When Stars Die

I stormed through Kliff’s buffer zones without collecting more than my usual quota of hostile stares. His prim-faced secretary squawked as I brushed past her.

“Don’t bother announcing me,” I said smoothly. “I’ll just let myself in.”

The office was luxurious, slung with low couches and deep rugs from his native Katalan. I made myself comfortable without waiting for an invitation. Kliff was used to this routine. That did not mean he had to like it. He was positively scowling.

“Feeling quite comfortable, Lee?” His voice was hard and gravelly, the characteristic wheeze hardly audible. A short sawn-off runt, he had a dour suffering expression and an undertaker’s smile. Maybe it was the eyes: tiny black points, cold and remote; or the dry, leathery yellow skin, crinkling around the eyes and mouth. Whatever it was, there wasn’t any love lost between us and we both knew it.

“You bet,” I said and gave him a smile designed for maximum irrita­tion value. His jaw muscles were jumping, mouth a thin line.

“You should have been here sooner,” he suggested, his fingers drumming softly against the de4sktop.

“I just landed at Skaro Field, Kliff, pursuant to your orders. If this was so damned important, you could have been there or commed me.”

He ignored that one. “Your squadron still in orbit?” he demanded, lips white as he glared at me, knowing very well they were.

“That’s another thing. We could use a few days leave on Zaron. The crews need rest and my ships need overhaul and resupply. I want to bring them down.”

“Permission denied!”

I sighed. “That’s what I figured. Let’s cut the crap, Kliff. What do you want?”

He went through the usual routine when giving me a particularly nasty piece of work: a pass through the white hair, the placing of fingertips together on top of the fake stone desk, and the throat clearing bit. This time it took him a while – guilty conscience perhaps. I guess I didn’t go out of my way to make things easier.

Skies!

“All right, Lee. The bare bones,” he wheezed and cleared his throat. “You must know that you have a lot of enemies in the Space Arm.”

“Screw them,” I said.

“That’s what I mean. You rub people the wrong way. However, your unorthodox methods do get results…sometimes. And as far as the Concordiat is concerned, that’s all that counts. As you know, I don’t totally subscribe to that policy. I’ll be candid with you, Lee.”

“Okay.”

“This assignment was given to you over the heads of vastly more senior people. Alkarhs,” he added ponderously, his black eyes studying me.

“I’m really touched, Kliff.” I chuckled nastily, knowing that his voice probably figured prominently trying to block me from getting whatever the Orieli Space Arm had in mind.

He gave me a hard look. “As you please, then. Your job is to de­stroy Ceti.”

I stared at him, feeling the weariness heavy on my shoulders. “Ceti? There must be some mistake.”

He shook his head, relishing my confusion. “Hard copy of your orders are waiting for you aboard your ship. You’ll open them at 1700 hours today. By that time, you should be on your way. Your squadron is being resupplied even as we speak. Accrued leave will be granted on mission com­pletion. After all, how long does it take to blow up a planet?” he said and smiled with genuine satisfaction at my bewilderment.

I sat there looking at his cold black eyes, hating him. “Differences aside, okay?”

“All right, Lee.” He nodded, enjoying himself.

“You’re talking about billions of people, Kliff! This will not solve the rebel problem. It will only stiffen resistance against the Concordiat. Even the moderate systems will join the rebel cause if we goes through with this madness.”

“I know all that.”

“Then why?”

“I only carry out orders, I don’t make policy.” He leaned back, his hands forming a neat bridge above the polished desk.

“Whoever dreamed this up must be insane.”

“Careful, Lee. Those are dangerous words. Some would say even treasonous.”

“Skies!” I spat out. “Tactically, you think Ceti will be sitting on its hands while we move in a squadron and interdict the system?”

“Probably not. But then, they’re not expecting anything, are they? As far as they’re concerned, this will just be another Space Arm maneuver off the Syke system. For once, a secret plan has remained se­cret.”

“What about the population?”

“That’s all been taken care of. Your orders are clear. Just carry them out and don’t try to formulate policy for the Concordiat.” The warning in his voice was unmistakable.

“Hiding behind orders! Is that supposed to make me proud, Alkarh?”

“It’s supposed to make you obedient, Alkarhide!” he thundered, jumping to his feet.

“You’re talking about a whole world, Kliff!”

“A world that’s one of the organizational centers for subversion and rebellion against the Concordiat! You have your orders, and I’m tired of debating this with you. Now, get out!”

I stood up, looking at him in disgust. “You’re a phony, Kliff, and I’m beginning to understand why you handed this mess to me.” I was about to add a lot more to that, but he just wasn’t worth it. “Orders of the Space Arm will be carried out, Alkarh, and damn you for it.” I turned and stormed out.

Skies!

* * *

Gray clouds lay heavy among the glowing spires of Skaro. The east­ern sky was muddy and sullen, reflecting my mood. I slowed my walk as the tower appeared out of thin fog. I stood at the main entrance to the building and shook the dew off my cape. The doors slid away and I strode through, folding the cape over my left arm.

I stepped into one of the empty transport booths and mumbled the combi­nation. The aftereffect tingle of the personal transport transceiver left me and I walked into a brightly lit room.

“Eryne?” I tossed the cape in the general direction of the chair.

There was a squeal from the lounge and she came running. She flung herself at me and locked my neck with her arms. We laughed and I swung her around. Then she pulled away, her large eyes searching mine.

“Lee, how I’ve missed you,” she murmured, voice husky and excited.

I reached out and touched her pale cheek. It was soft and warm, like her smile, no pretense. She was so small and soft and I needed her very much. We held hands, her eyes laughing at me. It was only then that I noticed her long silver-green gown. It was rimmed with blue fur and she wore matching slippers. She caught my glance and smiled.

“You like?”

“I’ve seen better,” I said and shrugged, pretending indifference. She was so much like an innocent child in her small pleasures.

“Beast!” she pouted. “You’re a crude man and I hate you.”

“You’ll get over it.”

“Beast!”

I held her, suddenly feeling cold with pending dread. “Eryne?”

“Mmm?” She nestled her head against my chest.

“I won’t be able to make it tonight.”

“Are you in trouble?” She pulled back, all concern.

“I have a most ultra-top secret mission and I haven’t read my orders yet. I’ll get shot for it. Dawn. Tomorrow.”

“So? What are you doing here, Alkarhide?”

“They granted a dying man’s last wish to see an angel.”

She fisted me in the ribs and I gasped.

“Lee?”

“Mmm?”

“How long this time?”

I shook my head. “I don’t know, sweetie.”

“What’s going to happen to us?” she whispered, searching my face. A slim hand reached up and gently touched my cheek.

What could I say? What was there to say?

She pulled at my arm. “Let’s go somewhere where there is still some peace and sanity. The Orieli Cluster is full of wars and killing. Please, Lee!”

“And where could we go to find peace and sanity?” I asked softly and stroked her cheek.

“Leave the Cluster. We could go to the frontier worlds in the White Cloud. The galaxy is a big place.”

“I can’t do that, Eryne. You know I can’t.”

“Why not? All you have now is horror and grief.”

She had a point there. I pulled away from her and paced around the room for a while.

“I have a job to do, my duty.” It sounded lame even as I said it.

“Killing and destroying?” I could sense the hurt and anger in her voice.

She stood there, regal and defiant.

“If that’s what it takes,” I said.

Her eyes were large and round and it wouldn’t take much to fill them with tears. I didn’t want that. I walked to her, stood in front of her and opened my arms.

“Love me?” I whispered.

She hesitated, then laid her head on my chest.

“Oh, Lee,” she mumbled into my shirt. “Loving you is so hard sometimes.”

That was Eryne.

* * *

Darkness lay around me and I could hear the gentle whisper of inter-deck comms and the muted computer status reports. Hands clasped behind my head, I stared moodily at the holoview surrounding me.

The Syke’s sun was a yellow point and Ceti hung there like a red horn on a black tapestry, majestic and beautiful. Its two gray moons were like pearls adorning a jewel. The stars of the Orieli Cluster were thick here. Above me, the galaxy core blazed with harsh light, its arms a lazy swirl. After twelve days in subspace, Zaron was but a distant memory. I didn’t relish the cup from which I was about to drink.

The CCS blinked and I stared at it for a while. I reached with a weary hand and touched a glowing prism. Taris stared at me, looking grim, his face shiny with sweat. He had reason to be grim.

“Yes, Karhide?”

“It’s 1800, Lee,” he said, his eyes full of accusation.

“So?”

“You wanted a status report.”

“Then give it to me, damn you!”

He winced, jaw muscles working. “All ships have completed their orbital grids as instructed, Da.” He was all formality and I knew what was bothering him. “We’re in position and ready to initiate firing sequence.”

“Any hostile signatures?”

“Outer patrol ring is showing normal commercial traffic, but that’s being rerouted. There are two scout ships, SL-3s, maintaining a holding pattern just outside the active area. We could pull them in if you want.”

Sublight patrol darts from Tioni hanging around to see the Space Arm in action. “No. If they’re Free Planets scouts, there’s nothing they can do now. Anything from Ceti?”

“An interrogative from the Primate Council and two calls from our resident Commissioner. We’ve intercepted military band scans, but show no combat assets in the area.”

“Naturally,” I said sarcastically. “Ceti is a peaceful planet of the Concordiat. You may initiate active jamming of all subspace comms, Taris.”

“Aye, Da.”

“Have you got the inner-system scans in yet?”

There was a perceptible pause before he spoke. “I think you should come up to Primary Flight Control, Lee.” His voice sounded strained and haggard, and I looked at him sharply. He better the hell not let me down now. This wasn’t the time to get squeamish.

“I’ll be right up,” I said and shut off the Command Console Screen. Feeling a thousand years old, I stood up and reached for my cape. I swung it around my shoulders and fumbled with the clip.

In PFC, men and women were quietly going about their duties, tense and unsmiling. There wasn’t a hell of a lot to smile about. I climbed into my command seat, took a glance at the operations platform below and grunted. Taris stood beside me, not looking at anything in particular.

“Okay. Let’s have it,” I grated.

“I saw the scans, Lee,” he whispered fiercely. “The planet’s still full of people! There wasn’t any evacuation at all. They never intended to have one, did they? As far as I can see, the only thing Ceti is aware of at this moment is that a squadron of heavy line cruisers of the Orieli Space Arm are holding grid pattern above the planetary plane and jamming all comms. There are four and a half billion people down there, Lee!”

“Your analysis of the situation is quite accurate, Karhide, as usual,” I growled, irritated at having to explain it all. “There never was a possibility of an evacuation. How could there be? If this little maneuver had become known, why, every bleeding son of a bitch would have fronted up here in some rusty bucket either to watch the show or fight us.” I could see some of the watchstanders casting nervous glances in our direction. “And besides. Who would take them all off, anyway? And where would we put them?”

“You’re a cold blooded bastard, Lee.”

“They invented the word mean just for me. What the hell’s the matter with you, anyway? Let’s take a look at those damned scans.”

“This is murder, Lee. And I don’t have to like it.”

“That’s right, Karhide,” I hissed, thinking of Kliff and his oily smiles, of Eryne, her gentleness and trust. “Nobody gives a shit whether you like it or not. Just carry out your orders, is all.”

“Under protest, Alkarhide.” His eyes locked with mine.

I swung myself out of the seat, my cape swirling about me as I stood over him.

“You sanctimonious heel! Eager enough when things are smooth, but when the crap starts flying, quick to see that none sticks.”

“You can say what you like, Da, but, this is wrong! He shook his head and point­ed at the repeater screen.

“Wrong or not, Mister, those are our orders.”

“You could have refused those orders.”

“Refused my orders? It’s not your hand carrying death and fire. What the hell do you think we’re playing at, eh? Some elabo­rate game? Honor and glory? There is no honor in this and damned little glory. So your fine sense of morality is a little rattled, eh? You should have stayed where it would have been safe, or resigned! While you remain in this ship and wear that uniform, you take whatever is being dished out. Copy that, Mister?”

“Lee, I –”

“Shove it!” I said wearily and slumped into my seat. “One more word, Karhide, and you’re relieved.” I fumed and glared around me, then slammed the top of the armrest. “We have a job to do!” I bellowed. “Let’s get on with it!”

The watchstanders hurriedly turned to their screens. The silence was thick and uncomfortable. I could sense Taris stand­ing beside me, but I had no time for him.

“Karhide?” I said without looking at him.

“Da?”

“Signify all ships. Arm all antimatter pods and stand by for firing on my order.”

“All ships report ready to comply, Da.”

“Status?”

“Outer patrol ring is sealed. The two SL-3 scouts are still maintain­ing a holding pattern.”

“Okay. You may arm the pods.” I climbed out of the seat and headed for the personal transport alcove. “When they’re all ready, contact our Commissioner in Catlankt and the Ceti Primate Council, in that order. Is all.”

“Da, there is nothing in our orders about communication with Ceti.”

“So what?” I demanded and waited.

He colored and nodded. “As you say.”

I grunted and stepped into the alcove. When the aftereffect tingle passed, I paused before entering the lounge of my quarters. The door sighed as it closed behind me and I leaned heavily against it. I threw the cape over a chair and buried my face between my hands. I slumped on the couch and closed my eyes.

Forgive me Eryne.

* * *

The CCS went off just as I was ready to forget, for a little while anyway. Taris looked haggard and shrunken as I scowled at him.

“We have a channel open to the Commissioner, Da.”

I nodded and touched a series of glowing prisms. The screen cleared and I was left staring at another fat political appointee of the Concordiat. Probably given Ceti for licking an appropriate ass, no doubt. Who cares.

“Commissioner, this is Alkarhide Zor-Lee.”

“Alkarhide.” He nodded, looking bemused, his jowls sagging. Soft living does that. “Ah, forgive me for ask­ing, but –”

“Quite all right, Commissioner. Did you receive any messages from Orieli Space Arm Command within the last sixteen hours?”

“Why, no. Should I have?”

I muttered something vile under my breath. “No, I guess not. Still…” It would have been nice to have been surprised. “No doubt, you may be wondering what we’re doing out here.”

“Well, our Ceti friends have been a little frantic since you showed up in the system, Alkarhide.” A faint smile touched his smooth face.

“To be sure. To business, Commissioner. My orders are to neutralize Ceti.” His face turned green and his mouth worked. “I suggest you notify your staff and leave immediately. Do not bother packing. Just leave. Do you understand me?”

“But…But…That’s murder! This is insanity! The Concordiat cannot –”

“Save the speeches and recriminations for the Council. Goodbye, sir.” I cut contact and stared at the blank screen.

Skies!

“Comms? Got the Ceti Primate?”

“Affirmative, sir.”

“Good.” I wondered where they pick up all that affirmative crap from? Couldn’t he have just said yes? Not that I was a hard commander or anything…

The screen lit up again. The face was old and wizened, like it had seen everything. Well, almost everything.

“Alkarhide Zor-Lee, Orieli Space Arm, sir.”

“Councilor Catlankt.” He gave a stiff bow.

Well, the head man. It would make things easier – maybe. “Councilor, you must have noticed the maneuvering of my ships off Ceti. My orders are to –”

“Destroy this planet, Alkarhide?” he finished for me, showing no expression on his lined face.

Something heavy rolled across my shoulders and I sagged. I held his eye and nodded. “To destroy Ceti.”

“When?”

“You have twenty hours. Ships leaving Ceti will not be interdicted, military or civilian. And Councilor, no heroics, please. This is difficult enough as it is.”

“There doesn’t seem to be much heroics about any of this, Alkarhide,” he said gravely.

“I can’t argue with you about that one, Da.”

He nodded and managed a tragic smile. “Why the warning, Alkarhide?”

“Call it a token of mercy,” I said savagely and cut contact.

* * *

“It’s twenty-nine hours now, Lee,” Taris said tightly, avoiding my eyes.

I stared at the red glow of Ceti filling most of the holoview of the operations platform below. Like fireflies, bright blue points flick­ered on the tactical overlay in a pattern that surrounded the planet: lights of death – antimatter pods armed and waiting to unleash their fury at the helpless planet. The cruisers had already formed a holding position at the edge of the system in case Free Planets warships decided to call, but the area was empty. It would have been a futile gesture, as this one was. All so futile…

I kept my word. Ships leaving Ceti were not molested. Call it a salve for my conscience. As it was, only an insignificant fraction of the population had managed to get away. Somehow, I knew that Catlankt would not be among them. Still, if they took to underground shelters, a lot could still live through what was about to come, long enough for further evacuation later.

“Status?” I demanded.

“Pods armed, in position and ready for firing, Da.”

“Very well, Karhide. Cent Comp copy?”

“Ready, Alkarhide,” the computer replied gravely.

“Initiate firing sequence on my mark…mark!”

Like a star in mortal agony, Ceti flared bright as the pods ignited. The atmosphere burned with consuming intensity. I watched with horrified fascina­tion as the world died. Long after the flash that ignited it, living flame stormed over the planet from which unheard voices screamed their defi­ance to hell.

I stared at the boiling, swirling eddies of smoke and steam without blinking. Without a word, I stood up and walked to the transport alcove.

I sat alone in the Observation Deck bubble. All cruisers of my squadron were leaving. I looked at Ceti’s gray crescent and the dull glow of its night side. The atmosphere was still burning halfheartedly, choked with superheated steam. Scanners and tracking devices circled the cinder, noting everything for the amusement of bright-eyed thinkers on Zaron.

When the ship moved and the stars began to shift about me, I kept staring at the spot where Ceti smoldered, listening to its cries. It would take a few days to get back to Zaron and I had some thinking to do. I wasn’t looking forward to it.

* * *

Clouds raced low over dirty, battered shingles; black fortresses tumbling over the heavens. Ribbons of jagged light danced in their bellies. A rolling low rumble shook the ground. Slanting walls of rain moved quickly to surround the cowering towers.

A black giant winked and a sheet of white light licked the earth. With a hideous crash, thunder bellowed in defiance. The sound rolled ponderously over the heavens. Low on the horizon, the advancing wall of broken cloud was bathed in blood. White swords flickered in its gray depths. Where they touched, gold and fire danced. The rain came in cold, heavy streams over Skaro. It softened and blurred where it touched.

I clutched my cape around me, walking quickly. A slimy torrent of water gurgled as it sluiced down the center of the alleyway. The patched muddy walls gave me claustrophobia. I cursed slowly and steadi­ly. An icy trickle tickled the back of my neck and ran down my spine. I pulled my collar tight, but it made no difference.

Skies!

I gave a deep sigh of relief when I saw the glowing sign above the club’s entrance. Here was comfort and warmth. I stopped, shook myself and walked quickly inside. Some gloomy creature dressed in a green clown’s uniform wished me good evening as he bowed.

“Damn your eyes!” I snarled, struggling with the clip on my cape. I finally got it undone and dropped the sodden mess into the outstretched hand. The porter smiled, but his eyes were frigid. I turned and walked away, not giving a crap.

I paused before the entrance to the main floor. I hate doormen, especially doormen with phony brass smiles. Better a man who showed his hate openly. I screwed my face into a grimace of disgust as I looked in.

The place was lousy with people, all types and sizes, all chatting gaily just to annoy and antagonize me. I hated them all. The air was moist and heavy. It clung to my skin with cloying intimacy. I squirmed, thinking of the crisp air outside.

Smoke curled thick around the suspended light strips and the ceiling pulsed with shifting colors. It flared bright yellow as a party around one of the tables began a shouting match.

“You have a reservation…Da?” I could see the headwaiter, dressed in immaculate pale green one-piece outfit, measuring my drab gray mufti with suspicion. He was probably thinking of his bouncers.

“Yeah,” I said.

“Uh, the name…Da,” he was apologetic but still measuring.

“Zor-Lee.”

“Ah, yes, of course, Da!” More phony smiles. He raised his right hand and snapped his fingers. A servant walked quickly around tables, expertly avoiding flailing hands, swaying drinks and strings of curses. The headwaiter tapped his foot impatiently.

“Take, ah…” he glanced at me expectantly.

“Try…Mister.” I glared at him.

“Take, ah, Mister Zor-Lee to table eleven. Chop!”

The servant bowed and preceded me through the jungle of tables. He snatched the reserved sign off the cloth and nodded at a small table neatly tucked against the wall. I sat down and relaxed. A ribbon of soft yellow light sprang around the table edge.

“Refreshments, kind Da?” The servant stood unmoving.

“Sabrion on crushed ice with a slice of bandrine peel. Chilled!” I growled, looking at the empty stage.

The ceiling flared bright blue and the strips turned into bars of crimson. The stage lights shimmered. Heavy green curtains moved oily as they slowly drew aside, swaying gently when they stopped. The chatter died like a whisper of receding surf and the ceiling throbbed. Heads twisted for a better angle and chairs scraped.

She was sitting on a high-carved stool, her long legs crossed, revealing a generous length of smooth thigh. Her hands were folded in her lap. Waves of thick violet hair spilled over her shoulders. Her skin was light blue, darkening around glowing black eyes and mouth. She wasn’t smiling. She turned her head and stared at me.

My face softened beneath her gaze. I could feel the warmth of her gaze spreading like fire. It was very pleasant. I grinned, staring at her with longing hunger.

Slow beats of pulsing music wove through the tables as everyone waited. Hands in her lap, Eryne began to sing. The accompanying band wasn’t too loud. There was a hush on the floor. I had not heard her sing that song before. The melody was moody, tragic and tender, a ballad of youth, beauty and lost love. Of war and terror, of death and pain.

Needles crawled down my back. She sang slowly, softly, her words gossamer that drifted gently over the audience, but her eyes were sad. A window to a broken heart and fleeting glimpses of what might have been. When she finished, her eyes were glistening with tears. The curtains closed with a rush and the audience sat there stunned. Then they were on their feet; cheering, demanding more. The ceiling rippled in response.

I nursed my drink. I knew the song, of course. It was about us and I could feel my heart fluttering with anxiety. I looked up and she was standing there.

“Can I sit down, Lee?” She looked shy and apprehensive and my heart went out to her. I glanced around. People stared at us, smiling knowing­ly. How I wished to wipe those smirks off their faces!

“Please,” I said, my eyes never leaving hers as she bowed and sat down. I raised my right hand and snapped my fingers. A servant was beside her in an instant.

“What would you like, Eryne?” I asked as she put a slender finger into her mouth.

“Ah, a small Alatri special, Manargee.” She smiled at the servant.

“Your wishes, gentle lady.” The servant bowed low and left. I found myself frowning after him.

“You shouldn’t waste your kindness on dirt like that.”

She placed a small hand over mine and shook her head. “Poor, Lee. Still bitter. The world in your eyes so different from mine. Let your heart be glad tonight.” She smiled and I couldn’t resist her warmth. I turned her hand until it rested in mine.

“Your song, Eryne. I know it.”

“You wrote the words.”

“I’m not a disillusioned youth drowning his sorrows in abandonment of war,” I reproached her gently.

“No. You know exactly what you’re doing all the time. Your every move is perfectly calculated.” She stared at the table, fiddling with her drink. Slowly, she raised her head and looked at me. There was pain and sorrow in those eyes and I felt myself tensing.

“Lee…I…I won’t be seeing you anymore,” she said with a rush.

I stared at her in disbelief. My world was crumbling around me and I was lost. I clutched my tumbler and gulped the last of my drink. When I laughed, it was a hollow, empty thing.

“Why, Eryne? Why?”

“Because I love you so much,” she whispered brokenly and kissed my hand.

“That doesn’t make any damn sense!”

“Remember the night we met?”

I stared at her. “I remember,” I said at length.

“You were alone, drinking. Lonely and lost. And I was a brand new attraction at the Slee Club. Remember?” Her eyes moved over my face, her hand in mine.

“Because I destroyed Ceti?” I didn’t mean it to sound cold and accusing. It just came out that way.

She flinched and shook her head. “No, of course not. It –”

“World, fleet, ship. What does it matter? They were nothing but rebels.”

“Don’t!” she begged, but I ignored her.

“My publicity isn’t good for the Club, is that it?” I regretted the words even as I said them. I sighed and touched her lips with the tip of my finger. “I’m sorry, Eryne. That was stupid of me. I’m just not think­ing straight. Forgive?”

I stared hard into her eyes. After a while, a ghost of a smile touched her mouth. “Forgive.”

“I still want to know why, Eryne.”

She laughed and shook her head. “Still the Alkarhide. Standing on his deck waiting for acknowledgement. Da!” She made a face.

I didn’t smile. “I take my duty very seriously. I will not attempt to deny for a moment the hell and injustice that is the Concordiat. Nor will I point out the other side of the coin. I simply do my job as best I can. And my best is a damned sight too good for a lot of my brother officers. Bastards, most of them. They would love nothing better than to see me stretched out on some bloody deck.”

“That’s why I cannot see you anymore.”

“Love me, Eryne,” I pleaded in desperation. “I’ll resign my commission. There is nothing more I can do.” I was begging and it came hard.

“My love. Every time you saw a star­ship, a little bit of your heart would go with it. After a while, there would be nothing left. Nothing for me, nothing for you. Where would that leave us, Lee?” Her voice was trembling and I saw her eyes fill. A drop sparkled and rolled quickly down her cheek. I moved my finger and wiped it away.

“What about the moments of love we shared? The dreams we made? All the sorrows we conquered? Are all those things lost? Just write them off to experience?”

“That can never be lost, Lee. I sit here and I can feel the pain that is tearing at your heart. Don’t you see?” She gripped my hands fiercely. “I die a little every time you go out, wondering what is happening to you. Lying somewhere, mutilated, tortured or dead. Oh, Lee!” She sobbed, eyes streaming. “I love you because you’re strong, unshakeable, full of purpose and duty. But your path takes you through the worst that life has to offer, and I’m not strong enough to follow.”

“I can’t give you up, Eryne.” I gripped her head, my heart hammer­ing.

She sat up, wiped her eyes and sniffed. “I have another song. The patrons are getting restless. Goodbye, Lee.”

“Love me, Eryne! Love me!” I cried out, searching her eyes in vain. She gave a strangled sob, tore her arm free and ran into the crowd. Faces stared at me, but I didn’t see them.

I searched the bottom of my tumbler. Empty, like my heart. My throat was tight. I blinked rapidly and swallowed. The world had slammed its door in my face and I hated it for it.

I don’t know how long I sat there. After a while, I stood up, threw money on the table and walked away. The porter hastily rose to his feet and held out my cape. I put it on and drew the collar tight. I paused as the crowd fell silent and the lights dimmed. I turned and looked at the main floor.

She stood straight before the gently swaying curtains. Her orange gown glowed as it clung to her figure. Like an ornament, she was delicate and frail, meant to be cherished, not used. And she was right. She wasn’t strong enough to follow where I walked. She would only be in my way, be my conscience. The last thing I needed in my job was a conscience.

As she started to sing, I hastily turned and walked out. It was still raining, soft and caressing. Lightning ripped the sky, followed by rolling thunder.

I waited for a moment, then hunched my shoulders and stepped into the rain.

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Copyright © Stefan Vucak 2017