And it hurt...
That numbing emptiness welled up inside him again, sucking all emotion from his being. Killing him slowly.
His breathing grew shallow and strained, and as he lightly laid his hand across his chest, the deep darkness inside seemed to silence even the beating of his strong heart.
Though really it did beat under his hand.
The black hole of loneliness had numbed him to such an extent that he imagined he might actually disappear into it's overpowering embrace before his next shallow breath.
He didn't, though a part of him wished it so.
Long minutes went by before he roused himself from his despondent stupor. There was work to do. And as captain of this starship, leader of its valiant crew, he could not allow himself the luxury of becoming wrapped in the strangely comforting folds of his melancholy.
They depended on him.
But when he was alone, with the memories of her, then he allowed himself the right to feel that loss again. That numbing emptiness he knew so well these last years.
A faintest of sighs escaped as he felt the urge to see her again. Clenching his eyes shut, he tried again to fight that irresistible need. But he knew it was hopeless even as he tried, and the black hole took a little more of his soul.
And then he smiled amid that dark pain.
There was something he could do. He chuckled to himself, as the rules and regulations opting against this course came to his mind. And there were the published findings of Earth Fleet's psychiatrists too which prohibited what he now planned. They were all against him.
He silently cursed all their rules, regulations and recommendations. They would not stand between him and this need. Today he would follow his heart, his feelings. He had given Fleet everything these last seven years, he owed this to himself.
For just one more minute with her.
Another pain, from a real part of his body, suddenly bent him over as he struggled against its burning, consuming fire. His vision blurred and danced as he felt himself falling. Quickly grabbing the edge of his desk, he fought against it.
It was the old wound, from the battle of Branalf, where he had almost died. The Cobra had taken a direct hit amidships with her shields down. Many had died in the flames around him on the mangled bridge.
And not for the first time, he wondered why he had not, and wondered if it might not have been better to have died and gotten rid of all his pain.
Quickly he reached for the pills, spilling several as his shaking hands tried to grasp just one. At last he did it, swallowing it as a man in the grips of a raging fever, spilling water down the front of his pressed shirt. But he felt the soothing effects immediately . And once more as he felt the curse of its fire diminishing, he noted again that it was the unseen wounds, the emotional ones, which were the hardest to bear. The most painful of all. The ones that sucked your heart out.
A few more minutes went by and he almost felt good enough to stand again when he reached inside the drawer of his desk and searched for the case that held his most prized possession. As his fingers gently touched the edges he steeled himself for the effect it would have on him. Slowly he drew it out and looked.
He held the picture tenderly, reverently, almost as if it were alive. The young woman smiled back at him once more. So beautiful, so in love with him. That smile was for him alone. The blue eyes glowed with a happiness that still reached out to him across the empty years. His hand began to shake again.
The door chimed, announcing a visitor.
He put the picture away quickly.
"Come in." He announced tersely, his deep voice sure and steady once again. Captain Hunter pushed aside the burning emotions that were his private self to take on his duties. A young junior officer stepped through the now opened door.
"Excuse me, Captain. I have word from Earth Control. Lt. Crandell said you would want to know immediately," the young officer said as he stood rigidly at attention.
"At ease mister," Captain Hunter replied as he ran his fingers through his dark hair. "What name are we orbiting under Griffiths?"
"The Mako, sir."
Captain Hunter nodded his head as he remembered the real ship that carried that name.
"We just lost her at Trandallos," the young man said, though Hunter knew it well enough. "In fact her loss will be reported to Fleet HQ only after we download our data. After we leave."
"Fine, fine," Hunter sat farther back into the chair, trying to relax. "And how long will it take us to restock the Cobra?"
"About six hours, sir."
He nodded. "Dismissed." But as Griffiths started to leave he spoke again. "Tell Crandell I want to talk to him."
Captain Hunter started to get up as the figure disappeared. But he knew he couldn't do it, not now. It would be hard enough doing it face to face. He closed his eyes and went back in time.
It was ten years ago. He was a whole man again standing near the rolling waves of the Atlantic, the salt air filling his senses. He always did love the ocean. Seagulls squawked overhead. And there she was, walking towards him up the sandy beach. So beautiful. Her hand pushing back the long hair that the wind whipped in front of her face. As she saw him she laughed.
She always laughed at him when he gave her that look. Maybe it made her nervous, he had never asked. But as she came and stood before him, he would remain silent, just drinking her beauty through his eyes. Her smile would change, as she looked back, trying to catch his eyes. And finally she would.
He held her. As the memory filled him, he suddenly realized he could have held her forever and never wanted to do anything else.
The door chimed again.
A middle-aged man with dark red hair stepped inside. He walked with confidence. His smile spoke of long years together.
"Captain, the Earth looks as blue as ever." He raised his head as he closed his eyes with the fresh memory. "Ah, good ol' Earth. There's not another planet like her in a thousand quadrants."
Hunter smiled. "So, we fly in as the Mako. Have we found out if the Haugons have broken our new code so they can puzzle out how they destroyed the Mako, yet she makes planetfall here on Earth!"
Lt. Crandell nodded. "No word from Central yet. But no need to take chances either." He sighed. "A good ship and crew they were. I thought we would honor their memory with one more port of call under her gallant name."
They looked at each other in silence. Crandell's smile faded as he rubbed the red stubble on his chin.
"I know why we're here, Captain." The smile disappeared as he leaned over the desk. He looked earnestly into Hunter's eyes. "You shouldn't do it."
"But I am."
Crandell shook his head. "Captain, I know it seems so simple, so easy. But there are reasons this kind of thing is frowned upon." He leaned closer over the desk. "Forget the disciplinary actions they'll slap you with, think about what the psychological studies warn about. How it could affect both you and her."
"There have been contacts without ..."
"Only a handful!" Crandell said forcefully, cutting him off.
Chris shook his head as he ignored the junior officers impropriety.
"Captain's prerogative, mister. It's a done decision."
"You can't go back, Captain. None of us can." Crandell whispered. "Not after you've gone to the stars." Crandell added somberly.
Captain Hunter rose to his full height to face his first officer.
"You can do one thing for me. Go with me, Ken."
Crandell started chuckling as the smile returned. He shook his head almost in disbelief.
Hunter laughed with him.
"We've been through a lot together Captain, haven't we?" Crandell finally said.
Hunter nodded as his laugher subsided into a thoughtful smile.
"Been to many planets, my friend. Seen a lot of good times together," Crandell said.
Crandell watched him a moment longer before continuing.
"And we've seen too many good men die. Too many good ships butchered and destroyed."
The smile faded from both their faces at the hard memories. Crandell's eyes narrowed.
"This will be harder, Captain."
The silence grew thick. But the look in Chris Hunter's eyes didn't waver. Finally, he spoke.
"As hard as Branalf?"
Crandell started to laugh, but instead his face reflected somber recollection. Several emotions washed quickly over the first officer. He spoke, his voice edged with sadness.
"We were outnumbered two to one." He scratched at the red stubble on his chin. "Yes, outgunned and almost surrounded." His movements stopped as he nodded almost imperceptibly. "I thought we were dead that day."
The captain remained silent.
"But it was brilliant, the way you sent us into them in three squadrons. I don't think they expected us to attack," Crandell said.
"The Haugons didn't know humans as well as they thought they did that day," Hunter retorted. " They didn't realize how crazy we can get when facing certain death."
"Yeah, our new torpedoes gave them quite a surprise as well!"
Both men laughed, only briefly.
"I thought we were dead that day, too," Hunter confessed somberly.
Crandell's eyebrows rose in surprise.
"But I wasn't afraid to die," Hunter continued. "We were protecting Earth from certain defeat." A sigh escaped his lips. "And I figured even if we were to die that day, we had to buy Earth some time. We had to hit them hard." He slapped his fist into his hand. "And I hoped somebody, maybe even the Sicians, would come to Earth's aid at hearing about our supreme sacrifice."
For only a moment, the scenes replayed in their minds.
The two great fleets closed once again into a deadly dance of death. And before the Haugon ships came into range for their own weapon's systems, hundreds of torpedoes leapt from the small Earth ships. The deadly new torpedoes streaked forth, tearing holes in the enemy shields with single, mighty hammer blows. The exploding, dying hulks of the cruisers careened wildly as the two fleets still continued to close.
Haugon torpedoes finally launched, and Earth ships shuddered and exploded. But many of the small Earth ships danced around the oncoming missiles.
And then the two fleets joined.
In the silence, laser broadsides swept through space again. Beams of red and green shot wildly in a deadly show of death. The starships from Earth, half the size of the enemy ships, engaged with unexpected tenacity.
The smaller, more maneuverable starships from Earth swarmed around the larger and slower enemy ships. As they whipped among the larger ships thick laser fire crossed paths through the darkness of space. But the blasts of the enemy lasers were just as deadly, when they could find their mark on the Earth ships.
Twisting... turning... the battle rose to a fever pitch. Orders were screamed. Counterattacks were launched. Ships battled nose to nose as shields buckled and failed. Warships exploded and their twisted hulks glowed in the stygian darkness. There was nothing in the universe but war and death.
Reality came back.
"And we wound up cutting their ranks to pieces," Crandell said with a smile.
"Yes, Lieutenant. The enemy retreated in confusion. But we did lose half of our fleet in that single action."
"As did they. But ours was the victory."
"And even with me in pieces," Hunter said.
It was Crandell's turn to take a deep breath and let it out slowly.
"You're going to go through with it anyway. No matter what I say."
"Yes. I want to get in, see her, and leave as quickly and quietly as we can. That's it."
"That's it..." Crandell repeated. He rubbed his chin. "You know you'll have to wear a disguise if you want to get through customs quietly."
"Why?" Hunter looked surprised.
Crandell reached into his pocket and pulled something out. He unwrapped the folded bills until he found the one he wanted. He smoothed it out and handed it over.
"I was going to surprise you. The patrol ship that rendezvoused with us after our last jump passed this on to me. Recognize anyone you know?"
A familiar, though younger visage stared back at Hunter. He walked back over to the mirror. He put a hand over his beard, trying to imagine his face clean shaven again. Then he looked back at money. Hunter's clean shaven face was there.
"And you're not even dead yet, buddy! What an honor!" Crandell stood beside him.
"Of course, they had to doctor the picture up a bit, just so people don't know how ugly you really are."
But the Captain just stared at his younger image.
"Small denomination bill, too. You probably ought to complain."
"We hero types just take what we can get," Hunter countered.
"You know," Ken said, still joking. "You probably ought to color out all of that gray. Make you look younger for all your fans."
He looked at the small tinge of gray that had just started to streak his trim beard.
"It reminds me of my mortality," Hunter said simply, feeling every one of his thirty seven years of life.
"Huh? Don't you get reminded about that often enough in this old universe?"
"It reminds me that I'm not invulnerable," Hunter replied. "It keeps me from taking careless chances."
Captain Hunter reached out and put his arm on his friend's shoulder. He squeezed.
"Crandell, you know me better than anyone. And space knows that the old saying is true, that being a leader, Captain of this ship, can be a lonely vocation." Hunter shook his head. "I bet less than a dozen crewmembers have even heard of me talk about Sandra. But you know."
The red headed man held his breath.
"Just go with me tonight. Please. I have to tell her good-bye..."
Hunter took a deep breath as he waited for an answer.
"I'm with you, Captain, no matter where you lead," Crandell replied with a nod of his head.
The fighting ship closed to Earth orbit, announcing herself under the assumed name. The ground crew were only too happy to be of assistance to any ship that had left for the deeps of space to fight for the rest of humanity. But, strangely, the Mako asked for little: simply to be restocked with food and arms. Only two crew members would go ashore.
That was only too easy to arrange. The two men were treated as heroes as they were going through the routine of customs. And then they were alone in the ground car.
It was night. Lt. Crandell smiled as Hunter pulled off his face.
"OPS did a pretty good job. I think you ought to leave it on. Better than the original."
"Shutup and drive." Hunter's words were strained, in contrast to Ken's jab to lighten the tenseness in the air.
Hunter was disoriented already. He stared at the twinkling skyline of the city before them. And he did not recognize it.
And yet this had once been his home. It said so on his birth records.
He had expected the space port to be different, that's progress. But everything seemed to different. Changed. And as the car proceeded on auto-nav and took them to the suburb he had specified, the differences only increased. Hunter began to feel light headed.
The very road he traveled was different beyond recognition. Trees were in different places, there was even a park that he did remember. Everywhere buildings and even most houses were different. Even street names had changed. It was like he had never been here before.
Hunter felt his heart beginning to beat rapidly, his breathing became short and rapid. He felt panic, though a seasoned warrior. A throbbing panic gripped his entire being.
This had been his home, but he did not know it!
Hunter stared around at the unfamiliar surroundings. "Yeah, I'm alright. Just a little nervous." He lied.
Crandell nodded, and then shook his head in the darkness.
And then something familiar finally fixed in Hunter's haunted eyes.
"Slow down, yes, yes, there, over there, take that street," Hunter pointed out. The rising excitement in his voice could not be mistaken. "What time is it? I mean what time is it here?"
Crandell looked at his wrist.
"After ten p.m."
"It's getting late. She might be sleeping. Or..." Hunter's words trailed off. "Wait, pull off here."
Crandell pulled off of the road. Nothing but woods stretched into the darkness to their left. Hunter literally jumped from the car, with Crandell close behind.
"There's a trail somewhere...here!" His beam of light found the leafy path.
The two men stumbled through the darkened forest. Leaves and branches crunched under their running feet.
"You're sure this is right after all..." Crandell began.
Hunter stopped suddenly, raising his hand. The trees came to an end. Just ahead was a house. A large house. Between them and it were the bushes and flowers of a well kept garden. The silvery light of the full moon barely revealed the beauty of it's walks and paths. In the center some as yet unseen fountain gurgled forth it's crystal clear contents.
"It is the same," Hunter whispered in relief. And then his heart missed a beat. There, coming from between two trees, was a ghostly figure. A flowing white gown seemed to drape the feminine form that walked slowly along the dimly lit garden path.
Hunter's breath became fast and uneven. His heart felt as though it would leap out of his chest!
This was how he had last seen her, in this moonlit garden. He got up and walked towards her.
The figure in the long flowing dress stopped as he appeared out of the woods. It was obvious that she was startled. She raised her hand to her mouth and turned to leave as Hunter's voice called.
"Sandra! It's me!"
She stopped, as still and silent as the scenery around them.
Hunter burst from between two flowering azaleas and quickly came to her. But then he stopped short.
It wasn't her! It was just some... old woman!
The hammering of his heart almost bent him double as a tidal wave of intense disappointment pushed tears into his eyes.
"No..." he said weakly.
The old woman stared at his sobbing form. The silver hair, held tightly in a bun, framed a thin and deeply wrinkled face. Tears streamed down her rough cheeks into the scarf that covered her aged and lined neck.
And for the first time in his life, Captain Chris Hunter ran. He wasn't sure why, he just had to leave this terribly wrong place with its ancient hag.
"Chris, don't! Don't leave me!" The woman choked back a sob as she raised a shaking hand to her face. She felt his rejection, his disappointment, his fear, even at this distance. But she felt something else too, and it caused her to speak even though a part of her knew she should just let him go.
He stopped in shock.
It was Sandra's voice! Changed somewhat, but it was...
He turned and wiped the tears from his eyes. Yet still his vision remained blurred. And the soft moonlight seemed now to glow around the woman.
She raised her hands to her hair and took out the hair pins, her silvery hair suddenly seeming blonde to Chris as it fell around her shoulders. Just as she used to wear it for him.
He approached again, putting out his hands and gently grasping her shoulders. Still his tears blurred his vision. But now he smiled through them.
Two moist, familiar eyes gazed back at him. He fixed on them, and with the moonlight and tears, the wrinkles smoothed away until he could finally see her.
It was her. Those blue eyes were still the same.
She smiled back.
He knew that smile. His arms reached around her. And ever so gently, he held her again.
His mind ignored how much thinner she was. The firmness, the curves of her body, had also melted away with her youth. But it was still her.
"Chris," she said through her tears. "Chris, I've thought of you all these long, long years. I've never stopped loving you." She buried her face in his chest as he held her.
The voice was as he remembered. He held her tightly. She tried to pull back, but he kept her in his embrace. Looking up, she studied his face. "You don't look much older than when you left," she said amazed.
He looked back into her eyes. Oh, he loved those eyes. He started to brush his fingers through her silver hair, but her hand stopped him.
"I wish you could have remembered me as I was. When we were young...together." She strained against his embrace, and then stopped. His face drew near hers.
And in the moonlight, among the sweet fragrance of flowers in bloom, he kissed her as softly as the dew washes the grass.
She started crying as his lips pressed against hers.
Still he held her, and felt her embrace once more. The moonlight slid away and he looked down on her again. And this time saw her clearly again.
She was old now. He could see the countless wrinkles, and his mind now informed him how fragile she really was as he felt her body against his.
"I loved you then, Sandra. I love you now, just as you are." He suddenly choked on his powerful emotions as he fought his tears. And after he had partially composed himself, he hurriedly whispered. "I will always love you."
His heart alone cringed at the lost years they had missed together. He choked back his own tears again as he kissed her forehead. Yes, he still loved her.
And in that last embrace, Chris spoke again the words he had prepared for the first bittersweet farewell those several years ago.
At least several years for him, but several decades for her.
"My love is as true and bright as the fires of the sun itself. My love..."
She put a finger to his lips, to silence him.
"You told me that once before." She smiled.
He smiled back at her. "I think we made love that last time right over there, in the darkness by the fountain."
Her hand hit against his chest in mock attack.
"You always did remember things like that."
He drew her near, and embraced her closely again. The warmth of their bodies mingled. They started to sway, ever so slightly. The seconds seemed eternal, one more time.
"Why...why did you come?" She whispered through her tears.
Tears streamed down his own face.
"To hold you one last time."
He held her long in the stillness of the night. A gentle breeze caressed them. And then it was time to go.
And for the second time in his life Chris Hunter left his true love behind.
As he entered the dark recesses of the forest, Crandell did not notice the moistness on his friend's cheeks. But he guessed it was there. They walked in silence. As they got into the ground car, he was careful to leave the dome light off as pulled out. They were almost to shuttle port when Hunter spoke.
"I guess there's really no such thing as 'happily ever after', is there? For me, for anyone?" Chris said sadly.
A heavy, embarrassed silence settled between them as they drove on.
But they both knew that there had been no other choice. The Haugons had put a stranglehold on Earth. Without the trade via the space lanes, mass starvation faced Earth's inhabitants. So they had mustered their small fleet and sent them away. And every man and woman had known that even if victory was theirs, the Law of Relativity still meant that they were leaving everyone they loved behind.
"No, there is no 'happily ever after'. Even for those who stayed with their families." Ken sighed. "Life is mixture of good times and bad. Sometimes we face them alone, or with the support of family. Sometimes these storms are so strong and bitter that the best we can do is just hang on and keep from being swept away."
"And too, there are the good times that are even better because we share them with others, with our friends. But no, there really is no such thing as a 'happily ever after' in this universe."
"I loved her, Ken," Chris whispered. "And I'll never love anyone else."
Ken thought a moment, realizing that his captain was now addressing him no longer as first officer, but as friend, as personal confidant, sharing with him his innermost feelings and thoughts. Reaching out to him. And for the first time, Ken realized how few times he had seen his captain in an informal, personal setting. Ken felt suddenly compelled to answer, to reach back in kind.
"Many times life becomes hard. There have been times that I've had to scratch and claw to find the least bit of happiness. And I cherished that small sliver of bliss amid a sea of cold reality." He paused. "But sometimes people allow these bad things to color them for the rest of their lives, becoming bitter...angry. Or, becoming sad and depressed. And even though those tragic events shape us as surely as our triumphs, some sink so far into their darkest emotions that they become unrecognizable from their former selves. They are changed forever." Ken turned to him in the darkness of the auto-car. "We must rise above tragedy."
"And even if you could have spent the rest of your life with her, there still would have been hard times. You probably would have been happier, but it still wouldn't have been any 'happily ever after' deal." Ken smiled.
Chris smiled in return. "Yes, I guess that's true."
"Better put your face back on, space dock coming up." he reminded his Captain as the shuttle space port came into view. And soon afterwards the small shuttle returned them into space and the orbiting warship they called home.
They entered the ship with no further words. Crandell noticed the slump in his Captain's shoulders, like he carried some huge invisible weight. He put his hand out and grasped his friend's arm.
"I've got some good news I've been saving. I think now is as good a time as ever."
Hunter's ragged face turned to him.
"I received a message from that patrol ship the other day," Ken began. "From a young kid fresh out of Fleet Training. He had just joined the Intrepid and knew the Cobra would be joining their squadron. He wanted to surprise someone."
Hunter waited. But he wasn't in the mood for...
"His name is Robert J. Hunter."
Hunter looked bewildered for a few milliseconds. Crandell smiled.
"Yeah, your grandson has joined up and sailed the stars."
A strange, happy look came over Hunter's face. He started to chuckle.
"I told him that I hoped there wouldn't be too many more battles to fight, not with the treaty nearing completion. But I did tell him that there were a lot of planets to discover. And a good Captain to get acquainted with."
Hunter slapped his first officer on the back.
"That's the best news I've had in a long time, Mr. Crandell"
Their laughter echoed down the hall.
"How about I buy you an ale before you sack out. We can talk about our days back at Fleet Training. And our first assignment." Ken said with a twinkle in his eye.
"Lead on, mister."
And for the first time, the black hole of loneliness seemed to recede in Chris Hunter's chest.
That night the Cobra sailed back to the stars, leaving the Earth far, far behind. She jumped past the speed of light just outside the orbit of Neptune. An entire galaxy stretched before her, soon to be more peaceful as well. And even though those that left knew that they would never see their loved ones on Earth again, face to face, yet they flew with a growing excitement and formed a bond to the friends that flew with them.
And they looked forward to meeting new faces, alien and otherwise, under a million different skies.
"After six years of writing science fiction my publishing credits, under my pen name of Tony Chandler, include my story 'The Number's Control' appearing in the April 1998 edition of Eternity Online Magazine. 'MotherShip' was published in the December 1997 edition of Dark Planet and placed 9th in the Preditors and Editors Readers Poll. 'Kragon's Gold' is in the current issue of Planet Magazine. Two of my short short stories have been published during 1997 in Ibn Qirtaiba. The second story, 'Without Paradise', was featured in IQ's special issue for the Internet convention SciCon 2. 'It Is the Darkness' and 'Reality Check' have been published during 1997 in Cosmic Visions."
Tony can be e-mailed at: email@example.com
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