A band of alabaster orbs slipped through Aidan’s fingers and into the night. His eyes traced their arc as they soared away and melted into the sea of shadows below. He wanted to see where they would land, who they would find, but the auburn seraph at his side beckoned. Laughter and melody enveloped them, and her arms slipped around his shoulders. She was lovely. He was happy.
“Hello?” said a voice, not hers, and his eyes were open.
For a fleeting instant, he thought he was back home, in bed. The fetid taste of recycled air and the faint warble of the aft pressure alarm brought his mind back to bearing. No, this was not home. Not here.
“Aidan? You there?”
He shambled toward the airlock, negotiating a web of peculiar shadows cast by the emergency lights above. His thumb found the call button as he leaned toward the speaker next to the door. “Yeah, Dez, I’m here. Wide awake and back in the land of gray walls and empty stomachs.”
“Sorry, man. Didn’t yank you away from any Earthside dreamscapes, I hope.”
“New Orleans, as a matter of fact.” He closed his eyes and tried to remember what the girl had looked like. “Mardi Gras. What’s up?”
There was a pause. “Rourke is gone. I hate to wake you up for that, but I thought you might want to know.”
A stale breath caught in Aidan’s throat. For a moment, he contemplated turning the speaker off and trying to find his way back to New Orleans. “I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Listen, don’t stir on it. We knew we might have to eat a bullet or two for the pleasure of coming aboard, and there wasn’t nobody on my team that wasn’t square with that. You did your job, soldier.”
Aidan ran a hand down the lines of his forehead and wrung the drowsy eyes beneath. “I’m still sorry to hear it. You guys were just following orders like the rest of us. Rourke seemed like a nice guy.”
“He was. But it could have been you, just the same. We weren’t exactly firing warning shots, you know. Almost took your head off myself before the blast doors came down.”
“You gave us a chance to skedaddle long before it came to that. If I had parked my ass on a lifeboat with the others, you wouldn’t have had a reason to open fire in the first place. A few strings of data on a hard drive ain’t worth dying for—or killing for.”
“I wish you’d listen to the words tumbling out of your mouth so you’d realize how stupid they sound. This is your ship, Aidan. You didn’t ask for this war, and you damn sure didn’t ask for this boarding party. You were doing your job. Rourke knew that.”
“Doesn’t make me feel any better about it. It’s not often you learn a mook’s name after trading fire, learn what his laugh sounds like. I appreciate you saying what you’re saying. I do. But we’ll see where that kind of talk goes when the cavalry arrives and you get the chance to pay me back.”
“I suppose we will,” Dez said, “assuming my people get here first.”
“Won’t matter who it is. First thing they’ll do is restore main power. When these fire doors open, we’ll have to get reacquainted whether we like it or not. And I don’t think the brass on either side would be very happy to find us sitting here playing patty cake like old buddies.”
A strange gust of static came from the speaker, likely a sigh. “You can cut the tough talk, man. I just watched a friend of mine die over a couple of ones and zeros, so excuse me if I ain’t exactly itching for another gunfight. I’d rather have another round of chess. We need a tie-breaker.”
“My mind’s too weary for that stuff. I just want sleep. No more chess for me, Dez. No more gunfights, either. Hell, I don’t even have any ammo left. Used my last round on Rourke.”
A long silence replaced the subtle hiss of the open intercom. Dez must have taken his finger from the button. When it returned, his voice was faint. “That was stupid, Aidan. You shouldn’t have told me that.”
Aidan stepped away from the intercom and flopped back down into the officer’s chair, hoping to dream of mirth and music again. He drew his sidearm as he reclined, ejecting the magazine into his lap. As his breath slowed and his muscles began to ease, he couldn’t help but wonder what had brought him to this side of the door and Dez the other. In another life, they might have been ringing up each other’s groceries. He flipped the magazine between his fingers for a few seconds, then ran his thumb down the witness holes in its side, counting the number of unspent rounds. One. Two. Three. It made a satisfying click when he popped it home.
After a few somber moments, his mind finally began to recede into the dark of sleep again. While he was drifting into the abyss, an abrupt hum filled his ears and the light behind his eyelids swelled. As he embraced his auburn beauty once more, he could almost swear he heard the telltale hiss of an airlock sliding open.
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