Nalia warmed her hands over the fire as night descended over the desert sky. A large rock outcropping covered them from any prying eyes. Alan had gone off to gather more supplies from their ship hidden in the cavern. She shivered as she wrapped her desert robes from the ship’s storage tighter around her shoulders. She thought of Atranas and Miyashiro fighting off the Republic marines with their small needleguns. She sighed. They must have escaped.
Things had become more complicated than she had ever imagined. A far-off entity manipulating both sides. Mysterious figures murdering people. Admiral Vendrian and his coup. How could the man not realize what he was doing? She worried about Alan. He and Vendrian were once inseperable, destined for great accomplishments. The dream now dispersed by betrayal. She knew how lonely Alan had been in the first few years of the academy, how she and her friends thought of him as a weird loser. How things change once you got to know people. She felt a twinge of guilt. Where were her friends now? They faded from her life, severed by the progress of their lives.
She found herself lost in a puzzle. Why did she push away Alan in that restaurant? It seemed so long ago, and so unlike her. Even in that moment, when she uttered those harsh words, she knew the unfair cruelty she inflicted on his innocent heart. She could come up with a million excuses. They needed to end the war. His loss was too small in the grand scheme of things. Going after Mihaela would result in needless deaths. And she knew these excuses were all useless. For wasn’t it the connection between human souls the most worth preserving when the world crumbled around them? She could not explain her callousness. Maybe it was envy. The envy at the life he was on the cusp of receiving. At last, he would receive a happiness that she failed to achieve. It could have been fear, the fear that their relationship would change their little group forever. And, so, when fate snatched that happiness away from him, she rejoiced. No, she could not believe that. She was not a monster. Or was she? Nalia blocked the thought from her mind.
She looked at the still desert landscape around her. Mostly desert, she reminded herself. So this is where Alan came from. She never did find out why he didn’t like that description of his home. She couldn’t help but think of it as a desert planet. Sure, there were some green areas and even a few great lakes she remembered during their pursuit. But on the whole, it was hostile to human life. He seldom talked about his home, almost as if ashamed about it. She found a strange beauty in the brown dunes and the intense changes in temperature that the night brought. Her foot made a circle in the sand. She lifted a pile with her hand and watched as she poured the grains back on the ground. She sat waiting, reflecting on the events that transpired before. They were trapped now, no way to send a message home, surrounded by hostile people on their own side. Her crew was probably still waiting, worried about the arrest and disappearance of their captain. She imagined Drevin pacing around his cabin. He once confessed his attraction to her. She refused him with a firm and polite answer, unready to share her life with another.
Alan came back, trudging slowly with a large bag and two packages of MREs. His large brown eyes stared at the ground in exhaustion. He sat down and tossed an MRE package to her. She caught it with both hands. He took out a black chocolate bar and chewed it slowly. She stared at her own meal, an amalgam of vat-grown meat and the grey mush that was supposed to be vegetables. A small section of rice reminded her that part of it was real food. They ate their meals in silence, tired from their ordeals. The fire crackled, its noise providing an odd feeling of comfort.
Then Alan gave her a look. He made a small grin. Reaching into a nearby bag, took out a large flask filled with a caramel-colored liquid.
“Pure Earth whiskey,” he said. “Always good to have some handy.”
Nalia laughed. “Careful, now. You might get written up for that.”
“I think the Navy has more important things to worry about now than some pilot with unauthorized alcoholic drinks. And real alcoholic drinks, to boot! C’mon, I’ll pour you some.”
She sat down next to him as he poured the dark liquid into two canteens. She took one, feeling the cool metal in her hands. The whiskey burned her throat as she took a giant swig. It took all her effort not to cough it all out.
Alan touched her hand. “Whoa, easy there! You’re supposed to savor it.”
Warm feelings enveloped her. All the tensions from before melted away. She wiped her mouth. “Sorry.”
He sat down next to her and took a sip from his canteen. She watched him lay his head back, eyes staring at the stars.
Nalia stretched her legs before her. “How are you feeling?” she asked.
Alan closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He tilted his head back down and looked at her. “Like the whole world’s exploded under me. It all seems so… it all seems unreal.” He took another sip. His head scarf fluttered in the wind. He wrapped it more tightly around himself. A second later, he coughed. “What about you?”
She placed the canteen down on the sand. “I’m not sure. We stumbled upon something big, I’m sure of it. It could change the fate of the human race forever. Or destroy it. The warlord talked about so many things… things out there… and whatever that disaster he was about to mention.” Her face hardened. “Whatever it is, it will face the full fury of the Republic Navy.”
Alan shook his head. “I’m not so sure about that. If it could get Admiral Vendrian…” He paused.
She stiffened. “I’m sorry, Alan, I shouldn’t have brought that up.”
He waved it off. “Don’t worry about it. It’s not your fault. I’m not even that mad.” He paused. “Ok, maybe I’m a little mad.” He crossed his legs in front of him. “The thing is, I don’t even really know why he did all those things. I know the official reason and I know his excuses, but I didn’t think he would just dump all of us like that. Like a pile of rag dolls on the side of the road.”
“Hey, now,” she replied, “look on the bright side. You’re not grounded anymore. You’re flying and pulling off miracles in a space craft again.”
“And getting shot at by my own side.” Alan’s thin smile mirrored her own. He paused and clenched his fist. A few seconds passed. “You just really don’t get to know people until they stab you in the back. I expected too much. All the higher ups treated me like a prodigy. He told me I was one of the greatest students he’d ever seen. I worked so hard to please them. And for what?” He opened his fist. “Absolutely nothing.”
Nalia could not find a reply. She stared at the fire. “I don’t know what to say. You two were really close, like friends. I was jealous of that.”
“Really? Everyone loved you. You were valedictorian!”
“Yeah, but they didn’t really know me. Not like you and Mihaela did. They kept their distance. I think I intimidated some of them.” She hugged her knees close. “And being the daughter of a Senator didn’t help.”
Alan took another sip from his canteen. “But look at you now! Captain of your own ship!”
“I should be happy, you’re right. And I do feel proud of myself. I just wish…” Her voice dropped to barely above a whisper. “I wish I had someone to share it with…”
“Oh,” Alan said. He took one sip, then gulped down a larger portion in haste. The seconds seemed to drag on by like minutes. He cleared his throat. “Well, you could always create your own groupies. I’ve heard that some of the DNA shops allow you to make clone dolls of yourself.”
She punched him in the shoulder. “Hell no! I’m not quite unethical and desperate enough for that yet.” She sighed. “I know this is a bit silly.”
“Don’t worry,” he laughed. “You’re the most successful person I know. Any guy would drop anything to be with you. And I bet you could draw even more of them with your nice cache of satoshis. That’ll really attract them.” He winked.
Nalia suppressed a snort. “You’re an ass, Alan.” For all his lack of social skills, the man knew how to lighten the mood. She looked away and brushed her head covering. “I do wonder what it’s like, though. Like you and Mihaela…” She caught herself. Internally, she cursed.
Alan seemed to deflate. His smile faded. After a long uncomfortable silence, his hands rubbed the rim of his canteen. “Nalia, tell me something. What did you think of me and Mihaela?” he asked.
Her breath whistled through her nose as she kept her face in check. “I think you guys had a really good thing going. I was happy for you,” she replied.
He turned towards her and gave her a sharp look. “Tell me the truth.”
“I—” the hasty lie she made up failed to come out of her mouth. Her free hand crept up to her face and she massaged her temple. “It’s complicated, okay? For a short time, it was just the three of us. It felt good to be part of that group, to be able to talk without guard, to know that you liked me for me, not my father or my money. It was a connection I didn’t even know I missed. Then you two got close, and she became the most important woman in your life.” The words gushed out. “It was irrational. It was stupid. I couldn’t help it. I was losing you. I couldn’t stand being second best, so I lashed out. I hurt you so that I could hurt her. If I could take it back a million times, I would!”
Her heartbeat pounded in her head. For a brief moment, she saw a flicker of rage in his dark eyes, the same look he gave her back at the restaurant when she told him to give up on her. Then it was gone and his features softened. His eyes glanced towards the ground and the years of anxiety and exhaustion etched themselves on his face. “I didn’t know,” he said. “I should have thought about you.”
“Alan, please let me make it up to you. Let me make it up to her!”
“It’s okay.” He held up his hand before she could go further. “At this point, we have to let it go. She’s dead now. We have to accept it. Dwelling on it will just make it worse.” Alan sighed, the sound similar to what a weary traveler makes when he returns home after a long journey. His eyes locked on to his whiskey. “Let’s not do this, Nalia. The war is over.” She knew what war he meant.
His hand waved towards the sky. “I want to tell you something. You know, this thing we had, Mihaela and I? I’ve started thinking more about it. At first, I thought she was the one, the answer to all my problems. But then, what if she wasn’t? What if I just clung on to her because she was the first person in a long time to reach out to me? What if I was just being selfish?”
Nalia closed her fingers together, contemplating his words. “You can’t believe that. She loved you just as much as you loved her. I saw it with my own eyes. If you were being selfish, she’d let you know.”
She heard a soft chuckle. “Yeah, she’d definitely let you know.” The tension dissipated as mist in the cool night sky. A star pulsed, almost imperceptibly.
She stretched her free arm towards him. “You know, despite all that happened, I’m glad that we were able to see each other again.”
He took it. “I agree.”
An hour after they finished their drinks, they lay next to each other, admiring the stars.
“We’re going to have to wake up early tomorrow. There’s a small settlement nearby. Six klicks southeast. A place called Tanisi. The rocks will cover us for most of the way, but it’ll still be hot.” Alan said a few more details about their journey. Nalia nodded.
A meteorite fell through Danube’s atmosphere, its white tail painting the sky with a temporary streak.
“Hey, Alan. I might have a strange question,” she asked.
“What do you want to ask about?” he lifted his head up and rested it on his hand.
“Do you think there’s something out there, watching over us?” Her boots slid across the sand. She smelled the dying embers of the fire.
She saw him start. His next words came out in a slow, hesitant manner. “I-I might have. I’ve had that feeling. I’ve seen things. A presence, I mean.”
Nalia nodded. “Yes! Some sort of trick of the light, I think? I thought it was my imagination.”
“It’s not fake if both of us saw it. Could it be that consciousness that Vendrian mentioned?”
“Yeah, I had that feeling, too. It definitely exists. But if it wanted to, why not just take us? Why go through all that subterfuge? My gut tells me that it’s something different.” She searched her thoughts. “Maybe it’s God, you know. I’m not joking.” She couldn’t believe they were talking about this, but the events of the past few days somehow made it more pertinent.
“If it’s God, then why not just come out and put a stop to all this violence and killing?”
Something surfaced from her subconscious, some presence that she could not quite grasp. “Maybe it’s not God or a consciousness,” she raised her hand and stared at a constellation through her fingers. “It’s something less direct. It’s something that just is, but still causes everything we know. It’s like a being that dreams these lives for us. Some entity that in its unconscious imagination chose us to witness these events.”
“I met a preacher a while back. He said that we could only find meaning from an external observer, like God. Maybe this entity is that observer.” Alan sighed. “But would it really matter? God, fate, destiny. We’ll never know.”
“What if we were born to lie down here at this moment, staring at the stars, together? That all the moments in our lives culminated in this one, right now?”
Alan wrinkled his brow for a moment. “If that’s it, if something is creating this universe or if it’s a dream or if it’s all random chaos, then there’s nothing else to say about it. What happens is going to happen. I guess the only meaning then is how we deal with it.”
“I guess so,” she answered. “And how would you deal with it?”
The seconds passed. For a moment, she thought she could see the movement of the stars as the planet rotated. The crackle of the fire started fading. She heard him move. “I’ve thought about it a while. You know the last words that Vendrian said to me? ‘Take some goddamn responsibility.’ And even though I hate him, I can’t let go of those words.” His breath became slow and heavy. “I do need to take responsibility. Responsibility for my crime and responsibility for my life. And I need to choose this responsibility freely.” He rolled his head over to her. His eyes shined bright. “Does that make sense?”
“It does, but you didn’t really answer my question.”
“About what I would actually do?” He thought a moment. “Even if there are things out there, things that seek to control or destroy us, I will fight. I will fight so that we can make that choice.”
She looked at him, staring at his clenched jaw and narrowed eyes. “Wow, it’s been awhile since I’ve seen you so passionate,” she said.
He relaxed. “Well, I’m sick of just reacting to everything.” He rolled to his side, his whole body now facing her. “What about you? What would you do?”
Nalia stared at the stars in the sky. She thought for a while. “I mean, no one likes the idea of being controlled by an outside force. On the other hand, we sometimes wish for a greater power to guide our lives. I think that’s what I want to do. Help others become better than they are currently. Not like a God, but an advisor maybe.” She wondered whether she really believed her words or if it was a lie she told to herself.
“You’ve done that already,” Alan whispered. Nalia smiled and reached for his hand. They held their hands in a tight grasp as the night progressed. After a while, she heard Alan’s rhythmic breathing and wondered if he was asleep. The fire finally died down and she felt the slight chill of the night air. She closed her eyes and dreamed of their last dance together.