The two boys ran down the hallway at top speed, the older quickly outdistancing the younger in their race to catch the tiny creature.
“Slow down, you're gonna squish it!” the younger boy yelled, his mop of dark hair falling into his eyes as he ran. He flicked his head to clear it.
“I won't,” his brother replied, running awkwardly with a glass jar in one hand. “I'll be very careful.”
The mouse skittered ahead of them faster, but the chase did not last long. With hallways perfectly molded out of plastic on the space station, there was no chink for the rodent to hide in, and soon enough the older boy clapped the jar over it.
“Got it,” he said, and the younger boy gave a shout of triumph.
“Now we have a pet!”
“No, we should tell Nanny. Mice are pests.” The older boy slipped a piece of paper underneath the lid and flipped it, the mouse landing on it's back inside the jar. “Nanny will want to know.”
“But she'll just kill it.” The younger boy pouted.
“Kill what? What do you have there, Aver?” A man in a crew uniform, designating him a ship official, greeted them as he turned the hallway.
“Don't tell him!” Aver's younger brother whispered.
“Shut up, Ryx,” the older whispered back.
“Where did you find that?” The man knelt down and poked the jar. The mouse stayed immobile, beady eyes huge.
“Nowhere,” Ryx said.
“Coming out of the kitchen. Our kitchen. It's ours, sir,” Aver answered, but sounded unsure.
“It's our pet!” Ryx said with more conviction.
The man sighed. “You both know pets aren't allowed onboard the Niveus. Can you tell me why, Aver?”
“All animals are a risk. They carry disease,” Aver intoned, staring at the mouse with a look of fleeting disappointment.
Ryx pouted. Aver was such a know it all, just because he was three years older. “Mice don't!” he shouted, not really knowing if that was true or not.
“We can't risk it. What would your parents think? You wouldn't want to endanger your Nanny, would you?” the man said.
Ryx looked down. “No, sir,” Aver answered, his voice wavering.
Ryx had not seen his parents for four years, since he was six years old, and had trouble remembering them sometimes. Aver always grew quiet and sad when they were mentioned, though, so Ryx figured they must have been very good parents. Now they were at war with the crazy man who called himself King of the Earth, and they served on some ship called the Arterix. The Niveus was full of children like him and Aver, whose parents were off fighting the war. The government took good care of them, assigning them to a kindly woman named Ms. Rippol. Both boys called her Nanny.
“So, you will give me the mouse?” the man asked, holding out a hand for the jar. Aver handed it over wordlessly.
“You're not going to kill it, are you?” Ryx asked.
“I will send exterminators to your dormitory to make sure there are no others,” the man said, avoiding Ryx's question. He moved off down the hall, the mouse scrabbling in its jar as he walked off.
“Why did you do that!?” Ryx yelled.
“What?” Aver turned to his brother, and caught the smaller boy as he tried to ineffectually punch him.
“He's going to kill it, and all the rest of the little mice! Nanny will be in trouble for having them!”
Aver shoved Ryx away. “It's safer, remember? We can't keep a disgusting pest anyway.”
“But you said I could keep it as a pet!” Ryx shouted.
“No, I said I'd help you catch it. The pet thing was your idea. And who wants a rodent as a pet anyway?”
Aver sighed. “C'mon, we'd better go tell Nanny that they're sending exterminators. This is your fault.”
“Is not!” Ryx yelled, but followed his older brother back to their rooms anyway. He didn't have much else to do now that his plan for a pet had been ruined.
It was two years later when Ryx learned the real reason why pets were not allowed onboard the Niveus.
The boy, now 12, sat at his desk in the schooling complex on the ship, staring out the window. He had seen a member of the repair crew float by, tether cable trailing in the darkness of space, and was waiting to see if he would again. He wondered what had broken on the ship, though it never entered his mind that it could be serious. The Niveus and the residential stations like it had been built and stabilized hundreds of years ago, and nothing had ever threatened them, not even the King.
The King still made no sense to Ryx, even now that they had been at war with him for six years. He had declared himself King, declaring it the will of the Earth, which had only recently become inhabitable again after a thousand years. Ryx wasn't too clear on why they had to leave in the first place-something about nuclear devastation, and a technology called overgrowth to make it recover faster-but he did wonder how someone so obviously crazy could claim to rule the world and just have people believe him. Was that his magic? Was that magic was? Getting people to believe stupid things?
“Ryx?” His teacher's voice broke into his thoughts, and he looked up. A silver suited ship official was staring at him, his eyes unreadable.
Aver would have replied with a “Yes, ma'm?” But Ryx did not. He just waited, a strange shiver going up his spine.
“Come with me, Ryx,” the man said. The class murmured as Ryx got up, apprehension flowing through him. Was he in trouble?
“Where are we going?” he asked as the man led him out into the hallway.
“We're going to meet up with your brother in the principal's office.” The man was straightforward. “We have news for both of you.”
“What is it?” Ryx asked, heart pounding suddenly. “Is it our parents?”
“Just wait,” the man said, and ushered Ryx into the office.
Ryx had never had reason to go to the principal's before. Now it seemed foreboding as he walked through the opening, the door shutting behind him with a whoosh. Aver stood there, gaze flicking to Ryx as he stepped in. Nanny was there too, her eyes red. A woman with pale blond hair and a skintight white and red suit sat in a purple chair in the corner. Ryx felt like he should know the uniform design.
The door hissed again, and the man left.
“Sit down, both of you,” the woman said gently. Aver did so, but Ryx did not. Something was wrong.
The woman began. “My name is Clara. I am a doctor with the second division.”
Ryx heard Aver suck in a breath. That was the division their parents were in. Father was a soldier, and their mother was a doctor, like Clara.
Nanny gave a hiccuping sob, and Ryx suddenly knew.
“Our parents are gone, aren't they?” Aver said, voice low. It had changed recently, and now it sounded deep and harsh to Ryx's ears.
“There was an explosion on the weapons carrier Lyros. Information was leaked, and magic was involved. There was no way to predict or prevent it. I'm sorry, boys.” She lowered her head, and Ryx knew she couldn't be sincere. How many times had she given news like this?
“Leaked how?” Aver's voice shook.
“A rodent. A King's magician located it, and thus the ship.”
“How? That makes no sense.” Aver stepped forward, fists clenched. “That's stupid!”
“I cannot claim to know how magic works. I am not a sympathizer.” Clara answered calmly, her voice careful as though she were speaking to someone who was potentially dangerous. “I can only give you my condolences.”
Aver cursed, and Ryx simply stared at a potted plant by the principal's desk. Nanny began hugging him, and he was enveloped in her warmth and softness.
Had his mother been like that? He found that he could barely remember her, or his father. They had been gone too long.
Wasn't he supposed to be upset? Aver certainly was. Their parents were dead. Ryx would never see either of them again. The letters and communications would stop.
How much would it matter to him later? He wished he knew. He wished he knew what to feel.
“If you need anything, or anyone to talk to, you can contact someone at this number.” The woman was saying something, talking to Aver, who was staring straight ahead at the far wall. “I know this is a hard time. You will be excused from your classes for a week, to get things sorted out.” Her words were meaningless buzzes to Ryx's ears.
“What will happen to us?” Aver finally spoke, his voice grounding his younger brother back in reality. “Will we be able to stay on the Niveus?”
“I don't know.” The woman answered. “But arrangements will be made for you if not. Don't worry.”
Ryx let Nanny sob against him. Why was she so sad?
The exterminator had come those two years ago, and twice since, but the mice always seemed to keep coming back. Ryx used to like them watching them scurry about, waving their little whiskers as they looked for whatever it was they looked for.
When he arrived home that day, he watched one for a few minutes before walking over and stomping it to death.
“You have two choices.”
Ryx and Aver stood side by side, being addressed by two men-one was the same official who had led them to the principal's a week earlier. The other wore the uniform of a soldier of some rank in the Rule's infantry, something Ryx had not recognized but Aver had told him by whispering into his ear. The soldier kept talking.
“The war effort must pursue technology that can match the abilities of the King's mages. Work has already been done on enhancement projects for soldiers. We wish to know if you both would elect to participate in this.”
Ryx looked to Aver, unsure and afraid. He didn't know what any of that meant.
“We already have the permission from your current caretaker, Mrs. Rippol. We only need your assent.”
“Aren't we too young to fight?” Aver asked.
“On the contrary, the younger you are the better it is for the projects. Your training will take place over some years, and by the time you are of age to fight you will be far better soldiers than any of your peers. Considering that you will be recruited anyway once you are 18, it is wiser to begin now, don't you think?” The man's tone was firm and persuasive.
“Will we be together?” Ryx asked.
“If you agree, you will undergo a few physical tests. Then we can decide where best you will fit in.”
That was no answer. Ryx didn't want to leave his brother; he was all he had.
“What if we refuse?” Aver asked.
“Then you will be placed onto the Srepentia, a ship for those in similar situations to yours. I'm sorry, but since your parents are no longer serving, you are not entitled to the privileges you once had. Your current caretaker will be changed.”
So that was why she had cried.
“What kind of training will we be getting?” Aver pressed.
“We won't know until you agree and take the physical exam.”
Ryx and Aver exchanged glances. “I'd like to talk to my brother for a second,” Aver said.
“Fine. You may speak privately; we will return in a few minutes.” The two men left, and Ryx breathed a little easier.
He wanted to tell Aver that he didn't want to do it. It was too much, and they didn't know enough about it. What if they separated them? Srepentia was bad, but at least they would be together.
“I think we should do it,” Aver said. “We'll be stronger, and able to get revenge for our parents!” Aver never yelled, but he came close this time.
Ryx shut his mouth with a snap, trust for his brother displacing his fears. He was older, bigger. Aver knew better.
“Ok,” he said. A heaviness, almost a guilt, told him that he should have spoken up. But as Aver informed the soldier of their intention, Ryx did his best to ignore it.