Originally published on BigPulp.com on Jan. 21, 2009.
Affections Between Space
Nav-Pilot Marshall knew something was wrong when he saw the emblem of the Administration on the shuttle that was pulling into Yhon Station. He pushed his glass of whiskey aside as he watched the shuttle dock. Marshall turned his chair to watch the whole process through the large panes that looked out into the black space surrounding them: the shuttle pulled slowly into the bay and settled onto the glossy platform; behind it, the nearly invisible airlock shield closed; then, the passenger hatch opened in the side of the shuttle – exactly where the emblem had been burned into the façade – and two men walked down the small set of stairs.
Marshall tried unsuccessfully to try and identify them, but they were young – much younger than he – and he could only assume that they were rookie ambassadors sent on some errand to the far reaches. They passed through the air-locked doors that led into the station’s main area, and Marshall watched them intently. The two looked around for a few moments from the confines of the door’s inset before one of them motioned for a guard. There was a brief conversation before the guard turned, as did the two ambassadors, and pointed directly at Marshall.
Marshall felt his heart jump. He turned, hoping that there was someone behind him, or that the bar tender had been the one that they were indicating, but there was no one else around him. Marshall watched them approach and absently grabbed the glass that still sat on the counter next to him. He glanced down at the half-inch of liquid still in the bottom and raised it to his lips. With one gulp, he swallowed it and then coughed as his eyes watered.
“You are Nav-Pilot Peter Marshall,” one of the young men asked.
“We have been sent to deliver a message of dire importance to you,” the ambassador said. He paused. Marshall indicated with a nod that the man should continue. From rote, the ambassador announced quietly: “We regret to inform you that your wife, Alexandra Marshall, went missing three years ago and has since been located, though she was found deceased. It is the Administration’s belief that she was the victim of a homicide, and an investigation is currently underway as to her disappearance and death. The Administration sends its deepest condolences.”
Marshall turned and looked for the bar tender, but he was nowhere to be found.
“Alex is dead?”
“I am terribly sorry,” the ambassador replied.
“According to the wishes stated in your writ of desires,” the other ambassador offered, “she has been buried in New Haven alongside her mother.”
“Thank you,” Marshall said.
“It has been arranged that you may return with us,” the first man said, “to attend a ceremony in her honor. Your ship will be quartered here at the expense of the Administration, and you will be given transportation back as soon as you wish. The Administrations understands that you might request some personal grievance time here at the station but asks that you take no more than two days to decide whether or not you will return.”
“Does today count,” Marshall asked.
The two men turned and looked at one another. There was a bit of quiet discussion between them before the first one spoke.
“No,” he said. “We do not believe the Administration intended for us to arrive as early as we did. You have two days after this to make your decision.”
“How kind of you,” Marshall said.
He stood and gave the two men a terse bow. Then he slipped past them and made his way across the open-plan floor of the station towards his own ship. When he reached the recessed door to the bay that housed his ship, he stopped and looked over his shoulder. The ambassadors were both turned, looking directly at him. He wanted to turn and shout at them to mind their own business, but they were out of their element, and he was their only connection to this place. He pressed the button, and door opened. He stepped through and let the door close behind him.
Nav-Pilot Marcus Dietrich was Marshall’s dock-mate. They’d worked out of Yhon Station for nearly ten years and had been assigned the same bay when they were given their Cruisers. Dietrich was a tall brute of a man that Marshall was hesitant to admit he knew little about. They drank together; they flew together. Once, they had even shared the same woman.
Marshall sat on the bottom step of his Cruiser with a glass in hand. Dietrich was quiet, walking purposefully around his ship for its weekly inspection.
“How long have they known,” Dietrich asked.
“It took them nine days to get here,” Marshall replied. “They knew where I was and how to get to me. No one ever told me that she went missing.”
“Maybe she didn’t go missing,” Dietrich said.
“Maybe she found someone else,” Marshall replied.
Dietrich turned to face Marshall and nodded.
“I don’t understand why someone would kill her, though.”
“Passion, maybe,” Dietrich offered. “Did they say how she died?”
“No. They won’t tell me anything about it.”
“Perhaps something more sinister happened.”
Marshall watched Dietrich as he worked. Perhaps something terrible had happened to her, and the Administration was too embarrassed or ashamed to tell him. There were things that they were hesitant to admit still happened in their well-guarded and over-protected world.
“I barely knew her, Dietrich.”
“Then why did you marry her?”
“I thought I was going to stay,” Marshall replied. “I thought that I would get a position nearby, so I could visit her often. I didn’t think that they would send me here.”
“You are respected and admired,” Dietrich said.
“I wasn’t then.”
Dietrich didn’t say anything. Marshall continued to watch him. He brought the rim of the glass to his lips, and the smell of the whiskey hit his nose. Marshall grimaced and looked at the smoky brown liquid. He set the glass down on the polymer floor and kicked the glass away from him; it slid quietly across the bay and came to rest against the far wall with a quiet clink.
“Have you ever loved someone,” Marshall asked.
Dietrich stopped his inspection and turned to look squarely at Marshall.
“If you didn’t love her,” he said, “it’s ok to admit it.”
“I did love her,” Marshall said. “I just think that maybe I’d forgotten.”
Dietrich seemed to think about it for a moment, then turned and resumed his inspection. After a while, Marshall stood and walked into his Cruiser and closed the hatch behind him. The whispered hiss of the airlock sealing behind him was comforting, and he relaxed a bit as he settled onto his bed.
“Good morning, Pilot Marshall,” the ambassador said.
Marshall couldn’t remember which one was which: they looked like they could have been clones – and knowing the Administration, there was no discounting that possibility.
“Hello,” Marshall replied. He sat down at the table across from the man.
Yhon Station only had one eatery that could properly be called a diner. Outside of the vendors and hagglers that lined the circular center area of the Station, there was very little that was affordable to most Nav-Pilots or the Shuttlebums. Marshall had only eaten here once.
“I do not mean to pry,” the ambassador said, “but I would be interested to know if you had made a decision yet.”
“You mean the Administration wishes to know,” Marshall said, “because the longer you’re here, the more money they have to pay you.”
The ambassador made a noise that Marshall took as a nervous chuckle.
“I have not yet,” Marshall replied. “It may take some time, but I will make my decision by tomorrow.”
“Of course,” the ambassador said.
Marshall picked up the single sheet that served as the diner’s menu and looked over the options. They’d changed things a little since that first time. Certain items were hard to get this far out, and Marshall imagined such a change was frequent and common.
“What would you like,” the ambassador asked.
Marshall didn’t question the ambassador’s implication that he was going to be paying. There was never a time when a man passed up a free meal.
“I’ll just take a sandwich,” Marshall said.
The conversation between bites and gulps of fresh water was brief and stilted. Marshall didn’t like the idea of his departure hanging over the table. He also didn’t like the man’s gaze as he watched Marshall eat.
When they were done, Marshall thanked the ambassador and left the diner. The station was quiet in the mornings, and Marshall was inwardly thankful for the solitude he was granted as he walked along the corridor that led from the diner to the central lobby.
It’s strange to think that I knew so little of her. I can’t even remember her birthday, but I know I sent presents. I can’t remember her smell or how she felt. Does that mean that I’ve forgotten who she was or just who she is?
“Quiet and encompassing,” Marshall said, “that’s space.”
“Your vision is much more optimistic than mine,” Dietrich said. “I see it as cold, endless, and unwelcoming.”
“Have you ever loved someone, Dietrich,” Marshall asked.
Dietrich turned to look at Marshall and then turned back to gaze out of the invisible airlock shield.
“Have you still not made your decision?”
“I have,” Marshall said. “You just never answered my question before.”
There was a quiet moment, and Marshall thought that perhaps had over-stepped the unspoken rules of their relationship. Dietrich was a quiet man, and Marshall knew little of his past.
“I did once,” he replied. “Unlike you, I came here to run from it only to miss it even more. It is long past now, though, and there is no chance of reconciling.”
Marshall nodded. Ten years was a long time to be away from people you knew. It was an even longer time to be away from the people you loved.
“My father only wrote to me once,” Marshall said. “I thought after that that he’d forgotten about me or couldn’t bear the pain of not seeing me.”
Dietrich turned and looked at Marshall. Marshall held a small digital frame with his wife’s picture on it. Marshall felt the big man looking at him, and he slid the portrait into his pocket before he continued.
“But after a while, I realized that people lose touch – not because they forget or hope to forget. Time begins to erase the present when you’re so far away, and people lose touch because they can’t feel you or see you or hear you, and they begin to use their senses on new people. But memories are what keep people alive in other peoples’ minds.”
“Did you ever write him back,” Dietrich asked.
“Yesterday I did, but he’s been dead for six years now.”
Dietrich turned again to look out at the stars and the empty space between them. Marshall sighed quietly and then closed his eyes to sleep on the bay floor.
The ambassador looked Marshall over with a pensive stare. Marshall did not say anything as the man gave him a look of what he read as disdain.
“You will not be coming,” he said.
“I am sorry to have wasted the Administration’s time,” Marshall said.
“It is of no consequence,” the ambassador said.
“Will you take this back for me, though,” Marshall asked.
He handed a sealed envelope to the ambassador along with a small, carefully-wrapped package.
“I need these to get to her father,” Marshall said.
“Of course, Nav-Pilot,” the ambassador said. “I will get them to her father.”
The two young Administration men stepped through the dock door and made their way back to their shuttle. Marshall watched through the thick, clear plastic as they proceeded to board and prepare their ship. As it slowly backed out of the bay and into space, Marshall felt somebody slip up next to him.
“Do you think she had forgotten you,” Dietrich asked.
“No,” Marshall said. “I think she still loved who I was and who she married, but I’m not that person anymore, and I don’t even know the woman that died. They could have been two entirely different people for all I know. I couldn’t bring myself to try and conjure up some false emotion to show to her father.”
“So what did you send him?”
“My wedding ring with a letter,” Marshall replied.
Dietrich gave a quiet grunt.
“I had nothing else to offer,” Marshall said.