Alli Reshi © 2018
All Rights Reserved
Fire and metal shrapnel rained down, pinging off the roof of my small fighter ship.
“Everian Gavnson— The second Squadron is surrounded by the enemy. They are also advancing against the third. What are your orders?” Caspian Dal’s voice came crackling over the damaged coms line.
“Fourth squadron— Provide support for the second. Come in from the enemy’s right, and you can break up that dogfight. My men with me. We’re going to come in from the low left across the gorge. We can bottleneck the enemy there and stop their advance,” I called the orders across the channels.
A resounding “Yes, sir!” was the answer as the other fighter ships split off in their new assignments.
I angled my ship across the sky, leading the first squadron toward the swarm of ships. Blue mixed with white, though the blue was slowly overtaking the other. The infiltration of Zux pilots was taking its toll on my men. The battle for Rescon had already cost us so much. Our objective was to stop them in the skies so they couldn’t get to Rescon’s surface. Swooping under the belly of a few blue Zux ships, I opened fire on them, ripping through the metal and breezing by the ships as they crashed. The added forces were pushing back the opposition.
“Sir, your six!” the warning whined on the line. Reacting before glancing over, I angled my ship away from the oncoming attack. When I did look, I realized no amount of quick maneuvering would save me. A ship from higher up had collided with those below it, dragging and catching them as the tangled mess of metal fell from directly above me toward my ship.
Pushing the thrusters hard, I moved as far away from the trajectory as I could. I wouldn’t clear the area in time, but if I could minimize the damage, I could make an emergency landing. The wreckage struck the side of my ship, tearing the wing clean off. One of the engines ignited in the impact. Fire spread across the windshield. All I could see was fire. The fire. Fire everywhere—burning, trapping, killing.
I bolted awake, off-balance, and confined. I fought against the restraint, pushing and tugging until I felt cold air against my skin. Then, something was on my shoulder holding me. Pushing me back. I lashed out an arm against it.
“Gav, Gav hold still. Calm down. You’re all right; breathe, Gav. Can you hear me?” a voice said. Mark’s voice. The initial panic slowly faded from my mind. It was Mark’s hand on my shoulder. The sheets from my bed were tangled around my legs. Taking a deep breath, I reached a hand to Mark’s, suddenly realizing how shaky my own was against his steady one.
“Yes, I’m fine,” I said, clearing my throat.
“You sure? You’re trembling. Was it that dream again? You wanna talk about it?” Mark asked, leaning toward me. I shrugged off his hand, pulling away.
“No. Everything is all right, Mark. I’m going to take a shower. You can go back to sleep now.” I pushed off the blankets and forced myself to walk steadily to the adjoining bathroom.
After locking the door behind me, I turned on the shower and sat on the tile floor in the far corner of the room, my back against the wall. Curling in on myself, I was no longer able to fight the shaking of my body. My vision blurred, and I couldn’t focus on any one thing around me. All my senses screamed that everything was too much, too loud, too everything. Hopefully, the sound of the water muffled any sobs that escaped. My chest hurt from phantom pains and how hard it was to breathe. It was as though my lungs had forgotten how to, or not wanting to, would rather stop and close in on themselves.
Worst of all, I could feel the fire burning on my arm, searing through flesh. The cold wall behind me did little to help. The war was over, yet I couldn’t escape it, dogged by fire and failure in my sleep.
I don’t know how long it was before I could focus again and the shivers stopped. The burning on my arm had lost intensity, fading rapidly as I focused on taking deep gulping breaths, even though it stung. Mark hadn’t come knocking at the door, so it couldn’t have been that long.
Stripping off my sweat-dampened clothes, I finally stepped under the freezing spray of water. I found that I much preferred cold showers after the war and the hospital. I also refused to own another sponge of any sort, throwing them and any kind of liquid soap out in favor of bars and rough towels if necessary.
It had been about a month since Mark and I had agreed to start this relationship. Even with the time we spent apart for our respective careers, it was working out well. Better than I could have hoped. My off-planet missions were few, as I preferred to stay close to home. There was more than enough to keep me busy here with Stella Corps, while Mark chose any jobs across the quadrant that caught his fancy. Being that Mark’s starship was his home, when he wasn’t out on a job, he spent most of his time with me at my home. His team didn’t seem to mind the extra time spent on Rescon either.
Having Mark with me was a welcome change from the silence that permeated the building without him to fill it with laughter and conversation, however it didn’t stop the nightmares. I always felt guilty for waking him; it was unfair to him after all the help he gave me. Especially on nights like last night when he came in late, tired from a job, and well-deserving of some rest. He didn’t need me waking him up over something I should have long gotten over. In truth, I had been lucky; I knew that.
I had come home when so many hadn’t. I only had scars where so many had lost limbs. It was pathetic to still be holding onto fears when the danger had long passed.
I quickly finished my shower and turned off the water, not wanting Mark to worry and come investigating.
Drying off, I glanced at my reflection in the mirror. Dark hair plastered against my forehead. A once perfect complexion was now littered with appalling scars. Thankfully, the ones on my face were hardly noticeable if you didn’t know to look. The rest of me had not been as fortunate.
The burn marks were far more distinct over my left side. Trailing from my neck to almost my hip in patchy grooves, they also took up most of my arm and spread across my chest. I turned away from the mirror, tying the towel around my waist.
I should have the mirror removed the next chance I had—a sentiment I always had after a shower, but never managed to go through with. It was too easy to indulge in the shame of what my image now was. In any case, Mark would question it, and that was something I would rather avoid. I paused at the door, listening for any noise coming from the outer room.
Hearing nothing meant Mark must have either left the room or gone back to sleep. I cautiously opened the door, and the sun’s morning light filtering in through the window showed an empty room. Faint voices floated in from the direction of the kitchen.
I dressed quickly, worried that Mark might walk into the room before I was ready. A long-sleeved thin shirt hid the worst of the scars and simple pants covered the few on my legs. Having not yet let Mark see all of my scars, I was careful to always be clothed around him. Mark had said that he wouldn’t mind seeing them, but I was not ready to show more of myself to him. I still worried about his reaction. After combing my hair into something respectable, I walked toward the voices, steeling myself to greet the added guests.
“I’m just saying you don’t even know his first name, man. I’m not complaining about not having to listen to you talk about your sex life all’o the time now. But you sure ’bout this, boss? Relationships ain’t one-night stands—you gotta be serious here. Gotta be able to trust a person.”
I recognized Ken’s voice without having to turn the corner and paused in the shadows. I shouldn’t have to eavesdrop in my own house, yet I wanted to hear the honest conversation that wouldn’t happen with me there. Wanted to know what his teammates thought of me, though it did not appear to be a conversation in my favor.
“Dude, are you still harping on this?” Mark huffed. “Ken, let it go. The name thing is cultural, okay? Lots of Resconians don’t say it until they’re married. It’s like a super personal thing, and I can respect that. Stuff like this takes time, you know. Ain’t like I’m laying all my secrets out on the table either. You gotta build the trust slowly, and I trust him to tell me when he’s ready.” I could imagine the scowl he had as he crossed his arms.
Considering that Mark was more given to casual and informal mannerisms, I had been surprised at how easily he had adapted when I explained why Resconians only used surnames. It was an old social norm that revealing a given name was the truest form of trust and love. It gave me a small thrill to call Mark by his name privately—knowing it was his preference as well as a sign of his trust. I found it endearing how he mixed his habit for nicknames yet considered my preference. Still, our relationship was far too new to tell him my given name, or call him by his while in company.
“I believe what our esteemed mechanic is trying to say, is that we worry about you. You’re not only our boss; you’re our friend as well. As a friend, we want you to be in a healthy relationship. Given your previous lovers, this is a drastic change.” The higher-pitched voice chiming in told me that Tamaroa was here too.
“I know it’s different,” Mark said, his voice strained. “It’s weird for me sometimes, too, you know. Coming back to the same place all the time. And missing him. Lonely is something I’m used to having an instant fix for, but I can’t do that anymore because Gavnson matters. I want it to work with him. So, let me figure it out myself and drop it, all right?”
Knowing he missed me when he was away—same as I missed him—was an odd comfort. And it was reassuring that he would defend me, even though I sometimes thought his coworkers might have a more accurate opinion of me. After a few moments of silence, it was obvious they had dropped the topic. I might as well greet my guests properly.
Rounding the corner to enter the kitchen, I saw Ken and Tamaroa at the table, while Mark was standing by the stove, making something in a pan. Rescon had more than its fair share of interspecies travelers. But that still didn’t take away the strangeness of having others at my table.
I was so often alone in this room that the brightness of the fox’s dark blue fur and the woman’s rich orange skin would take some getting used to.
“You didn’t tell me your team would be visiting this morning, Noland,” I said, not wanting to sound accusing, but a warning would have been nice.
“Sorry, I didn’t know either, and some people don’t know what manners are. So, they invite themselves anywhere.” Mark sighed and gave Ken a pointed look. He momentarily abandoned breakfast to come to my side and give me a hug. His warmth was a welcome balm to my unsettled nerves. “Are you feeling better now? Is it okay for them to be here? I can kick them out if you want, no problem,” Mark whispered and then kissed my cheek.
He had no concern with showing affection any time he wanted. For the most part, I liked the attention too much to scold him for it when there were others around.
“No, it’s fine; I don’t mind,” I said quietly, giving him a one-armed hug in return before letting him go back to the stove. “It’s a pleasure to see you as always, Tamaroa, Ken.” I greeted the two as I sat at the table across from them so I could watch Mark.
“Sorry for the intrusion,” Tamaroa responded, brushing back her hair, a dark red against her skin. “Ken can be quite demanding when he wants something. Mark never said, but how did everything turn out on your end with our last joint effort? Was there any information missing?” It was easy to forget that Mark’s well-spoken navigator was also a highly trained assassin.
“No, you both did admirably,” I said. “As far as our technicians have found, nothing was leaked and all the files were still intact. Thanks to all your efforts, you prevented the potential exposure of a number of secret operatives.” I had assumed Mark would have told them about the successful conclusion of our mission long ago, but this at least gave me the chance to thank them in person.
“I imagine Stella would have just as many enemies as allies, and any information about your movements could go for a high price.” Tamaroa’s tone was far too light for a matter that could have been life or death to many officers. Then again, perhaps I shouldn’t expect differently from a woman in her profession.
“Unfortunately, yes,” I said. “Since Mark is always very vague about his work, I don’t suppose you’d be willing to make a few things clearer?” I could feel Mark’s eyes on me, and even though we’d both agreed that sometimes there were parts of our jobs we couldn’t talk about, it didn’t always stop professional curiosity. Tamaroa’s only response was a small smile that said I would not be getting any answers from her.
“All right, enough chitchat,” Ken huffed, his tail thumping against the leg of his chair. “I want Mr. Domestic over there to hand over our share of the pay from the last job. I ain’t looking to spend the day with no Stella officer in a stuffy house. Just ’cause you’ve turned sweet on the military sort, don’t mean I have. I got shit to do.” Ken had not warmed up to me nearly as much as Tamaroa had. Mark reassured me this was friendlier than Ken got with most.
“Hey, that Stella officer is my boyfriend, and I like his company. So, shut your muzzle. Besides, we just got here, and I’m sorry, but some of us like to sleep. Banks don’t even open until, like, nine anyways—so hold your tail.” Mark slid what was in the pan onto a waiting plate. Ah, he was making those fluffy flat breads he called pancakes. Terran food was odd.
I don’t think I had seen him cook anything that didn’t require some breed of fowl eggs. And he was always complaining they weren’t the same as chicken eggs, whatever those were. Mark had tried to describe chickens to me once, and for as much as I recognized that fauna was different across the galaxy, small flightless birds were not something I could easily conceptualize.
I knew that some planets domesticated their fowl, but the fear of them had been ingrained in me since childhood. It wasn’t an ungrounded fear, as the Ioxerous birds were as large as the average man and viciously carnivorous. They were the smallest breed of bird on Rescon. Thankfully, the mountains were the only place you would find them. These differences had led Mark and me to a have a few circular discussions about the merits of domestication of fowl.
Mark insisted on cooking, going so far as to favor old-fashioned methods of manually making the food, instead of letting the automatic kitchen equipment prepare the dishes for him. I had no love for cooking, so I left him to his strange cuisine.
“Oh, I’m sure you and pretty boy did plenty of sleeping. Then again, you were awful quick to open that door, and all rumpled too,” Ken said, winking at Mark. I tensed at the unknowing reminder that I had awakened Mark this morning. Even though he was still tired from his last mission, he hadn’t said anything about it. Yet, I could see the weariness as he moved about. It appeared I was nothing more than a bother.
“Okay, you’re done. Out. We discussed this— No suggestive or lewd comments that make Gav uncomfortable. So, out now. Before I skin you, and we’ll have a side of fox to go with breakfast.” Mark waved the spatula at Ken, whose fur bristled in offense.
“I think we’ve stayed long enough.” Tamaroa stood. “Enjoy your morning, Mark, and a pleasure to see you again, Gavnson. We’ll be on our way now.” She grabbed Ken by his scruff and lifted the four-foot Vanaska fox easily, ignoring his demands to be put down as they left the house. Mark chuckled at the antics.