Hollow

James’ ears rang with the mechanical shrieks of his alarm clock. The blaring noise urged him to rise from his bed, but he simply couldn’t bring himself to do such a simple task. His morning ritual lost all meaning a few weeks before; his eyes had been cemented shut by the sleep and depression accompanying a broken heart. He felt himself roll away from the screams of the clock, a futile attempt to block out the world and return to his slumber. A groan escaped his lips, and he knew the battle for sleep was a fruitless errand. Finally, he succumbed to the pressures of the clock, and he swung his legs over the side of the bed, slowly raising himself up to sit on the precipice of normality. He clumsily swung for the tiny demon on his nightstand, desperately trying to smite the shrill screams of Father Time. After a few moments, his fist connected with the small, metallic clock, and the infernal device clammed up. James sat in silence for a few moments, regaining his composure. Prying his eyes open, he let out a sigh and a wail of despair. It had been weeks since he’d seen Katherine, his girlfriend. Well, ex-girlfriend. She’d recently denounced the love for him she’d declared just months before. It was inevitable, and he’d known it since he’d met her. He’d decided that it was all his fault; he’d let her play him for a fool, he’d let her walk all over him, he’d let himself fall in love. He stood up, the cold January air rushing to envelop him. Only a fraction of the frigid gust reached him, however, as his white t-shirt and grey sweatpants blocked most of the burst. Still, James shivered, chilled to the bone by the frosty air. He shuffled over to his door through a sea of laundry, papers, and books, scratching his long, chestnut hair along the way.

Thoughts of the weeks prior flooded his head; thoughts of the breakup itself, the days he spent wallowing in his own sadness, the way everything seemed terrible now… He shook his head, still headed for the door. Within a few strides, he reached the oak portal to the rest of the house, and gripped the brass doorknob, twisting it open in a short, quick flick of the wrist. The door creaked open, and James stepped out into the hallway. It was dark and claustrophobic, and ended in a staircase made of finely crafted oak. He gingerly crept down the stairs, more out of respect for the early morning silence than to avoid waking his mother. The stairs spilled into the kitchen, a stainless-steel artifact of humanity’s Golden Age of peace. In the centre of the kitchen was a smooth, rectangular table made of glass with four chairs encircling it. James was startled by the sight of his mother sitting at the head of the table, near the back door, drinking coffee and reading the news on her holopad. The soft, blue glow of the tiny screen illuminated her short, brown hair and verdant green eyes. Her eyes were something of an anomaly; James’ were the colour of ancient steel. She was wearing the iconic black t-shirt and white, slim fitting pants that were customary for all government personnel to wear.

“Oh, shit,” James gasped. “I– I mean, uh, why are you up so early?”

His mother glanced up from the tablet.

“Good morning to you too,” she muttered. She set the tablet down on the table and looked at him. “James, I think you should sit down for a minute. I’ve got something to tell you.”

His heart started racing. There were only so many things she ever woke up early for, and those were to receive orders from the Director, to work on her assignments, and to give James bad news in a horribly blunt manner. He cautiously approached the table, pulled out the chair opposite her, and sat down, focusing his hazel eyes on hers.

James cleared his throat. “What’s going on?”

His mother sighed, and she looked down at her hands. They were primarily silver prosthetics, and what little organic flesh remained was calloused and scarred. The story of how they entered such a state was never discussed, and James never pried; he didn’t want to cause her to relive some terrible mission gone wrong. She looked back up, and met James’ gaze.

“The Director called me last night. Said it was time for you to ‘pay your dues’ and ‘make the boys on Olympus proud.’”

James was dumbfounded. The Agency of Exploration never called anyone under the age of twenty to embark on a mission. What’s more, they never acknowledged that Agents had families; for the Director of Discovery to not only acknowledge, but call James to action was… groundbreaking. His mother cleared her throat and continued.

“The Agency wants to recruit you for their latest mission. You know, the one to Kepler-452?” James nodded, incapable of speech. “Well, the Director himself wanted me to pass the message along.” Overcome with a medley of emotions, James held his face in his hands, hiding his feelings of fear, excitement, sorrow, and wanderlust. His mother reached across the table, placing her hand on James’ elbow. “I know it’s a lot to take in. But they’re… they really want you to go. I’ve been using all my influence to keep you from having to go, but there’s only so much I can do.”

He knew he’d have to go. To disobey the government was unimaginable, although a trip to Kepler would likely mean his demise, too. This whole situation just seemed… surreal. The Agency only ever deployed experienced explorers and adventurers, and even then only volunteers. For them to draft the child of one of their own…

“How dangerous will it be?” he asked. He wanted– no, needed to know whether or not he’d have a chance of coming home someday. His mother shut her eyes and lowered her voice to barely above a whisper.

“They want to send a team to the surface of one of the planets, 452b. We’ve only landed probes there before, and they think it looks promising for life. Our kind of life. Not just bacteria and protozoans, but advanced, complex creatures. You’d be one of the first people to set foot on a planet outside Sol.”

James looked up and put his hands in his lap.

“So… it’s a one-way trip?” She didn’t need to answer; James knew from the look of heartbreak on her face that he’d never return home. They sat in silence, letting his question hang in the air for what seemed like an eternity. He sat, remembering everything leading up to this moment: his vacations to Phobos, the day he was admitted into the Explorer’s Guild, Katherine’s harsh removal of him from her life just weeks before…

“I guess I have to go,” he said. “After all, it’s the opportunity of a lifetime.” His mother nodded her approval through misty eyes. She sighed, clearing her throat, and rose from the table.

“Well then,” she said. “We’d best get down to headquarters.”

“Yeah, sure thing,” James mumbled. “I just need to gather my things.”

“Alright, but they need you there by dark. Just… grab what you need and we’ll head over there.”

James nodded his head, pushed off from the table, and bolted up the stairs. Throwing his door open, he burst into the room and made a dive for the bed. His duffle bag was under his bed, and he ripped it out from under the heap of refuse littering his room. The navy blue bag felt lighter than it looked, and James knew he had to rectify that. He hurled the bag onto his bed, and turned to his dresser, pulling the drawers open. He grabbed a white t-shirt marked with a black, dashed ‘Z,’ a pair of blue jeans, a few pairs of socks, some boxers, and few other shirts, shorts, and pants. Rushing to finish packing, he neglected to fold the clothes as he crammed them into the duffle bag. Content that the clothes he gathered would suffice, James couldn’t help  but feel as though he was forgetting something…

He whipped around to face his nightstand, remembering his most prized possession: a pocket watch, made of ivory, obsidian, and gold, gifted to him by his late father. He’d been a soldier, and fought against the swarms of prion-infected people during the Kuru Crisis of 3402. Before his deployment, he’d given the watch to James and said, “It’ll keep ye’ sane, son. Saved my ass plenty a’ times.” A tear rolled down James’ cheek. He shouldn’t have accepted the watch. If his father still had it, he might not have been infected. He might still be around. He shook his head and wiped the tear away. The time for mourning was past. Besides, it happened years ago. There was nothing he could do except make him and Mom proud. He needed to focus on the task at hand, and right now he needed to get dressed. James rifled through his dresser, and swapped his sweatpants for a pair of dark blue jeans and white socks, the typical attire of the Youth Guilds. On his way to the door, he remembered the navy blue windbreaker that was given to him by the Explorer’s Guild, grabbed it from his dresser, and slid it on. He slipped a pair of black and grey sneakers on, snatched up his bag, pocketed his watch, and flew down the stairs. James ran through the kitchen and out the back door, sprinting towards his destiny.

The sun was shining high in the sky, bringing light to the dusty, red horizon. The small yard was depressing like this; a thin blanket of snow covered the rusty Martian dirt and cacti that were found in every yard across the Tharsis Montes. James hated the desert terrain of Mars; he’d been to the Canadian rainforests on Earth once, and knew that he wanted to live on the sweltering garden world. He’d even settle for the Venusian archipelagos, or the Mercurian canyons of glass and quartz. Anywhere was better than the frigid, Martian wasteland.

The dreary sight before him spanned the dozens of backyards adjacent to the uniform row of monochromatic townhouses that was his neighbourhood. All the yards faced a thin, muddy alley, on the other side of which more townhouses mirrored the miserable sight before them. In the distance, the peak of Olympus Mons was just visible. That was the only redeeming quality of this backwater world; the view was priceless. But still, James hated his house. He hated his homeworld. He hated everything about Mars; it was so… dull.

But it was necessary that people lived on Mars, and he knew that. Humanity couldn’t survive on Earth, and they needed to expand. All the legends spoke of a blazing hell, lakes of fire and lava, famine, pestilence, war without end. They recounted the tales of the heroes from the colonies that launched a war against the demons of Earth, how they reclaimed what once was theirs, how they gave new life to the birthplace of humanity. James had always loved the legends of the Terrestrial Reclamation. It was the reason that he joined the Explorer’s Guild, and why his mother had joined the Agency of Exploration. They were the founders of the Agency, or at least the figureheads. From the moment he heard the legend, he knew he was destined to become an explorer. It was his purpose in life to be one of the greatest pioneers of humanity. But that was beside the point, for the moment at least. He needed to get to the car parked in the alley, just through the gate at the far end of the small yard. James wandered across the yard, literally following in the footsteps of his mother, which led in a straight line directly to the gate. He stepped through the gate, and rushed over to the small, two-door white car. His mother was already sitting in the driver’s seat, and the engine was running. James walked around to the back of the car, opened the trunk and tossed his bag in. He slammed the trunk and walked around to the passenger seat, his mind racing all the while. How long would he train? Where would he go? Who would he meet?

“Alright, get strapped in,” his mother’s voice shattered the whirlwind of thoughts crowding his head.

James buckled himself into his seat, and let out a sigh.

“I know it’s hard,” she said. “But this’ll be the best thing that ever happened to you. I promise. If it weren’t for the Agency, I never would’ve met your father, I never would’ve arrived on Mars, I…” her voice trailed off. James turned to her, holding back tears.

“It’s okay, mom. Let’s just… let’s just go.” With this, James’ mother wiped her eyes, cleared her throat and began driving along the muddy road, heading towards the peak of Olympus Mons.

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