

Lucas stood speechless for a moment. Then he turned around and faced the professor. "This ship is incredible. Has to be one of the nicest ships—no— the nicest ship I have ever seen. How in the 'Verse did you get this?"

"Well, when you get to where I am in life, you figure out who to talk to, who to whisper to..." She leaned forward. "...And who to threaten." She stepped over to the science console and put a hand on the seat, looking out the window. "Let's just say that the investment that has been made in me needed to be appropriately protected." Her smile spoke volumes.

"Hǎo cǎi wǒ yìnxiàng shēnkè. You've got yourself one swank ride, professor." He ran a hand lovingly across the controls. "I am painfully envious of the next person you're going to get to fly you around in—"

"I want that to be you."

Lucas' hands froze over the yoke and he felt his heart nearly leap out of his chest. Barely breathing, he slowly turned around. "Uhhhhhhh—"

"I want you to be my pilot," she said, stepping out from behind the science console. "I also want you to be my assistant, assuming you manage to defend your dissertation successfully, of course. You have been the best student I've had in nearly twenty years, and I would hate to see you wander off and get stuck crewing on some terraforming engine somewhere, cleaning a toolbox you'll almost never use, and praying for a supply ship before you die of ennui. So, what do you say?" She held out a hand. "Will you be wǒ dàwúwèi de dādàng?"

She watched as a smile slowly spread across his face, and she knew the answer before the words spilled out.

"I would be so honored, Professor. Thank you!" He reached out and shook her hand vigorously. "I won't let you down, I promise."

"You never have, Lucas." She chuckled at his barely contained excitement. "You never have." She then turned and started walking off of the bridge, doing her best to hide the big smile on her face. Practically bouncing, Lucas followed closely behind. "So, what do you think we should call it? You always seem to come up with such... creative names."

"Come on, Professor. 'The Turd' wasn't creative, it was descriptive," he replied, and they both laughed. He was silent as they walked past the state rooms. "Well, what was it you just asked me to be? Your..."

"Wǒ dàwúwèi de dādàng. My dauntless sidekick." They entered the galley and stopped next to the table.

"How about Sidekick?"

Karrin Blackstone thought about it for a moment, then reached over to take an apple from the bowl sitting on the table. "I like it." She tossed him the apple, then grabbed another and took a bite as she started walking again. "Sidekick it is."

——•

Lucas began working for the Albion Science Academy and the Alliance one month later as a researcher alongside Professor Blackstone, who left her teaching post to focus full time on field work. They traveled a lot on The Rim, and one of the first places they visited was the planet Miranda out in the Burnham system, since terraforming there had just been completed and colonists were moving in at an increasing rate. The terraforming on Caliban, the lone moon of Miranda, was moving along nicely. They also spent time surveying the other six planets orbiting Burnham, gathering data for possible terraformation.

It turned out that their visit to Miranda would be the last time they would ever see the planet. Less than two years later they were sitting on a flat plain on Moab in the Red Sun system when word came that something had gone terribly wrong on Miranda, and the terraforming had failed in some dramatic fashion. Alliance military told them that the planet was a complete loss and the settlements were all assumed destroyed, since there was no longer any contact. Lucas and Professor Blackstone wanted to fly there immediately but were denied, saying that it was unsafe to enter the system. Frustrated at being stymied by the military, Professor Blackstone reached out to her contacts in the government to try and get permission to go to Miranda and find out what happened. Her requests were summarily denied. There was a rescue mission "in the works" and they would notify them of any developments.

But developments regarding Miranda would not be forthcoming, as war between the Alliance and the brand new Federation of Independent Planets broke out weeks later. The Unification War, as it came to be known, became a bloody affair, and it left Lucas in a strange position. He was from The Border, so he understood the struggles and the frustration. The people on The Border had been pleading to be treated fairly. But they were also quite unwilling to kowtow to authority. He thought back to the last conversation he had with his family, and he recognized the stubborn streak that ran through all of the people of The Border and The Rim. But he was also from the Central planets. He naïvely clung to the thought that everyone would eventually be able to live a good and prosperous life if they would just be more flexible and patient. However, he had seen how authoritarian the Alliance government had become over the past few years, and the more he thought about it, it was a wonder that fighting had not broken out sooner.

The two sides were making a terrible mess of things, and some of the most intense fighting appeared to be centered around the planets along the edges of The Border and the White Sun system. That meant that most of the trade and travel routes across the 'Verse were now very dangerous places to be. That also meant the Murphy system, and his home planet of Hera.

About two weeks after the fighting erupted, Sidekick was in low orbit around Red Rock, a moon of Moab. Lucas was working in the avionics bay in the nose of the ship, calibrating a ground penetrating radar set when he heard the comm console chime. He came up the stairs and sat in his seat, spinning around to the comm display and saw that it was a prerecorded message from Hera. Nervously, he pressed play and his father's face came onto the screen.

"Hello son. I know that we've not talked in a very long time, and I regret how things were left the last time you came home. <sigh> I just wanted to personally let you know that your brothers and I have joined the Independent forces. We're shipping out today, can't say where. I'm not askin' you to join us, and I'm not askin' you to choose sides. I'm just hopin' that you don't get caught up in this mess. Keep your head down, stay away from trouble." He saw his father look off screen for a second. "And while Mitch would never say it, he loves you and misses you. We all do. Take care son, wherever you are. Stay safe."

Lucas sat back in his seat, staring at the frozen image of his father reaching for the off switch.

"Well that has to be difficult."

He looked back and saw Professor Blackstone leaning against the doorway, a concerned look on her face.

"Difficult? Nah." He ran his fingers slowly through his hair. "I grew up on The Border, and my family is fighting for the Independents. I basically work for the Alliance. It's a piece of nian gao."

Professor Blackstone walked in and sat on the edge of the console. "I know we've never talked about that part of your life. I've never wanted to intrude. I may be your boss, but I would like to think that after all these years we are also friends. And I just wanted you to know that if you ever do want to talk, you can. I personally can't imagine how much of a struggle it must be to be living so far from where—and how—you grew up."

Lucas spun his chair around to face her. "It's not as hard as it might seem. Truth is, I never entirely fit in. I'd always wanted something different in life than what my family did. I still do. I'm just fortunate that my father is such an understanding man, otherwise I would've never had the opportunity to go to school like I did."

"So you don't regret working for someone like me?"

"Regret?" He leaned forward and clasped her hand. "Oh gods no! Working with you has been one of the greatest experiences I've ever had in my life! I'm just so grateful you've given me the chance." Then he sat back. "To be honest, I've always been surprised that I didn't run into more roadblocks. It's not as though people have never had issues about my being from The Border."

Her Professor-face returned as her eyes hardened. "Oh, there were issues raised. But I'm a very firm believer in giving people what they deserve. You've proven your worth time and time again. People who work as hard as you have don't deserve roadblocks."

Lucas was a little shocked. "You mean—" He stumbled over his words. "Have you been... Wow. I had no idea. You never said anything."

"Those were things that you did not need to know," she said. "Like I've said before, I know who to threaten."

Lucas leapt up and hugged her tightly. "Thank you!"

After a second, she hugged him back and chuckled. "You are welcome." A silent moment later, she looked up at the ceiling. "Um, you're standing on my toe..."

"Sorry!" Lucas blurted as he let go and stumbled back, promptly falling into his chair with a startled look on his face. The Professor started laughing loudly and after a beat, so did Lucas.

Once they eventually stopped laughing, Lucas wiped a tear from the corner of his eye and asked, "So, where are we supposed to go next, Professor?"

Blotting her own eyes with her shirt, she looked at him and said, "You mean you're not going to run off and join the Independent cause?"

Lucas glanced down at his shirt and spread out his hands. "Do you really think I look like the soldiering type?"

"No."

Lucas grimaced. "Thank you for your… honesty!"

Professor Blackstone put her hands back on the console and furrowed her brow. "Well, we're finished here for now, and I'm not sure that we want to be out here on The Border for much longer. I get the feeling the fighting is going to spread fast, and I would rather not be in the middle of it. And as much as I want to get out to Miranda, I get shot down every time I even mention that planet to the higher-ups."

"And there is the fighting," Lucas interjected.

"And there is the fighting. I would rather not get shot down for real trying to get there. We do have to resupply the ship, and it should be safe enough to get to Albion to do that. But after that, I really think we need to stay away from it all. Question is, where do we go that the war won't follow?"

Lucas had already turned to the Cortex map and was zipping through it. "Well, there is one place that I've always wanted to go. There would be lots of research to legitimately be done, and it would be out of the way enough to be a good place to hide while the war is going on." He clicked on a final zone on the map and sat back. "What say you?"

The Professor leaned forward and looked at the map. Then she blinked and a smile came to her face. "Oh, I haven't been there since I was a graduate student." She straightened up and looked at him with mischief in her eyes. "It's perfect."

•——

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