It was a cold summer day on Haalm. The Academy had just re-opened after the tragedy a week ago. Though the air was warm enough to melt the skin, the students went about with a mellowness in their hearts. They were off in their isolated corners, not giving two damns about one person to the next. The gladiators sat in their large, jock-like groups, but even they kept to themselves.
The noise in the cafeteria was barely above a mumble. I'd usually sit in here with the gladiators, who were all extremely good with utilizing and adapting their energies for the arena, but since the attack, I'd felt like my heart had just been left out to slowly decompose until it couldn't beat any longer. Sy hadn't returned a single of my calls or texts, and there was no confirmation on whether he was dead or alive, which made it all the more likely that he had been apart of the evacuations.
I passed my usual spot and moved to the outside area to one of the empty, bleach white picnic tables. I sat my tray of food on the table and stared at it, debating on whether I should force myself to finally eat despite the nausea besieging the gate of my throat. The thought of food only gave it more enthusiasm, so I pushed the tray to the side just as I heard a voice come from the other side of the courtyard.
I looked up and marked a slender, wavy-haired boy approaching the opposite side of the table. He wore brown cargo pants, and an orange hoodie inside of a black jean vest. As he got closer I could see the familiar purple eyes behind the square frames on his face.
“Hey, Gem,” I spoke out.
“How you holdin' up?”
I paused trying to find the right word that wouldn't make me an obvious liar, while at the same time, give an indication that it's not something I want to talk about. Suddenly my brother came to mind.
“I-I'm managing, ” I stammered.
“No sign of Sy?”
I shook my head solemnly, looking away to keep myself composed. I hated crying, but the more I thought about it, the more likely it became that he was on one of the evacuation ships that were boarded by the pirates right outside the Ezula System.
Gem didn't press on.
I still had no idea why they called him Gem, when his actual name was Jerall. They said it had something to do with his energy, but I'd never seen it when I fought him. He belonged to the Polchesters, the head of the occultic family branches known as The Gifted. From birth, everything for them was occultics. Every family mastered several types of energy techniques and at least one rare one. The Polchesters were said to be masters of several of the rarest occultic techniques, known only to a few.
Even so, I'd always challenge him to fights when the jocks held their sparring sessions. I racked up loss after loss, but on one day, I ended up surprising him with one of his own moves and got my first win against him. That day, as a reward, he decided to introduce me to his father, the head of The Family Branches. Due to Gem's good word, I got to train with the old man, who wasn't really that old, but insisted on moving like he was. At least up until sparring time came around. Then, it became a completely different ball game. It took me weeks before I'd even gotten the hang of his methods. Hell, if it hadn't been for Gem, it would have taken months, maybe years before I got what the hell he was doing.
After I finally got his teaching methods and how I should go about learning them, I'd finally started progressing on my training. I started smiling a lot then, eagerly anticipating the next lessons. Being the corny dad joker he was, that old man mixed smiles and Lyla to get Lyles. Since then, that'd been my nickname around the gladiators.
I turned my gaze back to Gem, who's eyes were held by the sky, in deep thought.
“Do you want to find him?” he asked.
I drifted back to the memory of Sy's image. The way his messy hair fell over his deep brown eyes. His mellow, nonchalance attitude that could flare instantly the moment he saw someone even think of making me uncomfortable. And even though it was a rarity, I could still vividly picture him smiling, breaking the stone face that he kept for everyone else. I was the one place where he let his guard down. And he was the only place I would let my insecurities show. Because I didn't have to worry about him trying to prance on me. The presence of each other was why we hung out. And it was my image of him that kept me from crumbling to pieces, even when he seemed so distant. Knowing that he could still be out there, I wanted to find him more than anything.
Gem was looking out of the corner of his eye.
“I've gotten a mission from The Academy,” he continued.
“I'm leading a team to the nearby pirate systems for recon and extraction. Tez is already on a mission, so my usual team is down a person.”
What did this have to do with me? I was a freshman at The Academy, and besides local petty crimes that actual law enforcement didn't feel like dealing with, we rarely got called for missions.
“A-are you asking me to join?” I stammered.
“Gem, I'm a freshmen. Besides-”
“Do you want to find him?” he interrupted, glaring his eyes in my direction. It was a familiar look, identical to the one he used whenever I hesitated or pulled back on my moves to avoid injuring him. It was the same look he gave me before countering with a viscous attack that usually left me out for the count during our sparring sessions. It was his way of saying I was worrying about the wrong thing.
I definitely wanted to find Sy, but I couldn't help but think if it was the smartest move to bring me along. This had to be a high ranking mission, and for someone as inexperienced as I was, that was like asking for a hot day during a drought. Did I even have the skill to save Sy if he had been taken by pirates? I mean, yeah, I got a win against a few of the jocks, but knowing you have a crowd of people that can save your ass at any moment makes you feel a lot less worried about the things that are around you, and a lot more focused on the fight. In the real world, a fight is just as likely to end from ship debris than a weapon to the chest.
But the look in Gem's eyes was relentless.
“What do you think any of this accomplishes?” he muttered, motioning his head toward the center of the academy.
“This training. These rules. These restrictions. You think any of these people were prepared for what happened? You think any of the sparring sessions they had mattered?”
“Look around. Everyone's grieving, hoping that by some miracle, their loved ones arise from the ashes and take them into their arms again. They sit here, moaning and complaining about how powerless they are, and what they would do if they this and that, and none of them realize that they have everything they need right at their fingertips. They already have every tool they need to fight back any threat in this galaxy, and you know why they won't take it? Because they've lived their lives waiting for someone else's approval. They're so blinded, that they put up the boundaries that limit their own potential. And instead of striving for that power, they wait for someone else to give it to them. And then they wait for someone to tell them how to use it. And they fall into a comfort zone, where they only feel safe when someone else is commanding them. And the thought of using their power for their own purposes become foreign, and instead they end up following others into their foolish dilemmas, risking their life for the sake of something that's not even important to them.”
Gem paused, turning his gaze back to the clouds.
“Tell me, Ka'Lyla. What's makes you so afraid, that you wouldn't risk your life to keep the person who care so deeply for? The person, who could be getting tortured to death at this very moment, his life, at your fingertips. Is life really so scary that it's easier to live without him?”
His words had me re-thinking everything that I'd done, and the decision I was about to make. What point was there to all this if in the end I couldn't protect the ones closest to me? Sy, Gem, and Mel were the only three guys I really had in my life, and all of them would have been on the first ship off of the planet if this was the other way around. Yet, I'd been sitting here for a week, whining like a sick puppy to everyone I've come across, and now that I'd gotten the best opportunity to find Sy, I'd let my fears add doubt to my conscious. Fear that I'm not strong enough. I'd sat here, discrediting my own abilities, because I'm worried about someone being stronger than me. Not even the gladiators were ready for the tragedy that happened. Most people ran.
There was no point to living another if I couldn't do so with the people I care about.
I'd made my decision
“I want to join the team.”
Gem casted a glance toward me again, and then smirked.
“Good. Because I've already signed you on for the job.”
“H-how, did you know I would-”
“Because I know that of all people, you aren't one to be held down. You've got relationships that most haven't conceptualized yet. And I know you'd do anything to protect them. Because if you weren't that type of person, you wouldn't train as much as you do. That's why I chose you.”
I blushed, slightly flattered at the praise.
“So, what now?” I asked.
“We're heading out from the docks tonight. You already know Ari. You'll meet Judo and Tank once you get there. I'll brief along the way.”
Gem jumped down from the table and started walking in the other direction.
“Oh, and by the way,” he said, turning his head. “Don't bring a bunch of goddamn suitcases. You'll learn that Judo likes to fill up the cargo hold with all the combat crap he lugs around, and plus, we have washing machines on the ship, so you don't need to pack heavy. Provisions are also covered.”
Despite my best efforts, I couldn't help but to start giggling. His face had gotten more serious telling me not to bring luggage than it did getting me to go in the first. After I got some control of my brief laughter, I nodded my head.
He gave another smirk, telling me to be there for seven, before turning and walking away.
I turned my glance back to my food, and my stomach orchestrated a symphony to let me know I was hungry. I'd have to keep my strength up if I wanted to be of any use. I grabbed my fork, and dug into the mashed potatoes and meatloaf, all the while thinking of the journey that lied ahead.