(If only I could throw in the 7K of SGA fic I wrote yesterday and I might be sort of pacing! It's official - writing original stuff is much harder.)
OK, I totally promised I would post this thing in segments as I finish them. This is sort of terrifying because it means I can't go back and edit for the rest of the month. Which is the point, I know, but, it's also the hardest part (especially after years of trying to make myself less damn wordy in fanfic). I'm already headdesking about some things in here.
So, here you go. Ares, part 1, in all its drafty glory. OMFG.
Malcolm Wright changes the world when he is twelve years old.
He goes to the university at night with his mom for a few reasons, but mostly because he's grounded, and his choice is either to stay home while Ayanna bosses him around and hogs the big screen or to sit in the back of a lecture hall while his mother teaches a class.
"Read," is his mother's only command to him before she makes her way to the front of the room, and he can't help but notice how deliberately she avoided his repeated questions about whether or not they'd be stopping for burgers on the way home.
When he was younger, when they still lived in Kansas, he used to join her at school all the time, and they always got burgers.
The reason he's in trouble - Summer of My German Soldier and how he neglected to tell anyone about the report that's due Friday, or how he hasn't actually read more than the first two chapters – is just about the last thing he wants to spend his time on, but he dutifully pulls it out of his bag when his mom shoots him a look over the heads of twenty or thirty undergraduates. It never used to bother him to be the only kid in the room – in fact, he used to sit up front and volunteer to hold the flashlight or the slinky or whatever prop his mom was using that day to demonstrate physical laws.
It's weird, being twelve, because most of the time he still wants to hold the slinky and run home with his graded math quizzes to stick on the fridge, but he's also aware of how childish that is. He feels like the college students must feel sorry for him, struggling with middle-school English homework, if they even notice him at all.
He glares at the read-along worksheets in front of him. Simile vs. metaphor. A list of vocabulary. It isn't that he's not good at English, he decides, doodling a Martian fighting machine coming to crush the word SYMBOLISM. Last month, they'd read War of the Worlds, which was a much better book.
He gets through a few pages, but his attention wanders whenever the roomful of students start laughing. He's heard all of his mom's jokes before, about Newton's laws and thermodynamics and how light is a double-agent for particles and waves. She calls herself a Comedian Physicist, and Ayanna might say, "Mom, you're so embarrassing!" four or five times a day, but Malcolm still likes the jokes. Eighth-grade "physical science" class isn't nearly as entertaining; they spent a whole week rehashing how a screw is an inclined plane. Malcolm can't understand how anyone – Archimedes or his classmates – would need to figure that out, when the world has always looks that way to him: everything is made up of ever smaller components, seamlessly fitting together, exerting force on each other in ways far more obvious than the comparisons between racial and religious prejudice in his English homework. He remembers being a little kid, three or floor, sitting on the kitchen floor and staring into a silver spoon, moving it closer and father from his eye until he found the exact spot where the image flipped over. He realized in that one instant, the reflection of his eye poised between upside-right and upside-down, that everything he saw was perception, that there was a reason for the way everything interacted in the world if he just slowed down enough to see it, and when he looked up from the spoon, it all made sense. He wasn't just Malcolm walking through the world, pushing things over at random; they fell because of how everything pulled on each other, even things he couldn't see – air, gravity, light.
(His mother told him later that the distance where the reflection of his eye flipped is called the focal point, that the shape of the spoon is concave and that made it a converging mirror, but the names always seemed tacked-on, something textbook writers had invented to make the obvious seem complicated and secretive, reserved for grown-ups.)
The Martian tripod on his worksheet is starting to take over the whole page (a heat ray beam has taken out the names of the main characters and the War II part of World War II). In the background he adds their home planet in the distance, with explosions bursting out of the surface from the Martian rockets taking off.
Drawing complete, and class at least halfway over, he returns to his book. Maybe, if he's lucky, in the next chapter aliens will land and obliterate Patty Bergen and her German Soldier and there won't be a single metaphor for the rest of the book.
From the front of the room, he hears, "Gravity doesn't just suck sometimes," and as the students laugh, even though he doesn't look up, he can see his mom writing on the board in her precise script F = G * ((m1m2)/r2)), sees the planet and alien tripod on his worksheet as all sound fades out, can imagine his mom spelling out the definition gra-v-i-t-a—t—i—o—n—a—l----c---o---n---s-
In the silence he sees two bodies – particlesplanetstripodspointsspacetime – moving away from each other, lines of force sliding across the surface, the six simple machines from his physical science class and his grandfather's sailboat tacking into the wind and invisible reactions of particles and electrons and-
It snaps back, and when he looks down he has covered three pages of Summer of my German Soldier with shaded spheres and lines and curves and hash marks to show where there weren't enough dimensions, and it's almost there, if he could just open his eyes wide enough.
His mother takes him for a burger afterwards, and he tells her something about his assigned topic for his English paper and she gives him a pep talk about how school will get better, and he doesn't remember any of it.
In school, in the hallway, he sees kids bumping into each other, lockers slamming, classrooms opening and closing as if none of them are familiar. They're density and surface volume, exerting independent motion, and when he drops a pen on the ground and it tumbles end over end he feels that same slowdown from the lecture hall, like it's almost there, like the knowledge blowback is inevitable but until he gets it he's frozen in the focal point, neither right-side-up or upside-down.
At home, he repeats his experiment with the pen with an empty plastic bottle, then fills it with an inch of water, closes it up, and drops it again. He repeats it until the bottle is nearly full, and he tries to watch it, but his eyes close as soon as it leaves his fingers and he tracks it blind, feeling the earth rotating beneath him and traveling through space around the sun (around the galaxy (around the local group (around the center of the universe))). Without looking, he knows exactly when it will hit the ground.
He doesn't realize anyone is in the kitchen with him until he hears, "Are you autistic?"
"Ayanna!" His father chastises, coming in from the dining room, and while the two of them argue about what is or isn't an acceptable thing to say, Malcolm finishes making his sandwich (he came in here for that, originally), and takes it to the living room to watch the Celtics game, streaming live from the East Coast.
"God, Dad!" Ayanna shrieks from the kitchen. "You're completely overreacting, like you always do!" She stomps off up the stairs, and Malcolm turns the TV volume up, a nice jump shot, rebound, technical foul, the basketball rolls away from the action and another player picks it up, the seamless interaction of sphere and hand-
The TV shuts off. His dad's in front of him, out of nowhere, holding the remote control. Malcolm looks down at his plate; the sandwich is gone.
"English," his dad reminds him. "Let me know when that outline's done."
For a second, his dad standing over him and the empty plate and the weight of gravity holding him to the couch, it snaps into focus, crystal clear.
"I'm going," he says aloud, and the part of him that's speaking really does plan to write a five paragraph essay.
Upstairs, he lays out half a ream of paper on the floor of his room, wall to wall. He uses circles and squares when he runs out of letters to assign, draws equations and numbers and H.G. Wells' alien spacecraft blasting off from Mars, turns his light off before his mother can check on him for bedtime and by flashlight writes out massive particles spiraling away from each other on a twisted axis, relativity licking against their skin.
In the end, it only takes three pages.
His dad finds it after Malcolm leaves for the light rail, bleary-eyed and cranky. He goes upstairs to make sure the kids left their bedroom lights off, and he brings the stapled set of papers to his wife.
"This was in Malcolm's room. He has pages of it all over the floor... is it homework?"
Dr. Asia Wright finishes pouring a cup of coffee, looks at the diagrams and equations written in blue and brown marker (scented, like blueberry and cinnamon). Her mouth slowly falls open.
"What is it?" Doug asks.
"I'm not sure," she says. She puts the mug down and works over the pages with her fingers, tracing her son's blocky handwriting, drawing invisible connecting lines between variables across the equations. "This..."
"What? Did he get this off the internet?"
Asia shakes her head, leaving her finger poised above the last group of closed perentheses. Her gaze snaps up. "Oh, my god."
Malcolm's still in a bad mood when he gets home, a note from his English teacher surely already sitting in his parents' inboxes. He turned in something for his Summer of my German Soldier paper, but it was a paragraph and a half written during Advanced Math. He's pretty sure the teacher didn't actually read it before holding him after class and informing him that she'd be talking to his parents and his new deadline was Monday, but he doesn't think it would have helped much if she had. The difference between racism in World War II and now is that my mother teaches in a university instead of being a maid seemed like a good thesis when he needed something to write and had only read the first three chapters, but he doubts Ms. Banks will see it that way.
He plans to head right upstairs, but he hears his mother's voice, and usually, only his dad is home this early on a Friday, which means he's in even more trouble than he thought.
"Malcolm," she calls before he can decide what his excuse will be. She might enjoy it when he talks science fiction with her and he's planning to show her the idea he came up with, but the house rules are pretty strict about homework before play.
His dad always says it's better to face the music, so he trudges into the dining room.
His mom's not alone. He recognizes Dr. Gregg from the Christmas parties his mom throws every year, and Malcolm's dad is there, too. On the table are stacks of papers, the dead-ends he drew up last night before everything fit together. He panics a little – his parents might go through his room every now and again, but Dr. Gregg is practically a stranger, and Malcolm can't quite figure out what this whole scenario has to do with his missing English paper.
"It's good to see you again," Dr. Gregg says. "Come on in. I'm just talking with your mom."
"Don't use that look," his mom says. "You're not in trouble. We found something in your room." She holds up his three page idea, the condensed version of the idea that's kept him up for two nights. "Malcolm, did you do this all by yourself?"
"Yeah..." he drops his basketball-themed messenger bag on the floor and comes over to the table. He stands a little bit behind his dad's chair. He can see on the table a bunch of pages he didn't write and two full touch-screens, diagrams and equations and proofs with his mom's handwriting and choppy scribbles that remind him of his dad's, but are probably Dr. Gregg's. Malcolm's dad never goes anywhere near math if he can help it. Ayanna's the same way; Malcolm and his mom usually torture them on vacations by giving each other challenge equations and solving for X out loud.
"Do you know what it is?"
He watches Dr. Gregg, a little creeped out by all the attention. He mumbles, "Just a thing I was thinking about."
His dad stands up. "Jake, you want some coffee? Come pick a roast."
Malcolm's heart is pounding. "I know I should have read that book for English," he starts, and his mom looks confused for a second, and then shakes her head.
"I asked Dr. Gregg to come over and take a look at this."
Malcolm has made proofs and diagrams before. Usually, her response is to show him more about the topic on the internet or correct his math or say, Oh, your dad's going to kill me for turning you into a science nerd -- she's never called in someone else before to look at any of his doodles.
"Is it wrong?"
She opens her mouth, closes it, and then opens it again. "I don't know. No one's ever written anything like this before."
Malcolm shrugs, thinking of Archimedes. People invent new things all the time in his science textbook, and a lot of the inventions seem pretty stupid. "So?"
His mom reaches over and squeezes his hand, smiling widely. "Dr. Gregg wants to show this to some friends of his. Is that okay?"
Malcolm shrugs again.
Before he leaves, scanned copies of the pages on his computer, Dr. Gregg tells him, "You're a remarkable young man."
Afterwards, the Wrights have pizza for dinner, and Malcolm starts working on his English paper.
Ayanna finds out before he does. It's weird enough that his sister message him during the school day, weirder still that she call, let alone three times in a row.
Between classes, he messages her back in annoyed all-caps: WHAT
It has been a few weeks and basketball season is starting, so he's not even thinking about gravity or tripods or staying up all night writing equations as fast as his fingers can go. Ayanna audios again and he picks up.
"Mom's on the nets," she says. "It's about you. I'm pushing it to your portable. What the hell is going on?"
It pops up on the screen while Ayanna's still talking in his ear. It's tagged science and human interest and breaking and it says What scientists are already calling "potentially the greatest breakthrough in space travel for the last fifty years" has been traced back to the Physics department of the University of Oregon, but according to our sources, the idea comes not from the faculty or graduate students, but from a hand-drawn proof by the minor son of Dr. Asia Wright. The article is live-updating, and the last line updates to include who has not yet been reached for comment as Malcolm watches.
"Mal! Mal!" Ayanna is chanting in his ear.
"Is this a joke?" he asks her, but Ayanna hasn't really pranked him for years. Since she turned fifteen – maybe even since she entered high school – her preferred means of dealing with him is by acting like he doesn't exist.
"Is this about that thing Mom's been working on in her office?" she sounds freaked out. "Mal, this is on a national site. They're talking about space travel to other planets. What did you do?"
His phone buzzes, a message popping up on the screen from the school, calling him to the main office. "I have to go," he says before he hangs up on his sister.
His mom is in the office, and he doesn't even mind when she hugs him in front of the school principal.
"Ayanna said something," he says, "What's going on?"
His mom pulls back, and she's beaming and a little breathless. "Baby," she says, "You just made history."
The next week is a bit of a whirlwind. The human interest article Ayanna found online is only the beginning. Even without additional information – his mother and the University PR team have been stalling on giving relevant quotes to protect Malcolm's privacy – the story has found its way to the news aggregators. They know his name, and Malcolm's last-year school photo is being posted alongside all kinds of articles: questions about what his new gravitational theory really means, in both scientific and layman's terms; opinion columns battling over whether the breakthrough was his doing or his mother's; speculation about what kind of genius Malcolm Wright really is, if he is one at all.
"When I was your age," Malcolm's dad tells him after politely refusing a reporter's brash phone call, "No one would even have noticed, unless they were an actual rocket scientist."
Excitement about space travel in the United States has been mounting for at least the past decade, especially since the space station Independence went online with a TV cast and crew on board. For his media class in 7th grade, he'd tracked the articles and specials and polls and newsforums. Ayanna watched Independence - silly romantic fake-reality shows were more her thing, and she still has a picture of Landon Cruz above her bed – but Malcolm was always more interested in the real scientists working in the background of Landon's zero-gravity adventures. There was growing public support for a civilian settlement on the moon, though the funding and technology was still lacking.
On Wednesday, he misses school and the first pre-season basketball scrimage to fly down to the Bay Area. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory is huge, full of people. It radiates intelligence, like his mom's periodic scientific conferences multiplied by ten. They're greeted by a woman whose name Malcolm doesn't catch and escorted to a meeting room on the other side of the building. The snatches of overheard conversation as they walk down the hall are an odd mix, people talking about the latest movies and what to get for lunch mixed with cabin pressure on the space station and launch timetables and things Malcolm doesn't even understand. Ayanna begged off school to join them and is walking a half-step in front of him, like she's guarding him. Malcolm appreciates it; it's been a while since his sister has been on his side in anything, but she's a force to be reckoned with. Ever since she flattened a kid on the elementary school playground for picking on him, he's been awed and terrified by her power in equal measure.
"We've been really looking forward to meeting you," the woman escorting them says. "Your paper is all anyone has been talking about all week."
Malcolm looks at his mom. He knows what the woman means, of course, but it's a little unnerving to imagine what his dad calls "actual rocket scientists" talking about his idea, or calling the scribbles he did at midnight with smelly markers a paper. He feels nervous, like he's probably going to have to explain it. He's not good at that, which is probably why he's getting Cs and Ds in English even when he actually reads the books.
Dr. Wright – Malcolm takes a little comfort that his mom is Dr. Wright and knows how to handle these things – speaks on his behalf. "Thank you! We're all very excited to be here."
There's bagels, juice and coffee in the meeting room when they get there, and five people milling around the refreshments. Malcolm doesn't miss that his mom straightens her shoulders when one of them comes over to introduce herself as Jane Wilder.
"The head of NASA," Malcolm's mom adds, giving him a look until he says:
"Pleased to meet you, Dr. Wilder." He makes a guess that she's probably a doctor, if she's the head of NASA.
The woman shakes his hand with a firm grip. "You can call me Jane, Malcolm. And you must be Malcolm's sister?"
Ayanna looks a little put out at being described that way. "You can call me Ayanna."
Jane smiles. "Of course. I'm sorry." Ayanna glares suspiciously. Malcolm's glad, again, that his sister came along, because there are a lot of adult eyes on him and it's nice to have someone that's more or less his age sharing the heat.
She maintains her vigilance until they go over for juice cups and she notices one of the other strangers in the room. "You were on Independence!" she gasps. "You must know Landon!"
The man she's talking to, a white man maybe their mom's age, smirks like this isn't the first time a teenage girl has said this exact thing to him. "I'm not really in touch with him," he says, shaking Ayanna's hand. He looks over at Malcolm and winks. His voice is serious, like Ayanna isn't being ridiculous, but his eyes are warm. "You know those TV stars. They usually keep to themselves."
"I watched every episode," Ayanna gushes, while Malcolm tries to recall the man's name. He was one of the more prominent background scientists. He might have even been in charge of the mission. Malcolm remembers him from the episode where space debris knocked a life support canister loose from the outside of the station; he explained the problem rationally to the camera as a "fairly routine setback, not life-threatening at this stage" while the actors were hyping up the drama behind him and Landon Cruz cursed, "Let me the fuck out there! I'll fix it with superglue!"
The man smiles at her and shakes her hand. "It was definitely one of the more interesting missions I've ever been on." He shakes Malcolm's hand after that and introduces himself, "Warren Bramhall. I hear America Now is calling you the Boy Wonder. Maybe you're destined to be the next Landon Cruz: Space Hero?"
"Oh, gross," Ayanna says.
Warren looks down at Malcolm's school messenger bag, inherited from his dad, black with a red basketball and the old Portland Trail Blazers logo. "We set up a net on Independence," he says.
"How did that work in orbital gravity?" Malcolm asks, imagining two teams of players floating in the air, dribbling off the walls and ceiling.
"Not that well, but it sure was nice to dunk once in my life."
"My dad can dunk," Malcolm says, and adds, "on Earth. Our net's not regulation height, but he played in college."
"Do you play?"
Malcolm nods. "First scrimage is today. I'm missing it."
"Well, I guess it's not every day that you reinvent space travel as we know it." Warren leans closer and looks around the room for dramatic effect. "The others don't really understand the important priorities."
The bagels are a little dry, but the meeting's actually pretty interesting. Jane-the-head-of-NASA leaves after greeting them, but the others stay and draw out equations on the touchscreen table and encourage Malcolm's input like he's a peer instead of a kid. He gets lost frequently with the jargon and variables he doesn't know, and his mom translates.
It's exciting, seeing the crazy idea that came to him while listening to his mom's lecture a month ago come to life on the table. It seems possible, theoretical spaceships using the lines of gravitational force against each other, using the power of a planet's gravity well as fuel to escape, like a sailboat tacking into the wind or airplane wings using air and speed to lift into the sky.
"This is crazy," one of the scientists says, laughing. They're all looking at him with a little bit of awe, even Warren, treating him the way Ayanna would treat a famous actor. Like he's gifted, more special than a regular human. "What even gave you the idea?"
Malcolm shrugs. He thinks about War of the Worlds and the explosions from the alien spaceships leaving Mars, and how pencils spin end over end when you drop them. "I don't know," he admits. "It just made sense at the time."
He stops being nervous and just has fun, until they start throwing out questions to each other and to him that he can't answer, can't even really understand. They're expanding the theory, connecting it with the latest theoretical research out of Cal Tech and MIT, and
They ask him some questions he can't answer, expanding the theory, connecting it with the latest theoretical research out of Cal Tech and MIT, and when he looks over at his mom for help, she's watching him with a look he's never seen before.
"This is out of my league, baby," she tells him. "I wish I could help."
In the corner of the room, Ayanna's been writing a school paper on her portable, but she's looking at them, at him, and Malcolm realizes she's been listening as he shows the experts how to model his idea and points out flaws in their suggestions. She's not looking at him like he's a little kid, the brother she pushes around. She's looking at him like she doesn't even know him.
It's the first time in all of this that Malcolm feels like a freak.
Back in their hotel, Ayanna is still looking at him that way.
He thinks it might be because an old man behind the hotel desk held up portable with Malcolm's picture and asked him if he was that "boy wonder," before saying he was honored to meet him.
Ayanna flops down on the bed in annoyance. "What were you even talking about? Are you seriously that smart?" Then, after a pause, "Okay, so if you're that smart, how did you fail English last spring?"
He glares at her. He doesn't want to admit that he's a little nervous that he might actually be that smart - he's always been good at math and science, but having the experts at JPL ask him questions is kind of scary, now that he thinks about it. At the time, when all he was thinking about was the work itself, it was exciting. Now he's wondering what this is going to mean for his life. The articles were enough for his classmates and teachers to start asking him questions; he has no idea what will happen if he starts getting interviewed for news aggregators. Warren Bramhall was right, they are calling him the Boy Wonder online, and he doesn't really want to think about what his teammates are going to call him on the basketball court if that nickname sticks. If they even let him play after missing the scrimage.
"I saw a sign for a pool downstairs," his mother is saying. "Do you want to swim? I packed your suits just in case."
"You didn't pack the green one, did you?" Ayanna makes a face, and holds up the ends of her hair. She got it re-braided sometime over the past week or two -- Malcolm doesn't really pay attention to that -- and there are thin colored ribbons braided in. "That will totally clash. And it's ugly."
He ignores their argument about what looks good and what doesn't and changes. They're the only ones in the pool area, and while his mother soaks in the hot tub and Ayanna sits on the edge with only her feet in the water ("I am so not going to mess up my hair. What if Landon shows up at NASA tomorrow? I mean, I know he's filming the Boardwalk movie, but I heard on the nets that they're thinking about bringing Independence back for another season..."). When she's done telling them about where the Independence stars are today and which ones she hopes don't come back for the new hypothetical season, she calls friends on her portable to tell them about meeting "that guy who fixed the life support!"
Malcolm sinks underwater, holding his nose closed, enjoying the silence. His mom put him in swim lessons as a kid over his dad's objections ("What for? The kid's just gonna sink. Black men belong on dry land, Asia."), and as his father predicted, he didn't do well. What frustrated him at age six relaxes him now, feeling his density bring him under the water. The pressure of the liquid around him pushes uniformally against his skin, and he imagines he's in a different environment completely, not on Earth, with a different gravity and language.
He splashes to the surface to breathe when the pressure inside his lungs is too great, pushing off the bottom of the pool with his feet, and the cold air and harsh sound of Ayanna's phone call reverberating around the pool room acoustics brings him back to reality.
Jane Wilder is on the news that night, giving a press conference. "I met young Malcolm Wright today," she says, "and he's a great kid with some truly revolutionary ideas about the physics of space travel."
"She met me, too," Ayanna points out under her breath. "And Mom. If Mal gets to meet Landon, he'd better take me."
"Shhh," their mom says.
"For now, Malcolm's family and we at NASA are asking you to respect his privacy until he chooses to speak with you, but we have been working with him on developing his theories, and we're all very excited. It goes to show you that from Newton's apple to a young man from Oregon, breakthroughs can come from anywhere. In one day, this boy changed the human colonization of other worlds from a dream to an inevitability."
Ayanna punches him in the arm. "No pressure," she says.
The next morning, they go back to JPL. Instead of the roomful of scientists, this time they meet in Jane Wilder's office. Warren is there, as well as a man named Brian who introduces himself as NASA's press director.
"We're not going to push you into anything," Brian says, "but we're getting dozens of calls a day for interviews with and quotes from Malcolm. America Now wants to do a special on him."
"What kind of special are we talking about here? He's twelve years old; I'm not about to have my son made into some kind of gimmick," Asia says.
"We absolutely have no intention of allowing that," Jane says. On her desk is a moon rock in a glass container, ornately labeled. Her walls are covered with floor-to-ceiling art panels of planetary bodies and distant astronomical phenomena and an artistic shot of the space station. There are signed mission photos behind her desk of all the manned missions going back to Alan Shepard. Malcolm thinks he could spend hours in here, just looking.
"I appreciate what you're dealing with," Asia continues. "Believe me, I know how hard it is to get government funding for scientific undertakings."
Jane writes something on the corner of a notepad and then looks back up. "The space station worked so well because it was a tangible project and it had recognizable faces, even if most people weren't supporting it specifically for the scientific advance it represented. Even then, it took significant government money to get that project off the ground, even with the help of our foreign allies. You know the Russians are pulling back from space exploration to deal with internal problems. We're facing a lot of cutbacks on the moon project and everywhere else."
Warren hasn't said anything yet. Malcolm watches his reactions to the others talking. He looks like he wants to smile, but is holding it back.
"Malcolm has already dramatically increased public interest. Just getting this kind of positive press would make a big difference in the next budgetary session in congress. The United States wants to stay in the forefront of space exploration, but it's hard for people to rally behind something that's relatively intangible." Brian smiles at Malcolm. "Who wouldn't love a story like this?"
"Regardless," Warren says, finally speaking up, "I'd like to ask your permission - both of your permissions - to stay in touch on this project. You have a lot to contribute beyond eighth grade science classes."
Malcolm doesn't really like being discussed like he's not in the room or too young to be included in the debate about his own future, so he appreciates Warren speaking to him directly. "Would I get to work at NASA?" he asks. He doesn't say it out loud, but he's thinking about whether this would mean he could get out of English class forever. "I mean, not during basketball season."
Jane and Warren exchange grins. Jane says, "You're a little young for a full-time career."
Brian adds, "But there are lots of ways you could help the program in the meantime."
Jane looks at Asia. "I've got kids, too. This is just a conversation. The publicity you could do would help the space program tremendously, if you're willing. We can limit the interviews and make it work around your schedule. The truth is… you may not be able to keep him out of the news, at least not for the next little while, and this will give you some measure of control over it." She leans forward over the desk. "No matter what you decide, though, we have a strong interest in Malcolm's future education."
Asia takes Malcolm's hand and squeezes it. "Do you understand what we're talking about?" she asks.
Being an astronaut was always second on his list, after playing professional basketball. He thinks it might have moved into first place. "I don't know," he says. He looks over at Warren, and remembers seeing him doing press conferences about Independence when he was tracking it for his media class. He imagines being in his place, the astronaut talking to Earth from orbit. "But it sounds pretty fun."
They got a full tour the day before, but it didn't include the basketball court out back. It's a brisk day, though warmer than Eugene this time of year, so Asia makes Malcolm put on his sweater before following Warren outside.
His mom is still talking with Jane and Brian, and Malcolm doesn't mind leaving them to it. Ayanna stayed in the hotel room - bored with NASA already - but Malcolm is fascinated by everything he sees.
"I figure we owe you this, since you missed your game," Warren says, retrieving a basketball out of a plastic bin at the edge of the court and throwing it to him.
Malcolm takes aim at the hoop and misses, but not by much.
"How long have you been playing?"
They're passing leisurely back and forth, shooting from various places around the 3-point circle. "My dad taught me when I was a kid. He played at U of O. Center."
Warren is missing more shots than he makes, but seems to take it in stride. "I don't get the chance to do this often enough," he says.
"Don't you play with your kids?"
Warren pauses and holds the ball for a second before resuming dribbling. "No kids," he says. "It wouldn't really be fair to them to have a dad who's up in space for half a year at a time."
"They could watch you online." Malcolm doesn't think he would mind. It's not that he doesn't love his dad, but being able to say his dad's on the space station would be a lot cooler than saying his father works in banking. "I think you should be able to take kids in space," he decides aloud. "Maybe next season on Independence, if they have one."
"It's not always as exciting as they make it seem on the vids. You spend a lot of time running routine tests."
Malcolm does a lay-up and scores. "It's got to be better than school."
Warren is shaking his head.
The older man smiles. "You're pretty normal for a physics prodigy, you know."
"I've only done this one thing," Malcolm points out. He's heard about prodigies. Ayanna used to play the piano when she was younger, until she got discouraged that she'd never be as great as Mozart. She was about 10 when she first declared that she was 'past her prime.'
"So far," Warren says. "You want to take a look at some of the other projects we've been working on? Only if you feel like it. You're getting a break from school, after all."
This isn't at all like school. "As long as I don't have to write any essays."
Warren laughs, and Malcolm decides he likes it here.
At first, he doesn't understand much of what they're showing him. Warren introduces him to a few people working in front of large computer monitors, and they show him some of what they're working on. There are pages and pages of equations, full of Greek letters pointing to constants Malcolm doesn't know, but there's still something exciting about it. He wants to learn.
"Be careful with those guys," warns one of the scientists, a dark-haired woman with a long last name Malcolm doesn't catch. "They like to play stump the chump. Just don't bet them any real money."
"Careful," Warren warns his colleagues, "this kid might win."
"Oh, I'm sure he's smarter than all of us," the woman replies, winking at Malcolm. "They cheat, though." She's sucking on a lollipop as she works on her screen, and after catching Malcolm's eyes, she subtly retrieves another one from her desk and tosses it to him.
Someone else yelps, "I thought that was your last one!"
Warren puts a hand on Malcolm's shoulder. "Most of the time, we work very hard in here." He pulls out his portable to check a message, and then says, "Jane is bringing your mom to my desk soon. We should go."
Compared to all the giant posters of every corner of space that were hanging up in Jane's office, Warren's cubicle is fairly spartan. Malcolm identifies some of the newer shots from the Mars aerial divers in the randomized screen saver on the monitor. A second screen, lying on the desk, has a bunch of equations that Malcolm recognizes as his own formulas. The only personal touch he sees is a small still photograph of a woman dancing, caught in mid-flight, pushing away from gravity like the particles in Malcolm's equations.
His mom shows up with Jane and Brian, and she's smiling, but with a worried crease in her brow.
"This place is great," Malcolm tells her. "I think I should just come here instead of school."
She smiles at him. "One step at a time, Malcolm. They've invited you back for the summer, and some of the scientists here want to work with you remotely during the year."
Brian is nodding behind her. "If you can make it, America Now wants to interview you in New York tomorrow, and Real News that night."
Malcolm looks at his mom. Those programs have been on for as long as he can remember. He remembers Ayanna watching Landon Cruz being interviewed on America Now; the anchors gave him box seats to the Knicks game. He can't even imagine what the kids in school will say. "Can I?" he asks.
"We need to call Dad and talk as a family," Asia says, "but if you decide you want to do this, and you understand what it means, I won't stand in your way."
Malcolm grins and hugs her. When he looks back at Warren to see his reaction, the man is smiling, his expression reflected in the images of Mars on his screen.