In Which: Raman says goodbye.
The pilot’s name was Tumen, and he spoke dialect with the same lilting, sibilant pronunciation as Guanyin. He had been cool and formal when he emerged from the shuttle in Galileo‘s hangar, but when Raman had greeted him in his own language, his stiff posture had relaxed. Just like that, Raman became one of his own. Tumen’s nod to Jimmy Youda was an afterthought, which was just as well; Youda spoke no dialect at all, and would not have accepted any gestures of friendship anyway. Raman had been surprised when Youda, never one to take chances, had volunteered to accompany him as his medical supervisor; but Youda had always felt strongly about his medical duty. He was a humorless bastard, but a decent enough physician for the job.
As long as Raman didn’t have to share a room with him.
The shuttle was an oft-refurbished Fender, as ubiquitous in the Third Sector as fireflies had been at home. He had asked his mother once why their ancestors had brought fireflies, among all of the other more useful insects they had imported from Earth. She had smiled—not the most common expression for her—and said, “Because they thought they were pretty.”
Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
His mother loved poetry. Raman, more often than not, found it to be self-indulgent bullshit.
Foster had broken out a clean uniform to say his farewells, and brought his first officer with him. Raman had to admit the other captain had made a good show. He had greeted the PSI pilot with polite deference, and managed not to act surprised when he found the man had come alone. Apparently Foster knew enough to understand that any PSI representative on a Corps starship—first Doctor Xiao, now Pilot Tumen—represented an act of trust and diplomacy on their part. Well, Raman had always heard Foster was a good diplomat. Guanyin’s dislike said more about her perceptiveness than Foster’s failings.
“You don’t have to agree,” Foster said, when he told Raman about his agreement with Guanyin. “I’ll come to some other accommodation with her, or we’ll do without her help.”
Raman had arched an eyebrow at him. “Some reason you think you should be the only Corps captain ever hosted on a PSI starship?” Foster had looked away, irritated, dropping the subject, and Raman was disappointed. He wouldn’t have minded one last argument before he left.
With some care, and with most of his weight on his still-flesh foot, he came to attention before Foster and Commander Lockwood and gave them both a courtesy salute. “I’ll let you have your ship back now, Captain,” he said.
But Foster was done being baited. All he did was return the salute, and say “Safe journey, Captain Çelik.”
Çelik dropped the salute and turned briefly to Commander Lockwood, bowing ever so slightly. “It has been a pleasure, Commander Lockwood.”
She lifted her chin a little, measuring him with those careful eyes. “Good luck to you, sir.”
He liked that word, sir. He could still remember thee first time he had heard it: the first day of his second year at CMA, running into a new cadet on his way out of the dorm. Excuse me, sir. She had been taller than he was, and years older; her words had been protocol and nothing more.
The reason hadn’t mattered to him at all.
He turned away and climbed aboard the Fender, leaving Youda to his perfunctory farewells. He had the impression Youda had spent most of his hours on Galileo in the pub, and was probably not fully recovered, despite the availability of sobriety aids. It was a pleasantly humanizing idea, thinking of Youda with a hangover. Raman had long since given the man up as a lost cause.
The journey to Exeter took only a few minutes. Tumen was a deft and relaxed flyer, and he docked on Exeter‘s far side with practiced ease. When they were secure, he turned to Raman. “Would you like me to come with you, Captain?” he asked.
Raman shook his head. “I won’t be long. I don’t have much.” He looked back at Youda. “You can wait here, too, Doctor,” he offered.
Youda looked vaguely alarmed, and glanced at the pilot. “No, thank you, sir,” he said stiffly. “I’ll come with you.”
“Fine,” Raman said. “You can carry this.” He handed Youda the cane, and propped himself up on the Fender’s walls to make his way out of the hatch.
It didn’t look at all like his ship, he thought, as he leaned one hand against the wall and limped down the corridor. Most of the systems were still offline—forever offline—and the lighting was a combination of emergency spots and those strips of portable lights that Galileo‘s crew had pasted to the walls throughout the ship. It didn’t sound like her, either. He heard the faint hiss of the air, and the low hum of the gravity generator, but the sound of the prosthetic hitting the floor clanged against his eardrums at an unseemly volume.
But when he inhaled…yes. That smell. Despite the residual scent of burning and the ozone of overloaded circuits, he recognized the odor of his ship. For more than fifteen years of his life, his first conscious breath every day had smelled like this. Given time, his mind would lose the olfactory memory. Smell brought things back better than any other reminder, but it was also the first thing the brain lost.
Not me, he told his ship. I will not lose you. Not until the day I die.
His office and his quarters were around the corner from their docking port. Youda trailed him like a disapproving shadow. He had asked, before they left Galileo, why Raman was not using the cane, but he would not ask again.
Raman stopped at the door. “Wait here,” he told Youda.
“Sir,” Youda said, “don’t you need help carrying your things?”
Raman didn’t bother to answer.
The rooms were dark, but otherwise had weathered the battle unscathed. There was his desk, the chair pushed neatly beneath it, the place where he had written reports and taken comms. Behind it a cabinet—real wood, this one, a gift from a colony governor. Limping more slowly, he moved around the desk and pulled it open. Three bottles of good bourbon there. He took one, tucking it under his arm, and left the others.
He crossed the room and went through the open door to his quarters.
Most Corps soldiers kept few possessions. Soldiers were expected to be able to decamp quickly, in case the Admiralty needed to reassign them. Many who stayed in one place managed to acquire a small collection of souvenirs, though. Niree had collected shot glasses, especially the kitchy sort sold to tourists on various Alephs. Raman’s own collection of objects was considerably more diverse, and also smaller. He was counting on being able to fit all of it in a single bag.
He opened a drawer and pulled a duffel out from under a stack of uniforms. Almost as an afterthought he pulled two changes of clothes out with it and tossed them in, wrapping the bottle of bourbon in a black-and-gray jacket. Then he crossed the room and sat on the bed—waiting out the throb of pain that hit with the pressure change against his injured knee—and opened a cabinet.
He had been wrong; he would not have room. There were too many. He had only kept one item from each soldier lost, but he had not remembered the number. The names were different. He would always remember the names.
Well, if he had to choose, he thought chronologically would be best.
He packed one item at a time, tucking each memento carefully into his bag, wrapping anything fragile with a piece of his clothing. A crystal snowflake, a knitted stocking, a small turned wood box. A deck of cards, worn and bent from shuffling. Those had been Treharne’s. Treharne had been a terrible gambler, but he could do card tricks that Raman still found mystifying. A book of old poems; a Standard-PSI dictionary of obscene phrases. All of these people whom he had lost, whom he had failed.
Plus ninety-seven more.
He thought to leave the glass Nirree had given him behind, but he found, in the end, that he couldn’t. She was not like the others, of course. She was alive and well, and it had been both a joke and genuine sentiment when she gave it to him. “Cheap, fake, and useful,” she had said, and given him a treasure from her collection: a mass-produced shot glass from Aleph Naught that she had bought when she was a teenager.
Picking it up, he stood, and limped back to his dresser. He opened a lower drawer and pulled out a thick insulated undershirt, the sort he wore only when they were headed down to a particularly cold planet. Laying the shirt out on the bed, he rolled the glass up in it, folding as he went, until he had created a soft, secure cylindrical home for it. Then he tucked it into a corner and zipped the bag up.
His knee twinged, and an instant later he felt that odd, flat pain signal from the prosthetic. He had stubbed a toe on the bed frame. One advantage of being in constant pain, he thought, as he breathed evenly through the wave, is that a little extra doesn’t make much of a difference. The sensation blinded him for a few moments, motes appearing before his eyes as his nervous system coped with the overload. Because he was alone, he hung on to the edge of the dresser and took a few extra seconds to recover. Then he lifted the bag and turned, leaving the room.
Youda was waiting outside the door, trying and failing to mask his impatience. He moved as if he was going to reach out to take the bag, but he must have seen something in Raman’s face because he froze, and then shrank back a little. Raman had been wrong: he should have found a different medic. He had never been overly fond of Lawson, but at least the man cracked a joke once in a while.
He took his time heading back, Youda trailing sullenly behind him. The pain was slowing him; that was it. He was having trouble balancing. Stupid pride keeping him from using the cane, perhaps; but he needed to learn to do without it. It would have no place in his responsibilities in the days ahead. He pushed off the wall and made himself walk without assistance: short steps, careful balance, keeping his weight on the prosthetic as briefly as possible as the pain jolted straight up his spine and into the back of his neck. Don’t touch anything, just walk.
But as he neared the docking port and the Fender, he let his fingers open, let his hand brush the wall. Cool polymer, sturdy and strong. Out of assembly fifteen years earlier, and directly into Raman’s hands. He had flown her, helmed her, commanded her, and finally sacrificed her. She had never belonged to any other captain. She had never belonged to anyone else.
And she never would.
He turned to Youda. “Anything you need to retrieve, Doctor?” Raman asked him.
Youda looked briefly surprised. “No, sir. Thank you, sir.”
Raman waited a moment, then sighed and gestured with his hand. “After you,” he said pointedly.
Youda startled a little, then composed his features and headed back through the docking port. If the kid was that superstitious about PSI, Raman thought, he was going to be jumpy as hell for the next three days. Ah, well. He had volunteered; it was on his own head.
When Youda had vanished through the port, Raman turned around, looking one last time at the dimly lit hallway. Unfamiliar. Dark. Dead, or very nearly. This was not his ship. His ship was in his memory. His ship was strong, and he was strong with her. He would be as strong as he needed to be. And then, like her, he could stop.
He turned back to the docking port, and left Exeter behind.
Copyright ©2016 by Elizabeth Bonesteel. All rights reserved.