Eight years earlier…. July 14, 2934
It was cold. The flicker of a luminescent bulb burning out created a stark contrast in the hall ahead of him. Cold steel surrounded him as he walked forward and there was a dryness to the air that caused his throat to burn slightly with every breath he drew. No one else walked these curved halls apparently, he was alone and it added to the sense of dread which hung over him. No windows to the space beyond, he never liked being closed in, it was what had driven him into space all those years ago. Here in the inner structures of the station he always felt like he had reached the depths of an abyss that had no exit. It felt like what he imagined it would be like if there were enough of him left in the end to make it into a coffin.
It never got easier walking this hall. He had been here 27 times in the past ten years, now it was 28. His steps slowed and he staggered for a moment, staring at his feet. His brow furrowed and he everything got a little hazy. He took in a sharp breath and coughed as the dry air permeated his lungs; piercing them and making him feel like he had sucked in a handful of ground glass. He forced his feet forward and quickened his pace, but the quickness was gone within an instant as he looked ahead and dread set back in. Onward he went, plodding ever forward down the never ending hallway.
Why had they made it so long? The walk took seemingly forever and the constant curvature of the passage only added to the perception of distance. It was the wrong place for such a long walk with no scenery and only flickering lights for company. They hadn’t even bothered to put up pictures; they didn’t have to be nice pictures. Just some cheap discount store knock offs and paintings done by amateurs who would stop trying in a year or two. But no, they didn’t even bother with that. There was just icy gray in every direction. Onward, the sound of his rubberized soles reverberating off of the metallic surface echoing through the passageway and the flicker of the lights popping and crackling was all that met his ears. Dread.
He wasn’t sure how long it had been when the curve of the hallway allowed the set of sliding double doors to materialize ahead of him on his right. He turned as he reached them and stared at them for what seemed like an eternity. No one came down the hall and no one opened the doors; he just stood there staring at them. He swallowed hard, took another deep breath and tried not to cough. He wanted to move forward, but his body refused to act. His brain screamed at him, “MOVE IT SOLDIER!” but it was for naught. Too many times at this door, too many times stepping through on his own. He wanted to move, either through the doors or back the way he came, but his legs refused to move.
“It never gets easier. Does it?” a familiar voice rasped from behind him. The voice brought a sense of movement, a requirement to act, and maybe most importantly it brought the remembrance of honor and duty.
Deckard turned his head and glanced back half-heartedly over his right shoulder, “No. And honestly I don’t want it too.” he said in a raspy whisper. He could only just make out the face of the man behind him, not that he needed to.
Cav “Golden Eagle” stood stoically behind him. He knew the pain. More importantly he knew the honor and duty; he knew what had to be done. Dressed in casual clothing as was his way of doing things when off duty; brown leather jacket lined with wool over a white turtle-neck, tan pants with black combat boots pulled over them, shined to a mirror finish and laced tight. His close cropped, blonde hair was recently trimmed, buzzed off short on the sides and flat-topped. His most striking feature were his golden eyes, piercing and noble. He was young compared to Deckard, only 25 years of age and had only been with the unit for a bit over two years, straight out of academy. His shoulders were back and head held high, he was a military man to his core and it showed in every facet. He had moved up the ranks quickly, his natural leadership ability and intuitive way of flying made him the perfect choice for officer.
“No,” Cav said, “Neither do I. But we need to do this and be done with it. Got a call from Admiral Gertz right after you left, we’re going back out in three hours. Word is there is a Vandul war party headed right for us. Apparently they weren’t happy with what we did to their ships. Frankly, dragging this out will only make it harder, Deck.”
Deckard steeled himself and pushed the code pad on the side of the doors. The doors slid apart silently opening into a darker room that otherwise mirrored the stark design of the corridor. Inside he could see a table with a gray cloth draped over it, just like it always was when he visited here. Both men stepped through the portal and into the dimly lit room; steel grey on all sides, the air colder and drier than it had been in the hall. Deckard shivered as he approached the table. To his right a man in a white lab coat prepared tools and vials on a workstation that was built into the wall, but designed to detach and hover wherever he needed it to. Deckard looked over at him, but the man never even looked up from his preparations.
Cav stepped past him and reached the table first. He stood quietly there for a moment then looked back at Deckard, “Commander?” he said with a quiet forcefulness.
Deckard realized he had stopped moving. He pushed his legs forward, they felt heavy and his feet barely lifted off the floor as they moved. It dawned on him that every time he was here it became more difficult to move, harder to do what had to be done. He knew at that moment, deep down, that his brain and his heart could not keep doing this. The process was too much for him.
He finally reached the table and stood staring down at it, wondering what tortures it held for him this day. Something was there under the cloth, the tools of his demise, the same as it always was, yet worse each time. They figured he had the strength to just weather through whatever they threw at him. Maybe they were right, but today he felt a twinge of knowing that this would be the one that broke him.
Cav stood tall and determined as ever, his hands clasped behind his back, his jaw set, his face like stone showing no emotion. Deckard could hardly recall a time when Cav let emotion impede his duty. He wasn’t emotionless by any means, but when it came to serving the UEEN he did what had to be done and he did it with ice in his veins. No matter how ugly the job, he took his team through it. But he was a good man with a good heart and a kind smile who watched over all those in his unit and made sure that they had whatever they needed; at least as much as he could on board a ship like the UEES ”Topher Allen”. Bengal Carriers had little in the way of creature comforts, Cav made sure he gathered little things when he went planetside to lift the spirits of his men and women. It was what made him easy to follow, more than other commanding officers Deckard had worked with; he cared.
The attendant had moved over to where they were by the table and handed Deckard a Glas to look over. Then without warning he pulled back the covering on the table. Under it was a pile of charred items; cloth, scraps of leather and synthleather, a helmet, and dog tags. Deckard reached down, it felt like he was moving in slow motion, and picked up the tags. He looked at them briefly: Ruben “Templar” Hrdlicka, UEES “Topher Allen”, the 107th “Charging Destriers”.
He forced back tears of regret and anger, clenching his fist tightly around the tags. It was his fault, it was always his fault. They relied on him and he failed them. He kept missing that wildcard, that x-factor. Every time he missed it someone died.
Cav reached over and put his hand on Deckard’s back, “We cannot linger, we have to go back out.”
Deckard turned his head and stared back into Cav’s eyes, “It is my fault. I made the call and I was wrong… again.”
He continued, “Last night we were sitting in the bunkhouse and watching a vid of his sister and her kids. His niece and nephew are so cute and funny. They went to the new Prime Zoo. His niece, Jenny is only two and a half, and every time one of the animals she was going to try and feed got close to her she would pull away and do this giggle and shriek thing. Then her brother Dillon would try to pick her up and carry her back to the animal. Every single time it turned into a wrestling match. We watched them for over an hour and laughed so hard I thought I would lose my dinner. All he could talk about was getting home on leave to see them. Then I get him killed less than eight hours later. Its my fault.
“I knew there were fighters behind that fuel carrier they had. I should have known it was more than two. That third one, it came out behind us.” his brow furrowed and he clenched his teeth so hard they ground together, “If I had just broken off for a second to scan it or done a fly by…”
“No! It doesn’t work that way and you know it! You stay with your wingman. When you break off you both end up dead. And then it really would have been all your fault. You did what had to be done out there. Don’t ever second guess yourself, Deck!” Cav stood staring back at him, his mouth slightly agape.
He slammed his fist down on the table and turned his head away, “He was my friend too. I made the call for us to go out, Deck. The three of us have been together for as long as I have been with this unit! The two of you were together longer, but he was my friend too. I get it, its hard, you want to trade places with him… with all of them. But we can’t. We have to move forward, he would have wanted us to move forward and protect his family!” he turned back to Deckard and leaned in close to him, “We all put ourselves on the line because we can, because we want to protect those who cannot protect themselves. We have too.” He whispered he last part, almost inaudible, and put his hand on Deckard’s shoulder.
Deckard hadn’t seen him react with such emotion before. He got it. Do what we do to protect the weak and those unable to fight. We were made to fight. Something bigger had built us to go out in the black and fight, and when necessary die. He understood it, but something in him was fractured. He knew in time he would break apart entirely.
Deckard signed off on the Glas and handed it back to the attendant. Reluctantly he laid the tags back on the table so they could be placed in a container and shipped back to Ruben’s sister on Terra. Cav was already moving toward the door. Deckard quickened his pace to catch up to him. As he reached the portal he stopped and looked back in for a moment, lowered his head and then turned and stepped out, the doors slid closed behind him.