First Interlude

Keith hurried quickly through the hallways of the Junior Space Academy main building. He was dressed smartly in his blue and white uniform, and his black shoes clapped in a steady rhythm over the shiny floor. Though he appeared to be at ease, inside Keith's thoughts were in turmoil. He had never before been called to the dean's office without first knowing what it was about. Last time it had been to congratulate him on getting the highest score on the cadets' very first flight-test simulator. But Keith had done nothing recently to earn any award or credit, and this sudden summons worried him.

The secretary in the antechamber of the dean's office area greeted Keith with a smile as he stepped in timidly.

"Hi, Keith," she greeted him warmly, "The Dean will see you now. Go right in."

Keith nodded his thanks. Since this was his second year at the J.S.A., the Dean's secretary knew him fairly well. Keith studied her face as he passed by her desk, but it was just as friendly and unreadable as it always was. So he got no hint as to whether the reason for the Dean's summons was good or bad.

With a polite knock on the door, Keith reached up to press the button that would open the door. It whooshed open with a muffled sound, waiting for him to pass through to close again. Keith did so slowly, as if reluctant to disturb the individual inside.

"Come in and take a seat, Keith," the Dean told him as soon as she saw Keith enter.

Keith ceased his slow advance and went to take a seat in front of the Dean's desk. The door closed behind him. The Dean herself was a friendly-looking, forty-something woman who had retired from the Garrison fleet as a Colonel. She still wore her uniform, which now bore the insignia of the J.S.A.

Keith settled down in the slightly-too-large chair, trying in vain to get comfortable and fighting the urge to stare at his feet like a weakling. He looked up and met the Dean's eyes. She was smiling at him, a fact that made Keith feel a bit more comfortable.

"First if all," the Dean told him, "I'd like to assure you that you're not in trouble Keith."

Keith resisted the urge to sigh with relief.

"I summoned you here because I have a favor to ask of you," the Dean continued, getting directly to the point as always.

Keith's eyebrows quirked in puzzlement. The Dean was asking him for a favor?

"Do you know a boy named Lewis Kennedy?" she asked.

Keith searched his memory. There were a lot of boys attending J.S.A., only a handful of whom he knew personally. But the name Lewis seemed to call attention to itself somewhere in his mind.

"I know," he spoke up suddenly, "He was suspended last term."

The Dean nodded, her expression now solemn.

"That's him," she said, "Lewis is coming back to school next week, starting Monday. He's going to be in your advanced trigonometry course."

Keith did not respond. He knew this was getting somewhere.

"I've asked your teacher to pair you two up," she told him, "I was hoping you might become friends with him. Lewis doesn't have very many friends right now, and since his mother died a few months ago he's been feeling pretty lonely."

Keith frowned. So, that was why he was here. They wanted him to baby-sit some troublemaker. Keith groaned inwardly. He knew being an "A" student would get him into trouble eventually. But he had too much to concentrate on, too much to live up to, to be brought down by some kid who couldn't behave himself.

Of course, he would never tell her that.

The Dean had been waiting for Keith's reaction and, getting none, continued.

"I know that you've been ahead on all of your classes," she said, "and that your trig teacher is confidant you can help Lewis catch up. Half the class, you two will spend separate from the others, where you can help Lewis with any problems. You won't have to work any harder than normal, or stay any later. And you will have my sincere thanks."

The Dean studied him. Keith tried to remain as expressionless as possible.

"Is this OK with you, Keith?" she asked.

Keith hesitated a moment before nodding reluctantly. The Dean grinned at him.

"I'm glad, Keith," she told him, "You two will start together on Monday. Your teacher will tell you what you have to do."

Keith nodded once more.

"How long do I have to do this for?" he asked.

The Dean shook her head.

"Not long," she assured him, "But I have to warn you, Keith. Lewis isn't very easy to get along with. You might have to be patient with him."

Nodding again, this time much more slowly, Keith felt a sense of dread building up inside him. This was just getting worse and worse.

"That's all for now, Keith," the Dean said, "I thank you for your cooperation in this."

Keith stood and saluted smartly at the Dean, then turned and left the office. As soon as he was safely back in the gleaming metal corridor, he let out a huge sigh of frustration. He was not OK with this. Though trig was a strong subject for him, he didn't want to miss any of the class just to help out some trouble-kid who probably didn't belong at the Academy in the first place. Lewis would just get in his way. Not to mention the fact that Keith would be singled out for hanging around with the slow guy. Not a reputation he desired.

And then there were his friends. Sven would probably be OK with it. Hannah probably would too. But Lance would just tease him to no end -- he had a knack for that. And once Lance started teasing him, everybody else would.

Keith fumed as he marched back down the corridor, back to his class. Why did they have to choose him? Why not some other guy, like one of the nerds? Keith spent the rest of his day pondering over the unjustness, the unfairness of it all.

* * *

When Keith arrived home later that afternoon, neither of his parents had returned from duty yet. Keith grabbed a soda from the fridge and headed straight to his room. As soon as he arrived he threw himself on his neatly made bed and stared up at the ceiling, which was littered with real-looking stars. He wore a deep frown on his face, and wondered to himself how he would ever live past the embarrassment to come.

When only an hour later he heard his parents returning home, Keith hopped off his bed and entered the main hall. Both his mother and his father were fully dressed in their gray and blue Galaxy Garrison uniforms. His father, a tall, dark-haired man in his mid-thirties, wore the rank of Captain while his mother, a medium-height, slender woman with strawberry-blonde hair, carried the rank of Lt. Commander. They both smiled as they saw their young son enter.

"How was school, kiddo?" his dad asked.

Keith shrugged, watching as they headed into the kitchen and following closely at their heels. His father began to prepare dinner while his mother sifted through electronic mail on the vid-screen built into the wall.

"What do you say, Keith?" his father asked, "Pizza or spaghetti?"

"Doesn't matter," he mumbled, plopping himself down at the table.

"Spaghetti it is," his dad decided, not having picked up on his son's mood.

His mother, on the other hand, did. She turned to regard her son thoughtfully.

"Is something the matter, Keith?" she asked.

Keith glanced up at her and shrugged again. His mother came to sit next to him and put an arm around him.

"Did something happen at school today?" she asked. His father paused what he was doing to glance at them over his shoulder.

"The Dean asked me to do a favor for her today," Keith replied.

Both his parents appeared both surprised and impressed by this.

"What kind of favor?" his dad asked.

"She wants me to hang out with this kid who was suspended," he told them sourly, "to help him catch up on his work."

"So what's wrong with that?" his mother asked.

"I don't want to," Keith said simply.

His parent's exchanged glances.

"And why don't you want to?"

"Because," he said, "everyone'll tease me. And I might fall behind in class."

His dad started to chuckle. Keith's mom gave him a look, then turned back to her son.

"You shouldn't worry about what other kids think, Keith," she assured him, "And I don't think you have to worry about falling behind."

"I still don't want to," he muttered.

"This Lewis boy can't be that bad, can he?" his dad asked.

"He always gets in trouble," Keith said, "The Dean says he's hard to get along with, and it's because his mother died a while ago."

Keith's own mother raised her eyes at him, then exchanged glances with her husband.

"Losing your mother is something that's very hard to deal with," she told him, "I'm sure Lewis just needs some encouragement and some positive attention to feel better. Then maybe he won't misbehave so much."

"Just think of it from his point of view, kiddo," his dad said, "How do you think you would feel if your mom died?"

Keith frowned and looked at them both, the thought apparently having never entered his mind.

"You two are gonna live forever," he told them matter-of-factly.

This caused them both to smile.

"Maybe, maybe not," his father said, "You never know when things might happen."

Keith still did not look convinced.

"Look at it this way, Keith," his mom told him, "If you help this boy out, your father and I will be very proud of you."

Keith looked puzzled.

"Really?" he asked.

"Really," he dad said, reaching over to ruffle his hair affectionately.

Keith felt himself smile for the first time that afternoon. Maybe this wouldn't be so bad after all…

* * *

Keith grasped the pen between his fingers tightly, half-willing it to snap. Of course, since the pen was made out of metal, there was little chance of him snapping it, let alone doing it with one hand. He could tell without looking that his knuckles were turning white. He very much wanted to punch-out the boy sitting next to him.

Lewis Kennedy was, like Keith, wearing his J.S.A. uniform. Thought they were both the same age of ten, Lewis was a few inches shorter, not to mention a few pounds heavier. His hair was thick and curly, and he had freckles dotting his face. He also wore a perpetual frown, which at the moment mirrored Keith's own expression.

Keith resettled in his chair, trying to keep his mind on the trig and off his desire to wring this guy's neck.

"…then when you take care of the remainder, you have to--Cut that out!"

Keith broke off from his explanation long enough to swat at Lewis' arm. The troublemaker had been poking at Keith's arm with his own magnet pen. Keith swiftly nabbed the implement from Lewis' hand and shoved it into his chest pocket. Lewis looked at him indignantly.

"That's mine!" he said angrily.

Keith, equally angry, just glared at him.

"They're for using on the computer, not poking people with," Keith told him between clenched teeth, "I'll give it back to you after we're done."

Lewis returned his glare and crossed his arms. Keith returned his look for a moment, then began to continue with the lesson. But before he could Lewis suddenly turned and faced him.

"What are you doing here, anyway?" he demanded, "I don't need you to help me!"

"The Dean asked me to," Keith growled, trying to keep his temper from erupting, "OK? Now just be quiet so we can get this over with."

"Screw this," Lewis mumbled.

Keith watched as Lewis got up and started to leave the small room they had been assigned to.

"Where do you think you're going?" he asked, rising.

"None of your business!" Lewis shouted back.

Once the door automatically closed behind Lewis, Keith fell back into his seat and slouched down, grumbling to himself. Fine, if he wants to go get himself into more trouble, what do I care? After a moment, Keith put the miniature computer away in the desk and got up to leave.

* * *

"So how did your first day with Lewis go?"

The look on Keith's face told his mother all she needed to know. Her son was a storm cloud as he walked into the den and sprawled onto the reclining easy chair. He flipped on the TV with the remote built into the arm. He felt the need to relax.

"That bad?" his mom continued. She was reading a report at the desk on the other side of the room.

"Worse," Keith stated harshly.

"What happened?"

"He wouldn't stop interrupting," Keith told her with annoyance in his voice, "He kept poking me and spinning in his chair and pressing the computer screen when he wasn't supposed to. Then he got up and left after only ten minutes."

"Were you nice to him?"

"How can I be?" he appealed, "He's a pest!"

"He's probably just looking for attention," his mom told him, "He might not get enough of it at home, now that his mom's gone."

"That's no excuse," Keith said unforgivingly, "You're supposed to have discipline at the Academy. Lewis shouldn't even be there!"

"Now, Keith," his mom admonished, "That's not a very nice thing to say. Lewis has had something terrible happen to him, and he doesn't know how to deal with it."

Keith glanced over at her, then stared down at one of the buttons on his jacket.

"I think you should give him another try," she advised, "And this time, try to be a bit more patient. I think you could be surprised, if you just be nice to him."

Keith grunted. He caught his mother looking at him, and hunkered down farther into the chair.

"OK," he mumbled finally.

His mother smiled at him.

* * *

Keith eyed Lewis as he entered the study room. His young trainee was already seated at the mini computer, toying with the magnetic pen as he waited for Keith. Once Keith walked into the room, Lewis didn't look up. Keith took his seat and used another pen to activate the correct program on the computer.

"Are you ready?" Keith asked.

Lewis made no move to reply. Sighing, Keith started into the lesson. As Keith had known he would, Lewis started into his annoying habits only seconds after he began. Keith steeled himself, willing his own brain not to succumb to Lewis' provocation. Remembering what his mother had told him the night before, Keith made a conscious effort to control his temper and not lash out at Lewis like he'd done the previous day.

Keith was extremely shocked to realize that, after only five minutes of ignoring Lewis' aggravations and instead doing his best to be congenial, Lewis stopped altogether and actually seemed to be listening to Keith. Keith was amazed, but didn't chance at ruining his good luck. He continued with the lesson, marveling each time that Lewis spoke up to ask him something about the trig. Once they were getting along, the study session went along much faster and much pleasanter than the day before.

By the time their thirty minutes were over, Keith's anger had dissipated, as had many of his negative feelings for Lewis. Lewis himself seemed much better natured than Keith had ever seen him, and the two were even talking pleasantly to one another as they were leaving the room.

"See you tomorrow, Keith!" Lewis told him, waving good-bye as they headed in opposite directions.

"Bye, Lewis," Keith returned, still wondering at the attitude change in his classmate.

* * *

This time when Keith walked through his door, he was in much better spirits. Both of his parents were there to greet him.

"So how'd it go this time, kiddo?" his father asked as he popped a candy into his mouth.

"It went better," he admitted.

"So did you do what I told you?" his mom asked.

Keith rolled his eyes.

"Yessss," he said, drawing it out, reluctant to admit his mother was right.

Keith's mother grinned.

"So you two are getting along OK now?"

Keith nodded.

"Yeah," he said, "He's being really nice now."

"Good job, Keith," his dad said, ruffling his hair again.

"See," his mother told him wisely, "All you have to do is be nice to people, and they'll be nice to you back. It wasn't so hard, was it?"

Keith shrugged, then backed away as he saw his mother moving quickly towards him. Too late. Seconds later, Keith was caught in her grasp and started giggling involuntarily as she tickled him.

"Save me, dad!" he pleaded.

"I don't know," his father hesitated, making a point to scratch his chin and appear thoughtful, "It's your mom's turn to cook tonight, and I don't want to get a stomachache."

"Please!!!" Keith begged desperately.

His father pondered for another moment, then lunged forward and grabbed his wife around the waist, extricating her from their son. This only caused her to start laughing. Keith watched in triumph as his father lifted her into his arms and started tickling her.

"I'll get you both for this!" she gasped, struggling to escape her husband's grasp.

"You owe me!" he told his son.

Keith just smiled widely as he watched them, then jumped forward to join in.

"That's it! No dessert for either of you!"

* * *

Keith was in good spirits as he joined Lewis for their study session the next day. Once again Lewis was already there waiting for him, except this time he wasn't fiddling around. He looked up and smiled shyly as Keith entered, and Keith returned the smile. Keith sat down to find that Lewis had already called up the trig program on the computer.

"We're doing Cosine today, right?" Lewis asked once Keith was settled in.

Keith nodded.

Like he had the day before, Lewis continued to amaze Keith for the duration of their session. Not only was he being nice, but he also seemed to know a lot of what Keith was telling him about. He was very good with numbers and understood things right away. Keith found he had to do little in the way of explanation, and often just let Lewis solve the problems on his own while he sat back and watched.

"You're really good at this," Keith remarked at the end of their session.

Lewis again smiled shyly.

"Thanks,'' he said, "I guess I already knew it, I just forgot it while I was gone."

Keith nodded. They stood up to leave. Lewis furrowed his eyebrows then, trying to work himself up. Keith did not notice until he spoke.

"Um, do you wanna do somethin' later?" Lewis asked slowly, hesitantly, "Like see a movie or hang out or somethin'?"

Keith's smile left his face. He didn't really want to hang out with Lewis any more than he had to, even though he was being friendlier.

"Uh, I already made plans with Sven and Lance," Keith told him a moment later, "Maybe some other time."

Keith turned away as soon as he finished speaking, eager to leave. He didn’t see as a frown formed on Lewis' face, and he pressed his lips together tightly. Staring hard at Keith's retreating back, Lewis remained frozen in place for a few moments before he burst forward, brushed past Keith, and stormed away. Keith watched him go, then shrugged, thinking nothing of it. He had to go find Sven and Lance so they could make plans.

* * *

He got the summons to the Dean's office early the following morning. Once again, Keith found himself walking quickly through the halls to her office. The only possible reason for the summons that he could think of was that she wanted to thank him for taking care of Lewis like he did. That had to be it. Unworried of what was to come, Keith breezed into the antechamber and was met by the very same smiling secretary.

"GO ahead, Keith," she told him.

Keith walked to the door and once again knocked politely before entering. Except this time he walked in without hesitation. When the Dean motioned for him to sit, he sat and looked at her expectantly.

"Thank-you for coming again, Keith," the Dean told him.

"No problem, ma'am," he replied shortly.

She grinned at him, though it didn't reflect in her eyes. Keith faltered slightly, wondering what was wrong.

"I'm afraid there will be no more tutoring sessions between you and Lewis," she informed him.

"Why not?" he asked, frowning. He figured Lewis must have already gotten caught up. After all, he was doing so well yesterday.

"Lewis has been expelled from the Academy," the Dean told him point-blank.

"Expelled?" Keith asked, repeating the dreaded word with disbelief.

The Dean nodded with disappointment.

"He was caught last night vandalizing school property," she told him, "So he won't be returning to class again."

Keith sat there mutely, unable to give any response. He was dumbstruck.

The Dean leaned forward.

"I'm sorry you had to go through the trouble, Keith," she told him, "but we had to try. I know you did your best to help him."

Keith frowned, a knot forming in his stomach.

"I'm surprised, actually," the Dean continued, "I was talking to Lewis yesterday. He seemed quite happy. You were all he could talk about. Something must have happened after that to make him behave that way."

Keith's face fell and he looked down at his feet, unable to meet her gaze.

"Well, that's all I have to tell you, Keith," she told him, "Thank-you for helping."

Keith nodded mutely. He stood and saluted by instinct alone, not really giving any attention to his actions. He then dejectedly walked out of the room, feeling worse than he had after his first day with Lewis.

* * *

When he got home, Keith told his parents what happened. That only made matters worse.

"I'm sorry, hon," his mother told him, "But you tried your best. Lewis just needs some more help."

The knot in Keith's stomach only got bigger after her statement as he shuffled into his room. You tried your best, Keith. Keith could kick himself. Of course he hadn't tried his best. He had done all he could to avoid Lewis whenever possible. He hadn't even cared how Lewis felt, even after knowing he'd lost his mother. Keith knew he couldn't imagine how that felt. Maybe he should have at least tried.

Keith lay back on his bed and stared back up at the stars littering his ceiling. He felt terrible. He knew it was all his fault that Lewis had gotten into trouble. If only he hadn't turned down his offer to hang out with him. Keith just knew that was why Lewis got himself expelled. Keith had been too busy thinking about his own reputation to worry about how Lewis felt. It had cost Lewis his place at the Academy.

Keith shook his head at himself. He was so stupid and selfish. His parents had always taught him to accept people as who they are and not judge them by other people's standards. Well, Keith had really blown it this time. He was too caught up in his own popularity. He had thought Lewis hadn't belonged at the Academy. But no, it was him who didn't deserve to be there.

Keith had messed up big time. But there was nothing he could do now. He would just have to live with it. And next time, if there was a next time, he would do the right thing.

On to Tainted Genes


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