Sheeran Bixby was doing his best to keep out of trouble the last two weeks of his high school career. He never expected to be running for his life instead of taking his last exams or fighting to save his father instead of fighting the urge to cut class. But when unidentified spacecraft break through the atmosphere, nothing in Sheeran's life will ever be the same again. Show Less
“Bix-bee. Sheer-ahn.” The console beneath him vibrated and his work disappeared in a flash of bright white. He’d let his eyes rest a moment too long.
The rest of the class had shifted their eyes—all sixty pairs—in his direction. Before punching in his ID Code to resume the lesson, he stretched his arms overhead and let out a theatrical, roaring yawn. Most of the curious eyes rolled in mild annoyance as they turned their attention back to the Monitor.
Sheeran may have agreed to complete his diploma, but he never said he’d take it seriously. While most of his classmates were just beginning to feel that strange mix of restlessness and negligence, he’d been living with it for over a year.
“Don’t screw this up for us, Bixby,” someone hissed behind him. He glanced over his left shoulder to see Katerina Silver glaring at him. She wore violet contacts and kept her bobbed hair cherry red, which, for some reason, was an alarming combination to Sheeran. Giving her a wink, he turned back to his console and thumbed in his ID Code, and the Monitor picked up the lesson right where it had left off.
The lunch bell toned as Sheeran’s eyes began to prickle, begging his eyelids to slide down and relieve them. His console dimmed and locked, and at the front of the class the Monitor folded itself back into wall.
With a sudden wave of energy, he made his way swiftly over the last row of consoles and out the dormant emergency exit at the back of the room. He had exactly four minutes to get to the racks and scan out his bike. And then he had seven minutes after that before they’d know he was gone.
Taking the steps two at a time, he reached the first floor and cut through the wet courtyard to the front corner of the massive concrete block, which housed grades seven through twelve for all of King County. As he passed the front office, Sheeran slowed his pace and pulled the hood of his sweater casually up over his bright hair. He’d realized a few weeks ago that he could cut out with the Work-Op students that left the building after lunch. While they all continued earning credits by working real jobs around the county or up in the city, Sheeran pedaled his ancient green Schwinn five miles beyond the county line and up into the hills.
Almost every day this week he’d made it up there. He’d hide his bike and take one of the steep hiking trails, passing the old signs rotting on their posts or overgrown with crawling weeds. When he reached the rock face near the summit, he would look for a different route up, a different challenge from the day before, and haul his sturdy frame, one hand- and foot-hole at a time, to the highest point.
From there he could look out over the entire county and even see the city’s skyscrapers, tiny against the hazy horizon. Just south of the city, he’d gaze across the sparkling water that was once a suburb—once his suburb, though he could barely remember—and try to find the tops of different decaying buildings peaking up over the gentle waves.
Inland, closer to his school, he’d see the King County housing projects, massive high-rises shooting out of the ground. When it had become apparent that the coast was slowly flooding, the state had taken measurements to protect the city, sacrificing its surrounding neighborhoods. Over time, each was fully evacuated to the eastern side of the county. Those who once owned houses and cared for gardens and let their kids play in the backyard were resettled into a cluster of skyscraping apartment buildings. Sheeran never minded the apartment. He had his summit, after all. And he could find whatever space he needed whenever he wanted.
So he would look out over the buildings that his father, Edmund Bixby, head of Skyrise Division, had engineered, picking out the few that were still just skeletons of iron beams and bolts, and imagine himself climbing those towers, working with his hands. He would lie back as the sun dipped toward the water, feeling its warmth—unusually so this early in the year—and wish away his last days of school.
But not today. As he left the building and turned the corner toward the bike racks, Sheeran found himself face-to-face with Dean Powers. “Leaving so soon?”
The Dean’s office was modest, not unlike the bare classrooms but much smaller and with a heavy wooden desk, which looked very misplaced amidst the concrete, sitting firmly before two metal chairs. Sheeran knew the place well.
He sat in one of the chairs now as Powers gazed at him over clasped hands. “Two weeks, Sheeran,” she said quietly. She was a fair woman, with, Sheeran had to admit, incredible tolerance. Even he would have given up on him by now. “Less than two weeks. That’s it. Then you are free to do as you please. I know it’s not easy for you as one of the oldest—most of your friends enlisting or in Work-Op. But you need to stay in line or you will be here another year.” She pursed her lips, and Sheeran thought he saw a fleck of worry in her eyes. But it faded quickly as she added, “And I don’t think either of us want that to happen.”
He shook his head. Unfortunately, she was right—as much as he hated to acknowledge it. His father was set on him getting his diploma before working, even though it was his Division Sheeran would be working for. The otherwise gentle and soft-spoken man was a regular tyrant about education.
Grinning past the dismal reality check, Sheeran replied, “Aw, that can’t be true. We’ve had a great few years, haven’t we?”
Powers rolled her large hazel eyes and rose from her high-backed chair. “Get it together, Bixby. I mean it. You’re too close to mess this up.”
Sheeran stood and saluted her. “You got it, Chief. Serious Sheeran from here on out.”
He made his way to the glass door in one long stride, pushing it open an inch when Powers’s voice stopped him. “And Sheeran? I should warn you—This is your third for the month. I'll have to call your father to let him know.”
That caught him. He dropped his head and sighed loudly before exiting. His father wasn’t one to yell or punish. Instead, he would talk to Sheeran about whatever offense he’d committed, urging his son to try a little harder, focus his energy into something productive. And in his voice was a sadness and disappointment that Sheeran could not bear. He’d wished on more than one occasion that his father would scream at him, but he never did. Sheeran was sure it would be better than letting the man down yet again.
It had been twenty minutes. Twenty silent minutes. Sheeran watched his father, at the opposite end of the small dining table, polish off the last of his meal, while his own remained untouched. He’d been waiting for the talk, for the disappointment, but it hadn’t come. Instead, his father had greeted him distantly, apologizing for being late, and silently helped Sheeran finish cooking and set the table.
Now, still engrossed in the meal before him, Edmund took his time stabbing each grain of rice and crumb of meat with his fork and slipping the microscopic morsels between his thin lips.
“Dad?” Sheeran couldn’t take it anymore. He’d rather a look of shame or disappointment over a cold shoulder. “Is everything okay?”
Edmund looked up across the table, almost startled. It seemed like he’d forgotten Sheeran was there altogether. “Oh—Sheeran. Yes, of course. Yes.” His eyes darted nervously, not quite ever landing on his son. Sweat glistened on his brow.
“Did you want to talk to me about anything?” Sheeran prodded further. Now he was nervous. His father had always been fidgety, always had too much on his mind, but something was different about this.
“What?” Now Edmund’s eyes were on him, wide and glassy gray-blue. “What do you mean?” One hand gripped the side of the table as if it might get away from him at any moment.
“What’s the matter with you? Did the school call or not?” Sheeran couldn’t help the strain in his voice, and he definitely didn’t care about getting in trouble anymore.
“The school? Yes, the school—I talked to…Powers. Ditching again…” the man mumbled, letting his eyes drift away. Sheeran was sure he didn’t even know what he was saying.
“Dad!” He pulled his father’s attention back and looked at him hard. “What’s going on?”
Returning Sheeran’s stare, Edmund let out a deflated sigh. Something in his shoulders softened very slightly as his heavy-lidded eyes stayed on his son’s. “I spoke with the school. Sheeran—”
Surprisingly, Sheeran relaxed. Here it comes, he thought. Back to normal.
“I got another call today, son,” Edmund continued, “from an old colleague.”
“Another engineer? Is everything okay with Sky—”
Edmund’s raised hand cut him off. “Let me finish, okay?” Sheeran nodded, caught off guard by his father’s uncharacteristically abrupt manner. He was the same mild-mannered man Sheeran knew so well, but there was an assertiveness in his tone and posture as he shook off the nerves and continued to explain: “I got a call today. From a friend of mine from years and years ago. We worked together for NASA—a government-funded agency that was shut down long before you were born. I moved on, relocated up here, and they put me to use building skyscrapers instead of r—instead of doing my job.”
“I thought Skyrise Division was your job.” Sheeran couldn’t get a foothold on what his father was trying to say. “Why’d your friend call?”
“Right, right—Ryan. Ryan James didn’t move on as well. We weren’t particularly close, but from what I’d heard over the years, he became reclusive, a little eccentric. His wife left him. He’d resisted relocation, demanding to remain close to the old facility.” Edmund paused, shaking his head. Sheeran wasn’t sure whether his father was disappointed in his old colleague or just pitied him. “Anyway,” he continued, “Ryan called me this morning. He was out of his mind, ranting about a blip in the system, something in the atmosphere, deliberate patterns—I thought he must have been having an episode and accidentally dialed my office.”
“Is that why you’re so shaken up?” Sheeran knew his old man too well to be satisfied with that explanation. If James had called in the morning, Edmund surely would have gotten through whatever nervous thoughts the conversation had invited and been just fine for dinner. There was something else, and the thought of his father keeping something from him compelled him as much as his concern. “You can tell me.”
“After I hung up with Ryan—almost immediately after—I got another call from the state. They questioned me about Ryan—his location, the last time I saw him, talked to him, worked with him—it was ridiculous. It was all information the government should already have. So after they realized I was of no use, I kept the line open and got in touch with an old friend working in the city. Apparently Ryan stole a lot of expensive equipment from the NASA facilities before disappearing completely. All this time—he never stopped working. He’s probably been the only human on the planet watching the skies, monitoring the atmosphere and beyond. And he’s had the best technology to do it. Oh, he must have made so many improvements…”
“But what’s that all mean?” Over the years Sheeran had learned to be patient with Edmund, who often had more going on in his head than a normal person could have in a week and was prone to extreme tangents.
“What it means is Ryan saw something—something kept showing up on the monitors and in the data. In the atmosphere.”
“He doesn’t know what it is?”
Edmund shook his head and drained his glass, dabbing his mouth with the napkin from his lap. “Didn’t say. But he was shaken. He sounded crazed, but I knew Ryan, and he was never paranoid, never sloppy with his work. Odd as he may have become over the years, I assure you that man is still as brilliant as he was thirty-something years ago. And whatever his observations have shown him—whatever he’s found—it’s made him frantic. It scared him.”
Sheeran suppressed the shudder that crawled across his shoulders and gazed absently at his plate, still full of food. Ryan James’s call had startled Edmund enough to dig up the past. Sheeran had never heard his father talk about life before Skyrise Division and King County. He’d always thought it just didn’t matter as much to the old man. This was his life now. But now he didn’t know what to think.
“I’m sorry, Sheeran,” Edmund said. “I didn’t mean to alarm you. I think we should just stay on our toes the next few days—stay in school all day—until I can find out more.”
Sheeran nodded slowly, ignoring the school remark, and then asked, “What do you think it could be?”
“I don’t know,” Edmund sighed and shook his head. Sheeran knew how much it frustrated his father to not have the answer—especially for his son. “But I think something’s coming.”