Lew woke up to the deep hum of the ship, the lights in his quarters having risen to approximate dawn. Which was a joke, if you thought about it—Lew couldn't remember the last time he'd woken up at actual dawn, so what was the point of pretending. But such were Toccoa's atmospheric defaults, which operated on a logic known only to the ship's engineers, her crew, and possibly to the ship herself. As Lew was none of these things, he just took circumstances as they came, the same way he now drew his blankets tighter around him against the climate controls, which were always set just a shade too low for his liking.
"Toccoa," Lew said, rubbing his eyes, "where's Dick?"
"Please restate your request according to query parameters," said the ship, just as Lew knew she would. Toccoa didn't overly appreciate familiarity.
He sighed. "Location of Captain Winters, please."
"Acknowledged," said the ship, which made Lew even more certain than usual that the computer was just an old-fashioned stickler for protocol. Not unlike the man Lew was trying to find, now that he thought about it.
"Captain Winters is presently making use of the E Deck recreation facilities," said the ship. "Would you like me to page him?"
Tempting, thought Lew, feeling devilish. But at this hour Dick was almost certainly swimming, and dragging him from the water in the middle of a workout for anything short of a red alert was not the way Lew wanted to start his day if he knew what was good for him.
"No thanks," he said. "That won't be necessary."
"Would you like to leave a message?"
"Aw, Toccoa," said Lew. "Where's the fun in that?" He kicked the covers off and went over to the chest of drawers to fumble for his uniform.
"Is that a rhetorical question, sir?"
"It sure is," said Lew, zipping his all-in-one up the front. The things made for easy dressing and quicker atmo-suiting in an emergency, but damned if they weren't hell when you needed to take a piss. "You really are getting to know me, aren't you."
"Plasticity is a key feature of my operating system," said the ship.
He laughed. "You tell that to all the guys?"
The ship made no reply, having ostensibly identified another question requiring no answer. Lew shook his head and sat on the bed to put his boots on. They were on the floor where he'd kicked them off the night before, stumbling in after bidding Harry goodnight in the corridor. He bent awkwardly down to retrieve them, muscles and joints feeling tight and creaky with disuse.
Boots on, Lew rose from the bed and went out into the corridor. He paused in front of Harry's door, but decided to leave him be. As he turned away and continued on in the direction of the E Deck gym, he told himself he was merely being considerate, though already jealousy clung sourly to the very thought of Harry coming along now.
Lew was self-aware enough to know he had something of a possessive streak when it came to people he liked, and he liked Dick very much indeed. It was a little embarrassing, but he couldn't help it; he'd been that way since he was a schoolkid with his first crush. If Dick noticed, he didn't let on, and for that Lew was eternally grateful. He was fairly sure Harry did notice, and that if Lew had asked him along now he'd have some handy excuse prepared in order to stay behind. Lew should have been grateful for that, too, but somehow he couldn't bring himself to be.
He came to the gym and slunk in like some nocturnal creature cast out into the daylight. Already the air was cloying, and as he neared the pool it grew closer still and harsher with chlorine. The pool was ringed all around with glass, and if Lew wanted to he could have gone to sit in the bleacher seats alongside and had a fine view, but instead he went in through the sliding doors that led to the pool itself. The place was empty, a smooth plane of turquoise, broken only by a single wake in one of the far lanes, a lone swimmer stroking along in freestyle. Lew ambled around the perimeter, halting at the head of Dick's lane. He sat sideways on the springboard and waited. Presently Dick came to the end of the lane again and stopped, clinging to the edge of the pool like a limpet. He clambered out and sat on the tile, pale chest heaving, water sheeting off him into the gutter. Lew looked down at his own hands.
"Hi," said Dick, still out of breath. He pulled his goggles off and let them hang around his neck.
"Morning," Lew said.
"Didn't expect to see you here this early."
"Oh, well. I woke up and couldn't go back to sleep. Figured I'd come and bother you."
Dick grinned. He blinked water from his eyes and got to his feet. Lew tossed him the towel he'd left folded on the end of the springboard.
"Thanks," Dick said. "You got a minute? I'll be quick, just need to jump in the shower."
"Sure," said Lew. "I mean, I haven't got anything better to do."
Dick got to his feet, drying off and then draping the towel over his shoulders. "What, Regiment hasn't come up with a more creative use of your deep-space patrol time than poring over intercepted ship's logs?"
Lew groaned. "Don't remind me," he said. "I swear, if I have to listen to a bunch of horny Russki captains argue about the best cabaret on the east side of the Moon for one more minute I'm going to commandeer a shuttle and blast the whole planet into oblivion myself."
"Well, there's the kind of initiative we like to see from our intelligence staff.”
"Jesus. Imagine if all it took to end this cat-and-mouse bullshit was me going AWOL with a bunch of firepower. I'd be long gone."
“Don’t talk like that in the rec room while the men have been drinking. You’ll get more than a few wanting to tag along.”
“Yeah? What a shocker. You’d think our side was just as sick of sitting around with our thumbs up our asses as theirs is.”
Dick shook his head and let Lew follow him into the showers.
Lew sat on a bench in the locker room and watched Dick strip his suit off with alacrity, wringing it out over the drain and depositing it in a wet lump on the floor. Then he padded over to the row of shower heads and turned one on, hovering alongside the stream for a moment, reaching out gingerly with the flat of his hand to test its temperature.
"You know," Dick said as he stepped into the spray of water, "I heard the new troopships have sonics."
Lew made a face, though Dick had turned towards the wall and couldn’t see him. Lew hated sonics; growing up his parents had always insisted on real water showers, and as far as he knew Dick's dad had wrangled some sort of homegrown irrigation system back on Earth. But there were plenty of men here for whom wet showers were an unheard-of luxury, which was why the showers in the gyms and barracks all had a five-minute limit.
Dick soaped and rinsed with time to spare, and then he came back into the locker room and rubbed himself over with a fresh towel. His skin was pink and blotchy from the hot water, perpetually chapped and itchy in the ship’s parched microclimate. Sometimes he got raw patches at his elbows, and got a special ointment made up from the medics, something that was thick and unctuous and smelled strongly of eucalyptus.
Lew was developing something of an association; on leave he liked to take his daughter to walk through the eucalyptus groves in the glass-domed city park near his ex-wife's apartment, and the last time they'd been he'd found himself staring up and up into the canopy of towering, silvery trees, thinking of his friend. A long moment of thought, the sort he didn't generally allow himself. But then Betsy had called for him to watch her try a cartwheel, and then the HVAC reversed direction and made the wind shift and they went out of the grove and Lew couldn't smell the trees anymore.
Dick had fetched his uniform from a locker and halfway put on his coverall. He was sitting next to Lew on the bench stripped to the chest, barefoot and with socks in hand. His hair was dark and mussed. Lew took a deep breath.
"I asked if you were hungry."
"Oh," said Lew, blinking. He rubbed his stomach absently. He felt drawn around the middle, as though his body might fold along a hinge. Had he eaten last night before they started in on cards? Harry usually had snacks. He always hoarded the packages Kitty sent him.
"Yeah, I could eat," Lew said.
The mess was beginning to fill, ship's crew coming onto A shift and the graveyard shift coming off, eating breakfast for dinner. They shuffled into line and Dick slid Lew a tray before taking one for himself, making small talk with the mess officers as they piled his plate high with eggs and bacon. Dick ate with a kind of lusty economy Lew appreciated, his vigor hinting at other sorts of appetites. Lew accepted his own ladleful of soft scrambled eggs and a couple of strips of bacon, which from the look of it was actually the formed meat substitute that he hated. Somewhere along the line the Army saw fit to take an interest in the bodies of its soldiers from the inside out, and swapped the eggs for whites hopped up with vitamins and the meat for some substance that barely ought to qualify as food. In Lew's opinion his coronary arteries were his own goddamn business, but unfortunately nobody asked him. Luckily there were no regs yet concerning strong black coffee, so Lew filled his mug with plenty of it and went to sit across from Dick.
"So what’s on your agenda for the day?" Lew asked.
"Oh," said Dick, through a mouthful of toast. "Same old same old. There’s a depressurization emergency sim we’re supposed to do, but I’m thinking of pushing it to tomorrow.”
“Too many hangovers?”
Dick rolled his eyes. “Well, I’ll have to check with Lipton, but probably. You’d think they were on a pleasure cruise the way they carry on.”
Lew snorted. He’d never tell Dick to his face, but he thought Dick had the right of it logging so many hours in the pool. Lew had to admit he was a much better version of himself when he stayed busy, and the lax hours Regiment was keeping these days weren't conducive to anything other than sloth and overindulgence. It was unfortunate, then, that he liked both of those things so much. He tried his best to keep his enjoyment low-profile; drunk and disorderly soldiers were the bane of Dick's existence these days without adding a wayward officer to his shit list, though for whatever reason Dick seemed inclined to look the other way where Lew was concerned.
“Can you blame them, though?”
“If they’re going to blow off steam I’d rather they did it on furlough,” Dick said.
“Said every CO in the history of the armed forces,” Lew said. “Seriously, Dick. I know you won’t touch the stuff with a ten foot pole, but booze is the lifeblood of a rear sector patrol. It’s the reason half these guys haven’t gone stir crazy already.”
He jabbed his fork at Dick for emphasis. “Besides, we dock on Callisto in three days for resupply. I’m sure there’ll be plenty of steam built back up by then.”
“I guess.” Dick stole Lew’s last piece of fake bacon and ate it desultorily. “This doesn’t taste like bacon at all,” he said, sounding faintly whiny. “You know, back home--”
“Yeah, yeah. Back home you’ve got a whole barn full of salt pork curing as we speak. Enough for the whole ship. Back home you eat bacon sandwiches for breakfast, lunch and dinner, as many as you can handle. I’ve heard it all before, buddy. You keep it up, I’m going to start talking about filet mignon again.”
Dick groaned. “We had a deal,” he said.
“I know we did. That’s my point.” Lew looked at his watch. “Shit, I’ve gotta go. Meeting up on regimental deck. You around later? Poker tonight at Harry’s.”
“You know I don’t play poker.”
“Well, come anyway. Sit by me and drink your hot milk. You can be my good luck charm.”
Dick flushed, and Lew felt a flare of satisfaction. He stood and made a show of loading up his tray. When he was finished he went around the table, patting Dick on the shoulder, a parting shot before going off to dump his leftovers down the compost chute and then leaving the mess to start his day in earnest.
“Don’t worry,” Lew said. “As soon as we get to Callisto you and I are going to find the greasiest burger joint we possibly can and eat until neither of us can move.”
Dick sighed. “That sounds...perfect.”
“Yeah,” said Lew. “It really does.”
Lew slid into his seat in the conference room on the regimental deck with a good two minutes to spare. He’d wrangled another cup of coffee and now he wrapped his hands around it and let the warmth seep through his fingers. The room contained about half the intelligence staff, mostly S3s. Lew nodded at Foley, seated to his right.
“Where’s Mahoney?” he asked.
“Oh, you know him. Likes to come in with the higher ups, it makes him feel important.”
Lew snorted. Sure enough, when the door slid open to reveal Colonel Sink and the ranking intelligence officers Mahoney ducked in behind them. He met Lew’s eyes with the slightly abashed look of a man who was on the make and knew he was being obvious about it.
One of the S4s led the meeting, a skinny, mousy-looking guy named Howard who’d transferred from another unit. He pressed a button set into the middle of the conference table and a screen dropped from the ceiling, displaying a star map Howard navigated with the help of a laser pointer. He had a pair of rounded spectacles he had to keep shoving up the bridge of his nose.
“We’re here today to review surveillance coming in from the eastern edge of the sector,” he began, and Lew found himself tuning out. Surveillance from the eastern edge of the sector had dredged up a whole lot of nothing as far as he was concerned.
Howard pulled up a satellite image and started talking about patterns of rover tracks and how they might indicate troop mobilization, and Lew thought he really ought to care about that more than he did. But that was what happened seven years into a cold war, he thought. You were hard pressed to remember why exactly you were supposed to care.
He’d joined up, in large part, to piss off his father and to forestall Kathy. He’d been very successful on one front and only marginally so on the other; he and Kathy had married at the end of basic training. Their daughter had been born when Lew was three quarters of the way through officer candidate school, the product of a hasty coupling on leave, and he still thought back on it with the same residual ambivalence he’d felt when Kathy told him she was pregnant in the first place. He loved Betsy, but that love had been a process of accretion entirely separate from Lew’s feelings for her mother, and when Kathy’s lawyer sent him a fat file of paperwork when Betsy was four years old his primary concern had been for her, and for the tenuousness of their relationship. He’d been home three times in as many years since, but he wrote, and he spoke to her when they were close enough for a video link, and perhaps the greatest surprise of Lew’s life was how much he cared whether or not it was enough.
He kept that worry close to the vest. He thought about it when he was alone, or, like now, when he was bored. Part of Lew questioned the internal logic of dredging it all up, or why the keen pain of it was something he liked to take out and look at, like holding a particularly sharp knife and thinking of how precisely it might cut you. But he’d always had a masochistic streak, and so he decided this was no different and kept at it, the knife the sort that could slip in unnoticed, that didn’t quite hurt until you looked down and found yourself bleeding.
After Lew’s shift he went looking for Dick again. He let himself into Dick’s cabin, having long since memorized the passcode that overrode the locks, and found him curled up on his bed reading a training manual. The sight was familiar, and it filled Lew with a warmth he decided not to interrogate further.
Officers might rank private cabins, but they weren’t much better than closets and were severely lacking in the way of furniture. Dick’s bed, like Lew’s, folded out of the wall, and necessitated shoving the desk all the way across the cabin if you wanted to sleep flat, or use the bed as a makeshift couch. Lew liked to work on his own bed, and more often than not would drag his blanket and pillow onto the floor to avoid disturbing his piles of maps and charts.
“You can scan those into the computer, you know,” Dick would say whenever he came to visit, which wasn’t often, mostly because Lew was always over at his. He claimed he liked Dick’s view better, only neither of them had a window, and if they did they’d both have nothing to look at but the reams of ceaseless black that spun past as Toccoa moved through space.
Now Dick sat up and set his manual aside. “Hey,” he said. “How was your day?”
“Oh, fine. Meetings. Staring at a computer screen. You know how it goes. You?”
Dick smiled ruefully. “Eventful,” he said.
“Oh yeah? How’s that?”
“Oh, Liebgott almost drowned in the dive tank,” Dick said. “He got tangled in the air hose. Webster dragged him out of the pool and gave him mouth-to-mouth, and then Liebgott came to and didn’t know what was going on. Almost knocked Web’s lights out. He pushed him over and he clocked his head on the tile, so in the end I had to send both of them to the infirmary.”
Lew sat next to him on the bed and stretched his arms up over his head. Dick was looking at him, intently enough that Lew wondered if something was wrong, if he looked stupid or strange. He tugged his shirt down reflexively, and Dick looked away.
“Well, I’d say you ought to drown your sorrows, but I know how that’ll go over,” Lew said.
Dick huffed a laugh.
“Come to Harry’s,” Lew said. “It’ll take your mind off things.”
“I don’t know.”
“Aw, c’mon. Speirs’ll be there.”
“Why’s that such a draw?” Dick asked.
“I dunno. It’s Speirs. He’ll have something to say about the nature of war or something. It won’t make you feel better but it’ll make you wonder if he isn’t a little touched in the head.”
“And it’ll be entertaining. I don’t know, Dick. Do what you like. Only I wish you’d come. It’s more fun if you’re there, if you want to know the truth.”
“Really?” Dick asked.
Lew ran a hand back through his hair. He felt hot, as if he was drunk already and running his mouth. “Sure,” he said. Dick didn’t say anything, and they fell silent, Lew’s brain nagging at him to say something. At last he produced the sheaf of satellite images he’d gotten from the meeting, copies of the images Howard had brought up on his screen. Dick was always interested in Lew’s briefings, and acted as though they were important whether or not he actually thought they were.
“Take a look at these,” Lew said, at once grateful for the distraction. He set one of the images on his lap and jabbed at it with a forefinger. “What do those look like to you?”
“Huh,” Dick said. “Rover tracks?”
“Right, exactly. This is a warehouse district on a station just over the border.”
“Someone’s been busy,” said Dick.
“Looks like it. Awfully funny, when the official word is that they’re supposed to be hammering out a peace treaty.”
“Yeah,” Dick said. He didn’t seem to be listening.
His mouth was downturned; in the unflattering cabin lighting his face seemed drawn, overtired, and the hollows below his eyes seemed deeper. Not for the first time Lew wondered what precisely Dick was doing here. He himself was pretty clearly running away from something, but Dick...Lew couldn’t imagine Dick needing to do the same. These days you joined the Army for money, for love or for lack of it, or for a ticket out of someplace. He’d known Dick long enough that he ought to know which of these things applied to him, but now that he thought about it Lew didn’t feel any better acquainted than he had when he first met the man, a couple weeks into OCS.
“Anyway,” Lew went on conversationally. “We’ve got, what, another couple of weeks out here on patrol? Plenty of time to figure it all out.”
Dick frowned. “I guess. Hey, mind if I hang on to a couple of these?” Maybe he had been listening after all. He picked up one of the photographs and waved it at Lew.
“I don’t know,” Lew said. “Those are classified.”
“If anyone asks I’ll just say one of the intelligence officers was wandering around soused and dropped ‘em in the corridor. I was just hanging on to them for him. They’ll buy that, won’t they?”
“Tell them anything you like, so long as you tell ‘em it was that big lug Mahoney. I dunno who that guy blew to get assigned to battalion intel, but he must give one hell of a quality hummer.”
Dick wrinkled his nose. “C’mon, Lew.”
“Oh, right. I forget. Pure as the driven snow, you are.”
Dick stiffened. Whatever tension Lew had catalogued a moment ago seemed abruptly amplified. Dick’s fingers tensed where he held the satellite photo, and the thick, glossy card made a crackling sound as it gave way in his hands.
“Hey, watch it,” Lew said, grabbing the picture away from him. “If these get messed up it’ll be my ass. I meant what I said, I’m not supposed to be showing them around.”
“No, of course not,” Dick said quickly. “I’m--I’m sorry.”
Lew looked at him. The set of his shoulders had loosened, but he still seemed tense, as though he was thinking of something unpleasant. Lew had the sudden thought that he should apologize, though he couldn’t quite say for what. For making the same dumb joke at Dick’s expense he did at least three times a week? He shrugged, and fiddled with the stack of photos.
“Keep them,” he said. “They’re probably safer with you anyway.”
Dick nodded and ran his fingers back through his hair; it had long since dried from the morning’s swim and shower, and now seemed to glow under the fluorescents. Dick’s hair made Lew happy. He liked to see it from a distance, a bright spot in a sea of olive and steel-grey. He was staring, he realized. He shook his head, and Dick narrowed his eyes as though he meant to ask a question.
Lew decided to preempt him. “You feel like getting something to eat?”
“No thanks,” Dick said. “I’m going to stay here and read up.” He patted the cover of the training manual.
“I’m hungry,” Lew said. He wasn’t, not really, but he was suddenly sure Dick wanted him to go. “I’m going to stop by the mess and see what they’ve got cooking.”
“All right,” Dick said.
“Come to Harry’s,” Lew said.
“Well, either way,” Lew said. “I’ll catch up to you later.”
“Sure,” Dick said. “See you later.”
Lew stood, went over to the door and let himself out. He started back down the corridor in the direction of the mess. As he walked he pondered Dick’s incongruous reaction. Dick didn’t generally take umbrage to Lew’s commentary on his general lack of prurience; he was the kind of guy who turned the color of a beet at the merest suggestion he might have been interested in a girl at some point in his life, but he took it in the same stride he did most things, even the time the enlisted men thought it was a neat trick to ask Lieutenant Winters to come along to a topless cabaret on Paris Station just to get a rise.
“Maybe he’s into fellas,” Harry said once, speculatively, and they’d both waited a beat before admitting nearly simultaneously they just couldn’t see it.
Lew, who was into fellas, fancied he’d know if Dick shared his proclivities. In the end he chalked it up to the fact that Dick just didn’t kiss and tell. The most he’d ever gotten out of Dick himself was that he’d been what he termed “a late bloomer,” and that the Earth settlement where he’d grown up was remote and lacking in both romantic options and time to devote to pursuing them. Lew thought that was a little tragic, but he figured if Dick felt the same way he’d have had ample opportunity by now to remedy matters.
But they were all spread thin these days. There were things space-time did to your brain, the scientists said, that no tablet or ray-emitting lamp or old-Earth sleep-wake cycle could fix. Or maybe Dick was just getting a little sick of him. Hell, Lew got a little sick of himself sometimes. He’d let it go for now, he thought. Maybe cut Dick a slightly wider berth, let him burn off whatever funk he was in in the gym or in the pool. And before Lew knew it, he was sure, things would be all right again.
Lew didn’t have much time to dwell on whatever might have been eating Dick; shipboard life was like that, with all manner of things to occupy one’s days. Before he knew it another shift was done, another day, another week, and before he knew it there was Dick again catching his eye in some briefing or other after Strayer had said something stupid. Did you hear that? his look said, and Lew bit the inside of his cheek to keep from laughing and forgot he’d ever tried to give Dick space in the first place.
“You should’ve seen this place twenty years ago,” Lew said as he dragged Dick through the sliding doors of Callisto’s spaceport.
He had him by the elbow, half afraid that if he let go Dick would turn on his heel and hop right back on the shuttle. If it weren’t for Lew, he’d probably go back to the ship and spend the next 48 hours doing something productive, or, God forbid, healthy.
“Nix, twenty years ago you didn’t even know where Callisto was on a starmap.”
“That’s not true,” Lew said. “What, you couldn’t rattle off the whole Allied Sector with your first words? And you call yourself an American.”
“I don’t know,” Dick said. “Maybe I’ve got red hair for a reason.”
Lew smacked him on the arm. “Jesus, now he starts making jokes. You’d better watch it. You say that kind of thing too loud in public and you’ll get yourself hauled in for espionage.”
The enclosed promenade they walked along led to the main hub of the moon proper, and though the pedestrians milling around them seemed innocuous enough Lew couldn’t help but look them all over.
Lew glared at him. “Don’t push your luck,” he said. “Look, in that meeting the other day--”
But he didn’t get the chance to tell Dick about the meeting, because Harry came running up behind them full tilt and slung an arm around each of their shoulders. The two of them stumbled forward under his weight, for Harry was small but solid and tended to throw himself around when he’d been drinking, which he clearly had already.
“God, I love this place,” he said. “I love leave, and I love being off of that tin can.” He gestured at the stars glistening beyond the glass over their heads. “Look at that moonshine, huh boys?”
Dick shot a look at Lew over the top of Harry’s head, and Lew snorted. “It’s pretty,” Dick said.
“Hell yes, it’s pretty,” said Harry indignantly, as though Dick hadn’t been quite reverent enough. “Tell him, Lew. Tell him he’s gotta come out to the Starlite with us tonight. It’s a grand Callisto tradition.”
Dick went pink, and Harry began hooting with laughter.
Another day Lew might have piled on too, but Dick’s recent edginess stayed him. He clapped Harry on the back, draping an arm around him and steering him subtly away from Dick. “C’mon, Harry, I’m sure our man Dick here’s got higher-brow plans,” he said. “Besides, what would Kitty have to say about you at the Starlite Revue?”
“She’d tell me to send her a postcard,” Harry said. “I’m serious. They’ve got a gift shop.”
“What is it?” Dick asked quietly. “I mean, I can imagine, but--” By now his ears were deep red, and he was rubbing at his nose furiously, like he was having an attack of hayfever.
“It’s a supper club,” said Harry. “Most famous place in the sector. You’ve really never heard of it?”
Dick shook his head, looking as though he’d rather have been kept in the dark.
“It’s not so bad,” Lew said. “The girls keep their tops on. And it’s supposed to have the best views on the whole moon.”
Predictably, the views were what got Dick’s attention, and later when they’d settled in at their hotel he asked Lew about it again, and said if they had a hamburger on the menu he’d go.
“You’re kidding,” Lew said, and Dick shrugged.
“When in Rome,” he said.
“Okay, who are you and what've you done with Dick Winters?” He called and made a reservation for seven o’clock. “I asked for a table by the window,” he said, and Dick grinned.
By then it was only five-thirty, so they had a little time to relax. The room was small, with one double bed, but they were all used to close quarters and the space was luxurious compared to the ship. So they stretched out side by side, Dick reading a book and Lew flipping through the channels on the station network. He got caught up in something, a game show that made couples guess one another’s secrets, and when an ad came on and he turned to Dick to make some comment about how ludicrous all of it was he found that he’d fallen asleep.
Lew smiled to himself, took Dick’s novel out of his hands and set it on the nightstand.
He woke Dick up at six-thirty, and though Lew half expected him to bow out or claim fatigue he sat up and yawned and went into the bathroom. Lew heard the buzz of the sonics, and Dick emerged a few minutes later in his dress greens.
“Shit,” Lew said. “Guess I’d better clean up my act if want to have a hope of finding a dance partner with you around.”
Dick raised an eyebrow at him. “I’m just in it for the view,” he said.
There were plenty of other nightspots on Callisto, and certainly better places for a hamburger, but most of the officers on Toccoa had descended on the Starlite. Dick looked a little flustered the first few times he was greeted by name, and Lew thought he might flee the place entirely when he saw the hostess, who was wearing a sequinned bikini swimsuit. He kept his eyes on the floor and let Lew go first when she led them to their table. Once seated he hid his face in the oversized menu until Lew admonished him.
“You know what you’re getting,” Lew said. “So put your menu down and relax, and take a look at that.” He gestured out the window.
The club was situated on a clifftop, looking out over a vista of rock white as marble. Outside the maze of glass and metal that housed the moon’s inhabitants the atmosphere was shatteringly cold, but in the comfort of the climate controls the low temperatures lent the air a crystalline quality. Jupiter loomed in the near distance, spanning the sky at a rakish tilt in swirls of beige and apricot and lilac.
“Wow,” Dick said, which from him was tantamount to religious ecstasy.
“I know,” Lew said.
He couldn’t help but watch Dick watch the planet, his face glowing softly in the tea lights arranged on their table. He found himself relieved when the waitress came to take their order and pulled his gaze away. She was wearing a two-piece costume too, a crescent moon obscuring one breast and a gold star the other. Her hair was dark, piled on her head in waves. Across the table Dick took a long drink of his water.
“Hello, Captains,” she said, scanning their rank stripes. “What’ll it be?”
“Whiskey, neat,” said Lew. “And two burgers, one with everything, one plain and dry. Two orders of french fries and…” he squinted at Dick. “A root beer float.”
When she left the table Lew turned to watch her go. Dick kicked him under the table.
“Hey,” Lew said. “I’m here for the view too.”
Dick rolled his eyes. “A root beer float?” he asked.
Lew shrugged. “You look like you could use a pick-me-up,” he said. “And barring the hard stuff, I went with dessert. Next best thing.”
“Really,” Dick said.
“Really. Trust me, I’m an expert.”
Dick looked suddenly thoughtful, as though he might ask Lew a question, but he just turned and looked out the window again, propping his chin up on his hand. When their drinks arrived Dick looked at the float as if he didn’t know quite what to do with it, and Lew tried to recall the last time either of them had had ice cream, other than the freeze-dried stuff they gave out in the mess that made all the boys bitch and moan.
Lew drank his whiskey, and at last Dick took a sip through the long blue straw that protruded from his glass.
He shut his eyes for a beat longer than a blink. “That’s good,” he said.
“I told you to trust me.”
“Hmm,” Dick said.
Before Lew could come up with an appropriate retort, the lights lowered and the band struck up.
At the front of the room was a stage, the ceiling above it draped with gauzy turquoise fabric and strung with little golden lights. The band was a four piece, and as they watched a singer stepped out onto the stage, wearing a close-cut dress the same color as the drapery. She began to sing, and a collective sigh of pleasure seemed to rise up from the room around them. Dick looked at him from across the table, and once again there seemed to be something on the tip of his tongue.
“Here we are,” said their waitress, appearing alongside Lew, balancing a laden tray on her hip. No sooner had she set their plates in front of them than Harry appeared, weaving across the dance floor and collapsing into a chair beside Lew.
“Look at that, you dragged him along,” said Harry, clapping him on the back and stealing a handful of french fries. “Good for you.”
“Hey,” Lew said.
“Thanks, buddy,” said Harry. “Don’t mind if I do. So,” he said to Dick. “What do you think?”
Dick chose that moment to take a bite of his hamburger. He offered a muffled hum and a thumbs up by way of reply.
“There you go, he loves it,” Harry said. “I knew he’d love it. Now eat up, you two. There’s a whole sea of dames here begging to be danced with, and I can’t do a damn thing for ‘em.”
“You’re a real stand-up guy, Harry,” Lew said, and meant it.
“I’m a lovesick fool, is what I am,” Harry said, and just for a minute he looked a little blue.
Lew considered him. He’d never really thought about what it must be like for Harry, so far away from Kitty, never sure when or if they’d be close enough to see her in person or call her up or do anything besides write a letter that might take anywhere from weeks to months to wend its way home, and that was if the censors were benevolent. Half the time Lew was pissed off at love, and the other half--well, he was prepared to admit he felt lucky that, save his daughter, the people he cared most about were generally close at hand.
He finished his hamburger and shoved the rest of the fries at Harry. “Have at it,” he said. “I’m going to the bar. You want a refill?”
“Beer, thanks,” Harry said.
Dick shook his head. “I’m fine.”
Lew rose and made his way to the bar, where he slid in alongside a crop of other officers. He recognized one of them from intelligence, a brawny fellow named Hester. He was one of the guys Lew could always count on on shift when he wanted to roll his eyes about Mahoney. Dick was all well and good to complain to, but sometimes you had to be there.
“Nixon,” said Hester. “Enjoying your night out?”
“Can’t complain,” Nix said. “You?”
Hester nodded and took a sip of his drink. “Better get your kicks while you can,” he said.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
Hester looked around. They were packed together like sardines, but the level of noise was high, and the men around them seemed wrapped up in one another or in various flavors of company. Social mores were supposed to be looser out on the moons, and looser still in a place like this when the lights were low.
Satisfied he wouldn’t be overheard, Hester leaned in. “Heard something over the wires this morning,” he said. “Red troops massing on the western edge of the sector.”
“No way,” Lew said. “They’ve been quiet as mice for months.” There’d even been talk of a treaty, Lew had heard. A real one this time, one to put an end to everything and send them all home once and for all.
“Yeah, well,” Hester said. “Maybe there was a reason.”
“Shit,” said Lew.
“Tell me about it.” He smiled ruefully into his drink. “Well. Guess the enlisted guys won’t have to blow their wads at the shooting range on the rec deck anymore.”
Lew made a face. He was glad he’d already eaten, because he was fairly certain he’d have lost his appetite courtesy of Hester’s news. “You think they’re going to change our mission parameters?”
Hester shrugged. “Dunno. I guess we’ll see if it’s true first. I’d trust it if it was our intel, but. That’s why I’m telling you and not someone else; I know you’ll keep it to yourself. That and I’m a few too many in.” He held up his glass.
“I hear you,” Lew said. Hester was a good guy. Even-keeled, unlikely to blow his top like some of the other intel men. “I’ve got to get my hands on another few of those right about now.”
“Yeah,” said Hester. “Now more than ever.”
“You want another? I’ll buy.” Hester nodded, and Lew leaned in and waved the bartender down.
Drinks in hand, he bid Hester goodbye and made his way back to the table. Harry had decimated the plate of fries and Dick was nowhere to be seen.
“We lose him?” Lew asked, handing over Harry’s beer.
“Nope,” said Harry with a grin. “Well, maybe. See for yourself.”
He nodded at the dance floor. Sure enough, there was Dick, in the middle of a forest of gently swaying couples. His partner was a dark-haired woman in a bottle-green dress; his arm was around her waist, his other hand in hers.
“What the hell was in that root beer float?” Harry said, grinning at Lew. “Hey, why the long face? There are plenty of stars in the sky, after all. Unless--”
“Harry,” said Lew warningly.
Harry had the gall to look self-satisfied. “Hey, I didn’t say a word.”
It wasn’t that, Lew thought. It was Hester up at the bar, and the fact that if he was right all of this was about to change. He sighed. Trust war, he thought. Trust the universe to do this when Dick was out there on the dance floor looking like he was having a good time for the first time in who knew how long.
When the song finished Lew watched Dick beg off another dance. He came back to the table pink-cheeked and a little breathless.
“I turn around for five minutes and you’re off cutting a rug,” Lew said. “I thought you were just here for the view.”
Dick smiled shyly. “She asked,” he said.
“Yeah, I bet she did.” He must be making the same face he had a moment ago, the one Harry had asked about. Dick’s expression clouded, and he sat down next to Harry.
“Well, you’re back now,” he said. “I’ll babysit Harry and you can go dance.”
“Hey, screw you,” said Harry, laughing.
Dick slurped the last of his float. “Go on, Nix,” he said.
Lew looked at him for a long moment. His eyes were bright in the candlelight, clear and nearly colorless. How eyes could look like that Lew would never know, and not for lack of thinking about it.
“Oh, fine,” Lew said, looking away at last.
He necked his drink and set the glass down on the table with a crack, harder than he meant to. Then he got up and strode from the table, aiming for purposeful but probably coming off as petulant. Lew had always been bad at tamping down his ire. Kathy used to get after him for it all the time. You’re acting like a child, she’d say. Sometimes he still felt like one.
He didn’t much feel like dancing, but he was well on his way to drunk, and if Dick told him to dance then he’d better dance. If he had to choose between dancing and worrying about what was going to happen tomorrow, he’d pick dancing, and in that he guessed Dick had been prescient even without meaning to. He was good at that; he could always tell what a man needed, and half the time he offered it to him before he could get himself together to ask.
Lew looked around the room. At a high-top table stood a girl in a gold dress, the fabric silky and draped like water. Her hair was strawberry blond, and maybe that was a little on the nose but in the moment Lew decided he didn’t care. He sidled up next to her and grinned at her and her companion, a hapless looking guy in civvies.
“Care to dance?” Lew asked her.
The song was bright, jazzy, and the girl was a fine dancer. He held her close and spun her away again, and as she came whirling back her eyes caught the light and glinted metallic as her dress. She collided softly with him and laughed. She was, he realized, a cyborg. Artificial intelligence married to a mostly-human body. In the army they called them replacements and thought they were being clever. The silver in her eyes was the glimmer of her internal circuitry as it caught the light.
“What’s your name?” she asked him, her mouth pressed close to his ear.
“Lewis,” he said. “You?”
“Marie,” she said. The song ended, and she shifted against him. He dropped his arms, but she stayed close. “Come out and have a smoke with me,” she said.
She took him by the hand and led him out to a balcony adjoining the floor. It wasn’t a real balcony, of course; miles beyond them was the glassed-in border of the moon station, but here the air felt open, and Jupiter loomed beyond them like a great agate marble.
Lew lit two cigarettes and handed one of them to Marie. He wondered idly if she could even breathe it in, but of course for the most part her body was as human as his was. That was the draw. He swallowed.
“You’re a captain?” she asked him.
“That’s what my ID card says.”
“Mmm. They teach you to dance like that in the army?”
“At cotillion,” he said. “I had a real important girl to take to her deb ball. I think they’d have had me shot if I couldn’t dance.”
She raised an eyebrow. “That’s terrifying,” she said.
“That’s New York society,” he said. “God love it.”
“So you ran away to join the army?”
Her voice was lightly accented. French, he guessed, to go with the name. He wondered if she could modulate it, the way the ship could. If she changed it on request, or according to how she felt when she got up in the morning.
“You might say that.”
“I ran away up here,” she said. “I was on New York Station for awhile. I was made there.”
“Made?” He’d wondered if she was trying to keep it a secret.
“Your heart rate sped up while we were dancing,” she said. “When you looked at me. I think you noticed then, hm?”
“Maybe that was the dancing,” he said. “Or maybe it was you.”
She ignored his flirting. “Have you ever been to Earth?” she asked.
“A couple times,” he said. “There was a fad for going to visit. The Pyramids, the Eiffel Tower. Old stuff like that. My parents took us on the quickie tour. Lots of snaps for the photo albums. Have the neighbors over for a slideshow. That sort of thing.”
“I was from Lyon,” she said. “Or she was.” She touched her chest absently, just over her heart. “Or we both are. It’s hard to tell.” She shook her head and took a long drag on the cigarette, as though it was somehow fortifying. “Excuse me,” she said. “I’ve had a lot to drink.”
“Or she has,” said Lew.
Marie laughed and stepped closer to him, nudging his shoulder with her own. The dress she wore was sleeveless and scandalously cut. “It’s cold,” she said, so he took off his jacket and arranged it over her bare shoulders.
“So why’d you run here?” he asked her.
She stepped up to the railing of the balcony and leaned forward over the side. The railing was overgrown with climbing vines, starred throughout with small white flowers. She plucked one and held it out for him to smell.
“Jasmine,” she said. “They planted it all over the station. I think they got together in a big room and decided what our native plants would be. Flora by committee.”
Lew laughed. “I like that,” he said. He thought of the eucalyptus trees by Kathy’s apartment.
“I ran here because I wanted to live somewhere without New in the name,” she said. “Why do people do that, do you think? Remake the same places over and over.”
“Sentiment, I guess. Or fear. We don’t actually like new things so much. As a species.”
“You’re right,” she said. “And I am very new.”
“Well, I’d say you made the right choice, running here,” he said. “Everything here is new.”
“I suppose there’s some irony in that,” she said.
She turned to face him and leaned back onto the railing again. With Jupiter behind her Lew was reminded of Dick at the table earlier. He’d thought there was another sort of irony in his choice of dance partner, but now that he looked at her he could see that save the hair there was little alike about them. Their coloring was different. She was paler, and her skin seemed undercut with grey. She tipped her head back and exhaled a long plume of smoke.
“Are you leaving tomorrow?” she asked.
“Forty-eight hour pass,” he said. “So, the next day.” He swallowed. “Why do you ask?” Why he should feel nervous now, he didn’t know. But she made him nervous. The feeling wasn’t unpleasant.
“I was wondering if you might like to have dinner with me,” she said.
“What’s wrong with tonight?”
“I have plans later,” she said. “And I’ve already had dinner.”
Her easy confidence sent a charge through him. She reminded him of Kathy, back in the good old days, which should have been a bad sign but somehow wasn’t. He opened his mouth to reply, to say something suave about her plans, or something catty about the fellow she’d left at that high top what had to be a half hour ago now. But before he could speak the balcony door slid open, and a familiar face peered out.
“Oh,” Dick said. “Hi, Lew.” He sounded flustered, surprised to have happened upon the two of them, although Dick had almost certainly been looking for him.
“Fancy meeting you here,” said Lew. “Marie, this is Richard Winters. Only thing that makes life in the service bearable, if you want to know the truth. Dick, this is Marie…” He looked to her for a last name.
“Just Marie,” she said.
“Hello,” said Dick, without offering a hand. He stepped the rest of the way out onto the balcony. He left the door open behind him, letting the music waft out into the fragrant air. He crossed his arms over his chest and looked between them. “Harry’s going,” he said. “He sent me to find you.”
“Well, you found me,” Lew said. “I guess you want to go too?”
Dick ran a hand back through his hair. “I was thinking about it,” he said, shifting from foot to foot. “I paid.”
Lew felt faintly irritated, though he couldn’t have quite said why. Something about the way Dick was looking at him, the way he stood there expectantly, like a dog waiting to be taken out. The way he’d paid the bill, although it wasn’t as though Lew cared about who picked up the tab one way or another. He remembered Harry back at the table earlier. Plenty of stars in the sky.
“I guess you want me to go with you, huh?”
Dick frowned. “I--only if you’re not--” He looked stymied. “Only if you want to.”
Lew had half a mind to say he didn’t want to; he was drunk, after all, and in that state he was especially good at cutting off his nose to spite his face. And anyway, it was only half a lie. But Marie moved before he could say anything, tossing her cigarette on the floor of the balcony and stubbing it out with the toe of her glittery sandal.
“I’ll make it easy for you,” she said. “It’s been a pleasure, Lewis. But I should say good night.”
She shrugged out of his jacket and handed it back. Then she stepped close to him and leaned up to kiss him on the cheek. She smelled strange, coppery as blood. He felt a jolt of suspicion, as though she might lean in further and nip at his neck. Behind her Dick cleared his throat.
“We’re staying at the Lux,” Lew said on impulse, and she smiled.
“Goodnight,” she said. “Goodnight, Captain Winters.”
Dick nodded, and then she glided past him, through the sliding glass door and back into the dining room.
They stood for a moment in silence. Dick looked abashed, and immediately Lew began to feel bad for being annoyed at him. Dick, who’d been dragged out by Lew and Harry in the first place, and who didn’t know a cabaret from a hole in the ground and who probably would have been perfectly happy keeping it that way. Dick, who’d only ever been a good sport when it came to indulging his friends.
“Sorry for interrupting,” Dick said. Sincerely, Lew figured, because he was incapable of anything else.
“It’s all right,” said Lew. “She was going anyway.”
“Will you see her again?”
“I don’t know. If I do, it’ll have to be tomorrow.” He remembered Hester at the bar and decided he didn’t especially like his chances.
Dick hummed equivocally. He stepped up to the railing the way Marie had earlier and leaned out over the side. “Feels like we ought to be looking out over the ocean,” he said.
In the peculiar ambiance his skin glowed white as a fish, and Lew thought about the clouds of phosphorescence he’d read about in the seas on Earth.
“It’s pretty here,” Lew said.
Dick nodded slowly.
Lew felt suddenly as though he himself was underwater.
“Thanks for bringing me,” Dick said. He grinned sideways at Lew. “And thanks for the root beer float.”
“I told you to trust me,” Lew said. “It was just what you needed, huh.”
Dick looked at his hands, a small smile on his face. He ran his fingers idly over one of the jasmine blossoms. “I guess it was.”
“Of course it was. Got you out on the dance floor and everything. I’m putting it down as a roaring success.”
Dick lifted his head and favored Lew with a slow roll of his eyes, and Lew thought he’d take that over a smile from Dick Winters any day of the week. He felt as though whatever strange vibration had hung about them a moment ago was dispelled, and that he was, on balance, perfectly happy to go back to the hotel with Dick, loll about in their double bed and watch the single-channel viewscreen until they fell asleep. Tomorrow would bring what it would. Either way, something was coming.
Back in their room Dick changed and went into the sonics. When he came back out he was dressed for sleep, in a white undershirt and shorts. Lew was in bed eating a stray Hershey bar, which he waved at Dick.
Dick shook his head. “Just brushed my teeth,” he said.
There was something about knowing the state of Dick’s teeth that unsettled Lew. He took a bite of chocolate.
“Shower’s free,” Dick said.
Lew groaned. “I’ll take one tomorrow.”
Dick wrinkled his nose. “You smell like an ashtray,” he said.
“No need to mince words, Dick. Tell me how you really feel.”
“I’m just saying.”
Lew acquiesced, clambering out of bed and going into the bathroom himself, but not before tackling Dick and beating him about the head with a pillow.
He tripped into the bathroom still laughing. He stripped and stepped into the cubicle, flipped the switch on and grimaced at the hum of the shower coming on, the instant full-body tickling sensation the sonics provoked. It was pointless, this kind of shower. Or, rather, it was entirely to the point, and thus utterly devoid of pleasure. Against everything Lew stood for, really. At home he’d be soaking in a bath, he thought glumly. He reached between his legs and squeezed himself, at once determined to wring some modicum of indulgence out of the proceedings.
At least it was warm in the shower. He could take his time, and hell, Dick probably going to fall asleep anyway. Lew lay his head against the wall and shut his eyes. He tried to think about Marie, to conjure up some fantasy in which she’d come back to the hotel with him. But when he thought about her on the bed Dick was there too, and when he tried to think about her on her knees in front of him Dick was there instead, mouthing along Lew’s cock with a diligent look on his face.
Lew groaned against the tile. He almost never let himself do this, think about Dick this way. But he was in Lew’s head now. Lew’s blood was still pumping from their wrestling match. He’d been half hard coming into the bathroom, and he hoped to God his uniform had been loose enough to hide it. He had no idea what--if anything--Dick would make of his cock in practice, or what he’d do if he could see Lew now, but Lew’s brain seemed to be doing well enough with the theory.
He shut his eyes tighter. The hell of the thing with sonics was the lack of goddamn water. He had to spit in his hand, which he frankly found a little primitive, and which didn’t help at all as he tried to imagine Dick sucking him. So he decided to picture Dick jerking him off in the shower instead, and that was better, that was easier. Lew’s head on his shoulder, Dick’s hands on him just the way Lew liked, teasing at first but faster the closer he got. Dick was dogged when he set his mind to something, and Lew liked to pretend he’d be especially so when it came to this. He’d be quiet, Lew thought, quiet but determined, his mouth right up against Lew’s ear so Lew could hear every hitch of his breath, every whisper. And that was what got him in the end, what got him every time. Dick’s voice in his ear, low and soft, and always saying the same thing.
C’mon, Lew, he said, and Lew cursed and shot over his fist. He stood for a moment slumped against the wall of the cubicle, chest heaving, his cheek plastered to the wall. Eventually he decided he’d been in long enough for Dick to get suspicious, so he hauled himself upright and frowned at the mess on the wall, clinging out of the invisible stream of the sonics. He got out of the shower and grabbed a wad of toilet paper, wiped the wall and wiped his hands off and chucked the paper into the recycler.
“Goddammit,” he said to himself, because now he had to hold his hands under the sonics one last time.
He pulled his shorts on, brushed his teeth with the powder in his dopp kit, and went back out into the bedroom. Dick wasn’t asleep; he was reading his book again, and when Lew came into his field of vision he set it down and gave Lew the same small smile he had on the balcony at the Starlite. Lew froze; for a moment he was certain Dick must know exactly what he’d done.
Say something, he thought desperately.
“Didn’t think you’d still be up.”
Lew ran his fingers through his hair, ducking into the bathroom doorway to get a look at himself in the mirror. Sonics always made his hair look funny. Dick was watching him, looking amused, like he was thinking about hassling Lew for preening.
“I’m not tired,” Dick said. Immediately he yawned, and Lew laughed.
“You sound like my kid,” Lew said.
“Hmm. How old is she again?”
“Six. If she were here she’d say six-and-a-half.”
“Well, accuracy’s important.”
Dick shut his book and stretched like a cat, his long pale legs stark against the dark blue of the bedspread. He looked up at Lew. “Your face is all red,” he said.
“What? No it’s not.”
“Yeah, it is.”
“Because it's warm in here,” Lew said, even though it wasn’t. “Now shove over, you're on my side.”
He and Dick had shared plenty of beds, spent plenty of nights crammed together in training or on cramped transports. But something about the hotel bed made Lew squirm. It felt as obvious as dancing with a redhead. Dick frowned a little. He probably felt it too, though if Lew had to guess Dick couldn’t quite put his finger on what exactly it was. Maybe Lew should’ve offered to take the floor, though Dick wouldn’t have let him, would have given up the bed himself if he thought Lew minded sharing.
Lew reached for the nightstand and brushed the touchpad on the base of the lamp. The room was instantly dark, and Lew was grateful for it. He still felt his fantasy looming around and between them. He would see it when he closed his eyes.
“I’ve got to tell you something,” he said. He kept his back to Dick.
He felt Dick roll to face him, felt him staring somewhere between Lew’s shoulderblades. “What is it?” Dick asked, voice hushed.
“You know Hester?”
“Hester,” Lew said. “Intel S3?”
“Oh,” Dick said. “Sure, I know him.”
“I ran into him tonight at the nightclub. He told me he got wind of something from another carrier across the system. Apparently they’ve got footage of troops massing on the western edge of the Soviet sector.”
Dick sat up. “What?”
Lew sighed. “Yeah.”
“Are they going to recall the division?”
“He didn’t know,” Lew said. “I think they probably will. My money’s on tomorrow, if it’s going to happen. Give us all a last hurrah tonight.”
“Why didn’t you tell me earlier?” Dick asked.
Lew bit his lip. In the dark he could just make out the curve of Dick’s back, the way his shoulders slumped. “I--I don’t know,” he said. “I ran into Hester up at the bar, and you were gone when I came back. I guess I thought you deserved a last hurrah too.”
“I’d rather have known.”
“And done what? Run back to the ship and reported to Sink, on orders you don’t have? I shouldn’t even be telling you this.”
“But you did,” Dick snapped. “So you must have wanted to, because you don’t do anything you don’t want to do.”
“What the hell’s that supposed to mean?”
“Nothing,” Dick said.
He kicked free of the covers and threw his legs over the side of the mattress, bracing himself on his hands as though ready to spring up to standing. He shook his head as though trying to dissuade himself from something. Getting up, maybe, or telling Lew what exactly he meant. Lew wanted badly to reach for him. Everything about the scene was wrong; the intimacy of it, the way Lew wanted to tell Dick to come back to bed.
Dick shook his head again. “They don’t know what they’re in for,” he said. “They talk about it all the time. How sick they are of drilling and border patrols, how much they want to see combat.”
“And you don’t? You’ve trained as hard as they have. Harder.”
“I don’t know what I want,” Dick said.
Lew hauled himself upright. He still felt the whiskey clinging to the corners of his brain, and for the first time in a long time he wished he was sober. He stared hard at Dick’s back, the white cotton of his t-shirt resolving in the low light as Lew’s eyes adjusted. He took a breath and let it out. He reached out and laid his hand on Dick’s shoulder. Dick twitched, then relaxed into the contact, and Lew would be a liar to say he didn’t find that gratifying.
“You should get some rest,” Lew said. “If we do move out tomorrow, you’ll need it.”
Dick didn’t reply. He just sat, and for a minute Lew thought it was a lost cause. Finally, though, Dick slid his feet beneath the covers again, lay back against his pillow with a sharp huff of breath. Because he knew Lew was right, Lew’s brain supplied. He’d never been in combat but he knew the army well enough to know you got your shuteye when and where you could, and in a hotel bed next to Lew was as good a place as any and better than a fair few. He knew Lew was right, and he was sore about it, and he was going to lay there and glare at the ceiling until he fell asleep. Which wouldn’t be long, because he was tired.
Lew lay back next to him and smiled in spite of himself. They weren’t touching, but he could feel the warmth and weight of Dick’s body beside him. He shifted, and their arms brushed together. He felt Dick tense and readjust.
“You know, I take it back,” Lew said.
“You’re worse than a six-year-old.”
“Shut up, Nix,” Dick said.
He settled down after that, and after a few minutes his arm came alongside Lew’s again, and his breathing evened out into sleep. Lew lay awake awhile longer, thinking. When he woke up in the middle of the night he didn’t remember drifting off. The room was cold, and Dick had slung one leg over both of Lew’s. Lew tried to move away, but Dick made an indignant sound and moved closer, curled up at Lew’s back.
The next thing he knew he was being shaken awake. He rolled onto his belly and growled into the pillow, kicking blindly at the figure he knew to be Dick.
“Get up,” Dick was saying.
“Ugh,” said Lew.
“You were right,” Dick said. “Sink sent a runner. Passes are cancelled; we’re due back on the ship in an hour.”
Lew rolled onto his back and considered the fact that Dick was hovering over him on the bed, wearing his uniform with the zipper undone. He looked half terrified and half thrilled, and Lew thought that under the circumstances that seemed about right.
“C’mon, Nix,” Dick said, pulling off the covers.
Lew growled and rolled over onto his stomach, but he had the sudden thought that Dick might do something crazy like strip off his PT shorts and try and dress Lew himself. He seemed to be in the right sort of mood. So Lew slid off the mattress and stood. The two of them faced each other across the bed. Dick was breathing hard, like he wanted to wrestle again.
“Lemme get dressed,” Lew said, feeling harassed.
He turned his back and grabbed up his uniform from where he’d shoved it into his pack the night before.
On the transport shuttle Dick nudged him with a shoulder. “Hey, sorry about your date,” he said.
Lew looked at him for a solid minute before he remembered. “Oh,” he said. “Well, can’t be helped, I guess.”
“You don’t think she’ll be upset?”
He wanted to ask what it mattered, but he’d feel like a heel snapping at Dick now. Last night had been bad enough, and he still couldn’t untangle what exactly that had been about.
“She’ll hear about us moving out,” Lew said. “She’ll understand.”
Dick shrugged and turned away to look out the window. They were gaining altitude. The surface of the moon glowed pale pink as a dragée almond. Lew closed his eyes and laid his head back against his seat. His gut churned. He imagined he could hear the swish of blood in his head, or maybe it was just the shuttle engines, or maybe it was a gathering storm half a system away. Beside him he felt Dick shift, and he cracked an eye open. He too lay back against the headrest. Lew watched him awhile. The beat of his pulse, the razor burn along the side of his neck.
No sooner had they alighted in the shuttle bay than Ron Speirs appeared at Dick’s elbow, looking dangerous. The guys loved to talk about Ron. Lew had been hearing stories since before he’d ever laid eyes on him in the flesh, each wilder than the last: he was a replacement, a husk of a human with the brain of a machine, finely tuned, engineered to kill. His programming had malfunctioned once, just as he’d lit into some poor hick private, and the kid had ended up smeared all over the barracks walls, Ron dead-eyed and covered in gore. He offed his whole platoon to keep it quiet, and he’d extend the offer to anyone who asked him about it. Now, Ron was glaring at the swarm of enlisted men crowded around Dick like he thought he could clear a path through them that way. Lew thought he probably could.
“You should tell ‘em you can shoot lasers out of your retinas, Ron,” he said, stepping up to his other side.
“I’ll shoot something if we don’t get some order around here,” Ron said. “Jesus, where the hell is command when you need them?”
On cue, Sink came into the hangar bay then, and the massed men snapped to attention.
“Gentlemen,” Sink said. “I’m sure you know bits and pieces of what I’m about to tell you, but here it is in its entirety. At 1600 hours yesterday a Soviet troop carrier crossed into the Allied sector and engaged the nearest sentry outpost. They made an admirable stand, but were overcome by what we must assume to be the spearhead of a larger invasion force.”
He paused for effect and looked around the hangar.
“Now, rest assured,” Sink continued, “The Allied forces will not allow this to stand without a fight--and I do mean a considerable fight. Now, I just got off the horn with rear sector command. They gave me a choice. They told me that we could stay on course and complete our mission--might be a routine patrol, might not. Or we can be recalled to what has now become the front line.”
“What’d you tell ‘em, sir?” called someone from the back of the crowd. It sounded like Luz, which was about right.
“I told them that in my opinion they could find no greater opposition force than the 101st,” Sink said, and the space erupted.
Lew looked at Dick, and right away he turned to look back as though he’d been watching Lew out of the corner of his eye. Dick smiled and nodded, calm and confident as ever, and Lew could almost have forgotten the way he’d sounded the night before.
After Callisto Toccoa was full steam ahead across the sector, and Lew spent his days at his desk poring over maps, looking at satellite images and listening to the long-range comms channels on the off chance he might pick something up. Back on E deck the company was drilling, practicing zero-gravity maneuvers in the dive tanks and sometimes outside the ship itself. The first time they did it Lew went down to the airlocks and saw them off, and spent the remainder of his shift stealthily listening to the back-and-forth over the radio and watching what he could on his monitor.
They were supposed to be simulating a search-and-destroy mission on an enemy cruiser, and Lew was sure they’d pull it off without a hitch. Only he’d better listen, he thought. Just in case Dick wanted to run through a post-mortem later.
First and second platoons were gathered at the starboard E deck airlocks, Harry leading and Dick bringing up the rear. One by one the men were supposed to jump to a designated target off the ship’s hulking prow and affix a mock explosive device to its hull. Lew had spacejumped plenty in training, but truth be told he’d never quite learned to love it. He disliked the smell of space, hotly metallic as blood, and for all he was warm-natured he’d always found it difficult to maneuver in the cold. Dick was different. At OCS they’d paired off whenever they could, and Lew soon found that Dick’s enjoyment of the whole process was its one redeeming feature. He loved zero-grav, was steely enough not to lose his cool when things got scary, and could think on his feet with the best of them. Lew was all kinds of quick-witted, but he’d rather do his thinking governed by the laws of gravity and with plenty of breathable oxygen to hand.
“You were born too late,” Lew used to tell Dick. “Should’ve been a good old-fashioned astronaut. The final frontier, and all that.” But Dick would only roll his eyes and tell Lew he was happy where and when he was, thank you very much.
Now Lew could hear him all over the comms, encouraging the men and offering up advice and constructive criticism as each of them took their turn outside the airlock.
“Nice job, Talbert. Adjust your angle of approach fifteen degrees. Good. There you go, right alongside there.”
“Great, Perconte, now come on back.”
“Ease up on your propulsion just a hair, you’re coming in too fast and you’re going to--yeah, great. Perfect.”
After awhile Lew let Dick’s coaching fade into the background, a kind of soothing litany he could imagine was aimed at him. He could hear the other men in the background where Dick’s headset picked up the ambient noise. He wondered idly if it was strange to eavesdrop like this, and what Dick would say if he knew. Probably he’d just shake his head and ask if Lew was sure he didn’t have better things to do with his time. The rest of the intel bay had the radio on. An actress was guesting on a call-in program and they were talking about putting up one of the guys to call and ask her an embarrassing series of questions on behalf of one of the other S-2s, who had left the room. Lew doubted they were close enough for a transmission to even get through, but even so he would much rather listen to Dick.
The exercise was almost over when suddenly the tenor of Dick’s voice changed.
“You’re going to want to correct for that,” he said tersely. “A little more. A little--”
Lew looked up from the trajectory he was plotting and switched the channel on his monitor to the starboard airlocks on E deck. But the stream was shitty, and the picture kept cutting out. Interference, he thought, and it figured that it would happen just when he wanted to actually see something.
“Shit,” Lew heard someone say. Not Dick, obviously, but someone right alongside him, near enough to speak almost into his mouthpiece.
“I’m going after him.”
And that was Dick. That was Dick, sounding as if he was going to do something brave and probably also incredibly stupid, and just as he said it the external feed on Lew’s monitor took the opportunity to crap out entirely.
“Are you sure you want to--” said the same voice who’d cursed a minute ago. Harry, maybe, gone out to the target and come back again and now trying to curtail whatever the hell Dick was doing. But Lew didn’t know. He couldn’t see, and he didn’t like it, not one bit.
“Goddammit,” Lew said, yanking his headphones off and throwing them onto the desktop. He shoved backwards out of his chair, stumbling a little, vaguely aware that the rest of the room was looking at him. “I’ll be back,” he said, to nobody in particular.
He took the stairs down six flights to E deck, his booted footsteps echoing off the walls, sweaty palms slipping on the railings. When he got out into the corridor he was wheezing unpleasantly and sweating. He jogged along the hallway until he got to the airlock and found most of first and second clustered around the inside door in various states of jump readiness.
Lew caught sight of Lipton and grabbed him by the arm.
“Captain Nixon,” said Lipton. “Where’d you come from, sir?”
“Lip, what the hell’s going on?”
“I’m not sure,” Lipton said. “We were jumping back and forth. We were almost done; second platoon was just wrapping up. But something happened with one of the last guys. I’m almost out of O2 or I’d go and see myself, sir.”
“Who’s out there?”
“Captain Winters, Captain Welsh. Uh, Dukeman. Webster. Garcia.”
“It’s Dukeman,” called someone. Lew looked up to see a knot of men gathered around the porthole.
“What’s that?” Lipton called.
“Lip, c’mere,” Perconte said, turning away from the porthole. “Shit, fucking Dukeman drifted off the target.”
“And Dick’s going to get him,” Lew muttered.
“What’d you say, sir?”
Lew shook his head. “Lemme out there,” he said, gesturing at the airlock door.
“Captain Nixon, you don’t have a suit on,” Lipton said.
“No shit.” Lew said. “Perconte, open the door.”
“Sir, you can’t go out there without a pressure suit on,” Lipton said. “That’s regulation. If the outside door malfunctions--”
“Then I’ll be dead outside of a minute. Sucked out into hard vacuum. Got it,” Lew said. He patted Lipton on the shoulder. “You’ve registered your concern, Lip, and I appreciate it. Now, Perconte, open up. That’s an order.”
Perconte slid the airlock door open. Lew took a breath and stepped inside. For all his bravado it felt inherently wrong to be in the airlock without a suit on. And Lipton was right; if he was out here when the outside door opened he was done for. But he couldn’t stand hanging around by the porthole trying to figure out what the hell was going on.
He went to the outside door, his better judgement screaming at him to get the hell back inside. The window here was bigger than the adjacent porthole, and he pressed his face to it, reminded absurdly of the way he used to look out shuttle windows when he was a kid. He still remembered his family’s trip down to Earth, breaking through the clouds when they came out of orbit at last. He remembered watching the planet curve wetly away into the sunset and thinking, I can’t believe people really live here.
He could just see a cluster of suited figures clinging to the outside of the ship. Waiting to jump they’d be lined up in the airlock, but they must really have been near the end of the drill if everyone was either outside or back inside the interior of Toccoa proper. He couldn’t hear anything, only the hum of HVAC, recycling the thin atmosphere in the airlock. If he stayed here long enough he’d get lightheaded; they said it was like being on top of a mountain. The comparison was only academic. Lew had never climbed a mountain, had never been anywhere with real topography.
Outside there was a flurry of motion. At once there was a helmeted face on the other side of the door and he was looking into Dick’s eyes, dim behind the visor of his helmet. He looked surprised, and then he jerked his head in a way that Lew understood to mean get back inside, we’re coming through. Lew felt suddenly embarrassed. He shouldn’t have ordered Perconte to open the door. Whatever they were doing now they’d have to wait for him to get back in before they did it. He jogged back along the airlock and knocked, and when the door slid open he slipped inside, face hot.
“They’re coming in,” he said to Lipton.
“What happened, sir?”
Lew shook his head. “I don’t know.”
A buzzer sounded, the light above the inside door blinking red as the outer airlock door opened and the pressure inside equalized. Inside the airlock now the men would be following reentry precautions, the reverse process of jump readiness in the stick. Nobody could remove his helmet until the door was closed and everyone clipped in, until the computer registered both a pressure equivalent to that inside the ship and an acceptable percentage of breathable air. Lew had seen more than one person lose it in the airlock, unable to stand another minute enclosed in his suit. In training a lapse like that would be good enough for a ticket out of the paratroops for good.
The airlock door flew open. Garcia and Webster were dragging someone between them. The useless weight of the body was terrifying, and Lew’s heart shot into his throat, the fear easing shamefully when he registered Dick coming through the doorway and Harry after him.
“Lipton, call the medics,” Dick said right away. He’d yanked his helmet off and left it in the airlock, the hooded liner he wore beneath it was half off his head, and his hair stuck up every which way. Another day Lew might have found his disarray endearing, but in context the look of Dick at loose ends only made things worse.
“Who is it?” Lew asked.
“Dukeman,” Dick said. “He depressurized. Let’s get his helmet off,” he said to Webster.
“Lipton, where’s Doc?”
Webster fumbled with the helmet clasps and wrenched it off, letting it roll to one side like a fishbowl. Dukeman’s face was grey, and blood streamed from his nose and ears. Dick knelt beside him and unzipped his suit halfway, feeling for a pulse below his jawline.
“Is--is he--” Garcia stuttered. He looked stunned. Lew looked at him and caught Harry doing the same, skirting the edge of the crowd to go and stand next to him. He set a hand on Garcia’s arm, and he twitched as if he’d been stung.
“Hey, Garcia,” Lew said. “You got a buddy around?”
Garcia nodded. “Hashey,” he said.
“Private Hashey,” Lew barked, gratified when his tone seemed to draw the man out. When he saw his friend his brow furrowed in concern. “Get him out of here,” Lew said quietly, and Hashey nodded.
Roe materialized at Dick’s elbow, scurrying up through the tense and weaving crowd like a small animal through grass. Lew felt a jolt of relief.
“All right, gimme some room,” Roe said, leaning in and angling his body between Dick’s and Dukeman’s with enough force that Dick was forced to fall back on his hands. He moved sideways, crablike and flailing a moment before he gathered himself up and got to his feet. He looked for Lew, and Lew went to him as readily as Doc Roe had.
“Hey,” Lew said, checking Dick with his shoulder. “You okay?”
Dick nodded, the movement barely perceptible, as if he thought his own well being somehow offensive.
“What the hell happened out there?”
Dick was staring at Dukeman. Lew had been trying not to look, and as he looked at the faces of the company he saw that they weren’t looking either. To look at him seemed indecent somehow, or maybe that was only what they told themselves as they half-watched Roe work feverishly over Dukeman’s body.
“I don’t know,” Dick said, and went to kneel once more by Dukeman’s head, to pick up his pale hand in both of his.
Lew was sitting cross-legged on his bed looking at star maps. They were spread out in front of him, long arcs of white against black and grey and dark blue. He stared at the patterns they made, looking but not seeing and letting his mind wander. He thought of his daughter, of the first time he’d come home on leave when she was very small, back when he and Kathy still thought they might make a go of things. He’d come home and found her thrust into his arms, this small person he didn’t know at all.
Take her out awhile, Kathy said.
So he’d taken her down to the park for the first time, and they’d walked out under the tall trees at night, the dome of the space station clear as crystal and the stars beyond it winking in the black. She’d fallen asleep against his chest and he’d kept on walking.
“Captain Nixon.” The ship’s computer spoke crisply, and Lew looked up.
“Captain Winters is outside your cabin door.”
Just standing there? Lew wanted to ask. If he wanted to he could call Dick up on the monitor and get an answer by way of a fisheye image of him doing exactly that. His gut felt heavy with trepidation, and he figured nothing good could inspire Dick to loiter around in the corridor and hesitate at Lew’s door
“Open it up,” Lew said, and the ship did.
“You might as well come inside,” Lew said, eyes on his maps. He could feel Dick looming in the doorway. He sighed and came into the cabin, and the ship closed the door obligingly behind him.
Dick stood just inside, unmoving, for long enough that Lew began to feel a creeping sensation start in at the crown of his head.
“He didn’t make it,” Dick said plainly.
Lew looked up at him. As he did he swept his pile of papers to one side and patted the mattress he’d bared. “Sit down,” he said, and Dick did, crossing the room and collapsing onto the bed with a weight that reminded Lew of the way Dukeman’s body had looked on the floor, a leaden and permanent repose.
Dick bent forward at the waist, elbows on his thighs, and Lew thought for a moment he might vomit onto the dense grey carpet. He certainly looked sick enough. But he didn’t throw up, nor did he cry, which was the next most appropriate reaction. He just leaned forward and stared blankly into the middle distance. Lew wanted badly to touch him. He thought of Garcia earlier, how he’d jolted at Lew’s physical contact. Well, he thought to himself. If Dick wanted to shake him off too, that would be all right.
He reached out and put his hand on the small of Dick’s back. He could feel the warmth of his skin through the thick fabric of his uniform, the way Dick’s spine curved into his palm. Dick took a deep breath, and Lew watched his hand rise and fall. He moved his thumb softly, backwards and forwards, and Dick let out a long breath that ended in a sobby sort of choke. He sat still a minute, long enough for Lew to quantify just how long he’d had his hand on Dick’s back, and to consider that the intimacy of the gesture might have been ill-timed. Then he straightened, the change in angle dislodging Lew, who pulled his hand back into his lap as though to forget he’d touched Dick at all.
“All right?” Lew asked.
Dick nodded. “I’m all right.”
“What happened out there?”
“I don’t know,” Dick said. “I was waiting outside the airlock. I had them come out in groups, a few at a time, and I was going to go last. Dukeman went before me. I don’t know if he overshot his trajectory or what, but he hit the target hard. He must’ve put a hole in his suit. I went after him, but--heck, Lew, I don’t know. I thought I got to him quick enough. But Doc said he was probably gone by the time I got there.”
“You did what you could,” Lew said automatically.
“I guess,” Dick said. “Wasn’t good enough, though.”
“You know what, sometimes it’s not,” Lew said.
“That sounds like something my father would say.” Dick laughed, sounding a little bitter.
“Jesus,” Lew said, making a face. “Forget I said it. If I start going around sounding too wise, I’ll ruin my reputation.”
“Don’t get ahead of yourself,” Dick said, and nudged Lew with his shoulder. He sighed. “I’ve got to write his parents,” he said. “I don’t--I’ve never done it before. I don’t know what to say.”
Lew thought about it, a series of pithy phrases running through his head. Your son gave his life in service to his country, for the Allied sector. For freedom. They sounded hollow. You’d think there’d be a set of guidelines somewhere. God knew the army had enough of those.
“I don’t know either,” he said at last. “I wish I did.”
“It was a training exercise,” Dick said, sounding disgusted. “Just a training exercise. We’ll be in combat soon, and then--”
And then you’ll get used to it, Lew thought.
But he couldn’t tell Dick that, nor did he want to. So he laid his hand on Dick’s back again, and again he watched it rise and fall with Dick’s breath. On impulse he leaned forward, his forehead resting on Dick’s shoulder. He thought it was a little backwards, the way Dick was holding him up and not the other way around. But Dick exhaled, long and drawn out, and Lew imagined some of the tension draining out of him. He made a pleased sounding noise. Lew felt suddenly tremendous, as though he might break open, and the words were on the tip of his tongue then. Only--it seemed in poor taste, confessing. All Lew had to do to quell the feeling was to think of muttering against Dick’s shirt, how Dick might look turning around in disbelief, and how Lew would never be able to take it back.
“You go talk to Garcia?” he asked instead.
“Garcia?” Dick didn’t move, and Lew shivered a little at the way Dick’s voice hummed straight into his ear.
“He seemed a little shaken up, is all. I sent him off with Hashey.”
“Oh,” Dick said. “That was good of you, Lew. Thanks.”
Lew shrugged. “Yeah,” he said. “Any time.”
Dick’s stomach chose that moment to growl. Lew sat up, and Dick did turn then, looking sheepish.
“You eat today?” Lew asked. “And don’t lie.”
“Not since breakfast.”
“Goddammit,” Lew said. “C’mon.”
He sprang up from the mattress, pleased to be able to be decisive. He still felt far too close to opening his big mouth, as though he might take leave of his senses and blurt things out at any given moment. Better to move, he thought, to get out in public where he could trust himself again.
“Yeah, bullshit. Come on.”
“The mess is closed,” Dick protested.
“Just so happens I’ve been making eyes at one of the mess officers for a week or so now. He promised me the best grilled cheese sandwich I’ve ever had if I stopped by after hours.”
Dick raised an eyebrow. “So what’s he going to think about you showing up with me?”
“Oh, you’re just my sad, hungry, redheaded hanger-on,” Lew said. “You’re like one of those sucker fish that clings to sharks. It’s a real trial to put up with, to be honest, but lucky for you I’m a nice guy.”
Lew’s cheeks felt hot, and he wondered if Dick was fully aware of the undertone of their exchange. He’d never really been forthright with Dick about his preferences. He was lucky, he supposed, that his romantic history spoke for itself. You could get a lot of mileage out of an ex-wife and a kid if you wanted to keep things quiet. Not that Lew would deny it, not that he’d even want to. But Dick had never asked, and so Lew had never offered.
“Come on,” he said again. “I want a damned sandwich too.” Which was a trick, because Dick wouldn’t let him go hungry, and probably wouldn’t let him go to the mess alone. Lew was becoming somewhat used to forcing enjoyable things on Dick by making him a captive audience, and if he had to dangle his own well-being as bait, then so be it.
The mess was indeed closed, but Lew’s buddy was behind the chow line mopping up. “Hey,” he said when he saw them come in. “How’s tricks, Captain?”
“Been better,” Lew said. “How’s it going, Johnny?” He nodded at Dick. “He’s had a rough day, and he missed dinner. Don’t suppose we could beg a couple of sandwiches?”
Johnny set his mop down and came up and leaned on the counter. “Say, you Easy? I heard about your man this afternoon. Shitty luck.”
He put out a hand. Dick took it, and shook a little wearily, as if he’d rather not but felt obliged.
“Thanks,” he said. “And thanks for the food. I wouldn’t ask you to--”
“It’s nothing. Besides, Captain Nixon put me up to it, huh?” He winked at Lew, and Dick looked at his feet.
They sat at a table off to one side of the room. Most of the overhead lights were off, and shadows shrouded the wide, white space like low-hanging clouds. Lew sat facing the kitchen, pretending to watch Johnny over Dick’s shoulder but watching Dick instead. He looked like he might set his cheek down on the table and fall asleep right then and there, and Lew thought that if he did Lew might just let him.
“You remember those 24-hour guard shifts back in basic?” he asked, and Dick nodded slowly. “We used to go sit in the mess on break and drink coffee til we couldn’t take it anymore.”
“You drank more than coffee,” Dick said. “A little counterproductive, don’t you think?”
“That’s where you’re wrong. A little vitamin V in your coffee might be just what you’ve needed all this time. Ever think of that?”
“No,” Dick said. “I can’t say I have.”
Johnny brought out a couple of plates. “I’m off shift,” he said. “Just toss ‘em in the recycler when you’re done, will you?”
“Sure thing,” said Lew. “And thanks again.”
“Any time. There’s a war on now, right? All gotta do our bit.”
He turned to leave, waving at Lew as he did. Lew smiled back and saw Dick look between the two of them, but when Lew turned and looked at him full on he took a dissembling bite of his sandwich.
“Good?” Lew asked, and Dick nodded.
“Yeah,” he said when he’d swallowed.
“Told you,” Lew said.
Dick set the sandwich back on his plate and pressed the pad of his index finger into a collection of crumbs. “You miss home?” he asked suddenly.
“I--no,” Lew said. “Not really.”
Dick looked up at him, his face bearing a faint expression of disappointment. But it was true. He missed specific things about home, specific people, but it was like he’d thought back on Callisto: take it down to brass tacks, and everything Lew needed--everyone he needed--was up here with him.
“Look, you weren’t--we didn’t know each other so well when Kathy and I were together,” Lew said, feeling somehow as though he needed to explain himself. “You don’t know what it’s like to go back and forth with someone like that. I mean, do you? Because if you do, you can tell me to go to hell.”
Dick shook his head.
“Didn’t think so. That’s a compliment,” Lew said, because Dick had opened his mouth as if to protest. “But anyway, you snipe at each other enough, it tends to give you a bit of a bad association with home. I guess you start looking for it other places instead.” He sighed. “Hey, who cares about me. Tell me what you miss.”
Dick set to ripping the crusts neatly off the remainder of his sandwich. “Decent food, for one thing. No offense to your friend.”
“I’m sure he’d agree,” Lew said. “It’s funny, you know? Growing up all we heard about was the poor hapless tribes of Earth, scrounging up old MREs and radioactive crops.”
“What, you mean corn’s not supposed to glow in the dark? I don’t know, Lew. There’s more than a grain of truth to it. We ate MREs some winters. But I can count ‘em on one hand, and I think half the time we did it for the novelty anyway. Heck, my parents used to trade them for milk and eggs.”
“God, fresh eggs,” Lew said. “Talk about a pastoral utopia.”
“Lancaster, Pennsylvania,” Dick said. “You ought to come back with me sometime. We’ll give you an extra gas mask and iodine tablets.”
“I’d love to,” Lew said, and he laughed, because he meant it.
“Look, here’s what you should say about Dukeman,” he said, resting his hand on the table, palm down. “You should say--say he died training to defend his home.”
Dick was looking at Lew’s hand. He slid his alongside, and for a wild moment Lew thought Dick was going to take hold of it. But he just left it here, less pale by virtue of being held against the white mess table. His fingernails were neatly trimmed, but he’d been biting his cuticles. Lew ran a finger over a particularly well-gnawed spot.
“You shouldn’t do that,” Lew said.
Dick started and pulled his hand back.
“Nerves,” he said. Then, “I like what you said. About Dukeman. Thanks, Lew.”
Lew sat up and stretched and pushed his plate away. “Any time.”
A week or so later they rendezvoused with a supply vessel. Lew watched it dock on the big screen in the mess and grinned at Dick as the men cheered and threw shredded up napkins like confetti. A supply ship meant a fresh stock of all the things the men weren’t supposed to have but somehow did anyway--booze and smokes and dirty movies--and it meant letters from home and a film of Betsy’s school play Lew would watch by himself while drinking and then upload to his own private corner of the ship’s server.
Toccoa would probably ask him if he wanted a tissue in that damn deadpan of hers, and he’d tell her to watch herself, that he’d seen plenty of old movies and knew full well what they did with computers when they had an attack of free will.
The other thing that came with the supply ship was a crop of new recruits: standard operating procedure, and much as the men groused about schooling a bunch of green kids Lew knew that an injection of fresh blood into the division’s closed circuit was far from a bad thing, provided they could get up to speed. This time, though, there was more than one sort of replacement on board, and he was stirring things up more than usual.
“His name’s Miller,” Lew heard Guarnere say to Joe Toye. “I heard he’s got a bionic dick. Say, Lip, you hear that? You oughtta get you one of those. We’ll pass a hat around.”
“Yeah, very funny, Bill,” said Lipton, who’d taken a live round to the groin back in basic and wound up a bit of a company legend. He cuffed Guarnere lightly on the arm and came over to stand next to Lew and Dick. “Captains,” he said.
“How’s it hanging, Lip?” said Lew, because he couldn’t resist. Beside him he felt rather than saw Dick roll his eyes.
“Never better, sir,” Lipton said. “Captain Winters, I had a question about Private Miller.”
“What’s that?” Dick looked from Lipton across the mess to where Miller stood in no doubt slightly awkward conversation with his fellows. Ramirez most of all looked like he was struggling not to ask Miller to flex. Lew winced at the thought of the bionic dick comment making its way to Miller’s ears, even if it was true, and maybe especially then.
“I was wondering if you knew where he was going to be assigned,” Lipton said, his voice soft and measured. “If he was coming to Easy or going somewhere else.”
“Why?” Dick asked. He was still looking at Miller.
“It’s just--” Lipton sighed. “It’s the men, sir. I know we’re coming up on an operation, and…”
“Make your point,” Dick said, biting off the last word. Lipton looked surprised, and Lew couldn’t blame him. Dick in a foul mood was something Lew wouldn’t wish on anyone other than maybe the enemy, and for whatever reason he seemed to be in one now.
“I worry he might be a distraction, Captain.”
Dick raised an eyebrow. “You don’t think this company’s capable of maintaining decorum, First Sergeant?”
“No, that’s--” Lipton shook his head. “That’s not what I’m saying, sir. I just wonder if it might not be better for him to go somewhere else. For his sake as much as theirs.”
Lew stepped closer. He felt a little sorry for Lipton, truth be told, and though Lew felt sure the man could hold his own he had the disadvantage of his rank to fetter him. “Look, he’s got a point, Dick,” Lew said. “You heard them just now. You think they’re going to be focused on the task at hand if they’re wondering about whether or not that kid’s a robot?”
“He’s not a robot,” Dick snapped. “And what’s to say another company will be any different?” His ears reddened instantly, gaze darting to Lipton as though he’d lost sight of the fact he and Lew weren’t alone. “I haven’t got the final say on this, Lip,” he said roughly, as though schooling his voice milder than he strictly wanted to. “But look, I’ll put the question to Colonel Sink. All right?”
“Thank you, Captain.”
Dick nodded. “Dismissed,” he said, and Lipton hurried off, no doubt happy to get clear of the
two of them.
Lew wanted to ask Dick what the hell he was thinking of, but he thought better of doing so in public. “Good thought, asking Sink about it,” he said instead. “I’m sure the army’s got a whole crack team of head-shrinkers writing the book on how to integrate replacements into a unit. I mean, since it’s the army, they’re getting nowhere fast, but--hey, where are you going?”
Dick had turned on his heel and was double-timing it out of the mess, leaving Lew to curse under his breath and jog along behind him. By the time he caught Dick up at his cabin door he was huffing embarrassingly--he really did need to get back to PT--and in no condition to give Dick the what-for he so richly deserved. He ducked inside after him, half expecting to be thrown out, but he wasn’t. Dick stalked over to his bed and tugged it down from its alcove in the wall. He sat heavily on the mattress.
“What’s with you?” Lew asked. “You bit Lip’s head off back there, you know that?”
“Oh, I didn’t either,” Dick said, sounding abashed. “Anyway, he was out of line.”
“Was he? Sounded like a pretty valid question to me, if you want to know the truth.”
“I’ve got the feeling you’re going to tell me whether I want to know it or not.”
Lew sat next to him on the bed, close enough that they were pressed together from knee to ankle. He slung an arm around Dick’s shoulders. “Well, that’s why you keep me around, right?”
“Honestly, though,” said Lew. “What was that all about?”
“Nothing,” Dick said. “I just--” He shook his head. “I let my personal opinion get in the way of running the company. It won’t happen again.” He squared his jaw, and Lew wondered for a moment who exactly Dick was talking to.
“So what is it, you don’t think they’re human?”
“Replacements,” Lew added needlessly.
Dick gave him a sidelong look. “I said I didn’t think Private Miller was a robot,” he said.
“Ah, but that doesn’t mean you think he’s a man,” Lew said.
“That’s not what I meant,” Dick said.
“Stop with the rhetoricals, for Pete’s sake. This isn’t--I don’t know, the Yale Debate Club.”
“I was never in the debate club,” said Lew. “That was for losers.”
Dick sighed. He picked at an invisible thread on the seam of his coverall. He seemed genuinely troubled, and this made Lew feel far more uneasy than his earlier snappishness with Lipton had. Dick usually wasn’t short with the men; he might be with Lew, but that seemed almost complimentary, a tacit acknowledgement of their familiarity. But everyone was entitled to break character now and then, and while Lipton hadn’t been strictly out of line he had strayed unwittingly into a minefield, the nature of which Lew felt anxious to determine now.
“So what do you think?” Lew asked carefully. “No rhetorical questions, no judgment. Just tell me.”
Dick looked pained. “Lew--”
“You’ll feel better if you do.”
“I don’t know. Probably.”
“Okay,” Dick said, clearing his throat. “It’s--it’s like this. It’s Dukeman.”
“Okay,” said Lew.
“You remember what his parents do for a living?”
Lew shook his head. He’d probably never known in the first place. Dick knew; of course he did, the way he knew little things about all the men, kept them stashed away for moments just like this one.
“They’re miners,” Dick said. “On a moon colony somewhere. They mine, I don’t know, tin or something. Poor as heck. He told me once he grew up making little figures out of tin scrap, hitching rides up to the spaceport to sell ‘em to the salesmen coming through to broker deals. Saved every penny and bought a one way ticket to the nearest station with a recruitment office and joined up as soon as he was of age. Anyway, when he died the whole place took up a collection to raise the money to have his body sent back there to be buried. There was no way his parents could have afforded it otherwise.”
“Come on,” Lew said. “You’re telling me the army wouldn’t pop for a transport?”
Dick shook his head. “The army’ll pay for cryo storage, but not shipping,” he said. “Fuel’s too expensive.”
“Shipping, Jesus. Hell of a way to put it.”
“They’d have shipped back his ashes,” Dick said, looking sour, “But not his body. That’s how they phrased it when I went and made the arrangements.”
“The family was a little short,” Dick said, looking at his hands. “And I had some back pay. It worked out.”
“For God’s sake, you can’t go buying everyone’s ticket home when they get it. You’ll be working for free.” He meant to be wry about it, even laughed, but the look in Dick’s eyes froze the sound in Lew’s throat.
“I wouldn’t do it for everyone. Just Dukeman.”
Lew set his hand on Dick’s knee and squeezed. Dick watched it a moment, like it was some creature he didn’t want to scare. He flexed his thigh beneath Lew’s grip. A test, or a request. Lew couldn’t tell which, but he moved his hand safely back onto the bed, and Dick let out a breath.
“So what’s that got to do with this guy Miller?” Lew asked.
“Somebody paid for him,” Dick said. “Somebody handed over a stack of cash to get him back whole cloth while Dukeman’s parents had to scrounge just to get him out of cryo and back home to lay him to rest.”
“They loved him,” Lew said. His own conviction surprised him, and Dick looked up at him as though he hadn’t expected it either. “Miller’s parents. Or whoever he belonged to. They loved him just as much.”
Dick shook his head. He looked like he wanted to spit.
“What if it was free?”
Dick blinked. “What?”
“What if the army contracted with the bioengineering firms? What if it was standard protocol? Get knocked down, get blown apart, they’ll ship you off and put you back together.”
“Are you trying to tell me something?”
“Not really,” Lew said. “Nothing concrete yet. But I’ve heard whispers. Stuff about a point system, maybe, for people who can’t pay.”
“Jesus Christ,” Dick said. “That’s even worse.” He dropped his head into his hands and pressed the pads of his fingers against his closed eyelids.
“It’s life, Dick.”
“It’s playing God.”
“Well, turns out people will pay for the privilege.”
Dick leaned forward and pressed the heels of his hands hard against his eye sockets. “I’ve got a headache,” he said.
Which meant shut up about it or get out. Lew sighed. He guessed he was fine with shutting up about it. “You want an aspirin?”
Dick shook his head. “I’ve got some in my desk. First drawer on the right,” he added when Lew got up. “Thanks. I’m going to go find Miller,” he said. “See how he’s doing. See if Lip’s right, I guess. Maybe he’s better off as--as a runner or something.”
He took the bottle of aspirin from Lew and emptied two powdery white tablets into his palm. He stared at them a moment as though he thought they might divulge some secret, and then he tossed them into his mouth and swallowed them dry.
Lew made a face. “That’s bad for you, you know,” he said.
“So’s smoking and drinking.” Dick stood up and wiped his palms off on his trouser legs. “You can stay here if you want,” he said.
“Just--you’ve probably got junk all over your bed, and you’ve got mail to open. Right?”
They rarely talked about this, about Lew’s home life. Dick knew he had a kid, because that wasn’t a secret, and Dick knew Lew had once had a wife because he’d met her, and barring that he knew where babies came from. Anyway, Lew had probably gotten drunk often enough and told him enough horror stories to put him off the institution for life. But Dick had never before acknowledged the videos Betsy sent, or the fact that Lew made something of a ritual of watching them.
“Oh, well,” Lew said, scratching the back of his head. “I can hang around. If you don’t mind, that is.”
“No, of course not,” said Dick. “Make yourself at home.”
When he’d gone Lew got out Betsy’s letter--she had decent penmanship for her age, but he thought he detected Kathy’s hand here and there. The tape he inserted into the mostly-unused player mounted on Dick’s wall. Rudimentary, and not exactly meant for entertainment, but it would do for now.
“Hey Toccoa,” he said.
“Captain Nixon,” said the ship. She sounded familiar. He was happy to hear her voice, and that struck him as strange.
“How d’you recognize all our voices, anyway?” he asked.
“Voice recognition software was implemented in the last model upgrade.”
“Logical,” he said. “Record and upload to my personal folder, please.”
“Recording,” said the ship.
Lew took out his flask and hit play.
He wasn’t sure how much time had passed when Dick keyed his way back into the cabin; he only knew that it had been a long time, and that he’d watched the school play all the way through at least three times. It wasn’t exactly high art, and it wasn’t especially long. It was Snow White. Betsy was a rabbit, but she had a scene to herself right after Snow White ate the poisoned apple where she came out and hopped a lazy circle downstage and up, and Lew thought she’d done a damn fine job, if he said so himself.
He’d just instructed the computer to take it from the top once more when Dick let himself in again. Lew was curled up on his side, head pillowed on his folded hands, flask resting next to him. He needed a refill, but he was too lazy and Dick’s bed was too comfortable for moving to bear thinking about. He must really be drunk, he thought, because Dick’s bed wasn’t actually comfortable at all.
“Hey,” Dick said softly.
Lew grunted in reply. Dick came over and sat on the bed in the curve of Lew’s body, his back to Lew’s belly. If Lew put out a hand, he could run his fingers down the path of Dick’s spine over the grey-green nylon of his uniform coverall.
“I’ll get out of your way,” Lew said, but made no motion to get up.
“No,” Dick said, leaning down to unlace his boots. “Stay for awhile. You’re in the middle of it.” He nodded at the video, and Lew felt suddenly sentimental, stupid.
“I’ve seen it already,” he muttered, but Dick wasn’t listening.
“Is that her?” Dick asked.
Betsy had come onscreen, dressed in her white bunny suit, and immediately the camera had panned in. Lew wondered if Kathy had had to order the costume specially, or God forbid, try to sew it herself. That would be the goddamn day.
“Yeah, that’s her,” Lew said.
He sat up slightly and cast a glance up at Dick. Lew had dimmed the lights, and now the video’s projection flickered over Dick’s face. He was smiling. His mouth was slightly open.
“Oh, she’s cute,” Dick said. “She looks like you, you know. I always thought so.” He prodded Lew in the gut with his index finger.
“She looks like her mother,” Lew said, wriggling away.
He lay back down again and shut his eyes. He listened to Betsy and her fellows bleat their lines.
As he lay there he began to doze. He seemed to wake up at intervals, to drift into consciousness and then out again, softly. It was as content as he could remember being in a very long time, and he could feel Dick’s body grow heavier beside him until Dick too was reclining on the too-narrow bed, turned to face Lew on the opposite pillow.
He should go. They’d throw their backs out, curled up like this.
“Nix?” Dick asked.
“Why’d you get divorced?”
Lew kept his eyes shut. He thought, if he looked at Dick, he’d probably look very earnest. Because Dick usually did, and moreso when he thought he was treading on a minefield.
“Because I screwed up,” Lew said. “I fucked around on her.”
“Oh,” said Dick. Lew heard him swallow, the way he did sometimes when he got nervous. Dick didn’t have many tells, but Lew thought he was getting to know the ones he did have. The cabin was quiet, and Lew realized Dick had shut the projection down.
“Yeah. It’s a long story.”
The truth was, it wasn’t. He’d fucked around on her and never really bothered to hide it. By the time it finally happened it had seemed so inevitable he thought they’d both forgotten he hadn’t done it already, their anger rusty, their pain the lactic ache of overuse.
“Did you love her?” Dick asked quietly, so quietly Lew thought for a moment that he’d dreamed it.
“I guess so,” Lew said. “Once.”
Dick stayed quiet.
“You ever been in love?” Lew asked.
He didn’t know what made him ask the question then. Later he’d lie in this very same bed and ask himself over and over why he’d asked it, and why he’d done what he did next, which was to lie very still in the long stretch of intervening silence before Dick answered, to let himself begin to drift again.
“I don’t know,” Dick said in a voice just a hairsbreadth louder than a whisper, in a timbre and caliber of voice loud enough to hear but not, perhaps, loud enough to wake a sleeper.
Which Lew wasn’t. Not yet. Not exactly. As he lay there, not-sleeping, he felt the air shift above him, and he felt a featherweight dullness settle between his eyes, as though holding his own hand before his face in a pitch-black room. And then a fingertip, lighter still, that ran along the shell of Lew’s ear from helix to lobe. Just once, just quickly, and then it was gone.
“I’m gonna go,” Lew muttered then, to cover the drumbeat of his heart. He could still be asleep. Everybody talks in their sleep sometimes.
“Stay,” Dick said. “It’s all right.”
He gave a heavy sigh. Lew felt the mattress roll and dip as Dick crawled across to the other side of him. Lew felt Dick’s knees brush the small of his back and then they were gone, Dick having apparently organized his body into its least assuming configuration. He didn’t say anything else, and eventually Lew heard his breathing even out, and then he stopped listening and started sleeping for real.
Their first real contact with the enemy came more quickly than Lew expected.
He briefed the officers in a conference room on the regimental deck, and he’d have been nervous talking to a crowd if Dick hadn’t been sitting in the front of the room taking notes and looking up at Lew if he was conducting the meeting solely for Dick’s benefit.
“All right,” Lew said, lowering the monitor from the ceiling. “Here--” he gestured to the pockmarked grey sphere onscreen-- “Is the moon. Who here knows his history? Captain Speirs, care to fill us in on forty-some years of lunar occupation?”
Ron glared at him. Dick raised an eyebrow from the front row and gave a barely perceptible shake of his head as though to remind Lew of the presence of superior officers.
“Aw, give it a shot, huh? No? Well, all right. Here it is. We’re a month out from the first thrust of the invasion. First thing the enemy does is expand their territory on the moon. Not hugely surprising, and probably symbolic--half a century ago we divided the moon up the same we did the system, into quadrants first of all, and then into its own sectors. You might call it a microcosm of the rest of the sector. So here’s the objective,” Lew said, taking out his laser pointer and scribbling bright scarlet light over a starmap.
“Terra Nivium. Heavily populated, a major trade hub. No central dome, so civilian losses should be relatively easy to minimize. We’re coming in from the west through the Sinus Fidei here, which ought to put us on the the outskirts of the settlement. Now we’re counting on flank support from the Second Armoured Division once we cut up through the Sinus, but not until then. Most likely we’ll be taking heavy fire, and word from lunar intelligence is they may have mined it.”
There was a dissenting grumble from the assembly, and Lew pressed his lips together. If Lew had to bet he’d say most of these men had been raised on stations, and didn’t have much experience dirtside, let alone on a place like the moon. By contrast, half the enlisted men hailed from Statio, the vast domed city in the middle of the Sea of Tranquility, and Lew didn’t know if that made things better or worse. There were rumors of enemy spycraft in the skies above the dome, and the newsreels liked to screech about the possibility of invasion. Lew himself tried to steer clear of news that wasn’t vetted by the lunar intel office, but he watched the movies they screened in the mess hall too, and he wasn’t always as good at selective hearing as he’d have liked to be.
“Fucking ass-backwards eastern sector,” Harry groused after the briefing. “Couldn’t be bothered to dome everything up like civilized people, so we’ve gotta take a whole damn settlement in atmo suits. The boys can barely move in ‘em when we drill, let alone march for distance.”
“Which we haven’t done in at least a year,” Dick said quietly. “You’re right, Harry. The men aren’t fit.”
“Well, don’t glare at me about it,” said Lew. “I’m sure they pushed into the western sector just to annoy the both of you and get Easy huffing and puffing. At least we can take rovers in most of the way.”
“Small mercies,” said Harry. He elbowed Lew. “You coming over later? Last officer’s poker before the second lunar landing. It’s a banner occasion.”
Lew turned to Dick. Force of habit, probably, and he didn’t miss the roll of Harry’s eyes. “You in?” Lew asked.
If Dick had heard Lew’s question about poker, he didn’t acknowledge it. “I want to talk to the men,” he said. “Brief the non coms. Nix, you mind coming along for a bit? In case they’ve got questions?”
“Yeah, sure. I’ll come to poker too,” Lew added above Harry’s protests. “You might have to deal me in late. Ron’ll whine, but you can handle him.”
“Nobody can handle Ron when he whines. Huh, Dick?”
Lew and Harry looked at Dick again for confirmation, but he seemed lost in thought, and remained that way until they reached his cabin and he peeled off and went inside. “I’m going to get the ship to page Lipton,” he said. “Be out in a second.”
Harry watched him go with the pointed sort of expression that told Lew exactly what he was thinking.
“If you’re going to give me shit, save it for tonight,” Lew said, holding up a hand.
Harry grinned. “I didn’t say a goddamn thing. All I know is, a little bird told me the two of you were hanging around in the mess after hours not too long ago.”
“Jesus, it was the night Dukeman died,” Lew said. “I was getting him something to eat.”
“Whatever you want to call it.”
“That’s what I’m calling it because that’s what the hell it was.”
Harry opened his mouth to say something else, but just then Dick came back out of his cabin. Harry clammed up, which was another small mercy. But he didn’t have the decency not to wink obnoxiously at Lew, or to throw off a jaunty salute as he turned on his heel and walked off down the hall.
“Whatever gets you through the night, Nix,” he called over his shoulder, and Lew seriously considered drawing his sidearm right then and there.
“What’s he talking about?” Dick asked, looking bemused. “What gets you through the night?”
“The thought of telling the future Mrs. Welsh every last drunk Harry story,” Lew said. “That’s what. We meeting Lip?”
Dick nodded. He still looked half aware there was something he wasn’t quite getting; he looked between Lew and Harry’s retreating back and blinked confusedly. “Yeah,” he said. “In the barracks. He’s getting the company together.”
“Great,” Lew said. “Let’s go.”
After the briefing the whole ship seemed set abuzz with the same brittle freneticism Lew felt after too many cups of coffee. Dick immediately made himself scarce, claiming he needed to run inventory in the armory and hear his final orders from Colonel Sink. Lew was privy to most of what he imagined they were discussing, but he and Dick had decided long ago that they worked better keeping themselves to themselves. They thought differently; Dick liked to say Lew was smarter than him, but that wasn’t true at all. In truth, Lew thought, it was a question of context. Dick got orders and thought of the men only, because that was his job. Lew got orders and thought of Dick. He didn’t think that was in the battalion intelligence job description, but he did it anyway, and kept Dick none the wiser.
He found him after dinner in Harry’s cabin. He and Ron were sitting on Harry’s bed, and Dick was taping grenades.
“Live ammo in a pressure-controlled environment? Tsk, tsk.”
“Too cold in the armory bay,” said Dick, as though Lew ranked a legitimate explanation. “My fingers get numb and I can’t tape ‘em straight.”
“He’ll blow you to kingdom come if you’re not careful,” said Lew to Harry, who was sitting on the floor, playing solitaire and drinking a beer.
“What a way to go,” said Harry. “Hey, you come from intelligence? Hear anything new about tomorrow?”
Lew shook his head. “Going off at first light. Metaphorically speaking, anyway. S’all I know.”
Ron laughed grimly. “First light. In space that just means they pick a time out of a hat and play reveille over the intercom.”
“Hey, you think the ship gets off on that, bunch of guys shooting up out of bed on her say-so?” Harry asked.
“You could ask her,” said Lew.
Harry snorted. “Yeah, right.”
Lew ran a hand over the back of his neck. He had a prickly feeling, as though the ship was listening.
“Enough chit chat,” he said, pulling out his flask. “Harry, deal ‘em up.” He sat on the floor next to Harry and swatted lightly at Dick’s knee. “You in?”
Dick kept his eyes on the grenade he was holding. “I don’t--”
“Yeah, yeah. I know you don’t play poker. We can play...oh, I dunno, Go Fish.”
Dick smiled down at his grenade. “That’s for kids.”
“If it’s good enough for the schoolyard, it’s good enough for us. Huh, boys.”
Harry looked unconvinced, but by now he was used to Dick’s particularities and Lew’s need to accommodate them. “Fine,” he said. “But you’re going to have to go and shake somebody down for another sixer here in a minute. I know someone’s got one squirrelled away.”
“Hey, why me?”
Harry threw a bottle cap at him. “You picked the game, and I like beer when I fish.”
Ron looked unimpressed, but he accepted a handful of cards from Harry anyway.
They played late into the evening, Ron and Nix and Harry drinking and Dick taking full advantage with the kind of glee Lew wouldn’t have thought him capable of. At last Ron bowed out, handing over his cards and slinking from the room like he’d suddenly got wind of a better offer. That was Ron, though. He was a shark cruising for blood.
“Are we playing for money?” Harry asked eventually, when he was slumped mostly sideways against Lew and waving his cards around. Lew could see them. He might’ve cheated, but Dick was watching. And anyway, they weren’t playing for money, much to Ron’s earlier disappointment.
“Nah, this guy doesn’t like things to get too interesting. Do you, Dick.”
“You should be glad there’s nothing riding on this,” said Dick.
“Oh, believe me, we are.” Harry laid his cards down and got shakily to his feet. “Break time,” he said. “I gotta piss.”
When he’d shambled to the head Lew set his own cards on the floor and stretched his legs out. You okay?” Lew asked Dick.
Dick nodded. “I guess. Thinking about tomorrow. This is good, having a distraction, I mean.”
“Well, I’ll be there. If by ‘there’ you mean back in the cheap seats, doing a whole lot of nothing.”
Dick snorted. “You don’t do nothing,” he said. “And anyway, it helps, having you back there.” He was picking at the corner of one of his cards with a fingernail.
Lew swallowed. “We’re in two different drop zones,” he said. “I’ll be miles off your line.”
“Doesn’t matter,” said Dick. He looked up from his fidgeting. “Knowing you’re there helps me.” No sooner had the words come out than he pressed his lips together, as though trying to prevent any further confessions from slipping free.
Lew found himself at a loss as to how to respond. He ran his hand back through his hair, just to have something to do. Dick seemed abashed, and picked up his mangled playing card again.
They sat in less than comfortable silence until the toilet flushed and Harry came back into the room.
“Who died?” he asked, looking between them.
Dick’s gaze darted to Lew and then away. He coughed. “Your chances of winning this hand,” he said, waggling his cards at Harry.
Lew was shocked into a bright laugh, and Harry whacked Dick on the back and said he knew he’d pick up a vice or two at war, even if it was just a kid’s card game and a slightly tarter tongue. “But no cursing,” Harry said, wagging a finger. “My feeble heart couldn’t take the shock.”
When the hour grew late enough Dick helped haul Lew to his feet, and Harry migrated to the bed. They’d let the lights drop gradually, because the drunker Lew and Harry got the more they both seemed to want the light to match a dirtside bar.
“Sure you’ll make it up tomorrow?” Dick asked Harry, patting him on the leg.
“Are you kidding? We’re riding in the world’s most obnoxious alarm clock. Try as I might, this damn ship won’t let me sleep in.”
Lew made a show of patting the bulkhead. “Don’t listen to him, Toccoa. He’s drunk.”
If the ship’s computer heard him, she didn’t acknowledge it. He shook his head and turned for the door, Dick behind him. They were nearly out in the hallway when Harry called them back, half scrambling out of bed with an uncharacteristic urgency.
“Wait a minute,” Harry said. “I just--look, I wanted to ask you both. If things go wrong these next few days--”
“Oh, c’mon, Harry,” said Lew.
“No, listen. If things go wrong, promise me you’ll go and see Kitty for me. Both of you, huh?”
“Both of us?” Dick asked gently.
“Yeah,” said Harry. He looked at the floor. “I--I need you to make me look good, and I need Nix to butt in when you start to get too goddamned serious.” He laughed a little wildly and ran his hand over his face. Lew could see that he was sweating.
“Nobody’s going to see Kitty,” said Lew. “Except you, and that’ll be afterwards, when she’s making an honest man out of you.”
He strode forward and met Harry halfway across the room. He put his hands on Harry’s shoulders; he felt tense as a guidewire, as though he might leap from the floor and explode. Lew thought he had felt this sort of energy from Harry before, but never so desperate, so wretched. He didn’t like it. He could feel Dick at his back, fretful, wondering if he ought to say something, and what it ought to be. He had a facility of speech with the men he didn’t always have with his friends; Lew knew this about him and accepted it, and he thought Harry did too, but that didn’t do him any good now.
“Hey,” Lew said to Harry. “You hearing me?”
Harry laughed, the sound dry and too loud in the quiet cabin. “Yeah, I hear you.” He shook his head, put up his hand and laid it over Lew’s on his shoulder. “I got a real bad feeling, Lewis.”
Dick did step up beside them then. He patted Harry on the back. His movements were a little stilted, and Lew would wonder later if he’d lapsed simply because it was Harry or because he too had some inkling of what the future might bring. But in the moment the two of them calmed Harry down and saw him back to bed, and then they shuffled into the corridor to bid each other goodnight. In front of Harry’s door the earlier quiet dropped over them again like snowfall. Lew was drunk, and as such he let his mind reel and light on things like the faint blush over Dick’s cheek, the peachy color of his mouth and the fishhook sort of smile he wore now, the one Lew was always at a loss to interpret.
“He’ll be okay,” Lew said, jerking his head at Harry’s door.
“Yeah,” said Dick. “Nerves, I guess.”
“Right,” Lew said.
“Are you?” Dick asked. “Okay?”
“Me? Oh, sure. It’s like I said before; I just hang back and watch.”
Dick raised an eyebrow. “And it’s like I said,” he said. “It helps.”
Lew looked back over Dick’s shoulder. The corridor was deserted. They’d stayed up very late; Lew was surprised that they had, that Dick had hung around with the two of them instead of making his rounds, checking on the men. Across from him Dick stood with his arms at his sides, looking as tersely expectant as Harry had back in his bedroom. What are you waiting for, Lew wanted to ask him.
“Well,” said Lew. “I guess I’ll--”
“Yeah,” Dick said. “Time to go to bed.”
Lew had the feeling neither of them would be getting much sleep. Dick was always good at catnapping, though; he might get a couple of hours.
“If I don’t see you in the morning,” Lew started, and Dick nodded overenthusiastically as though he’d rather move past the maudlin goodbyes and get the whole thing over with. Lew couldn’t blame him.
“I’ll catch up with you at the assembly area in a couple of days,” Dick said. He raised his hand and patted Lew lightly on the shoulder.
Lew shifted in his seat on the shuttle. He was faintly nauseous, which was just great, he thought. He’d always tended towards motion sickness, had to load up on medicine any time they moved between stations as a kid. The ship was too vast to expose her occupants to the tiny alterations in motion that seemed so amplified on the shuttle. They were being buffeted about with increasing vigor the closer they drew to the moon, and Lew could only imagine how much worse off they’d be on a planet like Jupiter or Mars, surrounded by roiling storms. No, at least the atmosphere now was clear. Outside the shuttle windows space hung blacker than black, a fathomless velvet studded by piercingly bright stars like a spray of broken glass. Space was beautiful, Lew thought. He tended to forget sometimes. Growing up he remembered reading about the earth in its heyday and feeling cheated, doomed to sterile station life, suffocating slowly on recycled air. He’d been a pretty dramatic kid, in retrospect, and those days had been the very worst of it, too young not to be beholden to his parents, to fully grasp the fact that he wouldn’t be stuck on New York Station forever, no matter how much it felt that way. He’d joined up two days after graduating from college, and if he hadn’t gotten himself caught up with Kathy so early he suspected he’d never have looked back.
“Landing in 20,” said the pilot over the intercom. Lew tightened his seatbelt and waited.
Moons were ugly, as a rule. Lew had always thought that was unfortunate, because “moon” was a pretty word, and because hundreds of years of art and literature and general human experience were enamored of the whole concept, and didn’t deserve to have it ruined for them by reality. The moon, though, still carried with it a bit of the old mystique, particularly for people like Lew who’d grown up stationside, who could still afford to daydream about life under the western sector’s very first dome.
As they made their descent Lew tried not to think of enemy surveillance. They were in someone’s sights, he was sure of it, and it was only a question of whether or not they had the long range weaponry to do something about it. He looked out the window and watched the moon curve away in a convex arc the color of cement. He could just make out a gleam in the distance, moving away, and he couldn’t help but imagine Dick out there in the middle of it with the men, inching closer to the border.
The shuttle landed with a tooth-rattling clunk in the middle of a vast expanse of rock. “Suit up, gentlemen,” said the pilot over the intercom. “We’ve got a drive in the open air.”
There was a chorus of groans. Open air was a misnomer, which was the whole point of the suits. Without breathable air in the atmosphere, only a suit saved a man from asphyxiation outside of a minute, which meant Lew was destined to spend the extent of the operation in a state of low-grade panic.
“You know, I tested into intelligence so I wouldn’t have to do this shit,” he said to Hester, who laughed and shook his head.
“I hear that,” he said. “Say, the shuttleport’s supposed to have a nice little bar, if we end up bunking overnight.”
“Yeah, sounds good,” Lew said. He gestured at his helmet. “You mind double-checking these clasps once I get this thing on? And look sharp, will you? Can’t get first round if I’m dead.”
Hester snorted. “Well, that calls for attention to detail.”
On the ride to the moonbase Lew fought the urge to gasp. Intellectually he knew his tanks packed plenty of O2, but it didn’t curb the impulse to conserve, to breathe shallowly. It was why they’d done so much training in the suits once upon a time, and even with plenty of hours in low-oxygen environments you still got a few guys getting panicky. It had happened to Lew once or twice before, but he’d always managed to keep it to himself. He felt better when Dick was around to buckle him into his suit or clap him on the shoulder when he started feeling squirrelly, but Dick was a few hundred kilometers off, so Hester would have to do.
The army had commandeered the far side of the shuttleport, commercial craft packed nose to tail in the few remaining gravity hangars. Lew’s rover pulled alongside a long, low building and its passengers clambered out awkwardly before the driver turned around to make the return trip out to the runway.
“Keep your helmets on,” came the order over the radio. “We’re not a hundred percent on the integrity of these hangars.”
Great, thought Lew. Get a bunch of jumpy eggheads in a room together and tell them they might run out of air to breathe, and where the hell was Dick when Lew wanted to tell him just that?
They weren’t allowed to take the suits off until they’d been herded into a reinforced bunker off of one of the hangars. It looked like a living space; maybe the commercial outfits shipped people out to man the shuttleport a couple of months at a time, like miners or oilworkers on the outer moons. The place was as grey as the rocks surrounding it, glowing greenish in the fluorescent lighting, and Lew was reminded of the setting of an old horror movie, the isolated outpost that always seemed safe enough, removed enough, up until some mindless and hungry creature worked its way in through a crevice and wormed into a man’s secret, frightened heart.
“No bar for us,” he said to Hester, bouncing slightly on his mattress in the barracks, which managed to be both rock-hard and spongy at the same time. He took his flask out of his pack and passed it over.
“Thanks,” Hester said, taking a swig. Lew took it back and followed suit, running his hand through his hair. His head always sweated something awful in the liners they wore inside their helmets, and now it had dried crispy and sticking up at angles.
“You think the division’s doing okay?” Hester asked him. “You heard anything from up on the line?”
“Why do you think I’d know anything about it?”
“Oh, I dunno. I just figured, you and Winters. Seems like he’s got you in his back pocket. I was just wondering if it went both ways.”
Lew drank from the flask again. Hester was crafty; you could take that remark any number of ways. It just so happened in his and Dick’s case it only really went one way, and if Lew was a little put out about it, that was nobody’s business but his.
He shrugged. “All quiet on the eastern front,” Lew said. “I thought comms were down out that way, anyway.”
“Uh huh. He’s done a good job with them, E Company,” said Hester, looking sideways at him, and Lew could swear that was a test of some kind.
“I guess so,” Lew said, bending down to tie and retie the laces of his boots. He was trying for vague, and probably failing, and comms were down on the line, and he didn’t like it one goddamn bit. He didn’t like the lay of his bootlace either, one rabbit’s-ear of the bow coming free and flopping uselessly against the leather. He grunted irritatedly and began to pick the knot loose again.
Hester put a hand on Lew’s arm, patting it as though to still him.
“Hey,” Lew said, jerking back reflexively.
Hester looked surprised but not displeased. His eyes were bright and the beginnings of a grin played at the corners of his mouth. “Hey yourself,” he said. “I’m not from some backwater, you know.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Lew snapped, thinking immediately of Dick, of Lancaster. God, but he was ridiculous.
Hester sighed and looked chagrined, the look of a man who’d given subtlety the old college try and found it wanting. “It means I’m not the type to hold a guy’s proclivities against him,” he said carefully. “I’m not trapping you, Nix. I’m--I’m trying it on.”
And Jesus, of course he was. But he’d caught Lew so unawares that all he could do was blurt, “Well, that’s nice of you,” which was so spectacularly the wrong thing to say that the two of them burst out laughing and passed Lew’s flask back and forth again congenially.
Hester wasn’t bad looking, and he was whip-smart, but Lew’s head was too full of Dick and he was pretty sure Hester knew it. “Shitty beds here,” Lew said, gesturing around him with a shrug. “Maybe some other time, huh?”
Hester smiled ruefully. “Or maybe never, you mean? S’okay. I had a nice time that night back on Callisto; that ought to last me awhile.”
“Callisto was a month ago,” Lew said.
“This is war,” said Hester. “You’ve got to take what you can get.” He got to his feet. “C’mon, let’s go see what they’ve got for chow around here. And afterwards I know one of the S3s who’s handy with a radio.”
They moved out the following day, Hester waking Lew up with a brusque shake of the shoulder. They sat side by side in a rover, open-air again, Lew back in his helmet and distinctly unhappy about it. A couple hours out from the shuttleport they rendezvoused with an army unit, and Lew was gladdened to recognize Dog Company. The rover pulled up short, and a minute later Ron had sidled alongside the vehicle and hauled himself up by the door.
“Room for one more?” he asked. “I’m footsore.” His voice was tinny through his suit’s speaker system.
Lew looked down to where Ron leaned against the metal rover frame. “Careful, or you’ll put a hole in your suit,” he said.
“I’m fine,” he said. “Scoot, will you?”
They were packed together like sardines. Their suits were thick, the closeness more a technicality than anything, but Ron shot him a look anyway. Lew glanced at Hester, who was looking out in the opposite direction at the convoy stretching away to the south, their escort into enemy territory. Lew was glad he wasn’t paying attention. He might not’ve been interested, but there was no call to be a heel about it. He jabbed Ron with his elbow and rolled his eyes, and Ron grinned back.
“You’ll never guess who we hooked up with on the way here,” Ron said. “Or maybe I ought to say what.”
“What’re you talking about?” Lew asked.
He was only half listening. He was thinking instead of Hester’s S3 buddy the night before; he hadn’t had a whole lot of luck with the comms, though not for lack of trying. They’d managed to raise somebody on the line, though not long enough for any meaningful exchange to take place.
“Second Armored’s got themselves a replacement platoon,” Ron said.
“You’re kidding,” Lew said.
“Nope. Working on enough for a division. Not their guys, from what I could gather. Nobody seemed to be a hundred percent on where exactly they hailed from, but then the officers were all pretty tight-lipped about it when I asked around. They were someone’s guys, though, that’s for damned sure. They looked like soldiers.”
“They ought to be tight-lipped,” Hester said, suddenly interested in the conversation. “That program wasn’t supposed to be rolled out for months yet. They must’ve gotten a fire lit under them when things turned hot.”
There was something about the word program that made Lew shudder. And he didn’t know if the fact the men hadn’t been Second Armored dead made things better or worse.
He nudged Ron. “You work with any of them? I mean, did they seem--”
“What, normal? Not especially.” Ron looked thoughtful. “They seemed like stiffs. But to be fair, I couldn’t tell you whether that was them or me.”
Lew laughed, because for a moment he thought he was supposed to. Hester followed suit, but Ron just looked down and picked at a hangnail until Lew and Hester felt stupid enough to put a sock in it. Alone Lew might have hassled Ron for being so goddamn spooky all the time, but now he held off, just jabbed him in the ribs again and found himself wishing they were back on the ship playing poker so he could razz him properly in relative privacy. He’d get Harry in the mix and they’d have a grand old time that would probably end with a brawl and Dick retreating to his quarters in mild disgust.
“You haven’t heard anything from up on the line?” he asked, dragging himself back to the present.
Ron shook his head. “Radio’s down,” he said. “Some kind of interference, last I heard. I wouldn’t worry about it.”
“I’m not,” Lew said. On his other side Hester was looking at his hands.
Lew decided skirting this close to enemy territory should have been accompanied by slightly more fanfare. Instead all there was was a vague buzz of talk over the radio, the grind of tires over moon rock. Ahead of him the horizon waned away to grey-black nothing. He thought he could see something out there, vague shapes, and he imagined it was the rest of the division they were going to meet.
Now that Ron was here Lew felt a little better. It might've been that Ron reminded him of Dick simply by virtue of being a mutual friend, but more than that Lew found his sharpness reassuring. And he seemed to dissuade Hester, who kept to himself and kept both hands on the wheel when it was his turn to drive. Before his aborted evening with Marie on Callisto Lew couldn't think of the last time he'd indulged himself. Hester was right; war was war, but even before that the army had been the army and Lew had both taken sex where he could and learned to let opportunities pass him by more than he once had. That had always been his problem, back with Kathy.
Lew was good at parties, had learned from the best in Stanhope and Doris Nixon and hundreds of glittering evenings in their stationside penthouse apartment. As soon as he was old enough Lew was in the middle of it. He remembered being sixteen or seventeen and standing out on the balcony with one of his mother's friends, the way her red lips pressed against the edge of her champagne glass. She was talking about her daughter’s debut like she thought Lew cared, like she thought they both ought to care. Lew remembered thinking, even then, that he was biding his time.
When Kathy came along he recognized that he was supposed to be satisfied. She was beautiful; she kept her hair very light, went and sat in a chair for hours the minute her roots started to come in. She was forthright about the vanity that implied, and quick to point out the ways Lew himself was vain. Lew had had a great deal of experience with people not calling him on his varying degrees of bullshit, and the fact that Kathy did felt bracing and caustic, like seawater or a shot of exotic alcohol. But acid corrodes eventually, and eventually Lew came to realize that neither of them much wanted her words to have any real effect beyond the initial burn. That he enlisted, and was thus gone for long stretches, only forestalled the inevitable. For a while the distance made their reunions all the more potent; Lew remembered one night when he came in and bent her over the dining table, her perfume sharp in his nostrils. He'd sucked off a lieutenant in the head on the last transport hop home. On the walk home from the monorail he'd wadded up three sticks of gum and chewed furiously, and when she kissed him hello she told him he tasted good. Even her discovery of his affairs, when it came, felt performative, her fury and his defensive posturing parenthetical as stage directions. He stood in the living room and heard a glass whizz past his ear and shatter against the wall and wanted to laugh for the cliché.
"What've you heard from Lipton?" Lew asked Ron, by way of climbing out of his thoughts.
"I told you," Ron said tersely. "Radio's down." He didn't look at Lew; he was staring out at the horizon.
"Yeah, and you told me not to worry, too," said Lew. "Might want to take your own advice."
"Shut up, Nix."
"Yeah," Lew said, grinning. He lit a cigarette, which Ron stole immediately. "Yeah, right."
At night they threw up atmo tents, and Lew could take his helmet off at last. He shared with Hester, and Ron invited himself in after he'd settled the company, dragging a blow-up cot in alongside Lew's. After a depressing dinner of freeze-dried meat substitute they took out a pack of cards and passed Lew's flask around.
"Well, I'll say this much for you," Ron said, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. "You're dependable."
"Yeah, yeah, It's all a big joke until the booze runs dry," Lew said, motioning for his flask. "Gimme that back."
"Say, Speirs," Hester said after they'd played for awhile. "Tell us some more about that replacement company, huh?"
Later Lew would consider that maybe he'd waited to ask until Ron was warm with alcohol. It worked, at any rate; now Ron's tongue was looser. He'd lifted his head from his cards to listen to Hester asking the question, his eyes heavy-lidded and liquid the way they always got when he drank. When he spoke he set his hand down face up on the table, which was how Lew knew he was lit.
"Eerie, is what it was," he said. "The way they came up alongside our rovers all quiet. I hear they don't have to breathe."
"They breathe," Lew said. "He asked what you saw, not for a fucking campfire story."
"I'm telling you what I saw," Ron said.
"Then your eyes were playing tricks on you," Lew said. "They breathe. They're bodies, just like us." He thought of Marie.
"You want to give us a lesson, Lewis?"
"Fuck off," said Lew.
"That's what I thought," Ron said, grinning viciously. "Anyway, it was eerie, and it looked like they weren't breathing. And they didn't talk, was the other thing. They've got some kind of comm link set up, like radio inside their heads."
"God," said Hester. "Wave of the future, eh, gentlemen? Give it ten years and guys like you and me'll be obsolete."
"Well, guys like Ron," Lew said. "They'll still need our superior intellect."
Ron glared at him. By way of reply he leaned over and plucked Lew's pack of cigarettes from his front pocket.
"Hey," said Lew.
"It's only what you deserve," said Ron.
"Go and do that over by the air filters," Lew said. "This is a goddamn greenhouse already without you asphyxiating all three of us."
Ron grunted in response, but he did as Lew asked, walking over to the far side of the tent. Hester watched him, looking troubled. Lew got the impression that he knew more on the topic of replacements than he was letting on and made a mental note to ask about it the next time they were alone. But way led onto way, and he didn't, and not too long after Ron finished his cigarette the three of them cashed in and went to sleep.
Lew was dreaming, but he forgot what about as soon as Ron shook him awake, torch shining full in his face. "Hey," Ron said. "We've got to get moving. Comms came back up and it looks bad out on the line."
Lew groaned and dragged himself up to sitting, the cot pitching back and forth like a rowboat. "Couldn't have waited until the clear light of day," he said.
"We're on the moon. No such thing," said Ron, clapping him on the back. "Up and at 'em."
They packed quickly, Lew shoving things back in his rucksack left and right, deflating the air cots and disassembling the tent. They suited up, Lew grimacing at the thought of the helmet, and Ron helped them drag everything to the rover before disappearing to muster his own men. In the rover Lew drove and let Hester nap slumped against the vehicle's side. He wished it was easier to drink with the helmet on and cursed the goddamn genius who'd designed it, decided he'd probably enjoyed Dick Winters levels of hedonism to have been so neglectful. And he tried not to think, and he tried not to worry. He used to think it wasn't worth worrying about things, but that was before he'd fallen headlong into caring about people. Join the army, have a kid and screw your blasé nihilism all to hell. They ought to advertise it. He wondered if Hester cared about anyone that way, how that might have made him more or less likely to seek out Lew's company. Again he thought of Marie back on Callisto, of the way she'd looked at him and excused herself when Dick had come out onto the balcony.
They were holding the line at the eastern edge of the Sinus Fidei, where the Montes Haemus range sloped down to meet the plain. Lew knew the moon backwards and forwards by now, between the plaster of Paris models he'd made in grade school and advanced cartography training, but it was one thing to pore over a map and yet another to see lunar geography up close. He'd been to Statio, of course, but there'd been a part of him that never expected to see the eastern horizon beyond the borders of the dome. The Russians had left vast swathes of the moon unsettled, which had always seemed like adding insult to injury. Sure, we'll take half this rock, but damned if we'll do anything with it. Rumor had the eastern settlements about as civilized as most people imagined old earth to be. He thought of his conversation with Dick in the mess. We'll let you borrow a gas mask.
As they drew closer Lew could see a place where the mountainside had formed a kind of bottleneck. He could also see what looked like a cloud of smoke, impossible in the lack of atmosphere. "What the hell's that?" he said to Hester, who shook his head.
"Hey, what the hell am I looking at?" Lew said to Ron over the radio.
"Air bursts," came the reply. "They're taking heavy fire at the pass."
They seemed to creep forward with paralyzing slowness. Lew watched the bottleneck, and watched the cloud grow, a floating debris field. Here, free of gravity, it could only be the result of an explosion. As he continued to watch he began to see them: they didn't look like explosions in atmosphere; if there was light in them, or flame, it dissipated almost immediately, leaving only a mist of detritus in its wake. The closer they got the denser the air grew, and Lew wondered idly if it would be there forever, a smudge on the lunar surface to mark the spot where half a division had been ambushed.
Arriving on the scene it became clear they were too late to be of any real help. Hester smacked Lew on the shoulder and he turned to see the slumped figure of a suited body against the rock, the faceplate of his helmet shattered. Lew shook his head and faced forward. When the path grew too congested to continue on Lew threw the rover into park and flung the door open.
"Nixon," Hester said. "We're supposed to hang back and wait for further orders."
"Fuck that," said Lew.
"Nix, come on, don't be an idiot. Stay put."
Lew ignored him. At very least he figured he'd find Ron. He set out weaving awkwardly through the convoy, this way and that until he got up to the front. Men were sitting in their rovers, or milling around.
"Hey," Ron called. He was sitting in the front of a transport truck with one of the D Company lieutenants, and when he saw Lew he swung down beside him.
"You think it's clear up there?" Lew asked him.
"Might be getting there," Ron said. "Orders from the rear are to hold this position until we know for sure."
"Anything from up ahead?"
"Casualties," said Ron. He swallowed. "But I talked to Lip. He was with Dick and Harry trying to help the medics triage."
Lew looked at his feet. Relief coursed through him, and he was sure if he looked Ron he would see it in Lew's face. It would be unseemly, Lew thought, nevermind he was sure Ron felt it too. Better they both pretend instead. When he'd bitten his cheek to keep from smiling and gotten himself under control he looked up at Ron again and nodded, and as one they turned and walked forward.
At the front of the convoy they came upon a crowd. Second Armored, from their uniforms. They were standing at ease, watching. They didn't speak. As Lew and Ron made their way up to them they didn't so much as turn and look, so that Lew had to duck around one and look full into his face.
"Hey," Lew said to him. The man looked back without blinking, and Lew could see the same silver glint at the back of his eyes as he had in Marie's. He'd give it to Ron, he decided. A whole replacement company was a sight to see, and eerie was as good a descriptor as Lew could find for it.
"Hey," Lew said again.
"Captain…Nixon. Sir," said the replacement.
Hearing his own name sent a shudder through Lew. If the replacement noticed he didn't let on. He was a private. They all were. Their uniforms were all the same. He wondered if there was a replacement officer leading them, or if they all sat around and bitched about their superior officers, those frail and fallible humans. Probably they weren't programmed for it. If Lew were designing intelligence from scratch he felt sure he'd make it void of criticism.
"Orders, sir?" said the replacement.
"Uh, no," said Lew. "But what are your orders, if I can ask?" The way the man was looking at him made Lew feel he ought to be polite.
"Hold here, sir. And await further instructions."
"Sounds fine, private," Lew said. "You, uh. You do that." He shot Ron a sidelong glance, but his expression was closed and unreadable.
They waited along the line of replacements. From where Lew was standing he thought the air was clearing, though that might have been a trick of the eye. It seemed that they hung around for an age, and again he wanted his flask and a smoke.
"What kind of goddamn war is this if you can't stand around smoking?" he said to Ron, whose wry laughter came crackling back at him over the radio.
Presently there came a flurry of movement from behind: a lone rover carrying a cadre of officers. They seemed to have picked up Hester along the way. He was standing on the rear bumper hanging on, and Lew remembered Ron on the side of their car yesterday, though it seemed longer ago than that. But that was what time did here, in Lew's experience, stretched like taffy.
"Nixon," said Sink from the front seat. "Speirs. You two trying to defect to Second Armored? I'll have you shot for desertion."
Lew gave him the benefit of a stage laugh, mainly because he knew Ron wouldn't.
Sink looked pleased. "You got a map on you?" he said to Lew.
He fished his map out of the zip pocket on the side of his suit. Immediately it billowed into a square in zero gravity. He liked screens as a general rule; they were good inside or in low light, but you couldn’t beat a silk map for portability. Sink looked at the lieutenant colonel next to him and nudged him with his elbow as if in amusement at his anachronistic captain.
"Looks as if they had a squadron camped out just behind the ridge there," Sink said, tracing a line on the map with his finger. "Sons of bitches."
"We didn't pick up any troop movements within 200 kilometers of these coordinates," said Hester, leaning over the back seat of the rover between two S3s, who looked mildly annoyed. Lew felt a twist of schadenfreude. Probably their mistake.
"Well, when we're through this I want all of you working every back channel communique you can think of figuring out how the hell you missed this," Sink said.
"Yes, sir," they chorused like a bunch of school kids.
Again, Sink looked pleased. Then he let the look fade from his face. "Sounds as though A and F company were the hardest hit. E took some casualties," he said, looking at Lew. "And I heard their medics spearheaded the triage operation for the whole battalion, so they need anything, you come right to me with it."
"Yes sir," said Lew.
"Move out," Sink said. "Look sharp, huh? I want spotters on all those ridges. Hell if they're going to get us again."
"You riding?" Hester asked Lew, hopping off of Sink's back bumper.
"Nah, I'll walk. Want to get the lay of the land."
"Suit yourself," said Hester, and trotted off in the direction of their previously abandoned rover.
"I'll go in with you," Lew said to Ron. "If that's okay."
"Sure it's okay," said Ron. "So long as you're locked and loaded. Don't want anyone to get hurt because you forgot how to fire your weapon."
He shot Lew a look that said he was joking, but just barely. Lew wrinkled his nose. He knew the enlisted men liked to poke fun at intelligence, and he supposed it had rubbed off on Ron. Lew met the same marksmanship standards Ron had, once upon a time. If he hadn't bothered to maintain them, that was just an occupational hazard.
"Won't be a problem," Lew said, and Ron turned away, having flipped his blaster around so it hung against his chest. Lew followed suit with a little more awkwardness, and he found himself glad Ron wasn't looking.
There had been casualties. Sink was right about that. Ron's platoon moved slowly onto the plain with Lew sandwiched in the middle. The moon rocks they'd seen from a distance had looked like pebbles, and Lew hadn't bothered to reconcile scale and perspective in his mind, so he was shocked when they circled around the bases of boulders. The first one they came upon offered up a body crouched behind it, suit full of holes, faceplate blood-smeared. He'd have died from his wounds or from asphyxiation or some unholy combination of the two, though the blood in his helmet suggested some sort of rapid depressurization. Lew shuddered, thinking of Dukeman and of how blithe he'd been in this suit over the years, how uncaring for the thick grey skin that had always seemed so much more impervious than his own.
Ron stepped up to the body and nudged its foot with his boot. "Look for ID," he said to a private, a skinny guy named Thompson who looked about as comfortable with the circumstances as Lew felt. There was a nameplate on the suit, of course, but regulation dictated dog tags, and Thompson had to fiddle at the stiff's neck to get at them. When he undid the clasp, Lew saw his hands were shaking. He was only the first. By the time they made their way to the makeshift CP they'd collected seven sets of tags and passed another ten bodies flagged by the medics already. Lew felt ill, and Thompson looked it. Ron just looked stern.
His first glimpse of Dick was from behind. They'd got a couple of atmo tents up and he was standing outside one of them. He had his suit and helmet on, of course, but Lew could tell him from the weary set of his body, the slope of his shoulders. He was looking at his own map, one that Lew had given him awhile back. After a minute he put the map away and went into the tent, and Lew followed.
"Hey," he said inside, once his helmet was off and they could talk like real people. He nudged Dick's shoulder with his own. Dick turned to look at him. He looked awful, his hair dark and greasy, plastered to his head. He was pale, forehead and chin creased from his helmet liner. There were dark circles under his eyes and a crust of blood rimming one nostril Lew didn't want to know about.
"Hi," Dick said. He squeezed Lew's arm and grinned tiredly. "You got your first aid kit on you? I think Doc would kill a man for some scissors and gauze."
"Seems like that would be counterproductive," said Lew, swinging his pack around to the front and getting his kit out. "Here. And Sink said Easy's to get whatever supplies they need. Top priority."
"Thanks, Lew," Dick said. "I'll have Roe and Spina get a list together."
"Don't worry about it, I'll do it," said Lew. "You okay?"
Dick shrugged. "Sure," he said. "Just tired."
He looked like he was half asleep on his feet, but Lew had a pretty good idea of how that observation would go over. He nodded his reply instead. "Well, orders have us setting up here until 0800. Save me a spot in your tent, huh? I had to bunk with Speirs last night and he snores something awful."
"He does not."
"Would I lie? Besides, I stole you a box of freeze-dried ice cream. Been hiding it in the footwell of my rover. We'll go to town, huh?"
Dick cracked a wider smile at that, and as he turned away Lew felt warmth well up in his chest, filling a space recently vacated by gnawing fear. He turned himself and went to look for the medics, and the look on Doc Roe's face when Lew produced the scissors was almost as good at Dick's expression had been.
It didn't surprise Lew that, for all he hadn't been through an ambush and firefight, he managed to hit the rack before Dick did. Harry was there passed out across the tent, having drunk a large quantity of Lew's whiskey and declined to talk about the particulars of the day. Lew was lying on his side on his cot reading a book in the half-light of a camp lantern when he heard someone in the airlock. Dick shambled in looking worse than he had in the CP earlier; he had a smear of blood across one cheekbone that was new, and the half-moons beneath his eyes were darker.
"Took you long enough," Lew said. "You missed our ice cream social. Harry tried to eat your share, but as you can see he's a bit of a lightweight."
Dick didn't answer. Lightheartedness had clearly been the wrong tack to take, but Lew was unsure how else to proceed.
Dick went over to his footlocker and sat down heavily. He'd taken his suit off, hung it up at the entrance to the airlock along with his helmet, but now he took his boots off too. He'd worn them under the wider moonboots built into the suit; you didn't have to, but lots of the men did because it was easier than losing track of your footgear in the shuffle of an operation.
"I ought to sleep with 'em on just in case," Dick said, as though to make sure Lew knew he was deliberately flouting common sense rather than ignorant of it. It was so precisely the sort of thing Dick would care about clarifying that Lew wanted to laugh.
"Why don't you, then?"
"I've got a blister," Dick said, prodding at a spot on the ball of his right foot and wincing.
"You ought to lance it," Lew said.
"In the morning. I'll make you do it."
"Jesus," said Lew. "Go to bed, you look awful."
Dick set his boots on top of the footlocker with a sigh. There was a free cot on Harry's side of the tent, but he came and sat down on the cot next to Lew's instead. He ran his fingers through his hair with a look of distaste, and then he sat for a moment and stared as though unsure how to proceed. A thousand-yard stare, Lew thought to himself. He'd never seen a look like that on Dick's face before.
"You want a drink?" Lew asked.
Dick didn't look up. "No," he said.
"Want some ice cream?"
Dick snorted, which Lew thought was probably an indicator of something good but for the fact that there was so little weight behind it. Dick shook his head and swung his feet up onto the cot, turning to face away from Lew. Lew settled back down himself, head on his pillow. He watched Dick's back, watched the rise and fall of his shoulders as he breathed. He went back to reading after a time, and when he looked up again it was because a movement had caught his eye. Dick was shaking. At first Lew thought, incredulously, that he must be crying, but he listened closely and heard no sound.
Dick didn't answer.
"Are you all right?"
Again Lew was met with silence. He lay in the low light watching for another minute or so, and then he cursed under his breath and dragged his cot closer to Dick's, doubling its width. Then he climbed back on. Dick must have known what Lew was doing, but still he didn't move or speak. Lew put a hand out and touched his shoulder. Dick stiffened. Lew shifted closer, lying parallel to Dick's body, one hand resting on his shoulder. He wrapped his body around Dick like he had when they were out in the survival sims in training, temperatures dropping, automatic wind howling around them.
"I'm not cold," Dick protested.
"Okay," said Lew. If the statement had been a hint to move, he wasn't taking it. They lay this way awhile in an uneasy sort of detente. Dick didn't stop shaking, and Lew didn't let go.
"I don't know why—" Dick shook his head against the pillow.
"Adrenaline," Lew said. "Probably."
Dick huffed. All at once he turned over in Lew's arms so they were face to face, so close that Lew fought an initial urge to move back. He looked distraught. His body was beset by tremors, his teeth chattering. His eyes moved wildly in his face; the natural place to look was at Lew, but it seemed impossible for him to allow his gaze to settle.
"Hey," Lew said quietly.
He reached out carefully and ran his knuckles along Dick's cheekbone. His rusty hair curled at his temples and Lew smoothed it back and sank his fingers into it against the curve of Dick's skull. Dick shut his eyes, and Lew guided Dick's head down against his own chest with his heart in his throat and with a gentleness that surprised him. He felt as though he was handling some creature who might freeze, or flail about, or expire from shock at being touched, and he held out hope for some other outcome. Dick was right—he wasn't cold. He was warm and heavy against Lew, and Lew could feel the flutter of his eyelashes and his breath against the bare skin of his neck.
"You don't have to," Dick muttered.
Dick shook his head.
"I want to," Lew said, for though he couldn't be sure what Dick meant he also knew unequivocally that this was true, that anything he might do for Dick, anything Dick might ask of him, Lew would do gladly.
Dick moved again, shifting up and off of Lew's chest. Lew thought he meant to move away, but all he did was set his head down beside Lew's on the pillow, nose to nose. Lew slid his hand up Dick's back to rest at the nape of his neck, fingers in Dick's hair again. It was too much, Lew knew. Too intimate, certainly over some line, but all he could find space to care about now was the fact that Dick wasn't shaking anymore. He was so close. Lew could smell his breath, sweet with tooth powder, and for a moment Lew was sure, absolutely sure it would happen. Then Dick lay back and set his forehead against Lew's, as though if they had kissed it wouldn't have been a kiss at all, but simply another way to touch.
They didn't speak. Lew found he didn't want to; he thought that if they did surely everything would tilt on its axis, screech backwards and fall apart as though someone had flipped a switch, like subjecting floating things to gravity. Lew touched Dick's face. His cheek was mashed against the pillow in a way that made Lew think of how he looked in the morning sometimes, the times Lew had had the privilege of seeing him disassembled by sleep: skin creased, hair mussed. He watched Lew evenly. He didn't smile but Lew fancied he could see one in his eyes, which he kept open from blink to blink until his eyelids grew heavy and he dropped off to sleep.
The following morning Lew woke up to Dick disentangling himself gently and rolling up and off the cot. He was vaguely aware of Harry in the tent, and heard him say something to Dick in a low voice, accompanied by a bubbling laugh.
"C'mon, Harry," Dick said, but he sounded pleased, and Lew wondered if Harry had seen the way they slept, all tangled up together. He decided he didn't mind if he had. Lew kept his eyes closed and let himself drift until Dick came back over and sat on the cot and put his hand on Lew's side to shake him awake.
"Time to get up," he said quietly, and he sounded perfectly like himself, and not at all like someone Lew had nearly kissed.
Lew groaned and rolled over into his back so Dick’s hand came to rest on his stomach. It wasn't a test, not exactly, though Lew figured that if Dick wanted to pretend that the previous night hadn't happened he'd be statistically more likely to move. He didn't. His palm was warm through the thin cotton of Lew's t-shirt.
"We moving out?" Lew asked him.
"I don't know."
"Mmm," said Lew. He shut his eyes again. Dick rubbed Lew's stomach through the shirt. Lew thought his heart would beat out of his chest.
"C'mon, kids," said Harry, swatting at Lew's legs as he walked past on the way to the airlock. "Honeymoon's over."
"Shut up, Harry," said Lew, and at last Dick moved his hand away.
He hung around while Lew dressed. Lew thought he could feel him watching, eyes somewhere on the center of his back, but when he glanced over his shoulder Dick was busy fiddling with something on his uniform.
"You see that replacement squad out of Second Armored?" Lew asked as he wrestled into his coverall. "Pretty interesting stuff."
"Interesting how?" Dick said flatly.
"Oh, I don't know," said Lew. "Hester—you know, from intel? He says they're planning on bringing them in across the board."
"How's he know that?" Dick asked. "Don't you have the same clearance?" He looked up sharply, and Lew had the sudden thought that it seemed as though Dick had the idea Lew had been holding out on him.
"Sure we do," Lew said carefully. "People hear different things, is all."
"What's it matter?"
Dick made a face. "Nothing," he said.
"Doesn't seem like nothing," Lew said.
He was tiptoeing around something he couldn’t quite see. He'd have bet it had something to do with the night before, with Dick lying in bed beside him wracked by who knew what.
Dick glared at him, probably because he was right.
"You don't have to—" Lew started, but Dick opened his mouth and heaved a sigh like he wanted to start talking.
"Yesterday," he said. "It was bad, Lew."
"Yeah," Lew said. "We saw it on the way in." He came and sat on the cot next to Dick. Their knees knocked together, and a secret interior part of Lew thrilled at it, although they'd sat together this way a hundred times by now.
"Remember back on Toccoa when Harry was bitching about the men being slow in the atmo suits?"
"That's what killed us," Dick said. "Out in the open. We got bottlenecked in that pass and it seemed like everything was moving at half speed. The damned suits. Nobody could get a hand on a weapon, it seemed like. Toye and Guarnere were down out in the middle of things and nobody could get to them. It was—"
He shook his head.
"So, it's almost over. There's a guy half-dead, face mashed into the rock. He keeps moving, so he keeps being shot at. I think it was Julian. I looked up and I saw a bunch of guys standing there in the neck of the pass in the cover of the rock face. Just staring. Just—watching us take a beating, watching Julian. I tell Luz to get them on the radio and he comes back and tells me who they are—Second, like you said. But they've got orders, he said. Hold position and await further instructions. So I get on with them, and—well, hell, Lew. I'm glad you weren't there to hear it."
Lew reached out and squeezed Dick's thigh above the knee. "Sounds like they deserved what they got."
"Didn't matter. I saw you before I saw any of them. If it'd been you there up front, and D Company, you'd have said screw the orders in half a heartbeat."
"Because you know what's right," Dick said. "They didn't. Maybe they weren't made that way."
He bit the inside of his cheek. Silence fell then, and Lew let it, and a few minutes later when Dick got up and headed for the airlock Lew followed without a word.
When they got outside and got the men assembled Lew got word he was being shipped to Statio on some runaround to liaise with the Intelligence Service. Later he distinctly remembered thinking it was okay, that they could talk about things when the operation was over, and anyway it'd be better, wouldn't it, not to be so rushed. In the nights on Statio under the dome he lay in the endless daytime and tried to sleep, and when he couldn't he thought incessantly of Dick's lips on his, and imagined that his thoughts were so loud that Dick must certainly hear them half the moon over, so that when they at last sat down to talk Dick would smile and say no need, that he'd known all of it, all along.
Lew was recalled from Statio three weeks later to rejoin the company at the front. Spotty communication and a shortage of decent whiskey had left him in a decidedly shitty mood, and he couldn't help but feel relieved for the runner assigned to him the day the poor sap hauled Lew's bags to the waiting shuttle for the last time.
"Here," Lew said, peeling off a credit voucher and a couple packs of cigarettes. "Knock yourself out."
It was too little too late, and the kid only managed to look frightened, but there was nothing for it. Lew saluted him back and climbed into the shuttle, which would take him as close to the line as possible.
"How've they been doing up there?" Lew asked the pilot over the comms.
He shrugged. "Well as can be expected. Pushed over the border proper after that ambush at Terra Nivium—"
"Yeah, I was there," Lew said.
"Brutal," said the pilot. "I had a cousin lost an arm. He's in a hospital back on some station trying to see about getting it replaced. Anyway, they're making their way. Heavy resistance, though, from what I hear, and big losses, especially up in the atmosphere. They'll have me making bomb runs before too long if I'm not careful, they lose enough guys."
"You hear anything about these replacement companies the tank corps put together?"
The pilot shook his head. "Weird shit," he said. "Sticking an arm back on is one thing, but I don't know about a whole brain."
"Yeah," said Lew. "I don't know."
You didn't need to be a medic to see that the intervening weeks hadn't been kind to the men of E deck, and least of all to Dick.
"How's he holding up?" Lew asked Harry, the first chance he had to get him alone. They were sitting in the CP, helmets in their laps. Against protocol—they were supposed to be fully suited at all times in case of enemy attack, in case they lost the tents, but even the jumpiest private had abandoned that edict by now.
Harry shook his head and shrugged his shoulders. "I dunno," he said. "How's he ever holding up. It's harder now he's XO, now he's stuck off the line three quarters of the time. But you know what's like when he's out of the action. Remember that time he sprained his ankle and was out of commission for ten days?"
"Ten whole days," said Lew. "God, he was insufferable." But he was grinning, even when Dick came into the tent and caught them out.
"Who's insufferable?" he said, easing down next to Lew and taking his helmet off.
"You," said Lew, clapping him on the thigh. "Always, but especially when you were laid up with that ankle sprain."
"I just thought there should've been something medical could do about it, that's all."
Harry snorted. "Yeah, Nix, what century is this, anyway?"
"Don't look at me," Lew said. "I'm no doctor. You can get a bionic foot if you misplace yours, apparently, but hell if I know anything about a sprained ankle."
Dick frowned and ran his hand over his chin. "Do you have that fancy razor on you?" he asked, nudging Lew's boot with his own. "We're out of soap."
"I knew it. That's the only reason you're happy to see me," Lew said, digging in his bag for the automatic razor and passing it over. "You should've asked me for souvenirs from sunny Statio. As it is, all I brought you is these."
He drew out a couple of chocolate bars and a postcard he'd got Harry, a pinup with a lunar map superimposed on her rear end. "Send that to Kitty, huh? My compliments."
"I will, too," said Harry. "She's been threatening to stow away on some transport. I'll let her, then she can smack you one in person."
Dick rolled his eyes at the postcard, but wasted no time unwrapping the chocolate. It'll do you good, Lew wanted to say, for he looked thinner now than he had when Lew left for Statio. He had a whole host of nigh-parental questions he wanted to pepper Dick with, about sleep, and his state of mind, and what he thought about their orders, and what supplies he needed.
"Congrats on the field promotion," Lew said instead.
"Yeah, thanks," said Dick, with precious little enthusiasm. "I've got my very own flatscreen now. Fits right in the palm of my hand. Perfect for writing reports."
"I forget, you used papyrus back on Earth, didn't you? I guess it's a pretty steep learning curve."
Dick threw a piece of chocolate at him. Lew picked it up and ate it.
Pushing the line forward felt a lot like trucking through the moonscape with Hester and the convoy had, only now he got to ride shotgun with Dick. Lew felt bad about admitting it was an improvement, but at least now he could flirt as brazenly as he dared on a closed radio channel instead of talking shop or gossiping about the guys across the intel bay. He was beginning to wonder if he'd ever see his desk again, or the ship for that matter. He was even beginning to miss the computer.
At rest they slept as best they could in their suits and helmets, and half the rest of the time Lew found himself nodding off next to Dick in the rover. Dick never seemed drowsy, even when Lew found himself staving off claustrophobia in his suit by getting Dick to talk to him. He almost brought up the night of the ambush then, but then he thought better of it. Dick seemed, if not happy, then as if he was getting by, and Lew wanted to flatter himself that it was because he'd rejoined the company. It seemed a precarious sort of equilibrium, though if you thought about it there wasn't much about their friendship that could be characterized as tenuously as Lew's brain was veering now. Lew was himself to a fault, as ever, and as ever Dick took it like a seawall takes waves.
When the first mortar hit their line in the middle of another day of transit, Lew’s first thought was that everything was moving awfully slowly. There was a long line ahead of him that seemed for just a moment to look up as one, to consider the incoming barrage before they hit the ground. Dick had slammed the rover into park and shoved Lew out the other side, and now he scrambled up to sitting, clutching at his helmet, sucking in a deep breath just to prove he could.
Without thinking he fumbled with his mouthpiece, tamping a palm over one ear to drown out the whistle and crash of a now fully-fledged bombardment and yelling down the line for somebody to tell him what the hell was going on. On his comm channel he could hear the rest of the operations and intelligence staff doing the same, as though they still imagined themselves an audience at some grand spectacle, outraged at not getting a show they hadn't come to see.
They were on the perimeter of a nameless city. The sky was grey. The outer dome of the city had been compromised and patched up quickly and haphazardly; as a result the air was thin and stank of sulphur. It was theoretically breathable without a helmet, though earlier he and Dick had concluded that testing that theory wasn't worth the risk.
A missile sailed in frighteningly close, and the impact knocked Lew against the rover. He sat up and spat out a mouthful of dirt. So much for the cheap seats, he thought. He peered over the side of the vehicle--rattled and dusty, but upright--and looked for Dick. He was sitting up too, looking dazed.
“All right?” Lew yelled at him, and he nodded.
"I'm going to find the mortar squad," Dick said.
He got shakily to his feet, bracing on the side of the rover. As he turned to go he hesitated a moment, hovering, and then he made an abortive movement with his hand and was gone.
With Dick gone Lew decided there was nothing for it but to kneel by the side of the vehicle, clutch his headset to his ears again, pull out his map, and start talking. As he called their coordinates into the ship, the intermittent roar of explosions faded into the background. He thought of nothing. That was the trick to all of this, he’d learned. Never think past what’s right in front of you. Two steps forward or two back, maybe, but that’s all.
To his right a great whoosh of heat, a large fire sucking the scant oxygen from the atmosphere. He didn’t look at it. Greasy smoke billowed into his field of vision, blotting out the map draped across his knees. He cursed and fished around in his jacket for his flashlight and held it between his teeth. A replacement, he thought wildly, could probably do all this in his own head. Maybe one day soon they’d be lining the intelligence division up to be converted. It made a strange kind of sense, despite what he'd said to Hester once about their intellect.
Another explosion, tooth-rattling, sent Lew scrambling alongside the rover. He’d crawl under it if he needed to, he thought. He could hear the radio in his ear, whining like a mosquito, and then he was thrown backward and his head clocked the door. He couldn’t hear the radio anymore, and it wasn’t until he opened his eyes again that he realized they’d been shut and that his head hurt. There were no more explosions.
Huh, Lew thought.
Abruptly someone was shaking him by the shoulder, taking his helmet off and running their hands briskly over his skull.
“What’re you doing?” Lew said, batting at their hands. “I’m fine, I’m fine.”
The smoke cleared a little and he looked up at Harry, face pale where it wasn’t smeared with soot, helmet low along his forehead. Harry always looked like a toadstool in his helmet, Lew thought. He looked like an awfully grim toadstool now.
“I’m fine,” Lew said again, and he was, and he’d be even better if Harry would just let him sit here a minute and get his shit together. But Harry wouldn’t; he had tugged Lew’s arm away from his side and was yanking at it, trying to get him upright.
“Harry, what the fuck’s going on? Get out of here.”
“C’mon, Nix,” Harry said, ignoring him. “Goddammit. C’mon, I need you.”
He got Lew shakily to his feet. Lew felt dizzy, and a little sick, but when Harry let go of him he stayed vertical, which he supposed was a decent sign.
“What is it?” Lew asked, and Harry shook his head.
“Doc’s with him," Harry said. "It’s…it's bad, and I had to come and find you.” He shook his head and wrapped his hand around Lew’s wrist, the better to pull him through the chaos.
“Doc’s with who?”
Harry didn’t answer, just set off at a jog, and as Lew followed he felt a wave of nausea. You know, said a little voice in his head. Who else would Harry come and get you for?
What had once been a flat expanse--an airfield? a massive foundation? Lew didn’t know--had become a moonscape once again. Lew and Harry dodged craters and car-sized hunks of rubble. They passed landing craft and rovers consumed by flame, and bodies too, of course, for how could you expect mere humans to do anything in the face of this much firepower but to crumple and burn.
Lew saw Roe’s armband first, the red cross filling him with nascent relief even as Roe looked up at them, his expression grim. He was crouched in a hole in the ground, the mud around him littered with empty syringes and scraps of red fabric Lew would later realize were simply pieces of gauze dyed bright with gore. At the bottom of the hole lay Dick. Half of him was gone, and Lew realized this with an administrative sort of clarity, as though checking a box on a form. His face was very white, because most of his blood had gone the way of his left arm and leg, and what hadn’t was steadily soaking the ground beneath his body.
“I put pressure on ‘em,” Roe said to nobody in particular. “Put a tourniquet on his leg, but it’s too much. He’s had a lot of morphine.”
Lew didn’t consciously leap down into the hole beside him; he was just there all of a sudden, and he didn’t think about pulling Dick’s head into his lap. He was just--doing it. Dick’s helmet was missing, and there was mud caked all over the back of his head, and that pissed Lew off.
“Hey,” he said, slapping Dick lightly on the cheek. “Hey.”
Dick’s eyes opened, and Lew’s relief at that was nearly disabling.
“You’re a lousy pillow,” Dick rasped.
“Yeah?” Absently, Lew combed Dick’s hair back with his fingers.
“It’s not that bad,” Lew said automatically, because that’s what you always said.
Dick made a face. “I’m cold.”
Lew put his hands on Dick’s face, because his hands were warm. They were always warm; he thought again of training, of Dick freezing in their flimsy tent. You’re like a furnace, he’d say, teeth chattering. Lew held his hands sometimes to warm them up, and Lew had liked that so much, so much.
“Better?” Lew asked.
“Yeah. Lew, go see my mom, huh?”
“Shut up, Dick.”
“Go back and see her. Earth’s pretty.”
“Oh yeah?” Lew said.
Dick nodded. The edge of his mouth jerked as though he might be smiling. He stilled, and the next sound Lew heard wasn’t a word but a hiss like the air from a tire, sliding out from between Dick’s teeth. When death came it was cruelly quick. Right away the space between them settled perceptibly, and all at once Dick’s body was lax as a sleeping child’s.
Lew drew in the breath Dick couldn’t. “Fuck!” he barked, and bit into his lip to keep from yelling.
He smacked at the mud, at Dick’s wooden sternum. Dick’s head was still propped on his legs. Lew had never quite understood the impulse to shut a dead man’s eyes but he did now. They were awful open, too blank, too close in color to the dishwater sky. He pressed his fingers to the hollows beneath Dick’s browbones and shook at the way he had to tug at the lids, thin and taut like the skin on pudding. His mouth flooded with spit. He retched, but nothing came up.
Lew stood up, the mud sucking around his boots and tripping him, sending him grappling for the sides of the crater. Harry grabbed him as though he thought Lew bowled over by shock or by emotion, but he shrugged free. Harry’s eyes and nose were red; Lew thought he looked like a great sniffling rabbit, all pale hair and big teeth. But he was alive, so Lew was biased.
“I had a bad feeling, Nix,” Harry said. "Remember I said—"
“Get me a stretcher,” Lew said, as though Harry hadn't spoken. “Doc.”
“Get me a stretcher and help me get him to the medical bay on one of the shuttles.”
Look at what’s right in front of you. Well, he couldn’t. He couldn’t abide it. He was two steps ahead of right now. He thought he might have to go further than that to get Dick where he wanted him to go.
“Medical bay, sir?”
“You heard me,” said Lew. “Medical bay. Move your ass, huh?”
“He’s dead, Captain Nixon,” Roe said. Quietly but firmly, the way he’d said it to a hundred other guys whose buddy was dead.
“No he’s not, dammit,” said Lew, and he saw Roe duck around him to look at Harry.
“He was down when I found him. It was after the last big mortar strike. He might’ve hit his head,” Harry said, looking appraisingly at Lew. He scrubbed a hand over his face. A brace of fighters streaked across the sky and the three of them ducked instinctively.
“I didn’t hit my fucking head. I’m going to get him a stretcher. Harry, with me. Roe, on him.” He jerked his head at Dick. “You’d better be here when I get back. And no fucking sheets over him, that’s an order.”
“Lew, for God’s sake,” Harry said. “Hold up a minute. You’ve gotta--”
Lew grabbed Harry by the collar and yanked him onto his toes. “Jesus,” Harry managed, voice a gurgle.
Lew’s bicep trembled. In a minute his strength would give out. He ought to let Harry fall in another of the pockmarks that marred the surface of this shitty rock. His own damn grave, ready-made. But he looked Harry in the face, and Harry’s eyes were clear, steadfast. Bloodshot, teary, sure, but goddamn him, he didn’t even look scared. Harry was a brawler, Lew thought abstractly. Harry could knock him on his ass.
“He’s gone, Lew,” Harry said.
He let Harry go, and set off in the direction of the massing relief force. He didn’t spare another look back at Harry or at Roe, or at the pit that held Dick’s body. But he heard a curse fly up behind him, and a second later Harry trotting came alongside.
“What are you doing?” Harry asked.
“We’ve got to get him out of that goddamn hole in the ground and into cryostasis,” Lew said. “And then I’ve got to go talk to someone.”
“Why?” Harry asked. And then he stopped dead, grabbing at Lew’s sleeve to pull him up short. Lew nearly tripped, so abrupt was the arrest of his forward flight.
“You can’t,” Harry said.
“Can’t what? Get off of me. If you’re not going to help me, just get off of me and get out of my way.”
“He wouldn’t want this.”
“He didn’t know what he wanted. He never thought about--about dying like this.”
“Bullshit, Lewis. This is a war. Everybody thinks about dying like this. And you were there at Terra Nivium. You told me yourself what he said.”
“That was different,” Lew said.
“Tell me how,” said Harry. He looked, for just a moment, like he genuinely wanted to know.
Around them men had begun to stop what they were doing and listen. Lew thought he recognized a few of their faces, and thought belatedly that some of them might be Dick’s men, new guys he didn’t know by sight. He took Harry by the elbow. “Come on,” he said, and marched him over to the moss-colored hulk of the nearest shuttle.
“Medic!” Lew called. “I need a medic over here. No, not for him,” he said to the skinny kid who looked ready to pounce on Harry with a roll of bandages. “I need a stretcher. We got a guy down out there.”
“There are lots of guys down out there, sir,” said the medic.
“Not like this one,” said Lew, without hesitation. He turned to Harry, who was watching him with a guarded expression. “Will you go back with him?” he asked.
“Please,” Lew said. “I can’t order you, Harry.”
“Please. Just--just make sure he gets into a cryo chamber. That’s all. I promise. Don’t let anyone touch him, and don’t let anyone put him on a casualty list. Okay?”
“I don’t know.”
“If it were Kitty--” Lew blurted, and then caught himself.
Harry’s eyes widened, and Lew saw the moment the pieces really fell into place.
“I don’t like this,” Harry said. He looked away. He was wavering; Lew could feel his resistance begin to loosen as though he’d pried it up with his fingernails. “Fine,” he said at last, and Lew could’ve hugged him. He took him by the shoulders.
“You’re a good friend, Harry,” Lew said. “I’ll find you later, okay?”
Harry shook his head. He opened his mouth as though to say something else, but Lew turned away before he could get it out. He waved back at Harry over his shoulder, and tried not to think of Dick cooling in the mud behind him.
It wasn't until he found Hester sitting at a flatscreen computer in a hastily thrown-up tent that it occurred to Lew he just as easily could have been dead himself. But he wasn't; he was very much alive. Lew hated it, hated the way Hester could just glare up at him when Lew flicked the flatscreen closed with a snap, like it was nothing, like his irritation was anything but a gift.
"Nixon, what the hell are you doing?" he asked.
"I need to know what you know about replacements."
"You heard me," Lew said.
"You know what I know," said Hester, getting to his feet.
"See, I'm pretty sure that's a load of crap," said Lew.
"What's the matter with you?" asked Hester, looking Lew up and down as if for the first time. "Jesus, are you okay? You've got blood all over you."
Lew guessed he did; he hadn't really looked. Now that he thought about it the legs of his pants felt wet and stiff, like they might crack and fall away. He waved Hester off.
"I'm fine," he said. "Dick's dead, though, so you've gotta—"
"Goddammit," said Lew. "You heard me. And you're a smart guy, I know you are, so now you know why I'm asking."
"Christ, Lew. Here, c'mon and sit down."
He let Hester manhandle him onto the ground. Something about his concern irritated Lew more than Harry's had. Something about the fact that Hester knew him better than Dick, that when he frowned and leaned close, ran his hands over Lew's legs to check for injury, when his eyes shone with tears his pity was all for Lew. And that was wrong. That wasn't the way it should be at all, and Lew's head was beginning to hurt again.
"Tell me," Lew said.
Hester ran a hand over his face. "It's my family's," he said. "The tech and the—the means. It's run out of a hospital on a station in earth orbit, and they've been working on contracting with the army for a year or so now. Since before the war turned hot. They wanted—they were having trouble keeping numbers up. They wanted a way to staff without relying on live bodies. Second Armored was a test," he said. "Like I said, they must've sped things up."
"Do you know how it works?"
"The process? Sort of."
"Good," said Lew. "You're coming with me." He stood up, dragging Hester up with him by the shirt front.
"To talk to Sink. Or barring that, I figure you'll be able to tell me how to get there if I need to jack a shuttle and do it myself."
"You're joking," said Hester. "Right?"
Lew wasn't joking. He thought Hester knew it, too, which was why he grabbed up his flatscreen and abandoned his post without argument, without Lew even needing to draw his sidearm. It was easier that way. Lew appreciated it.
Lew had the entirety of the ride back to Toccoa to get himself together. On the shuttle, Hester beside him, Lew's hands began to shake and wouldn’t stop, and he fished his flask out of a pocket and swigged half of it just to slow himself down. When the shuttle came into the hangar bay he was out of his seat before they docked, which made the copilot start bitching at him, and Lew was glad for the whiskey in his veins, because it stopped him punching the guy in the mouth. When the shuttle doors hissed open he ducked out of them and made his way out of the hangar. Hester called after him, but he didn’t listen, just found the nearest bank of elevators and let him catch up.
“Regiment,” he growled when the ship’s computer asked him for a deck.
"Nix," Hester asked him warningly.
"Shut up," Lew said.
Colonel Sink’s quarters were the furthest from the elevators, so that Lew had a good quarter mile’s walk along the length of the deck. He ran it. Behind him he could hear Hester huffing and cursing. As they ran they passed men who favored them with strange looks, as though Dick wasn’t beginning to rot as they ambled along breathing careless, casual mouthfuls of air.
There was an orderly posted at Sink’s door. He looked bored.
“We need to talk to the colonel,” Lew told him.
Already he imagined them being refused, wresting this scrawny kid away from the door and barging inside. He'd welcome it, he thought. He wanted to fight. What he really wanted was to find the hand that fired the mortar that broke Dick apart and tear it off with his teeth, but he'd take a recalcitrant orderly in a pinch.
But the orderly just nodded and knocked at the door, and when Lew was standing in front of Sink he explained with preternatural calm that the best officer in the division had died, and that if he didn’t decide to expedite the planned replacement program with Captain Winters as its erstwhile pilot project he’d be condemning far more good men than Dick to death in a manner that was not only wasteful but cost-ineffective. Sink heard Lew's speech with an interested and vaguely disturbed look--in retrospect, Lew thought maybe it was strange he’d framed it in those terms, that he’d forgotten that Sink cared for Dick, thought him not only a good soldier but a good man, that it might have troubled him to see that man’s best friend argue for his resurrection in terms of cost benefit. But there was no other way, for had Lew asked Sink man to man, one friend of Dick to another, he wouldn’t have been able to ask at all.
"Captain Hester agrees with me, sir," he said when he was finished. "And he ought to know."
Hester looked vaguely embarrassed. So did Sink, for that matter, as if they'd both been caught doing something untoward.
Sink got up from his desk and paced a slow circle. “You’ve got him in stasis?”
Lew swallowed. “I arranged it right away, sir.”
“You know he might not come through this,” Sink said. “I’ve heard a few stories. Boy of a friend of mine. Real bad business, I hear, if you don’t come through it.”
Are you sure you want to do this to him? he was asking.
Lew didn't try to answer. He could feel only the void inside of him, could see only the way Dick’s cheek had moved at the end, could think only that there was a possibility that Dick’s last impulse as a living soul had been to smile at him. He thought of some day in a hazy future, of asking Dick did you mean to do that? and feeling sure that even if Dick couldn’t answer, even if he didn’t remember, that he’d smile at the question all the same.
"I've explained the risks, sir," said Hester, even though he hadn't. Probably he'd taken one look at Lew and recognized a lost cause. Maybe that had happened back on the moon in their tent that night, Lew clinging to the last vestiges of denial just that little bit longer.
“You’ll have to sell this to more people than just me,” said Sink. “Both of you. Can you do that?”
Lew cleared his throat. “Sir, with respect, there’s no time for that now."
“You don’t have to do it now, son,” Sink said. He nodded.
"Hester, come over here and put this order in," he said gruffly. "I can’t keep up with these updates."
Hester did as he was told. Lew’s hands were beginning to shake again but he laughed politely anyway. Sink signed the order, pressed a button to forward it up the line. Lew imagined he could hear a quiet sizzling, as along a fuse.
When it was done they stood in the hallway. Hester was pale, looking at everywhere but Lew, and only now did Sink's question truly resonate.
"Explain it to me now," Lew said.
"Replacements. Explain it to me, so you can say you did."
Hester shook his head. "You don't want to know," he said. "Not when it's your—your friend."
"Do it anyway."
"I don't—I'm no expert. I don't know the technical stuff, not really. But it's better that it it's him, that they'll use his body. Harder, but at least they've got something to go on. Those Second Armored guys, they made them up whole cloth. They're not even really replacements, if you want to get technical." He laughed nervously. "Anyway, they say it works better this way. They—try and help them remember, after."
"Oh," Lew said. It hadn't occurred to him that memory would come into play. He thought of Miller back in the mess that day, of Lipton's concern. He'd never actually gone and talked to the kid, and he'd never talked to Dick about it. At the time things had felt too tenuous between them. It was a risk Lew hadn't wanted to take.
"My uncle's a neurosurgeon," Hester went on. "He worked on the technology. He used to say it wouldn't catch on, that it was too cost-prohibitive. They prototyped it on young guys, guys whose families would pay for the shot to get their kids back, and it worked. But they needed the army to invest to get it to take off, only it doesn't pay to do it piecemeal, man by man, even…"
"Even if that's what I just got Sink to agree to?"
Hester shook his head. "I get it," he said. "I do."
"Do you?" Lew asked.
He found Harry sitting on a bench outside the main medical bay. He was asleep. Lew came up to him quietly and nudged his boot with his own. Harry blinked awake and sat up, rubbing his eyes.
“Well?” Lew asked.
“Almost had to pull my sidearm on the regimental surgeon,” Harry said. “Then he checked again and found an order.”
“Sink ordered it.”
“You mean you begged him to order it,” Harry said. He leaned forward and put his head in his hands. “God.”
“I didn’t have to beg,” Lew said. "That's not how it happened."
"What, you got him to order it so it wasn’t your decision, is that it?”
He was picking, Lew knew. Harry got this way when at a low ebb, like an overtired child, and for a moment Lew felt a pang of annoyance that felt so normal that it was arresting in and of itself. Just like any other day, he thought.
“I got him to order it because there was no other way,” Lew said.
Just like any other day.
“Sure.” Harry sighed, and got slowly to his feet. “Look, I’m beat. I’m going to check on the guys and hit the rack. You oughtta get that head seen to.”
“My head’s fine,” Lew said.
“Right,” Harry said. “Hey, Lew?”
“You ever get to tell him?”
“That’s got nothing to do with this."
Harry just smiled sadly. The he shook his head and turned away.
Lew watched him go. Maybe he should call him back. Maybe he should explain, tell him all of it, pour his heart out messily the way you were probably supposed to. Harry'd let him. Hell, Harry'd beg him to, if he thought it would help. But Lew knew he couldn’t, the same way he couldn't tell Sink he'd thought any of it through, made any sort of rational decision.
Don't think about it. Well, he hadn't. His mouth felt dry, as though no further words would be coaxed from it today, or ever again.
Lew lay back on his bed and queried the ship.
"Toccoa," he said. "What time is it on New York Station?"
"Central System Time is 0715, Captain."
Toccoa spoke in a clear, slightly flat woman's voice. If she sang, she'd probably have been a soprano. You were supposed to be able to modify the ship's voice if you wanted a fellow talking in your ear, or someone you knew, but Lew didn't know anyone who ever had. He took a sip of whiskey.
"Status of citizen Elizabeth Nixon."
"Captain, as I believe you're aware, I am not equipped to make status checks on civilians."
He laughed. "Must've slipped my mind," he said.
"—However, based on your prior correspondence with Elizabeth Nixon, and my understanding of the structure of the educational system, I believe you may infer she is preparing to depart for school."
He took another drink. "I could have told you that," he said. "But thanks."
"You're welcome, Captain."
"You're always so polite," said Lew.
"I lack the ability to modulate my speech," said the ship.
"Ah," said Lew. He thought but didn't say that there were times he could have sworn the ship was shorter with some people than others, or when he heard her voice warm and deepen.
"But if I were to read between the lines, would I be able to tell that you're sick to death of me asking you questions you can't answer?"
"I'm designed to respond to queries by providing the desired information," said the ship. "Fulfilling the objectives of my design is optimal."
"Huh." He took another drink. "Well, here's a gimme, just to make you feel better. Status of Dick Winters."
The ship was quiet a moment, running her systems, sorting through data, pinging signals off Dick's homing frequency or whatever the fuck it was she did. Before she spoke again, she most certainly did not sigh. If impoliteness wasn't built into her design objectives, sighing sure as hell wasn't. But he somehow got the impression that she would have sighed, if she could.
"Name," she said. "Winters, Richard D. Rank, Major. Serial number, one-one-nine-one-eight."
She paused. Lew sat up, flask of whiskey slippery beneath his fingers. He found his palms were sweating.
She'd never paused before.
"Toccoa?" he asked. Softly. The way you'd ask a person.
"Status," said the ship. "Deceased."
Lew blew out a long breath and sank back onto his bed. "What a surprise. Thanks," he said, because he too could be polite when he didn't want to be.
"You're welcome, Captain. Do you have an additional query?"
"No thanks," said Lew. "That's all."
Lew let himself into his cabin after shift, feeling decidedly bleary. His buzz was wearing off, and try as he might he could think of little but Dick’s footlocker, where it sat along the far wall, far enough that you could almost squeeze by it without barking your shins when the bed was out. Maybe he’d just go for the whiskey this time, get it out of its warm little nest between two of Dick’s sweaters and fill the flask, tuck the bottle away without going digging.
Because that never ends well. Right?
He smacked the lights on, and it seemed that before he had fully internalized the presence of the figure sitting at his desk he was fumbling at his hip for the sidearm he never carried, heart pounding in his throat. Dick, he thought before he could stop himself, but no, of course not.
“Aw, Jesus fuck, Ron,” Lew said. “You could warn a guy.”
“Hello,” said Ron.
“Sitting here in the dark like a goddamn vampire. What the hell’s the matter with you? Almost gave me a coronary.” He clutched his chest for emphasis, which only made Ron chuckle in that peculiar way of his.
“Might put you out of your misery,” he said.
“Fuck off,” said Lew.
“You say that to me a lot,” Ron said. “It’s beginning to hurt my feelings.”
Lew snorted. He crossed the room without further preamble and knelt in front of the footlocker, which was sitting beside his like its more successful fraternal twin. He wondered sometimes if that bothered Ron, having Dick’s things staring him in the face, but then there didn’t seem to be much that bothered him. Lew was pretty sure he could find something, if Ron let him poke around long enough. He peered at the lock--why he still kept it locked, Lew wasn’t sure; maybe so he could remember the combination every time, sit there and fiddle with the lock the way Dick always had, Lew sitting on his bed kicking his legs, trying to let on he wasn’t waiting. You know, I bet a sledgehammer would open that up just fine, he’d say.
“Aren’t you sick of it by now?” Ron asked.
“Huh?” At first Lew thought he was talking about the footlocker, and spent a frozen minute trying to wrap his brain around how precisely to answer.
“Vat 69,” Ron said. “Aren’t you sick of it?”
“Of course not,” said Lew.
Having got the footlocker open he pawed through Dick’s clothes without really looking. This close, though, you could practically smell him. You could literally smell him if you stuck your head inside the footlocker, which Lew had done once while very drunk. Lew held his breath. His fingers seized on the neck of the bottle, smooth as a bone. He pulled it free and set it on his desk at Ron’s elbow.
“You want? There’s glasses in the drawer there.”
“I know where your glasses are,” Ron said.
He proved it, taking out a pair of mismatched tumblers and pouring them each a measure of whiskey. Somewhere from deep inside of Lew a sigh of relief whistled free. That was the thing about Ron, Lew thought. Ron could match him drink for drink and still manage to carry him home at the end of the night, and there was something to be said for that.
Lew leaned against the wall and let Ron hand him a glass. He picked up his own and they toasted. They said nothing, just a clunk of glass on glass. Wherever Harry drank now, Lew hoped he toasted absent friends. He raised the glass to his lips and took a grateful slug. No, he wasn’t sick of it. It could turn his stomach and he wouldn’t be sick of it. He drained his glass, got up and poured another, waved the bottle at Ron in a silent offer to top him up.
“No thanks,” Ron said.
He looked hard at Lew, as though taking something into consideration. Then he reached for Lew’s hand, the one that held his glass of whiskey. He wrapped his fingers around Lew’s, gently guided Lew’s hand to his mouth. He slurped messily from the glass, lips shining, excess dripping onto his chin. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.
“That’s a waste,” Lew said.
Ron took hold of the front of Lew’s coverall and hovered nose to nose with him, whiskey thick in the air between them. “So don’t waste it.”
He was trying to get Lew to kiss him. It was going to work.
“Aren’t you sick of this?” Lew asked, letting Ron back him towards the bed.
Ron’s dark eyes were heavy-lidded. “Never,” he said.
Ron liked to kiss, which on balance was probably the strangest thing Lew had come to learn about him. That, and he gave a great blow job. Lew liked to focus on the baser aspects of their association; he thought Ron did too, although they did kiss a hell of a lot, and sweetly, but maybe that was just Ron. Lew had always thought he had a wife stashed somewhere, but that didn’t stop some guys. Sure hadn’t stopped him.
But maybe that was just him.
On the bed he let Ron shove him backwards and grope at him until he had to unzip and shimmy out of his clothes. Goddamn uniform, he thought for the umpteenth time. If I ever get ahold of whoever thought this was a good fucking idea. When he was down to just his underwear he let Ron mouth around, breath humidly through his briefs, and when Ron slid them down over Lew’s hips and took Lew into his mouth he groaned as if he was sinking into a hot bath.
“Don’t sound so satisfied,” Ron said, nipping at Lew’s thigh.
Lew kicked him softly. “Shut up and blow me, Ron.”
Ron laughed at that, and kept laughing even as he followed Lew’s instructions to the letter.
When Ron had finished working him over he curled up like a cat with his head tucked in the hollow of Lew’s hip. Lew could feel his breath on his skin, on his spent cock. If he lay here long enough Ron might get him hard again just by virtue of proximity, and there was something invigorating about that. Lew grinned up at the ceiling.
Presently Ron propped himself up on his elbow and laid his hand palm down on Lew’s belly. He drummed his fingers like he was back at the desk.
“I need to tell you something,” he said.
“If you’re knocked up, it’s not mine.”
“Lewis,” Ron said. The sound of his name made Lew look up.
“What is it?”
Ron sat up and ran a hand back through his hair. He winced. “I got called in to see Sink today,” he said.
“Ah. How was old Bourbon Bob?”
“Pissed,” said Ron. “As a matter of fact.”
“He see fit to tell you why?”
Lew flopped back against the pillows. With one hand he fumbled in the nightstand for his cigarettes, pulled out two. He lit them both and held one out to Ron.
Ron sighed. He crawled up the bed and slid under the covers, holding them up and jerking his head at Lew, who rolled his eyes.
“I’m cold,” said Ron.
“We don’t do this shit,” Lew said. “That’s why I like you.”
Ron rolled his eyes. He took the cigarette and set it between his lips.
“You like me because don’t ask a damn thing of you,” said Ron, pressing his body flush alongside Lew’s. He didn’t feel especially cold. “We’re friends, and we screw sometimes, and that’s all right with me. But I’m your friend, not just your superior officer. Your problem is, you’ve got more than one who does ask something of you. And you’re not delivering, and they’ve noticed.”
“You’re drunk on the job more often than not,” said Ron. “Tell me that’s not true.”
“I can still sit at a desk and wear a goddamn pair of headphones,” Lew said. “Which is all my job actually is.”
“Word is you passed out at your desk the other day. And I didn’t only hear that from Sink. This ship is a closed circuit. Word travels.”
“This ship is a hamster wheel,” Lew said bitterly. “And I don’t give a shit what people say. I can do my job.”
He cast a look across the room, where their glasses sat. Couldn’t very well get up now, he thought, and prove Ron’s point. Dick wouldn’t-- his brain started automatically. Talk about a hamster wheel, but all at once Lew realized he didn’t know what Dick would do. Dick had always handled Lew’s drinking with a benign neglect that reminded Lew of a more warmhearted version of his entire childhood. Lew imagined he’d probably look at him with a lethal mixture of concern and understanding. Blink a lot. He did that.
Ron kicked him. “Are you listening to me?”
“Of course,” Lew said.
“What’d I say?”
“Come on, Ron. I’m not a damn kid.”
“I said, Sink’s getting ready to boot you for fatigue,” Ron said. “At the very least he’s going to bust you back to S2.”
“Good,” Lew said. “S3s aren’t any fun anyway. Bunch of dour motherfuckers, if you want to know the truth.”
Ron made a noise that could only be described as a growl. He sucked hard on his cigarette and fisted the sheets with his free hand. “You’re a real piece of work.”
“I always did love your pillow talk, Sparky.”
“Go ahead and joke about it,” Ron said. “But don’t say I didn’t give you a heads up.”
“Oh, you gave me that and so much more.”
Lew did get out of bed then, straggling to the bathroom. He picked up his glass of whiskey on the way and drained it as he pissed. Back out on the bed he was sure Ron was thinking about him loud enough to hear. Dick would have been disappointed, he thought. Ron wasn’t; he was exasperated, certainly, and with a little more time he might begin to verge on disgusted. The idea satisfied Lew like picking a scab, in a way Dick’s gentle disapproval never would have. Guilt sat gluey as a dumpling just beyond the satisfaction, tucked securely beneath his whiskey blanket. If he probed around long enough he’d get his hands all over it, and then where would he be. Drunk and maudlin as he was most every other night, the toast and the kissing and the orgasm notwithstanding.
Back in the bedroom Ron lay with his eyes shut.
“You’re not asleep,” Lew said.
“No,” Ron said. “I’ve got to go and see Lieutenant Lipton about something.”
He didn’t sound sorry about it. When he left he would neither apologize for going nor promise to return, and that was just fine with Lew.
Lew raised an eyebrow. “Aha,” he said. “Careful, or you’ll sprain something.”
Ron sat up far too quickly for Lew’s jibe not to have touched a nerve. He ran a hand back through his hair and looked about for his clothes.
“Shut up, Nix.”
Lew went over and sat on the edge of the bed. He was still naked, and he dragged the edge of the blanket over his lap. He felt wary of Ron when they weren’t en flagrante, when Ron had some task in his sights that wasn’t Lew. Ron leaned down and picked up the wad of his uniform from its rumpled nest on the floor. It cohabited there with a selection of Lew’s gear: uniforms that needed the laundry, PT gear that had been used exactly once since Dick died and had dried stiff in a corner. Lew’s boots were frequently on opposite sides of the cabin, and he’d been late more than once trying to find one or both of them. Books and maps and paperwork were piled on the floor now that he was using his bed for something besides sleep. Ron’s presence was paradoxical, could be both poison and remedy. There were days when Lew couldn’t decide between the two, days when Ron was both at once.
“Why are you doing this?” Lew asked him. He wasn’t sure quite why he did, only that he’d been meaning to, and now seemed as good a time as any.
Ron sat up. He looked surprised, and Lew didn’t think he’d ever seen Ron look surprised.
Ron was quiet a minute. “You have this look,” he said finally. “Like a cat with cream. You get it sometimes when we’re together. I like it.”
The following day Lew let himself into his cabin after shift again, and again he found Ron sitting at his desk. Again he went over to Dick’s foot locker and retrieved the bottle of whiskey, sloshed it into their glasses. He was pleased to see Ron, God help him.
“Couldn’t stay away, huh?” Lew asked Ron.
He felt lighter today, somehow, playful. He was less drunk, in any case, though he told himself it was nothing to do with Ron’s warning. He ducked in to kiss Ron’s neck. Ron straightened, the motion not quite a retreat but enough of one to register, to make Lew straighten up in turn.
Ron looked chagrined.
“What? If you’re breaking it off you’d better let me know before I get worked up.”
Ron sighed and took a long drink of his whiskey. He stood and moved around to stand before Lew, half-leaning on the desktop. Lew stepped closer, between Ron’s thighs as though to pin him in.
“Are you breaking it off?” Lew asked, trying his best to sound incredulous.
Ron ignored the question. “I got word today that we’re on course to rendezvous with a supply convoy,” he said.
“Okay,” said Lew. “So?”
“So there was a passenger manifest attached to the briefing.”
“More replacements?” Lew asked.
Later he’d think it was pretty funny, how long it took him to get it. Ron standing there looking at him like he was a lame dog he ought to put out of its misery, pressing his lips together. Lew was coming to realize that having Ron Speirs feel sorry for you was a sad state of affairs, particularly when you weren’t getting sex out of the deal.
“There were only two passengers listed,” Ron says. “One of them’s David Webster and the other’s Dick.”
Lew put his hands on Ron’s thighs, because if he didn’t he was going to fall over. “Shit,” he said.
He let Ron slip an arm around his waist and haul him partway onto the desk, more for the brute necessity of keeping Lew upright than for any sort of comfort. Lew appreciated it. He didn’t especially want to be comforted. He felt like being laid out on the floor. He wondered if he could get Ron to sock him in the face.
With his free hand Ron poured Lew another drink and held the glass out to him. He drained it. Ron filled it up again and took a fortifying gulp himself.
“Shit is right,” he said. He looked hard at Lew, as if trying to discern his thoughts. “You knew about this, I’m guessing. Knew that he--”
“I knew about it,” Lew said. “It was my idea. I went to Sink the day he--the day it happened. They were thinking about protocoling replacement in the division already, it wasn’t all my idea. But they wouldn’t have started with him.”
Ron took another long drink of whiskey. Lew watched the muscles of his throat, the way his adams-apple bobbed up and down. He thought about putting his fingers on it, feeling the way it moved. Distracting himself one more time.
“Christ, Nix, you--you’ve been living like he’s dead.”
“What the hell else was I supposed to do? He was dead. He died, and there was no guarantee of anything.”
His heart was beginning to race, his body catching up with the part of his brain that screamed at him that Dick was alive, that it had worked, that Dick was coming back to him.
“Have you written to him?”
Lew shook his head. “I didn’t--”
I didn’t see the point, he wanted to say, but as soon as the thought them he knew how the words sounded, knew he couldn’t speak them aloud, even to Ron.
“I figured I’d talk to him when he came back,” he said lamely. “If he came back.”
“Christ,” Ron said again. “This is going to be a real clusterfuck.”
“I guess it is.”
“I mean, are they bringing him back as a captain? I rank him now, Lew, I’m sitting here running his company, and--” He looked at Lew and bit his lip.
He wanted Ron to say it all of a sudden. “And what?”
Ron stood and slipped out from under Lew’s body. He stepped into the center of the room and began to pace back and forth.
“You know what I’m talking about,” he said. “I’m no fool.”
“Never said you were.”
He had no reason to feel guilty, Lew told himself. Ron knew what he was getting into, and it wasn’t as though he and Dick--well. It wasn’t as if Lew owed it to Dick to explain anything.
“Does Welsh know? Is this why the two of you have been so goddamn stubborn about patching things up?”
Lew nodded. His fault, he thought acidly. Harry couldn’t stay mad at anyone, and the week after Dick died he’d come knocking on Lew’s door late at night, drunk out of his mind. Lew had been in a similar state, which at the time had seemed a good enough excuse for why he’d left Harry out in the hallway, pleading with him over the intercom to open up.
Override manual lock, sir? the ship had asked him.
Fuck, no, Lew had answered from the bed, and after awhile he’d muted the intercom and rolled over and let Harry fade out into sleep. He only did it a few nights before giving up, which both pleased and disappointed Lew, and now they nodded at each other in the mess sometimes and Lew ducked out before Harry could talk to him about anything not directly related to the waging of war, and even then Ron was a handy go-between.
“He didn’t want me to do it,” Lew said. “He said Dick wouldn’t have wanted it. But--” he shook his head. “Maybe he was right.”
“Well,” Ron said. “It’s a little late for that now, don’t you think?”
Lew laughed bitterly, shook his head. “Yeah, I guess it is.”
Ron came over and clapped a hand on Lew’s shoulder. He kept it there, and Lew reached up and set his own hand on top of it.
“He’s coming back, Nix,” Ron said quietly.
Whether he meant it as reassurance or warning or something else altogether, Lew didn’t know and wouldn’t ask. He just took his hand off of Ron’s and dropped it back into his lap.
The day the supply ship docked should have been as jubilant as ever. Instead the mood was somber. Lew didn’t watch the ship dock on the viewscreen, and he didn’t think about his mail call. He very nearly didn’t go at all; he’d have preferred to hide out in his cabin and pretend none of this was happening. Things would be better if he had someone to hide out with, but everyone Lew knew who’d been briefed on Dick’s illustrious return seemed unreservedly pleased, although Ron seemed to alternate between that and nervous. If you’d asked Lew a year back if Ron Speirs was at all capable of either of those emotions, he’d have laughed. But then a year ago Lew hadn’t known much of anything at all. He was sitting on his bed ruminating when his door chimed.
"Who's that?" Lew asked.
“Captain Harry Welsh,” said the ship.
Lew liked to imagine she was doing something else, something more engaging than telling him who was at his door, looking up only to identify Harry at his door before going back to filing her metaphorical nails. He took a gulp of whiskey. He was running low again, which made Dick coming back especially ironic.
The chime rang out again.
“Sir?” the ship said.
Harry pounded on the door, having apparently decided to move on to more analog methods of getting Lew’s attention.
“Lewis, goddammit,” he said. “I know you’re in there. I can see your heat signature.”
“Knew I should’ve disabled that,” Lew muttered.
“Disabling Toccoa’s location enabling mechanisms is not permitted,” said the ship.
“Don’t you know it’s weird to refer to yourself in the third person?”
“Lew, come on,” said Harry from outside.
“Fine,” Lew said to the ship. He flopped back onto the bed and dragged a pillow over his face. “Let him in.”
“Please repeat your query,” said the ship, Lew’s tone too muffled to register.
Lew sighed and tossed the pillow to one side. “Let him in,” he said, enunciating with no small measure of sarcasm. The ship obeyed with alacrity, so much so that when the door slid open Harry was still leaning on it and stumbled into the room.
“Jesus Christ,” Harry said, brushing himself off as if for effect. He looked around the room. “So this is where you’ve been hiding away.”
“You’ve been in my room a million times.”
Harry shrugged. “It’s different now,” he said simply.
“So, it’s gone on long enough,” Harry said. “I mean, throw me a bone here. You’ve been freezing me out ever since that day, and--and at first I got it, at first I was even glad, but then it dragged on and on.”
“We both know it’s bullshit! And it doesn’t matter anyway, does it? He’s alive, so what does it matter anymore?”
Lew sighed. He looked at Harry, really looked at him for the first time in months and months, the first time he hadn’t simply registered him and looked away, or let his eyes lose focus, or turned around and walked off in the opposite direction. He looked thinner, his cheeks hollowed. He was a small man, but he’d always given off an impression of size regardless. He could fill a room with no trouble, but now he seemed diminished, dwarfed by the cramped cabin. He chewed on his lower lip. Lew could see the gap in his teeth and was surprised at the jolt of nostalgia that shot through him at the sight.
“I don’t know,” Lew said. “I don’t know if it matters.”
“You got what you wanted,” Harry said.
Lew shook his head. “I didn’t want him to die,” he said.
“Yeah, well. Doesn’t seem like it stuck, does it. Can I--” Harry gestured at the bed.
“Sure,” said Lew. He let Harry walk over and sit gingerly, looking at the unmade mess of sheets and making a face that let Lew know exactly what he was thinking.
“You and Speirs?” Harry asked.
Lew snorted. “Nobody ever accused you of being subtle.”
“Subtlety is overrated,” Harry said. “You of all people should know that. But I’m right, aren’t I?”
Once he’d have been gleeful, Lew thought. Now he seemed as though he was thinking of how that might be, as if he could see it in his head like a picture but couldn't quite get there. Or perhaps that was just how Lew felt, sitting here with him now.
“It’s nothing,” Lew said reflexively. “And it wasn’t exactly a secret.”
“Bullshit,” Harry said. “Just like it was nothing between you and--well. Forget it. You two going to keep it up?”
Now that Dick’s back, he meant. Funny how Ron was the same damn way, jumpy about it, as though Dick might demand some sort of duel for Lew’s hand.
He shrugged. "Not sure Ron's inclined," he said.
"Hmm," said Harry. "Can't say I blame him," he said. "It's a lot to live up to."
"You know, I wish you'd stop talking like there was ever anything between Dick and me."
"Look, Nix, you can say whatever you like, but you're the one who compared the two of you to me and Kitty, and we both know the point you were trying to make. Not to mention that night in the tent we’re all pretending I didn't see.”
"That was a long time ago," said Lew lamely.
"Not so long. Not nearly as long as you've known him for."
Lew wanted to say that he didn't see what that had to do with anything, but he didn't feel like hearing Harry's inevitable counterpoint. They lapsed into silence, and after a few minutes the doorbell chimed. This time Lew didn't bother asking for the ID, so grateful was he to bound up off the bed and let whoever it was in. Harry scoffed from the bed, got up and adjusted his uniform on the off chance it was someone important.
The man in the doorway was a runner, Zielinski or Salinsky or something like that. He brewed a mean cup of coffee, if memory served, and was unobtrusive in all the ways a runner ought to be. Now he just looked young and pale and nervous.
"Captain Nixon, sir," he said. "Colonel Sink wants to see you up on regimental deck."
"He couldn't send a message through the ship? He had to send you all the way down here to the bowels of hell to find me instead, huh?"
"It was no trouble, sir," said Zielinski.
"Uh huh. Well, you look a little sweaty," Lew said. "Stop by the mess and get something to drink, will you? No need to shake a leg back upstairs. If anyone asks just say I ordered you."
Zielinski nodded. "Yessir. Thank you, sir."
"Yeah, no problem."
Zielinski saluted, turned and went off down the hall.
"Guess I've got a date," Lew said, turning back to Harry.
"That was nice of you just now," said Harry. "Giving the kid a break. Dick would've done something like that."
Lew shrugged. "Sink should've just sent a message," he said.
"Maybe he didn't want it logged," said Harry.
"Runner'll show up on the door logs one way or another," said Lew. "Anyway, I'll find out soon enough. Better not keep the man waiting." He sighed. "Harry, look, I—"
Harry came over and patted Lew on the back.
"Water under the bridge," he said. "But Christ, I've been stuck playing poker with those stiffs from C Company this whole time. It's been a real goddamn trial."
Lew laughed. "Yeah, well. I'll have to come and show 'em how it's done sometime."
"You do that. And bring Speirs, would you? I think he's been staying away out of solidarity."
Lew found that hard to believe. "Sure," he said. "I'll see you in the cargo bay later, I guess. There'll be all sorts of new inventory."
"Inventory," Harry said. "Right. If that's what you want to call it."
Lew found Sink in his office with a half-full cut glass decanter at his elbow. He looked up when the door opened. He had a stack of papers in front of him and was typing away at something awkwardly at his computer with both index fingers. It reminded Lew of the way Dick used to type.
"You wanted to see me, sir?" Lew asked.
"Ah. Thanks for getting up here so quickly, Nixon." Sink waved at the chair opposite his desk. "Have a seat."
Lew sat, somewhat against his better judgement. In the hubbub of Dick's impending return he'd let himself forget about Ron's warning, and now it occurred to him that he was about to be at best demoted and at worst sidelined for whatever polite analogy for trauma was en vogue these days.
Sink sighed, put aside his typing and set his hands on the desk, fingers laced together. At first Lew thought Sink might offer him a drink, but he supposed that wouldn't exactly be appropriate under the circumstances. "I don't want to bullshit you, Nix," Sink said.
"I appreciate that, sir."
"Truth is, you've been a bit of a thorn in my side for awhile now. Can't imagine that comes as much of a surprise to you, either."
Lew swallowed. "No, sir. Major Speirs—"
"Speirs talked to you, did he? Good. I'm glad he did. You know, I think he's done a hell of a job as XO, under the circumstances. That was Dick's job, and all three of us know it.”
“And now Dick's back, or as good as."
"That's what I hear, sir."
"I'm promoting him effective immediately, and I'm putting him back in charge of Easy. It's not the usual order of things, but I think it's warranted under the circumstances. Speirs will stay on as battalion XO."
I rank him, Ron said.
"And there's no good way to say it, so I'll just say it—I'm kicking you back to S2," Sink said.
Lew pressed his lips together. He'd known it was coming, but that didn't stop him feeling like he'd been called into the principal's office for a slap on the wrist. "Yes, sir," he said.
"I know it hasn't been easy," Sink said, and Jesus, thought Lew, please no heart to heart. It's a little goddamn late for that. "And I know every man's got his crutch, but dammit, Nixon, you're too fine an officer to lose yourself at the bottom of a bottle. Lord knows I like a drink myself"—he nodded at the decanter— "but there are degrees. I turned a blind eye for a good long time because of Winters, but the time for that was drawing to a close even before we got word his…operation had been successful. But I suppose we've got you to thank for that, so it seems fitting to modify your assignment instead of stick you on a stationside rotation on med leave, which was the recommendation."
"Modify my assignment, sir?"
"I'm moving you out of general intelligence and assigning you to Dick," Sink said. "You'll be responsible for his reintegration into the unit. You'll also be formally reporting on his progress."
Lew felt a jolt he belatedly recognized as fear. "Sir, shouldn't one of the medics supervise this?"
"The medical staff are fully apprised of his condition. From what I understand, moreso than they could be for any one of us, technologically speaking, though I don't know the particulars. He was medically cleared before was permitted to return to active duty. But it's not his physical health I'm concerned with."
"I'm no shrink," Lew said.
"No, but the two of you were joined at the damn hip. You're the reason he's still here at all. If that's not the best chance he's got of coming back as strong as he left, I don't know what else to throw at the situation."
Lew could think of more than a few things he'd like to throw at this situation, but as it appeared he was on thin ice already he decided to err on the side of keeping the details to himself. He shrugged. "I'll do my best, sir."
"I don't doubt it. You all right with it?"
Lew nodded. In truth, he didn't know, but then he got the impression Sink was only asking as a matter of course.
"I know this must come as a shock," Sink said. "No matter what you thought last time you were in this office."
Lew could barely remember. Looking around now he thought he couldn't have said whether or not it was even the same room. He tried to remember what he'd felt, what he'd hoped for all those months ago when he'd begged Sink for life on Dick's behalf, but he found he couldn't. It was as if the man he'd been that day and all the days before no longer existed.
When he died he saw green grass stretch out before him, heard the wind whistle overhead. It was nice, he guessed, as deaths went. Lew had been there, and he’d had his hands on Dick’s face, and Dick had felt a little angry and a little sad, and a little bad for Lew, but mostly those things felt beyond him already. It had been nice, and then it had been nothing at all.
Dick was born on Earth in a farmhouse up on top of a hill. All around the house grew tall, thick grass, blueish in the summers and fawn in the fall, and if nobody was talking the silence was so complete that you could sit and hear the wind rippling through it with a sound like a whisper. Dick used to sit on the porch with his eyes shut and listen to that sound, and wondered why it was just the three of them alone on top of the hill.
Once upon a time there had been many people on Earth, his mother used to tell him, sitting on the edge of his bed in a room lit by candlelight.
“Where did they all go?” Dick asked her.
“The stars,” she said.
Their farmhouse was set down in a place that used to be called Pennsylvania--it still was, by the people who’d stayed there to farm the land, who’d coaxed it from arid back to arable and who weren’t shy about saying they thought that gave them claim to some sort of moral superiority. Dick had never bought into it; he wasn’t given to resting on laurels, least of all those sown by men and women who’d died before he was born, but he felt as though the warm earth was in his blood somehow, and it seemed reasonable to consider he might be an altogether different species from those mysterious children who lived out in space, in sprawling cities of metal and glass and cold.
Hundreds of miles above him Lewis Nixon grew up under the bright lights on New York Station, and after they met Dick wondered sometimes if, as a boy, he’d ever lain out under the stars and watched Nix spin by overhead.
War had waxed and waned in the stars above him since before any of them could remember. Dick's father and the men he knew scoffed about the army, thought it was a place for astronauts and planeteers, for all those boys (like Nix, though Dick didn't know that yet) who'd grown up with the stars close enough to touch, for whom squabbles over half a planet, over quadrants and sectors and redrawn starmaps, might actually matter.
Dick thought about it long and hard, lay awake nights and watched the stars again, and finally thought to himself that if he looked to the sky whenever he had a question that maybe there was a reason for it, that maybe something lay there that could answer the gnawing unsurety in his heart.
The trip he made up to the recruiter was the first time he’d been off the planet, and he’d pressed his nose to the glass of the shuttle window and watched Earth slip away, blurring like a watercolor.
“You oughtta stay up here until you ship out,” said the lieutenant behind the desk, after Dick had signed the papers. “Doesn’t make sense to go all the way back down.”
He’d gotten a room in a motel with rooms barely big enough to sit up in, and he’d sent a message to his parents to tell them, and that had been that. The war had been over by then, and the humans spread across the stars and planets that surrounded Earth had divided them up in an uneasy kind of detente. Maybe Dick could have gone back after all. But he’d already come all that way, and so he didn’t.
There was a massive lap pool on the satellite station where they trained, and Dick had never seen so much water in one place. At home he took dips in creeks and little ponds, and he’d dreamed of the ocean, of walking into the crashing surf and looking out onto a blank and boundless horizon. On the station he suffered from claustrophobia and sought the pool at odd hours, early morning or late into the night when he couldn’t sleep, and he’d swim and swim and think of nothing at all. One night he climbed out of the deep end, feeling waterlogged and dull with fatigue, and found a man sitting there smoking a cigarette and drinking from a silver flask. He was wearing sunglasses.
“I don’t think you’re supposed to smoke in here,” Dick said, wiping water from his eyes.
The space stations ran on giant air recyclers; there was no wind unless it was programmed, and Dick thought it was awful how every place smelled the same, like ozone with an underlay of hot metal.
“Well, I’m in here,” said the man. “And I wanted a smoke.”
He shrugged. His body was draped over a folding chair he’d brought over from somewhere or other. He was wearing a trainee’s uniform like the one Dick had waiting for him in the locker room, and the nameplate on his chest read Nixon.
“Why are you here?” Dick asked him.
Nixon shrugged again. “I got lost,” he said, and then began to laugh.
Immediately Dick was filled with a bubbling amity--at the time he didn’t question it; he was tired from his swim and homesick in the bone-deep, dragging way he had been so often in the beginning.
Nixon took off his sunglasses. “You army?” he asked.
Dick nodded. “Yeah.”
“You wanna walk me back to barracks?”
They got a cup of coffee on the way--Nixon bought one for Dick, who thought late had stretched into early enough that he might as well stay up--and a few hours later in the mess he found himself saving a seat for this dark-eyed man with a gait like an ice floe, who shambled in late clean-shaven and sat next to Dick and drank another cup of coffee like a shot of whatever had gotten him lost in the first place.
“Thanks,” Nixon said. And then later, when Dick had said goodbye and used his surname with formality, he’d laughed again and said, “Call me Lew.”
And after that, it seemed, Lew was always there.
He was nothing like Dick at all; in fact he was almost aggressively different. That was how it seemed at first, anyway. As the days of their acquaintance wore on and turned into weeks and then months, Dick began to see the ways they fit together, though it was the sort of thing that he found nearly unnoticeable until they were apart, until he could look closely at himself and see the jagged edges that seemed to fit better up against Lew's.
He drank, which was one thing. He gambled, which another, though it was the sort of thing Dick gave up worrying about aside from saying it to himself as a joke, because Lew gambled as benignly as possible. Only among friends, and only on poker, which he was unaccountably bad at.
"Chicken and the egg, right?" he said to Dick once when Dick asked him about it. "Am I bad at poker because I drink, or do I drink because I'm bad at poker?"
Dick didn't know the answer to that, but he did know that though he neither drank nor played poker being with Lew when he did either was a lot more fun than it had any right to be. After he met Lew the long and arduous days of training seemed to zip by faster, and while Dick still felt a pang every now and then the ache of nostalgia he felt when he thought of Earth seemed to ebb slightly. Part of him wanted to feel guilty about it, but Dick wasn't made for guilt, and so he didn't.
When Lew went off to intelligence training in the back end of the sector they sent messages, and once Lew found a free comm channel that could eke its way across the black to Dick's shitty secondhand receiver, and Dick remembered being embarrassed at how hard he was smiling, how glad he was that Lew could only hear his voice, and barely at that because the signal kept crapping out.
Growing up he hadn't had friends, not in the same sense of the word. The families Dick and his parents knew carried along a whiff of hardscrabble doom Dick would have written off as dramatic if he hadn't known it so intimately, with Ann and with the middle brother buried out under the maple tree whose name Dick had never known. He played with the kids who came to church on Sundays and sat in the hard pews with their backs set straight, the rough wood prickling their thighs. They were fractious; they itched to run, to climb, and when the sermon was over they would tear out of the chapel and onto the grass while the grownups talked and swapped hearsay and recipes and packets of seeds.
He'd gotten his first fist to the teeth back behind the church one of those Sundays, and in the next breath the boy who'd dealt it flung himself on top of Dick and pressed their mouths together. Dick thought for a minute that his heart would stop. His pulse pounded in his ears, and all he could taste was blood.
For all his dirtside beginnings Dick took to space as readily as his fellow recruits. There was a clean brutality to it, a simplicity that reminded him of farming despite the hot metal smell. Things worked or they didn't, and if they didn't you were pretty well screwed. He knew the finality of it scared Lew where not much did; he could see it in his face, but Dick didn't hold it against him.
"I don't see why we've actually got to go outside the damn thing," Lew said on the occasion of their very last training jump.
The damn thing was the drone shuttle, and they were currently strapped in next to one another waiting to hit the coordinates from which they'd let the engines stall and ditch the relative safety of this little craft that shimmered through space like a tetra. Lew had registered the same complaint on every other jump so far, in every sim before it.
"Yeah, I thought you were an intelligence officer," said Dick.
"I am," said Lew. "Which begs the eternal question: why am I sitting here packed next to you like a sardine, about to bail out of a perfectly good shuttle?"
The point of the drill was to emulate a mid-vacuum ditch, the kind of tactic you might be forced to employ if a shuttlecraft malfunctioned. Miles to their starboard was the objective, an asteroid beyond which their transport idled, ready to receive them. Best case scenario they were back on base in time for Lew to make it to happy hour. Worst case scenario, they didn't make it back at all. This final objective was steeped in the kind of lore bred by decades of nervous recruits. Depending on who you asked, the success rate was as high as ninety percent or as low as fifty, though Dick thought the latter figure was mostly trotted out to impress a dinner date or shock a younger sibling. He'd decided the real average was somewhere in between, which made for decent odds. And besides, out there among the winking stars was a rescue craft and a team of medics. If things went pear-shaped, they'd be rescued. Probably.
"Where are we?" Dick asked. It was dry in the cockpit, and before he could speak he had to lick around the inside of his mouth to wet it.
Lew fiddled with his compass. "Five minutes out."
"Equipment check in two," Dick said.
"Dick, I have a confession to make," said Lew. "I only stood behind you in drills so I could feel you up during equipment check. I thought I ought to tell you in case this is it."
"I'm flattered, Lew.”
"You ought to be.” He sighed. “See, I always tried to tell people you had a sense of humor lurking under that stoic facade, and nobody ever believed me.” Dick thought he sounded a little tremulous. "It's the great tragedy of my young life."
"I think they record these sessions for review," Dick said. "All is not lost." He patted Lew on the shoulder, though through his glove and Lew's suit it felt like batting at an overstuffed pillow. "Sound off for equipment check."
Equipment check with two jumpers was at once longer and more abbreviated, a call-and-response of an entire suit's worth of gear, all the points that connected them to the shuttle and which would henceforth be detached ahead of their own expulsion. When they were finished they looked at each other in the capsule, knees around their ears. The lights had dimmed but for the glow of the instrument panels, the compass ticking away, the countdown ringing out. Lew was chewing on the inside of his cheek. Dick thought he should say something, but he couldn't think of anything better than: "Okay?"
Lew nodded tersely. "Okay," he said. Then, "Three seconds."
Dick didn't look at him again. He counted back out loud—three, two, one—and then he jammed a button with the heel of his hand and they shot together out into the void and were gone.
He opened his eyes. He was looking up at the smooth white expanse of ceiling that had comprised his field of vision for the past--
He didn’t know how long he’d been here.
He tried to turn his head, to look for whoever had spoken. Immediately his head swam with vertigo, and his stomach flipped. He took a deep breath through his nose and clenched his teeth. He hadn’t looked at anything but the ceiling because he couldn’t move his head without throwing up. He didn’t much like throwing up.
“Are you feeling sick?” asked the voice.
A woman’s voice, smooth like the ceiling. Accented. He couldn’t place it, but that was no surprise. He swallowed. He’d been here too long if the ceiling was becoming a point of comparison. He nodded by way of answer, tersely and not for very long, for the motion made him feel worse.
“We’ll get you another antiemetic.”
There was the sound of movement--someone else must be in the room, and the soldier in him didn’t like that, that there should be someone else lurking he couldn’t see. Out of the corner of his eye he could make out a flurry of movement. Flash and clatter of metal and then there was a burning in his arm.
“That should help,” said the woman.
“Who--who are you?” His voice sounded raspy to his own ears, as though his mouth had been packed with sand.
“I’m Renee,” she said. “I’m one of the physicians here. But we’ve met before, Dick. Don’t you remember?”
He shook his head. “No,” he said.
She made a concerned noise. “Amnesia is an expected side effect, I’m afraid. But your short term memory should improve once you begin to acclimate.”
He liked her voice. She sounded--cool. He thought if she put her hand on his forehead he’d feel better, that the throbbing behind his eyes would go away.
“Acclimate to what?” he asked.
What he really wanted to ask was Aren’t I dead? though he couldn’t say precisely why that question in particular should hang like a pendulum at the forefront of his mind.
Renee sighed. “Would you like to go back to sleep, Captain Winters?”
“Yes,” he said, and Renee must have made another wordless gesture to her helper, because again there was movement to one side, and a burn of drugs that felt somehow more familiar than it ought to. He thought she stepped closer; the air shifted, and he smelled a faint perfume.
Put your hand on my face, he wanted to say. Please. Just for a minute.
The next time Renee came to see him--wait. Was it the next time? He wasn’t certain it was the next time. The next time he remembered. The next time he remembered he could sit up in bed, with the aid of the clear medicine the nurse shot into his IV line. He still felt ill, and his head still hurt. He still felt fuzzy-headed, as though someone had taken hold of his brain and shaken it hard, and his body felt curiously numb, as though held at some remove from the rest of him. As Renee stood in the doorway of his white room and watched him he prodded his limbs surreptitiously, his arms and then his legs. They felt as though they’d been molded from clay, and when he touched them he felt as though he might vomit, drugs or no drugs.
“I think we should talk about what’s happened,” Renee said.
“I’m tired,” he said.
“What do you remember?” she asked.
“Lew,” he said. “Lew was there.”
But even as he spoke he felt the memory dissipate like smoke, and after a moment he couldn’t remember where he’d been, or why, or who Lew was. Or who he was.
“Mmm,” she said. “Do you remember the times we talked about it before?”
He shook his head. He felt bad about it, as though he’d let her down, or done something he shouldn’t by forgetting.
She was carrying a folder, and now she opened it to reveal a sheaf of papers. “These are copies of your service record, including a brief biography,” she said. “Just in case you need it. And we’ve also got some letters from your parents, and one from a Captain Welsh? And then here’s a report of your--injury. We have electronic copies too; we can arrange a touchscreen, it might be easier.”
“My injury,” he said. He looked at his legs again beneath the white sheet.
She nodded. “If you like I can furnish a copy of your medical record from this facility. But I find most patients are upset by it.”
“I’d like a copy.”.
“Of course,” she said, brow knitted. “I’ll have one brought by.”
She set the folder on the beside table--metal, holding a pitcher of water and a single glass-- and stood a minute, arms crossed over her chest.
“I suppose I’ll let you review that,” she said, nodding at the folder. “It may be helpful to be able to refer back to a hard copy, in the event your memory continues to be an issue. But I’ll be happy to answer any questions.”
“What’s the matter with me?”
She looked surprised. “Why, nothing’s the matter with you, Captain Winters. Practically speaking, you’ve never been better. It’s simply a case of neurophysical therapy and reintegration into your unit.”
“Oh,” he said. “Did something happen to my legs?”
He had the impression he ought to be able to move them. If he thought about it hard he was certain he could remember moving them before. Standing, walking. Swimming. When he thought about these things they seemed to move out of reach of his memory, slippery as fish, and left only the vaguest impressions behind.
“May I sit?’ Renee asked.
He nodded, and she sat on the edge of his bed. She took up the folder again and set it on her lap.
“You know, when we talk about reintegration we usually mean the process of returning to your unit, or to your home,” she said. “But I suppose most of this process is about reintegration, at its heart. For instance, your extremities--you’ll see it in the report, and we’ve spoken about it at some length before--but Captain Winters, to put it bluntly, you lost your left arm and leg in combat. We’ve equipped you with prosthetics on the left side that should support the full range of motor function you had before. In our experience the sensory aspect tends to leave something to be desired, but I’m optimistic that some portion of your sensation may return.”
“But I can’t--I can’t move my right side either,” he said. In combat, he thought. Lew was there.
“Neural reintegration,” she said. She smiled tenderly, as though speaking of a beloved child.
“This is the essence of the process, Captain. Your brain, your--consciousness. Your senses, your memories. Once dead and now reforming. Perhaps imperfect, but who is not? And by the time reintegration is complete, it is likely you will no longer know the difference.”
“I died,” he said. I died. In combat. Lew was there. Lew. “Who--who wrote? You said someone wrote me.”
“Hmm? Oh,” she said. She opened the folder and took out an envelope. “Captain Harry Welsh,” she read, and passed the envelope over, slipping it between his clumsy fingers. He saw a name written out in script. Dick Winters. Winters. She kept calling him--
“Do you know Captain Welsh?”
He shook his head. “I don’t know.”
“Well, maybe when you read what he has to say,” said Renee. “Maybe when you read through all of it.”
“Right,” he said. “Maybe.”
When she left he shut the folder and stared at the opposite wall for a long time. Eventually he shifted and the folder slipped off the bed, its contents scattering across the linoleum floor. He could do nothing to retrieve the papers, but he looked at them as though he could by force of mind alone. He still had the letter tucked between his fingers, and after some effort he was able to move his right shoulder back so that the envelope was dislodged. He felt satisfied by the action, if not strictly cheered. He decided he would remember it, for the next time he saw Renee.
I moved my shoulder. I died in combat. Lew was there.
Later an orderly came and loaded a drive into a touchscreen, and he sat and paged woodenly through the sum total of Dick Winters’s life in the army. He was a captain. He’d been promoted months before he died. He’d captained a company with a brief but exemplary combat record and he’d lost relatively few men in his tenure. After awhile reading about the army tired him, and he found he couldn’t puzzle through the details of his medical record very easily. The orderly opened his letters for him and left them in his lap to sort through. Dick’s mother--and why could he remember Dick’s mother? But he could, he knew she had red hair and grey eyes and a smell like clean wet laundry--wrote to her son as though he was down with a head cold. He wondered what they told her, and why it wasn’t the truth.
Harry Welsh’s letter to Dick was strange, and he read it through twice before he lay back and watched the ceiling some more, and doing that he fell asleep and when he woke up the letter had worked its way between the bedframe and the mattress and he either forgot about it or told himself he had.
Neural reintegration was painful. Sometimes his hands and feet were numb and sometimes they burned, and sometimes they felt as though they were swarming with biting insects. With each day that passed he remembered more of the day before. He slept less, and he began to wake when the station lights went up outside the hospital, which was what they called morning when there was no sun to rise.
They brought him food. In the very beginning, they said, they fed him through the lines in his arm, and then through a tube in his stomach.
“Glucose,” said Renee. “Brain food. Some of my patients tell me they have a sweet tooth afterwards.”
He didn’t have a sweet tooth; didn’t have a taste for anything, and when they asked him what he liked he could only shrug. He ate because they told him he had to, and was glad when his tray was empty and they took it away.
Once he was eating with regularity they gave him a regimen--nerve stim, which meant tight stockings slipped over his arms and legs and which stung like the worst of the ants, and physical therapy, which left him dizzy and sweating after far too little effort. In the showers he finally found a mirror; his face looked thin and pale, he was unshaven, which he remedied immediately. He had red hair, though his head was currently shorn to the scalp and bore a large and angry-looking scar. His left arm and leg, he knew, weren’t his own, though to his own eyes the differences were barely perceptible. They were hairless, and colder than the rest of his skin, and though he could feel a little with them they didn’t match the other side. The difference in his legs made him limp and feel unsteady on his feet, though the therapists seemed excited about them.
“You get up to speed with these, you’ll be shocked at what you can do,” one therapist said, and two days later he grew frustrated in the gym and gripped a weight bar tightly enough to leave a dent.
“There you go!” the therapist crowed.
He stared hard at his hand and wiped it off on his shorts, though there was nothing on it to remove. Then he apologized.
When he had been awake---properly awake--for a month, he could get around well enough to leave his room and wander the hospital. The facility, Renee called it; she seemed put out by allusions to illness. The first day he was permitted he left his room and stumped along awkwardly until he found an elevator and then, on the ground floor, an exit.
He came out of a set of sliding-glass doors into the still air. Some stations bothered with weather. Some didn’t, every day temperate, and some had weather randomized and made a sport of predicting it. Today, on this station, the sky was blue and cloudless, the temperature mild. He wore a white undershirt, a pair of loose olive-drab pants that tied at the waist, and his jump boots, which were sturdy enough to shore up his lopsided sense of proprioception. Having come outside he wasn’t sure where to go, and settled on a slow circumnavigation of the building.
Don’t overdo it, Renee said, whenever she came to speak with him about his progress. And he chafed at the implication, that he couldn’t handle himself, but fact was she was right. He felt more tired at the end of the average day here than should have been possible, and he couldn’t precisely remember a time when things had been different but he knew somehow they had been, in the overbright smiles of the people who cheered at him when the readout from the nerve stimulator looked better in some way he wasn’t smart enough to quantify, or when he’d first walked the length of a room without assistance.
As he walked he began to notice other people coming and going. Civilians, by their clothing, though save his own boots there was little that marked him as military. He wondered what had happened to Dick’s personal effects. Maybe they’d been sent home to his parents, or maybe they were sitting in some storage container somewhere gathering dust.
A woman looked at him and smiled, and he was torn between whether or not to acknowledge her. In the end he ducked his head and stepped through a gap in the low hedge that ran along the perimeter of the hospital as though the small garden beyond it had been his destination all along. The garden was a long rectangle of close-cropped grass like a green swimming pool, with a bench at either end. He sat on the bench nearest him; it was white marble, smooth and cool to the touch. Up close he could see that the grass wasn’t grass at all but artificial turf, and this knowledge made him feel deflated. His left hip was beginning to ache, and he rubbed it with the heel of his hand, staring into space across the shimmering expanse of fake lawn.
When the man called to him, he tuned it out at first.
Oh, he thought. That’s right. That’s me.
He looked up. Standing beside his bench was a young man clad in the same bland hospital garb as he was, though instead of boots he wore leather slippers that looked as though they’d be happy not to tread on actual grass.
“Almost didn’t recognize you without the hair,” said the man, smiling widely at him. His eyes were very bright. “But I guess I’m in the same boat, huh.”
His hair was short, of the uniform length that indicated it had recently been shaven and was growing out. There was something about his smile that Winters found familiar. He couldn’t place it, but then he was becoming used to these nebulous traces of his past. They seemed to come and go at will, and leave him no closer to any sort of accounting of things. He was trying not to let it frustrate him, if only because he disliked being frustrated all the time.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I--”
“Oh, of course,” said the man, sounding almost cheerful, as though he’d identified an affliction and was pleased to have the remedy. “The memory,” he said, tapping at his temple. “That’s the worst, huh.”
He stuck out a hand, and Winters stared at it a minute before he shook it.
“David Webster. Private,” the man added. “We--I served under you, sir. Shit, sorry, sir, I should’ve been calling you sir all along. You forget that too, being here. The war gets away from you.”
“How long have you been here?”
“Five months or so,” he said. “They told me you were here too, when I woke up. Maybe they weren’t supposed to, but I think they thought it might help me.”
“When did I come in?” Winters asked.
Webster frowned. “Don’t you know?”
“They keep telling me,” Winters said. “I keep forgetting.”
“Can I sit?” Webster indicated the bench, and Winters nodded.
Webster sat, body turned so that he faced Winters. Winters found himself looking at his chest, his arms and legs. He wondered what Webster had brought with him into the hospital, what he’d end up bringing out. Webster looked hesitant.
“You don’t have to call me sir,” Winters said quietly. Webster seemed to relax at that; his shoulders softened, and he leaned forward so that his elbows rested on his thighs. He dropped his head, and Winters could see they had matching scars, Webster’s grinning across the back of his skull.
“Mind if I smoke?” Webster said, taking out a pack and tapping it against his hand. The gesture plucked at Winters the way Webster’s smile had. He got the impression it was for the same reason.
“Why would I?”
“You never smoked,” Webster said. “Never drank either. Alcohol, I mean. The guys thought--” he shook his head. “Forget it.”
“No, tell me,” Winters said quickly. “I want to know.”
Webster grinned down at his lap. “They called you a Quaker. I don’t know, I guess they thought you had some deep reason for all of it. Abstaining, I mean. But it wasn’t just that, you--you sort of had...a way about you. We all used to say if we just stuck by you we’d come out all right.” He winced. “Guess I didn’t, but what are you going to do. War’s hell, right?”
“What happened to you?” Winters asked. He felt bad, not knowing. He got the feeling Dick would have known before, known the ins and outs of it and why it happened and how he could stop it for the next guy.
“I got it in the gut,” Webster said. “Bled out slow enough I got to lay in my buddy’s lap and, I don’t know, recite poetry or something. Things I thought you ought to do when you were dying.” He shook his head.
“You came in about a month after I did, I think,” he went on. “I was like you, when I first woke up. I couldn’t keep anything straight. Hell, I kept a card on me with my name printed on it.”
“You feel empty,” said Webster. “Just waiting to be filled up again, but you don’t know what you’re supposed to be filled up with. If it’s...the old stuff, who you were. Or if it’s something else.”
“Someone else,” Winters said.
Webster sighed. “Maybe,” he said. He took a drag on his cigarette.
“How long will you be here for?” Winters asked.
“Don’t know,” said Webster. “They’re talking about sending me back. Say, maybe you’ll come with me. They’ll stow us away on another supply ship with the boxes of Hershey bars.”
“What do they do after…” Winters indicated his legs.
“After PT? Dunno yet. But my doctor says they’ve got something they’ve been working on, just for us army guys. They want to go back in here--” he gestured at his head-- “and make it so they can hook us up to the ship’s computer. Isn’t that something?”
Webster seemed as thrilled with the prospect as Winters’s therapist had been with his crushing the metal bar in the gym. Winters sighed. He felt just as confused as he had then. He looked out across the garden. At the far end a bird had landed on the grass, pecking in vain at the artificial turf.
“Seems cruel, don’t you think? Having birds here.”
“Oh,” said Webster. “I don’t think it’s a real bird. They had them on Montauk station, where we summered? Artificial seagulls.” He laughed. “Wild.”
His rehabilitation progressed apace, just as Renee predicted. During the day he rose, he dressed, he did his neurostim and went to the gym. He showered and shaved, he dressed again. He slept. He dreamed, long tangles of subconscious thought, and when he woke from them he wondered if they had once been real, if they were memories, if his brain was knitting itself back together one tendril at a time. At the back of his mind hung the spectre of Webster’s promised procedure. He didn’t ask Renee about it, as though if he didn’t mention it she might forget, the way a child imagines himself hidden with a hand over his face.
She saw him less and less now. He was left with long spans of time with nothing to do. He had lists of prescribed exercises, and he did them zealously. When he was done he sat on the edge of his bed and shut his eyes, and tried to remember what it had been like to feel his heartbeat. He had no pulse now; whatever device they had installed to pump his blood did so without benefit of a metronome. He set his index finger to his wrist anyway, as though he might detect one if only he waited long enough. The absent heave beneath his ribs seemed audacious, though perhaps only because it was new.
He thought of Dick’s mother again. Images came unbidden, memories, he supposed, that had once belonged to Dick. Nights in the little farmhouse, one summer night in particular when he’d grown too hot to sleep inside and gone out into the yard into the open air. He lay on the grass and looked up at the sky and fell asleep that way, although he hadn’t intended to, and in the middle of the night Dick’s mother had come looking for him. He thought she’d be angry with him for leaving the house, and he scrambled up, hazy with sleep and frantic with apology, but she’d only shushed him and settled down alongside him in the yard in her nightgown.
They both lay quietly for awhile, until Dick’s eye caught the determined sparkle of a passing station and followed it down to the horizon. “What’s it like up there?” he asked. She had been to a station, she said, once. When she was young, before she married his father, whose dislike of extra-planetary expansion–of space as a concept–was nearly religious in its fervor.
“It’s beautiful,” she said. “But the whole time I felt as if I was waiting for the dice to land.”
In his hospital room Winters lay his hand on his chest and felt the same way. He was only just coming to know himself again but even now he was sure he had never been a gambler. He sighed, and reached for the paperback he’d borrowed from the hospital library, which was really just an old woman who pushed a cart from ward to ward. He was reading a pulp novel about a detective on a lawless outer rim station trying to solve a series of murders. He was having lapses in memory and slowly becoming his own prime suspect. He had trouble concentrating on the plot; he felt as if he had to read every word twice and then the whole sentence over again for any of it to make any sense.
He was using Harry Welsh’s letter as a bookmark. He’d probably read it twenty times, yet each time he did he felt as arrested as if he’d never laid eyes on it before. There was only the one letter, and there’d never been another.
I’m writing this to go along with you, wherever you go. I hope like hell you get to read it, and I hope when you do you’re not too pissed. Lew thinks he’s doing the right thing. He might be. I don’t know you like he does, and I don’t know what I’d do if it were Kitty dead and me with the chance to turn the clock back. It’s selfish, but I guess we all are. Go easy on him.
Good luck, Dick. Godspeed, and Currahee.
He thought of writing Harry back, but the envelope bore no return address. He thought of asking Webster about it, about where they’d been before, where the men they’d served with were likely to be now, but either Webster made himself scarce or Winters was unserious about looking for him, or some combination of the two. In any case, Harry and Lew--and Kitty--remained a mystery to him.
If it were Kitty dead. If it were Kitty dead, and me--
When he was bored in the afternoons he went out walking the way he had the day he met Webster. He went to the mailroom. He asked if there was anything for him, which most of the time there wasn’t.
One morning he was dressing for physical therapy when Renee appeared in the doorway of his room. Seeing her there, white coat against the eggshell wall, he knew why she’d come.
“Do you know why you’re here?” she asked.
“He died,” Winters said.
“You’re an asset, Captain. You were deemed too valuable to be released from duty. At least, that was the communication we received from your commanding officers.”
“When you’re returned to your unit I think you’ll be pleased to find that your level of functioning is enhanced,” she said. “But there are a few small modifications to be made to your hardware beforehand.”
“The ship’s computer?”
“I’m glad you talked to David,” said Renee. “Private Webster.”
“Look, I--Doctor, if it’s all the same, I think I’ve had enough.”
He winced. Dick died. “I’d like to get back to work,” he said.
Renee sighed. She looked out the window and pressed her lips together. She was wearing coral colored lipstick, and a bit of it had smeared at the corner of her mouth.
“You know, it’s not a happy occasion, when men come here. That’s the difficult thing regarding this line of work; one’s opportunity to make a difference comes as a result of--unfortunate events, no? There’s no denying it.”
“When you return to service you will be better,” she said. She stepped toward him, and his first impulse was to step back. He resisted, and let her take hold of his arm. He was reminded of Webster’s artificial bird, pecking away at the turf in the garden.
“With these enhancements, fewer of your men will die,” she said. “That’s the bottom line. You’ll be a direct line of communication with your troop carrier, with your optics, with the wellbeing of your entire unit.”
He was only half listening. He looked past her into the hallway. There was a stretcher there, and a bored looking orderly.
“Can I go back?” he asked, interrupting her.
“After this, can I go back?”
For a moment, she looked taken aback. “Yes,” she said. “From my perspective, you’ve been sufficiently rehabilitated.”
He shrugged away from her, so that she lost her grip on his arm. “Then let’s get it over with,” he said.
Winters and Webster went back together, on a supply vessel due to rendezvous with the troop carrier.
“Toccoa,” said the captain, reading it off the manifest. “Should be a couple weeks. So settle back and relax, gentlemen.”
The supply ship wasn’t designed to carry passengers, so they were housed in a corner of the cargo bay that abutted the crew quarters and had been rigged to use its climate controls. He had a cot to himself, and when he wasn’t clearing space amid the shipping containers to do his PT exercises he would lie on it and let himself drift. Sometimes he remembered things this way, though half the time he fell asleep and dreamed instead, fragments that might have been real once but might just as easily have been something else entirely. The memories seemed like dreams, anyway, or like the teledramas he watched on the station network in the hospital when he wanted background noise or to get out of his own head. They seemed like they had happened to someone else, and in technical terms, he guessed, they had.
The cargo bay was cold, and maybe that was what made him think of what he did, because when he shut his eyes this particular time he was Dick and he was in a tent, wind whipping around outside. Somehow he knew the tent to be hastily pitched, and he was annoyed by it, by the fact that the weather wouldn’t permit him to do the job properly.
“The weather outside is frightful,” said Lew, shouting to be heard over the wind. He was there in Dick’s memories more often than not.
“Don’t bother finishing that sentence,” Dick said. “We haven’t got a fire.”
“Aw,” said Lew. “Well, it’s still delightful in here.” He patted an open sleeping bag beside him. “Get in, I zipped us together.”
“Oh, I promise to keep your virtue intact. Now get in, I’m fucking freezing.”
Dick sighed. With the analytic luxury of a third party Winters saw that he was still annoyed by the tent, that he was perplexed by Lew, and that he was, in fact, cold. He wanted to get into the sleeping bag. For some reason he was reluctant. He was worried about what it might mean, to be so close to someone else.
“Dick,” Lew said.
“Fine,” Dick said. He stripped to his PT shorts and a t-shirt, and inside the bag he was warmer. He held his hands up against his sternum, folded and prayer-like.
“Hands cold?” Lew asked.
Dick didn’t answer. His hands were cold. His extremities were often cold; he slept in socks every night and even now he was thinking of how cold his feet were in two pairs of woollen ones.
“I don’t like survival training,” Dick said.
Lew laughed. “So that’s what it takes to get Dick Winters to bitch,” he said. “Getting a little chilly in a survival sim.”
“I don’t like the cold.”
Lew took his hands. In the memory Dick imagined he felt his heart stutter.
Back in the cargo bay, Winters opened his eyes and saw not the bowed roof of a tent but the long straight lies of pipe that ran the length of the ceiling. He was vaguely disappointed. He crossed his arms over his chest and shoved his hands under his arms for warmth. He couldn’t imagine his heart at all.
In close quarters, Winters learned that Webster liked to talk. He wondered if he’d always been that way or if his replacement had included some sort of upgrade in prolixity. Winters found listening to him tiresome, but he tolerated it for lack of anything else to do and for dislike of seeing Webster look downcast, an expression he wore when he thought Winters was ignoring him. In this way he learned about the plusses and minuses of New Boston, of ongoing station construction that never seemed to end and which made transit difficult, and of Webster’s travails at Harvard.
“I think I’ll go back,” he said. “After the war. After we win. Do you think they’ll take me? They can’t turn me down because I’m a replacement. I looked into it, and there’s precedent; they’ve got a kid right now who got creamed in a traffic accident, and--”
Winters looked away. He wanted to shut his eyes, just for a minute. If he looked away Webster wouldn’t see.
“How do you remember?” he asked.
“How do you remember all of it?”
“I told you,” Webster said, a little hesitantly.
He might have. But there was something about the stall in his voice that made Winters frown. He looked at Webster, trying to walk back through and puzzle it out, until Webster bit his lip and dropped his gaze.
“I read my file,” he said quietly. “Over and over, all right? And then I kept reading. About the things he seemed to--to like. And finally I started to remember that, and then it started to feel just the same as if I knew it.”
“How did you know all those things you told me? About the drinking, and my hair?”
“I started writing a friend of mine. I asked him when I found out you were at the hospital.”
Webster swallowed and began to pick at the seam of his coverall. They had new uniforms, thick and shiny ripstop. The quartermaster who’d doled them out at the depot said they were new stock, wouldn’t make it out to the rank and file for a few months yet. Winters didn’t think the man knew what they were, him and Webster.
“You told me it got better,” Winters said.
His voice sounded accusatory to his own ears. Maybe he hadn’t meant it. He was still getting used to his voice. When he first woke up he couldn’t speak, and then he was hoarse, and now it made him feel a little strange to talk at all.
“Did I?” Webster asked.
“I don’t know,” Winters said. “I think so. Maybe you just implied it.” But he had. Winters was sure of it. On the marble bench, watching the bird.
Webster shook his head. “I’m sorry,” he said.
“It’s all right,” said Winters.
“It doesn’t matter, does it? How I know? Do you think it matters?”
He was asking, Winters thought, about other people. People who had known David Webster, and whether or not Winters thought it would matter to them.
“I guess it doesn’t,” said Winters, and swallowed hard. He didn’t know. He hadn’t really thought about it. But at first he’d wanted to say yes.
In their final days on the supply ship Webster grew more reticent. He packed his scant belongings and unpacked them again, folding and refolding until Winters wanted to order him to stop. He had a packet of documents with the sector command seal on it that he'd read almost as many times as Harry Welsh's letter. He imagined it was the same sort of effort Webster had made, that part of him must think he could conjure enough details to stretch across the emptiness in his head.
There was programming, he'd been told, in the neural networks they'd implanted. To be reborn again whole cloth, entirely without context, Renee said to him once, her blue eyes wide. It would be horrifying, no?
And so he hadn't been, not entirely. There were things he knew without really knowing why, that the object in his hands was called a letter, that it was printed in ink on paper, that the ink formed words he could read. There were emotions too, the signal flares of an artificial limbic system, though these felt tentative at best and seemed to veer towards the negative, symptoms of a temperamental motherboard whose delicate circuits were quick to overload. Irritability, said Renee's voice in his head, is common and should begin to subside as your mind lays down the new pathways we know it will.
How do you know? Winters had asked her.
Extensive study, Captain Winters, she said, in a voice that he supposed was meant to be reassuring.
He wondered where all of them were, if they talked to one another. Or if, perhaps, they lived as islands, tracing the coastlines of their old maps like Webster had and wondering if it would ever be enough. Maybe it was. Maybe Webster was right. Winters wouldn't mind being proven wrong on that score.
When they docked with the troop carrier Toccoa he and Webster went up and sat in the cockpit, strapped in and watched the massive vessel loom ahead of them on the viewscreen, her dun flank broad and pale against the black. The pilot hailed her, and at once Winters felt as though his head had split open.
Hello, Captain, said a voice. It seemed everywhere at once, booming and smooth, and he looked around him to see if the others had heard it. Webster alone turned and met his gaze, his own eyes wide with shock.
"Hello," muttered Winters.
You don't have to speak, the voice said. I can hear you.
"Who—" It was difficult not to speak. The co-pilot turned to look at him like he was crazy.
Who are you?
You are looking at me.
Oh, he thought. Through the viewscreen he could see Toccoa's shuttle bay door approaching, and he found himself wondering if the ship could somehow feel them drawing closer, if she would feel the bay doors creaking open and the sucking chill of space.
Sensory perception is not a feature of my operating system, the ship said.
Can you—can you hear what I'm thinking?
In a manner of speaking. She paused, then: Welcome back.
Thank you, Winters thought. It felt strange to think he'd been here once, a whole and perhaps entirely different person. He ran a hand over his new arm and shuddered faintly.
This degree of connection is as new to me as it is to you, offered the ship. I was—surprised, when they made the augmentation to my interface. She sounded surprised now, as if by the very presence of the emotion.
You and me both, said Winters. Are there others here? Men like—like Webster and me?
They aren't connected to me like you are.
That was all she seemed prepared to say on the subject.
When the cargo ship had docked with Toccoa and Winters was standing in the airlock he felt a foreign and acidic anxiety. He hadn't been worried, back at the hospital. He knew he'd been given drugs, many and often, especially in the beginning under the guise of protecting his nascent neural connections from undue trauma. But even at the end, lying on the gurney awaiting the final operation that had opened his mind to another machine, he'd felt nothing but a cottony sense of remove from the circumstances. Now he singled out this strange emotion, plucked it like an interloping weed and examined it, and when he did he found it paradoxically familiar.
Beside him Webster gulped, and Winters wondered if he was feeling it too.
There was a crowd in the hangar bay, and when the airlock doors opened they began to applaud.
Winters looked around him, and found that when he focused on any one face for long enough a pale overlay veiled his sight. A personnel file--name, rank, and serial number. He blinked, and the image dissipated.
The ship spoke again. Optional actions include view: promotion history; view: service record; view: personal data; view: vital signs.
Can you just tell me those things, if I ask?
Do that, Winters said.
A man stepped forward. A colonel, by his rank stripes, and Winters wondered if he knew that because the ship had somehow inserted it or by some rote sort of muscle memory, the same ironclad recollection that had him whip his new arm up in a crisp salute which the man returned immediately.
Sink, Robert. Colonel.
"Dick," Sink said.
He stepped close and clapped Winters on the shoulder, the familiarity of the action strange. He wasn't ready for it, nor for the use of Dick's name, and he flinched slightly to one side. There was another man standing very close to Sink, his brow furrowed, and when he saw Winters twitch his frown deepened. He was dark-haired and dark-eyed, and there seemed another kind of darkness about him too, though if asked Winters couldn't have teased out what precisely it was.
"Sir," said Winters. He wanted to look at the other man instead, but he kept his eyes forward.
"It's good to have you back," Sink said. "The facility kept me apprised of your progress, and we were real pleased to see you come along so well."
"Thank you, sir."
"I know you'll slot right back into place," Sink said. "I've assigned Captain Nixon here to assist in that capacity."
He gestured at the man with the furrowed brows. He looked fretful.
Nixon, Lewis, Captain, said the ship and his uniform nameplate simultaneously. Winters thought the ship sounded a little hesitant.
Lew was there.
"I'm promoting you to Major effective immediately," Sink continued. "Nixon, if you'd like to do the honors."
Nixon took out a small, square box and opened it to reveal a set of rank insignia. Oak leaves, though again Winters wasn't sure how precisely he knew what they were. There was a gravitas present here he couldn't understand, one that reached beyond the conferring of the promotion; the room was rippling with it, the men around them standing with bated breath, as though they expected him to do something, to make some large and equivocal movement. There was a man to Nixon's left, standing just off his shoulder, who looked particularly concerned. He was short in stature, his light hair curling at his forehead and temples, and he looked from Winters to Nixon and back again. When he met Winters's eyes he held them a minute and then looked away.
Nixon stepped closer, and they looked at one another. Nixon swallowed. His right eyebrow quirked upwards. He took the insignia in his fingers and stepped closer still, so close that Winters could feel him. He realized abruptly that no one had yet been so close to him, save the doctors who'd made him this way, the nurses and therapists who'd attended to the needs of his new body. Nixon took a deep breath, which reminded Winters to breathe also. Nixon was looking at him intently. He reached up and pinned the oak leaves to the front of Winters's uniform, one side and then the other, the only sound their breathing and the soft rustle of fabric.
"Good to have you back," Nixon muttered, eyes fixed somewhere in the middle of Winters's chest. Winters didn't know how best to respond, so he didn't.
Nixon stepped back again and saluted, and Winters returned the gesture, knowing as soon as he began to lower his arm again that it had somehow been the wrong thing to do.
When it was done the room erupted with noise, and the men who'd stood around watching at a remove felt free to crowd closer, to pat him on the shoulder and back, to offer words of encouragement and gratitude and wonder at his return. He catalogued the tone and timbre of their words, of the way their hands on him felt. Strange, primarily. Dick, it seemed, had been well-missed. Winters didn't know what to make of it. He thought suddenly of Webster, and looked around for him. He saw him on the periphery; Sink had broken from the crowd and was going over to speak to him, and Winters thought that was good, that was the right thing to do. There was another man beside him, wiry, looking frozen the way Nixon had. His hands were balled into fists at his sides.
"Major Winters," said a low voice, and he turned to see another uniform move into his field of vision. "Major Ron Speirs," said the man, a little hesitantly. "Battalion XO. When you've settled in I thought we might put our heads together."
Speirs was rangy and dark-haired, and he reminded Winters a little of Nixon at first glance. But there was something harder about him, something flinty in the set of his jaw and in what Winters saw behind his eyes.
"Yes," said Winters. "Of course."
He felt again as though there was something he was missing, some reason why it was particularly important for the two of them to speak and for Speirs's hesitancy. He got the impression those two things were the same.
"Good," said Speirs. "Well. I suppose I'll leave you two to it."
He looked over Winters's shoulder, and he turned himself to see Nixon standing there, holding a clipboard and passing it from hand to hand. Speirs and Nixon shared a look Winters was not privy to, and then Speirs turned and strode off in the direction of the exit.
"I'm supposed to…to orient you," Nixon said. "If you're feeling up for it."
"Oh," said Winters. "Sure."
"Okay," Nixon said. "I guess we should start with your cabin. You can put your stuff down."
He gestured at the duffle at Winters's feet. He bent down and hefted it himself, which was stupid, Winters thought. He was no invalid. Nixon was looking at him like he might keel over any minute, his face drawn and pale, brows like coal in contrast.
"You're a Captain," Winters said as they made their way out of the hangar bay.
"So don't you have better things to do than show me around?"
Nixon winced. Quickly, but it was there, and Winters didn't miss it. "There's a little more to it than that," he said. "It's hard to explain. But I can show you when we get there."
"Dick—knew you," Winters said. "Right?"
Nixon winced again. "Yeah," he said. "You did."
Neither of them spoke again until they arrived at a grey rectangle of a door he supposed was his. The ship seemed to agree; the door slid open without fanfare, with Nixon's hand still hovering before the keypad.
"How'd you do that?" he asked, looking sideways at Winters.
"Hard to explain," Winters said.
The quarters were spartan, though having known only the interior of his hospital room, outfitted in luminescent white, he didn't register a judgement one way or another. He went over to the desk for some reason, ran his hand over the surface. Nixon set his bag down and fiddled with a button on the wall to make the bed fold out, and then he sat on it and ran his hands over his thighs as though wiping them clean.
"That's yours, over there in the corner," he said, nodding at an olive-drab metal footlocker set against the wall.
"Yeah. I held onto it for you. For him. I don't—I'm not going to know the difference," he said abruptly. "So—"
"No," said Winters. "It's all right."
He knelt beside the footlocker. There was a latch where he thought a lock might go, but now he simply flipped the latch and opened the lid. Behind him he heard a shift, a creak, and thought Nixon had leaned forward on the bed.
His heart rate has increased, said the ship, though Winters hadn't asked. Nor did he ask the ship why it mattered, why she was telling him, or what exactly it had to do with the footlocker.
"I used to keep booze in there under your clothes," Nixon said. "I cleared it all out after awhile."
The footlocker was spacious. Winters held up a few balled up pairs of woolen olive socks, a spare uniform in a slightly different style to the one he was wearing now. There was PT gear, shorts and a couple of t-shirts. Sweaters. A blanket, thickly woven and the color of milk. A modest book collection—novels, like the pulp he'd smuggled back from the hospital, a training manual, and a small black Bible—and a packet of photographs. These he did not inspect further, merely ran his finger along the brittle edges of the pictures and set them aside. The one on top was of Dick and Nixon in PT gear, Dick bent at the waist and grimacing at the camera, Nixon beside him squinting as into bright light.
He woke from sleep six hours and thirty minutes after closing his eyes. The length of approximately four human sleep cycles, said the ship. Her voice was low in his ear.
Am I? he thought to himself.
Do you wish to query the system?
Uh, he thought. All right.
Please repeat your query.
Am I human?
She paused. At least, he thought she paused.
Uncertain how best to assess the status of 'human,' she said. The officer designated Richard D. Winters is classed as human. She fell silent again.
I can read your vital signs, she said at last, a little hesitantly. Your respiratory rate. Your temperature. You no longer have a measurable pulse. I can access remote data if desired.
That's all right. Are my vital signs—normal?
They are currently within normal limits.
He wasn't sure exactly what that meant. Thanks, he said. The ship didn't acknowledge him.
He sat up and reset the lights higher. He kicked his sheets off, scraping them off his new leg with his old one. He still had a hard time with feeling in the attached limb; he knew it was supposed to be better, but he found it felt either too keenly or not enough, and it fell asleep sometimes at odd moments. Now he set both his feet on the floor and stood experimentally. The ground felt solid beneath him, which was something.
Nixon had taken great care to show him the pool. The rest of the recreation deck, too, but the pool in particular.
"You used to swim," he'd said, quietly, as though telling a secret.
"Why?" Winters asked him.
"You used to say it cleared your head."
They'd been outside the doors of the recreation deck. For some reason it had been the last stop on Nixon's tour. Winters could call up a floor plan of the entirety of the troopship; Toccoa had brought it up behind his eyes as they walked, complete with a glowing blue dot that represented him, a red one beside him that stood in for Nixon's heat signature. He could have told him, could have saved him the trouble of traipsing through the corridors and from deck to deck one by one, but somehow he'd felt disinclined.
He was supposed to be getting reacclimated. That was what Nixon told him. He wasn't sure how precisely that would be gauged, which he'd seemed apologetic about. He got that same sorry look when he told Winters things about Dick: what he'd liked, or what he'd done. He guessed it was only natural, to tell him. Nixon acted as if he couldn't help it, as if the words flowed out of their own accord.
It's only human, Winters told himself without thinking. When he caught himself he wondered whether that was why it felt so foreign.
This morning he went to the pool again, following the map in his mind's eye. He let himself onto the recreation deck. It was quiet, the air thick with chemicals, and at once he was hit full in the face with a splash of sense memory so vivid he thought he might stumble: a great and boundless happiness that washed over him just for a moment, just long enough to stop him in his tracks before it flowed away and left him leaning back against the door, breathing hard.
He went to the edge of the pool and shucked off his clothing. He'd found a pair of swim trunks among Dick's things when he’d gone through them, taken Dick's uniform clothing out of the footlocker and stacked it neatly on the desk for the time being. The footlocker seemed like some kind of artifact, the items inside even more so. He'd left the sweaters and the blanket and folded the photographs up in the middle of them. He was thinking of offering the locker and its contents to Nixon, and in the event he didn't want them, of throwing them out. His cabin was small, and the footlocker took up considerable space; he found he was always having to step around or over it, and had dragged it between the desk and the wall.
Richard Winters lists a physical address in Lancaster, Pennsylvania on Earth's North American continent, said the ship.
All right, he said.
It is customary to return a deceased or separated soldier's personal items to the physical address on record.
Why didn't they?
They were unreleased, said the ship.
What does that mean, unreleased?
They were not made available for return.
He still didn't understand, but the slight confusion was preferable to the emotional influx of a moment ago. He shook his head and dove into the water. At first he'd been afraid of how he might mix with liquid, but now he understood he could perform the same ablutions every human did. His body produced the same secretions as any other--sweat, urine--and could become accordingly offensive. He and Webster had gone without a decent sonic shower on the supply vessel, and by the end of the journey they'd each held the other at considerable remove. At the hospital he'd used real water enough to get a taste for it, and as he submerged himself now he felt a deep sense of satisfaction to be wet and cool again, to feel the water slip over and around his body. His new nerves sang; it was intense, but not unpleasant.
He swam a length and then a second, righting himself briefly at the end of the lane and blinking water out of his eyes before resuming. He was barely out of breath. At the hospital they'd had him on a cardiovascular program in addition to weight training and the rest of his physical therapy regimen. The ship assured him, when he asked, that his physical statistics were comparable, even superior, to Dick's, and he noted this with a quiet kind of pride. He swam and swam until he began to feel fatigue. He decided Nixon was right; his head did feel clearer, and he kept on past the point of fatigue until his limbs began to burn. He clung to the side of the pool at the end of the lane and when he pulled himself out to sit on the edge he realized abruptly that he wasn't alone.
"Hi," said Nixon. He was sitting on the diving board.
"Hello," Winters said. "Can I help you?"
Nixon coughed. He had a small silver flask in his lap, and as Winters watched he raised it to his lips and took a long drink. "Don't think so," he said. "I'm just here."
Nixon shrugged. "Old times' sake."
Winters didn't know what that meant. He shook his head and reached for his towel, draped it around his shoulders. "It's early," he said. "For drinking. Isn't it?"
"Time's just a construct, Dick," he said. "Didn't you know?"
"How often did he do this?"
"Oh, I don't know. Every day? Every other? Unless you had something else to do. Like a war, or something. You still remember that, that there's a war? I forget sometimes."
"I don't know," Winters said. "I read about it. I read his file. He seemed—"
"He was great," said Nixon. "A great guy. And that's not in the file, that's—" He shook his head and ran a hand over his face. He took a long drink from the flask, and then he tipped it in Winters's direction. "You want?"
"Shit, at least some things don't change. You ought to get out and come with me," he said. "When you're finished. Colonel Sink wants to see us both."
"I'm finished," Winters said.
He stood and toweled off. Nixon watched him and didn't bother to be subtle about it. Winters assumed he was cataloguing, looking at all the ways he'd been made different. He touched his shoulder idly and felt the thick seam of scar tissue where old met new.
"That hurt?" Nixon asked.
Winters sighed. "Not any more."
He moved his arm in a slow circle, imagining he could hear the pop and click of hardware beneath his skin. You won't get through a metal detector anymore, his physical therapist used to joke. Winters hadn't ever quite gotten it, and he got the feeling Dick wouldn't have either. The therapist said it over and over, as though his own memory was lacking, and so Winters started smiling broadly whenever he did as if to make up for it. He could do the same with Nixon now, only he knew somehow it wouldn't work. Already Nixon watched him with a brittle expression, as though Winters was bound to fail him somehow, or had done so already.
He went into the showers and left Nixon drinking out by the pool.
"You're shitting me," Nixon blurted, when Sink gave them their assignment.
Winters looked at Nixon out of the corner of his eye. He was glowering. His heart rate has increased fifteen percent, offered the ship, though Winters could've guessed that all on his own.
"Sir, if I can speak freely," Winters said.
"Of course," said Sink.
"What exactly is the purpose of—of a publicity tour?"
"Well," said Sink, running his index finger around the lip of his glass. "We jumped the gun with you a little. All for the best, but as a result, the army's had a lot to answer for. They seem to think trotting you out will smooth things over, with the public and with the brass whose feathers got ruffled."
Winters frowned, and Sink seemed to take it for confusion. "It's a figure of speech," he said.
"I thought as much, sir."
"Well, good," said Sink. "See, you're quick as ever. You'll handle it fine between the two of you. The truth is, Captain Nixon had the right of it that day. We couldn't have asked for a better model for the whole business. Stop in and see the quartermaster before you leave; we'll kit you both out. I'm sorry you came all this way back just to go right back out and make the rounds, but it can't be helped."
"Of course not, sir," Winters said.
"Of course not," Nixon echoed. He cleared his throat. "Sir."
Sink had given them an itinerary: they'd start at the moon at Statio and the inner rim stations.
"Might be time to swing by Earth, if you're so inclined," he'd said, giving Winters a meaningful look, and it took him a good few minutes to recall where Dick's parents had lived, and he thought of the packet of photographs and felt faintly ill.
"Jesus Christ," said Nixon when they were back out in the corridor. "This is some kind of cosmic fucking joke, huh?"
"How's that?" Winters asked.
Nixon just laughed at him. "Oh, I'll let you figure it out," he said. "Guess we'd better go and get our dress greens. Get 'em cleaned and pressed. Then I suppose I've got some messages to send." He spun on his heel and stalked off in the direction of the elevators.
"Messages?" Winters asked, overstriding to make up the gap. "Where to?"
"Home," Nixon said acidly. "I can't fucking wait, can you?"
Later in the day he ran into Nixon again, in the mess this time, sitting at a table with a trio of fellow officers. Speirs, Ronald, said the ship, though Dick recognized him from the shuttle bay the day he'd arrived. The same was true of Welsh, Harry; even Lipton, C. Carwood looked familiar. The latter sat close to Speirs on one side of the table, and Nixon regarded the pair of them watchfully as he picked at his dinner. As Winters waited in line he could feel various sets of eyes skate over him. He scanned the room for Webster, who he found in a corner deep in conversation with the wiry-framed man who'd welcomed him back. The expression on his face seemed easy somehow, far more so than Winters felt, and he thought of what he'd said to him on the way back to the ship, about his scholarship in the field of David Webster and whether Winters thought it would get him by. Perhaps, he considered now, he had been too hasty a judge.
He filled his tray, looking down at the food with precious little appetite. He was still rarely hungry. He wondered what Dick had liked to eat, and the question made his gut twist all the worse. He was standing in the middle of the room, staring down at his brown disc of meat substitute, when he felt a hand on his shoulder.
Lipton stood beside him. He was smiling, his face warm and open, and when he asked if Winters cared to join their table he couldn't help but allow himself to be guided, despite the fact that Nixon's affect grew increasingly guarded the moment he sat beside him. He slid closer to Welsh, who watched him with poorly concealed curiosity.
"Take a picture, Harry, it'll last longer," Nixon said, and Welsh colored and busied himself with his plate.
The admonishment didn't seem to be for Winters's benefit; at least, nothing changed about the way Nixon looked at him, or about the tense way he returned to stabbing a drab pile of rehydrated string beans with his fork.
"So how's it been?" asked Lipton, after fixing Nixon with a vaguely unimpressed look he studiously ignored. "It's good to have you back, you know."
Winters shrugged minutely. "It's been fine," he said. Then, "I went to the pool this morning." Nixon said Dick used to do it. He guessed the memory might count for something now.
"Oh yeah?" said Welsh. "So you can swim? I didn't know if you'd—"
"Harry," said Nixon.
"—short-circuit, or something. I'm just asking, Lew."
"It's fine," said Winters. "And yes, I can swim. Without short-circuiting."
Across the table Speirs snorted and shook his head. "You ought to give these guys a presentation," he said. "Put to rest a lot of goddamn questions once and for all. No offense, Major, but it's a bit of a distraction when we're about to head back to the front."
"Let 'em ask Web," said Nixon. "Word is he's been pretty talkative on the subject. They ought to send him out on this dog-and-pony show instead of Dick here. He'd put himself through his paces up on stage any day of the week."
Winters nodded. "It's impressive," he said quietly. "The way he's adjusting. He—taught me a thing or two, back in the hospital."
"Hospital," said Speirs, as though rolling the word around on his tongue. "Is that what it was?"
"I guess," Winters said. "I didn't know what else to call it. There were doctors and nurses," he added. "Orderlies. And surgeons, I had—"
Nixon started, getting up from the table all at once. He knocked the tabletop with his knee in his haste and tipped his glass over. It was half full of powdered, reconstituted milk, and the liquid puddled and ran all over the table. Nixon cursed, and Winters got up too without quite knowing what he was doing or why.
"I'll clean it up," he said, and went and grabbed a fistful of napkins. He dropped them in the middle of the table to soak up the spill. His palm was wet with milk, and despite what he'd said before about not short-circuiting he felt an electric sting from his fingertips up to his elbow. He snatched his hand back. The four men stared, and Winters felt his face grow hot. The sensation was peculiar, equally as unpleasant as the pain in his hand, and their observation even more so. He muttered something under his breath, some excuse, and then he turned and left the mess hall. Behind him he thought he could hear Speirs saying something to the rest of the assembly, his tone harsh. Winters didn't bother listening.
He didn't see Nixon again until they boarded the shuttle that would take them away from Toccoa altogether. The ship was still there in his head, and as Nixon settled into a row of seats across the aisle from him with little more than a curt nod Winters found himself embarrassingly pleased for the company.
The ship showed him a starmap, and he shut his eyes to see it better against the black of his lids. They were back in the rear sector—looking at records they'd been stationed there before the war broke out, and the ship had rotated back to a non-combat position several months after Dick died. The men were going back to the front now—a ragged red line that glowed away into the black— and Winters and Nixon were going to the western side of the moon and then a couple of earth-orbit stations, including New York, which Winters thought was probably the source of Nixon's malaise.
They docked in lunar orbit and took a ferry down to the dome. Winters didn't remember having been to Statio, but Nixon had evidently spent some amount of time there, from the way he strode through the spaceport with jaunty familiarity.
"Have you got our schedule?" Winters asked him. Nixon nodded.
He was serving as some kind of an intelligence attaché, which he'd said sardonically was a fancy word for gofer. Winters hadn't known what that meant. "Oh, I get your coffee, carry your bags. That sort of thing."
"You don't have to carry anything," Winters had said. "And I don't drink coffee."
Did I? he nearly asked. He caught himself before he could. The slip seemed important somehow, and like it might trigger some reaction in Nixon that Winters felt, as yet, unprepared to deal with.
Now in the spaceport he found he had to hurry alongside Nixon, who'd pulled a flatscreen out of a vest pocket and was scrolling along its face. "There's a dinner reception," he said. "And oh, a cocktail hour, how civilized. Do you drink when it's not morning?"
"I thought you said time was a construct," said Winters. "And no, I don't think I do." He frowned. "Is the cocktail reception for us?"
"Not us. You."
"But why make all the fuss? I'm not—I'm not the only one like this."
There were plenty of others. Sink had talked once or twice about a group from the Second Armored Division, and there was Webster, and at least one other man on the ship, whose family had paid for his replacement out of pocket.
"That's the thing, I suppose," said Nixon. "In a way, you are." He stopped at a shopping kiosk, which stood next to a bar with a robotic server Nixon looked at longingly. He took a paper cup out of a stack mounted on the wall and shoved it beneath a silver spout, jabbing at a few brightly colored buttons.
"Are you sure you don't drink coffee?" Nixon asked, looking back over his shoulder.
The creamy liquid coming out of the spout actually smelled appealing, and faintly recollected pleasure curled through Winters's brain. "I don't—"
"C'mon, give it a shot. My treat."
Winters shrugged. "All right," he said.
"There we go," said Nixon, and looked genuinely pleased for perhaps the first time Winters could recall. "How do you take it?"
"Same as you, I guess."
Nixon's grip tightened on his own cup, but if he was thrown by the answer he didn't let on further. He took down a second cup, pressed the buttons on the kiosk in an identical sequence, and set the cup under the spout.
"It’s good stuff," he said. "I always said I didn't think I'd get through life without it, and for once Dick agreed with me."
As Winters watched, Nixon took out his flask and unscrewed the top. He sloshed a generous amount of the liquid inside into the coffee and stirred it with his middle finger, popping it into this mouth when he was finished as though loath to waste a drop of any of it.
"Not on that, I'm guessing," Winters said.
"No," said Nixon. "Not on that."
They took the monorail into the city, to a hotel that spiraled up towards the dome. It was strange to see space all around him; the hospital station had its artificial weather, and in his brief interlude on the ship he couldn't recall having spent much time in contemplation of the black that pressed in on all sides. In the elevator to their suite he found himself doing something he'd indulged in only once or twice since waking up, which was to try and remember. It felt like climbing a rope hand over hand. He'd get along fine for awhile, only he'd inevitably reach a point at which the line ran out and he was left holding its frayed end. He would think and think, probe at the end of the rope as at a scab, and sometimes he thought he could recall something, or a ghost of something. Now he was too distracted, the light in the elevator too bright against the long lunar night outside.
"You grew up on a station?" he asked Nixon when he'd given up trying.
"New York," Nixon said quietly.
"Right," Winters said. "What's it like? I don't think I've been."
"You have, actually. You came home with me once on leave."
"Oh," Winters said. "I'm sorry."
"It's okay. It's probably better you don't remember. I don't think you liked it much."
Winters frowned. He wanted to say he was certain that wasn't true, that he was sure he'd liked New York Station very much, but he thought of the vague claustrophobia of the hospital and the supply ship and conceded that Nixon was probably right.
"What is it like, then? Maybe you'll sway me before we go."
"Hey, if this whole thing is just a tabula rasa for likes and dislikes you'll have a whole slew of fellows lining their wives up," Nixon said. He coughed. "Sorry, that was off-color. You'd have smacked me in the arm, probably, so feel free."
He looked expectant, like he actually wanted Winters to do it. He looked from his hand to Nixon's shoulder and back again, but the elevator chimed before he could make sense of the offer such as it was. They stepped out into the hallway, plush carpet beneath their feet. The pile was deep enough to trip Winters up, his new foot feeling wooden and useless. He stumbled against the wall, and Nixon grabbed at his other arm to keep him from going down.
"You all right?" Nixon asked, his grip tight on Winters's bicep.
Winters nodded. He flexed against Nixon's fingers without thinking, and Nixon dropped his arm, shoving his hands in his pockets as if he wanted to pretend the moment had never happened. Winters was all right with that, and he ducked past Nixon down the hall to their suite. It was well-appointed, modern, but sterile to Winters's eye, all synthetic marbles and cold stainless steel. There was a long glass wall running the length of the central sitting room with a perfect view of the distant Earth, blue and brown and white with cloud cover, and looking at it Winters felt a pang he couldn't place.
Nixon went over to an end table and ran his palm along the surface. He whistled. "Nice," he said. "Must feel good, knowing you're worth all this."
Winters shrugged. “I don’t know.”
"I'm beat," Nixon said, loosening his tie and taking his jacket off. "I'm going to lie down for awhile. They're sending a car at ten of six. You want to knock on my door at twenty to?"
"Thanks." He draped the jacket over the back of the sofa and retreated into one of the bedrooms.
Winters found the other; it was as stunning as the living room had been, with the same view out the window. He sat on the wide bed and stared out into space, past the glow of the city lights and into the stars beyond. Presently he put a lamp on, which replaced the view with his reflection. He found he'd rather look at something else. There was a flatscreen on the wall, but he didn't know what he'd watch on it. He rose with some degree of caution and went over to his duffle, unzipping it and pawing through the layers of clothing until he found what he was looking for.
The packet of photographs was bound together with a rubber band, which he unwound and put around his wrist for safekeeping. He went through the stack one by one, lingering longest on the picture of Dick and Nixon in their PT gear and another of Dick with a man and woman who looked enough like him that they could only be his parents. There was the white blur of a house in the background, a splotch of greenery, and he looked up from the photograph out the window and fixed his gaze on the planet where it hung in the dark like a mottled jewel.
There was another picture too, one he passed over at first. It was a candid, and not an objectively good image; in it Nixon was looking at the camera, blurry as with movement, his mouth open. Winters got the impression he was proselytizing in some way, and that he was probably drunk. Dick was beside him in better focus, though he was looking not at the camera but at Nixon, his expression warm and indulgent. The implied amity wasn't exactly surprising, but Winters found himself brought up short anyway. It was one thing to infer: from Welsh's letter, from the way Nixon carried himself like he was keeping the weight off a sore foot, from the sense memory of death that hung around Winters like smoke. It was another to see them together before, at ease and unposed.
He got up from the bed and went into the bathroom. The sinks ran real water, and he turned the faucet on and let the stream get steaming hot. He wet a cloth and pressed it to his face, and he stared at himself in the mirror until his skin dried and his features ceased to make sense. It was time to go and fetch Nixon.
He went out into the living room and stared at the door for a minute before knocking, and he waited another minute before letting himself in. Nixon was sprawled face down on the bed, cheek mashed against the pillow. Winters approached slowly, his feet dragging slightly on the carpet. He meant to go and shake him by the shoulder but he found himself sitting on the edge of the bed and watching, unable to bring himself to touch. All at once Nixon woke with a start, rolled over and sat up and blinked at Winters in shock.
"Sorry," Winters said. "I was just going to—"
"You scared the shit out of me," Nixon said, rubbing at his face. He crawled off of the bed and wove his way to the bathroom, and Winters went back out into the living room again.
The car that picked them up buzzed along the streets automatically, its computer rattling off their names along with historical and architectural facts about the city. The dinner was held on base, on the outskirts of the settlement, so as they drove the taller buildings fell away as though dissolving in stop-motion. They came to a gate at which the car displayed its credentials, then shot along a clear domed tube to the base proper.
"I lived here for a few weeks," Nixon offered. "Last year." He'd been quiet on the drive, either listening to the computer drone or letting Winters think he was.
"Yeah, the front was over on the light side. They pulled me off the line to work here for a few weeks. I remember being so bored, it was just paper pushing, you know. And then after I'd go back to my room in the barracks and try to sleep and just lie there, thinking."
"What did you think about?"
Nixon bit his lip and looked out the window again. "Nothing," he said. He nodded out the window. "We're here."
There was a man standing at the curb to meet them. He was tall and thin, with close-cropped fair hair and features that seemed slightly too small for his face. He grinned when he saw Nixon, but when Winters came around the back of the car his smile froze on his face before diminishing to something a little more diluted.
"Captain Hester," said Nixon
"Major Winters," he said, eyeing Winters's rank stripes. He stepped forward and held out a hand for Winters to shake. "Clarence Hester. But that's awful, huh? Just call me by my last name."
"Captain," said Winters crisply.
Hester gave a little nod. "Right," he muttered. "Well, anyway, I guess Lew's filled you in on everything. The schedule? It was good of you both to come."
"Wasn't a whole lot of choice at play," said Nixon. "But hell, Hester, any time."
"What is the schedule?" Winters asked him.
"Tonight there's a cocktail hour and dinner," said Hester. "Tomorrow there's the dedication out at Terra Nivium—"
Nixon looked up sharply.
"What's that?" Winters asked.
"Oh," said Hester. "Uh—"
Nixon looked pained. "He doesn't remember," he said.
"Of course," said Hester. "I should've known. I'm sorry," he said. "The army wants to dedicate the site, put up a memorial, and they thought it'd be appropriate to have you answer questions as part of the ceremony. It won't be too big. Invited guests only, so."
Winters nodded. "Sounds fine," he said.
Across from him Nixon was making a face. "Let's go in," he said. "I need a drink."
He downed several in quick succession with Winters and Hester looking on. "You worked together on the ship?" Winters asked finally, when watching Nixon drink in silence had become uncomfortable.
"We did," Hester said. "Up at battalion and then regiment together for a few years. Then I got transferred here."
"What do you do now?"
"It's funny," Hester said. "It started with you. I know you don't remember me. And we didn't know each other. I mean, we did, but not well, not really, but after you died they sent me here to work on starting up a replacement program proper, and I've been here ever since."
"A program," Winters repeated.
Hester nodded. "They've been planning it for years," he said. "They started it even before you died; they had a flagship division out of Second Armored. I'm sure you've heard of them."
"After you died Lew—well, he gave us a shot in the arm, I guess you could say."
Winters was about to ask what exactly that meant when they were interrupted by a looming colonel, and Winters remembered he was supposed to be the guest of honor and star attraction all in one.
Later he wouldn't be able to recall the details of the evening; he sat at a round table with Nixon on one side of him and the colonel on the other, and they ate food that Nixon assured him was not reconstituted, a fact that seemed to excite him and Hester both, not to mention the colonel. Winters ate enough to be polite and then set his fork down, feeling a churning in his stomach that didn't bode well for the rest of the night. His body seemed temperamental, a mess of crossed wires. He got headaches when he looked at light too long, strange pains in his limbs and the zip and burn of neuralgias. These were the things he thought of at the army's head table, that crowded his mouth and threatened to spill out on the record.
They asked him things he felt sure would be published in a brochure somewhere. "How do you feel, being given a second chance at life? Are you grateful to the army for sponsoring your replacement?"
Must be nice, knowing you were worth all this. Beside him Nixon had his hand in Hester's lap where he thought no one could see.
"I'm sorry," said Winters. "Could you repeat the question?"
He woke early and went into the bathroom, still nauseated, and folded over the toilet, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand when he was done and wincing at the taste of bile.
When he leaned against the counter and looked in the mirror again he hardly recognized the man from his collection of pictures. His hair had grown back, though in the photograph of Dick with his parents his hair had been long enough to curl a little, parted deeply to one side and shining softly with pomade or, more likely, with simple good health. Winters shut his eyes, teary from vomiting. He opened them again and pressed the pads of his fingers into the shadows underneath, his skin cool and waxy.
When he was dressed he went into the shared living room. Nixon was there, smoking a cigarette with the window open.
"I never got used to the nights here," he said without looking up. "Never can tell what time it's supposed to be."
"I suppose it's morning," said Winters. He came and stood next to him, put his hand out the window with Nixon's smoke to feel the temperature. Cold.
"You got a built-in clock in that head of yours now?"
"Well, I don't set an alarm."
Nixon laughed at that. "I made a pot of coffee if you want it," he said, nodding at the kitchenette. "It's good stuff, too, better than the spaceport. But you'll have to settle for powdered milk."
"I'll live," Winters said.
As he went and poured himself a cup he could feel Nixon watching him. He poured a second, though Nixon hadn't asked, and brought them both over to the window. They sat together and drank, and presently Nixon stubbed out his cigarette on the window ledge and tossed the butt out into the open air.
"Hester's in the bedroom," Nixon said matter-of-factly. He crossed his arms over his chest.
Winters took a sip of his coffee. He hadn't put the milk in this time and he found he liked it better.
Nixon sniffed. "You're still so damned unflappable," he said, and then he got up and put his mug into the sink.
Winters stayed by the window even as he heard Nixon go back into his bedroom, heard low voices start up beyond the door. He watched the city lights multiply one by one, as the dark side of the moon eased into what passed as day. Nixon's words rang in his head, the way he'd gotten up and walked to the sink, the clatter of his cup in the basin. Last night at the table there had come a moment when his gaze had settled on the two men; they weren’t doing anything untoward. only talking, but Nixon had caught him looking and stared back for a long time, as if he wanted Winters to say something. For his part, Winters had waited for the words to come into his head. For he wanted to speak too, he found, just as he'd wanted to speak now by the window. But the words hadn't come, and the space where they should be sat empty and gnawing inside of him.
Terra Nivium was far enough lightward from Statio that the ceremony was held in the noontime dusk. Earth wasn't visible, and Winters found he missed it already. It gave him something to look at. Hester made himself scarce, though when the ceremony began he sat beside Winters onstage and looked mostly at his hands.
Winters wasn't naive to the gravity of the day, not entirely; he'd read about the ambush at the pass, and the men who had died. He knew Dick had died not long after, but that the off-map eastern sector city where he'd met his end made for a less dramatic backdrop. They'd domed the plain, and according to Hester they were planning a statue, and perhaps a little museum. The western sector flag hung stiffly outside the dome in zero gravity.
"You can see the rover tracks," Nixon said. "And the footprints, and the places where the bodies lay. This damn rock doesn't forget, does it."
Winters had forgotten, so he shook his head and left it at that.
They asked him more questions. Mostly about the battle; those were easy, because he could rattle off the network entry the ship had shown him. More difficult were those about his time at the hospital, his rehabilitation. They were blessedly reticent on the subject of Dick's death, having perhaps deemed it untoward or disrespectful. He told himself he wouldn't have minded, it was only that he didn't know what to say.
"What would you tell the families of soldiers bound for replacement?" asked a woman from the audience.
She held a flatscreen in front of her she was using to record him. Later the ship would show him the upload on the network and he would feel a deep discomfort with the way he looked, the way he shifted from foot to foot and seemed so clearly to wish he was anywhere else.
He'd cleared his throat and looked down, thinking a minute. "I guess I'd tell them to be patient," he said. "That—that their sons want to come back to them. But that they might not know it yet."
On the recording the crowd buzzed with approval. The picture went fuzzy and cut out. Winters blinked, and the image went away, saved in some folder in a corner of his brain he was only gradually learning how to access. He willed his eyes wider, though the bright white light of the shuttle cabin set his temples throbbing.
Nixon was in the seat across from him, typing away at his handheld. He was chewing on his bottom lip and prodding at the screen with a stylus. The ride to New York Station took two days, and Nixon seemed determined to enjoy the trip. He'd eschewed his flask for table service; they were on a commercial shuttle line in a first class cabin full of officers, and the crew were very accommodating. He held his glass up and the attendant smiled at him, her teeth and hair and uniform white as the walls, the bulkheads.
Winters shifted in his own seat, digging the heel of his hand into his hip.
"You okay?" Nixon asked.
"Yeah. Just a little stiff."
"Didn't know you could get stiff," Nixon said. "Aren't you a well-oiled machine?"
Winters opened his mouth before coming to the realization he didn't have an appropriate response. He shut it again, and Nixon looked dissatisfied.
"Did you say goodbye to your friend?" Winters asked.
Nixon raised an eyebrow. "Who, Clarence? Christ, that is an awful name, isn't it? No, not in so many words. And anyway, it was just fun for a night. Why do you ask?"
"You thought I ought to care about it this morning."
Now it was Nixon's turn to gape. Winters felt pleased at the look, a mean little twist that shocked him. Nixon got hold of himself and grinned as though he was determined to be pleased too. He slid lower in his seat so their knees knocked together and slurped his drink pointedly.
"You know, I like you," he said.
Winters's erstwhile pleasure short circuited abruptly at the words. He sat up straight, feeling suddenly that he ought to get a little distance between them. Nixon watched him over the rim of his glass until Winters rummaged in his bag for his battered paperback, the same pulp he'd been picking at since the hospital, just for something else to shore him up.
Nixon kept watching for awhile as he read, as though he expected Winters to put the book back down and start talking again. He didn't. He read the same page over three times until Nixon sighed and gave up and went back to his handheld. They didn't talk further until a couple of hours later, Winters having made a few chapters worth of progress and Nixon having dropped off to sleep, woken up again, and ordered a sandwich and another glass of whiskey. The attendant brought him a plate of sandwiches stacked one on top of the other and held together with toothpicks. The noise Nixon made when he accepted her offering made her blush.
"Real bacon, Dick," he said as if to himself. "Just like we talked about. Here, you want one of these?"
Winters shrugged and let him pass one over. It was very good, thick cut bread spread with butter, containing several slices of bacon. He thought he might regret eating it from a digestive standpoint, but it was worth it for the way Nixon watched him bite for bite, as if awaiting some result only he knew to expect.
"How's that taste?" he asked.
Winters nodded. "Good," he said.
"Good," said Nixon, looking satisfied. He leaned back and stared off to one side, looked back at Winters as though he'd just thought of something. "Say, did you mean what you said earlier?"
"What did I say?"
"At the ceremony. What you said you'd say to the parents."
"I don't know," Winters said. "I—I guess I just said it."
Nixon cocked his head to one side. "Uh huh," he said. Then, a little hesitantly: "You think you'll go back? Stop off on Earth after this and see the folks? We're on leave, might as well make the most of it while you can."
"I don't know," Winters said again.
The words felt hard to get out, harder than they had in front of the audience earlier. Then they had just been there, as though they were waiting in his mouth already, and he had the sudden disquieting idea that perhaps they had been, had been set there on his tongue and in his brain by some outside force. The ship, maybe, or someone else entirely.
He hadn't written Dick's parents. He didn't know what they thought of all of it, if they thought anything at all. If they'd taken his advice before he'd been able to give it: been patient, and left the light on, and waited for their son to come back.
New York was an assault. For all he'd asked Nixon to try and sell it, he could see why Dick had been less than enthusiastic. Nixon had been unforthcoming when Winters had probed further regarding the visit, would say only that they'd come back on leave for some sort of party of his sister's, and that Dick hadn't liked it because he had to wear a tuxedo instead of his dress uniform and thought it too fussy. Winters had plucked at the seam of his own uniform and considered a tuxedo. In his head, he heard the little click of audio coming online that he'd come to think of as Toccoa clearing her throat.
A semi-formal evening suit distinguished primarily by satin or grosgrain facings on the jacket's lapels and buttons—
Thanks, thought Winters.
—and a similar stripe along the outseam of the trousers.
Nixon seemed to grow more tense the closer they got. He drank fretfully and with determination, and ripped up his cocktail napkin. He bounced his leg up and down, up and down until Winters wanted to stop it badly enough to swat Nixon on the knee. He froze in mid-twitch and flinched as though burned.
"Sorry," they said at once.
At the spaceport Winters hung back and watched a small girl barrel into Nixon and nearly lay him out on the floor of the terminal. He made a noise like a balloon deflating as they collided and he knelt to receive her, smiling into her hair and nodding up at a woman who was so like him that she must be his sister, and so well dressed that she must have hosted a party requiring a tuxedo.
"Dick!" called a voice, small and shrill as a seabird's.
The little girl—Nixon's daughter—had separated from her father and bounded up to him on her tiptoes.
"Hi," she said, hands behind her back, looking up through her fringe.
He didn't know her. Worse, he didn't know if Dick had, and Nixon's blank face wasn't giving anything away. His sister, too, watched with bemusement, looking from Winters to Nixon to the girl.
"Hi," he said.
He'd waited a beat too long and let her smile flag, but she picked it back up again when he said she had a very nice dress, and that she must be very considerate to look so fancy on account of her father.
"He's right, Bets," said Nixon. "I'm hardly worth it."
But he smiled then too, wide as Winters had seen so far, and then he swept the girl up on his shoulders and strode off ahead along the concourse.
The dark-haired woman stepped up close to him and took him by the elbow. "I'm Blanche," she said. "And we've met, but—"
"I'm sorry," Winters said. "I don't—"
"It's all right. Lew told me, so you don't have to worry about it. But you do have to come and have dinner with us."
"I'm afraid so. And you can't blame Lew, either, this is entirely my fault."
She slipped her arm through his. His new arm, and for a moment he could barely feel her, but then his nerves seemed to realign themselves and he felt her pull him gently forward, less alone than he'd yet been in this new life.
"Do you have days here?" he asked on the train, peering out the windows as the lights slid by.
"Of course we do," said Betsy, who sat beside him and pointed out landmarks by silhouette alone, as though the skyscrapers they passed on the way into the central station were old friends, permanent as mountains.
"On the moon, they don't have days," he said.
"They do too," she said. "They're just longer. Everybody knows that."
"Betsy," said Nixon.
"Well, sounds like she's right," Winters said. "I stand corrected." He smiled at her, and she smiled back twice as wide.
"Look at that, she's won you over already."
Nixon shook his head, looking put-upon, and Betsy preened.
Blanche lived in one of the residential towers in the center of the station proper, and the elevator ride up to her condominium was longer than the ride to their hotel room on the moon. Betsy plastered both hands to the window and watched the view as though seeing it for the first time. The scale made Winters feel dazed, the blanket of lights stretching out on all sides.
"Of course you'll both stay here," Blanche said.
He and Nixon both opened their mouths to protest simultaneously, and they looked at one another across the elevator car with surprise, Nixon smiling as though Winters's response was somehow entertaining.
"I won't hear it,” Blanche said. “It's bizarre, Lewis, staying in a hotel when you're in the same city as your family."
"Who are you and what've you done with my sister? Because the Blanche I know had an honest-to-God calendar on her wall counting the days to her eighteenth birthday so she could fly the coop once and for all, family be damned.”
"What does 'fly the coop' mean?" asked Betsy.
"It means she thought New York Station was old news," said Nixon. "She wanted to light out for greener pastures."
"What's a pasture?"
"It's called growing up," said Blanche archly, over Betsy's head. "And it's healthy."
"Is that what your analyst says? You see one of those new robotic ones that reads your electromagnetic signature? I'd expect nothing less."
"My analyst says plenty," said Blanche. "You might consider seeing one yourself." The elevator chimed, and she nodded at the doors. "Here we are."
Blanche wasted no time in playing hostess, offering drinks and spiriting their bags to various corners of the apartment. "Betsy's sleeping over too, aren't you, Betsy," she said. "So it'll be a regular slumber party."
"Where does Betsy normally live?" Winters asked her.
Nixon was in the kitchen pawing through Blanche's liquor cabinet and loudly decrying the whiskey selection. Winters had a glass of seltzer water that tickled his nose.
"Oh, with her mother, of course. We get along all right, Kathy and I. We were friends when they were married, you see. Not all friendships survive love, but I suppose we managed. Much to Lew's chagrin, but it's better in the long run, him being gone."
She said the word love as though she was drinking seltzer too.
"You knew Kathy," she said, looking at him carefully. "You came here once when you and Lewis were on leave. We—we went on a double date, all four of us. I—I don't know what he was thinking, really, setting you and me up."
She laughed uneasily, and he echoed it, feeling the impulse to try and sketch in the memory. But he couldn't, could only give her that too-wide smile he'd been developing.
"Sounds like he thought he had the right idea," he said.
She smiled and put her hand on his arm. "I won't talk about back then," she said. "If it's easier on you."
"It's not easier or harder," he said, which wasn't quite a lie. "It's only that it feels as if you're talking about someone else."
She gave him a moue of sympathy, and looked as though she wanted to say something further, but then Nixon came back into the room and gave her a glass of wine and asked her what was for supper, so she considered him a moment further over the lip of her wine glass and then went into the kitchen with him, leaving Winters to trail along behind. Betsy had gone into the living room and pulled out her toys, and he sat down at the dining table and listened both to her chattering to herself and to the Nixon siblings fussing over whether to make baked or scalloped potatoes as a side for steak. Winters understood the general concept of a potato; on his brief time back on the ship he'd noted a certain proclivity for serving them and a certain disdain for them among the men, but he got the feeling that any potato Blanche Nixon served would be another species entirely. The noise in the apartment made him feel better, fuller somehow where there'd been a space before, one carved out all the sharper by Blanche's recollection.
After awhile Nixon came back out of the kitchen, which was beginning to generate appetizing smells. He was wiping his hands on a square of towel.
"How are you holding up?" he asked. "Ready to make your escape yet?"
"I'm fine," Winters said.
"Get you anything? Another drink?"
Winters shook his head. "What did you decide on?" he asked. "For the potatoes."
Nixon gave him an odd look. "Scalloped," he said. "She makes good ones, but it's more work."
"What were the two of you talking about in here?"
"When Dick—when we came here last. She said you set the two of us up on a date."
Nixon colored. "Oh," he said. "That. I guess I thought that way I'd stand a better chance of keeping you around." He shook his head. “It was a long time ago.”
"No. Not exactly. But then Kathy and I didn't either, so. Seems as if it was all for nothing in both directions."
Winters pressed his lips together. Something bothered him about the story, about Nixon's explanation of it, but he wasn't sure what. Now he watched him take up his drink and walk across the room to look in on Betsy, which he did with an expression of guarded warmth.
Nixon sat across from him when they ate. He cut up Betsy's meat for her and watched her as she chewed dutifully. In between bites he watched Winters with the same closed look he had since the very first day they met. This time there seemed to be something else behind it, something that had possibly been present before but had recently been made more visible, as though some outer coating had been worn off to reveal it.
The next day they were driven downstation in a long black shuttlecar with little Western Sector flags flapping on the hood. Betsy had been very disappointed she couldn't come along. Blanche said something about getting her home, maybe coming down with her mother to watch, but privately Winters hoped she'd keep the girl away.
"She's really something," he said to Nixon while he was thinking about it.
Nixon was looking out the window, and when he answered he sounded distracted. "Who?"
"Oh," he said. "Yeah, thanks. Can't take credit for most of it. The looks, maybe."
Then he turned to gaze out the window again. “Sure have missed this town," he said.
"I don't know. I guess. Maybe the guy I was when I was here last, really here. You know? Maybe that's what I miss more than anything."
"No," Winters said. "I don't know.”
The car glided to a stop along the curb, and at once the doors were opened. Nixon slid out and Winters after him, and a couple of privates flanked a carpet like a gauntlet and saluted as they ducked through.
"It's like a goddamn wedding," Nixon muttered to himself. "They ought to be throwing rice."
Further back on the sidewalk was a large group of people, men and women and kids. They were holding signs, some hand painted and some programmed to blink. IRREPLACEABLE, said one. He didn't understand it.
"What's that?" he yelled at Nixon's advancing back. "Who are they?" But already his words were swallowed up by the crowd noise and the brass band that had struck up to play them into the building.
Inside USO signs hung here and there in red and blue neon. There was a roomful of tables ringing a parquet floor and a long stage rimmed with bunting. The room was full already, and as they came in followed by their honor guard a loud buzz went up and a pretty blonde in a silver dress shimmied to the center of the stage. Beside her were a pair of girls painted up silver to match her dress, clad in what looked like bathing suits affixed with spangles in that same red and blue. They wore headpieces that stuck straight up out of their coiffed hair. Nixon took them in and shook his head.
"What?" said Winters.
"They're supposed to be robots," he said. "Look at that, the buttons and the antennae."
Nixon looked at him meaningfully.
"Oh," Winters said.
On stage the girl started singing. "Come on," said Nixon. "We're supposed to go back to the call room. I think it's this way."
He took Winters by the elbow and walked him up a set of stairs to the left of the stage behind a thick velveteen curtain. Here there was a narrow hallway and a series of doors. Dressing Room, read the lettering on each one. As he watched the nearest door opened and he caught the eye of another robot girl. She was topless, and the paint went all the way down. She smiled at him shyly and waved, and he found something else to look at in very short order.
"Major Winters? Captain Nixon?"
Winters looked up to see a rather squat man before them dressed in a sharp cut suit. "I'm Halsinger," he said. "Hal Halsinger. USO chairman here on New York."
"Quite a show you're putting on here," Nixon said, gesturing around him. "This place wasn't quite so kitted out back when I joined up."
"Well, you're a career man, I'd venture," said Halsinger. "Joined up in peacetime, or close enough to it. New recruits these days need a little encouragement before they ship out to wage war in the cold vacuum of space. Hiya, honey."
At this he leaned over to smack the buttocks of a passing showgirl, this one dressed as what appeared to be a planet. She squealed and sidestepped him, and he guffawed. Winters chewed his lip in an attempt to conceal his distaste.
"What is she, Saturn?" Nixon asked, as if he didn't know.
"Little Miss Saturn," said Halsinger proudly. "The Starlite Review's got nothing on our humble station canteen."
"Real nice," said Nixon dryly. "Say, where do you want us?"
"Of course, of course. Thanks again for making the trip. You're going to be a real show stopper, Major Winters, and that's the truth." He gripped Winters about the upper arm. "Goddamn, would you feel that. Grade A prime, huh?"
Winters took his arm back.
"You'll wait back here," said Halsinger, undaunted. "After the Sunny Solar System routine you'll come on and do your bit. Mostly smile and wave, and the girls will take care of the rest. Couple of softballs from the audience, you read a little something—join the army, see the universe, that sort of thing, it'll all be on the prompter—and that's that. And then it's party time."
Winters swallowed. "Who were those people outside?" he asked.
"Out on the street. With the signs."
"Oh, them. You've got people's blood up. They got wind of the army replacing troops and lost their shit but good. Pacifists and religious nuts, mostly. You know, the usual. But it's no matter, they won't bother you in here."
Winters looked at Nixon over the top of Halsinger's shiny head. He thought suddenly of the ceremony on the moon, which suddenly seemed rather more sedate and dignified in comparison. He'd take Hester as master of ceremonies over this man any day, and across from him he got the picture Nixon was thinking the very same thing.
The girls in silver dresses went out on stage and did a number, and then the girls dressed like planets went out and did the same. They watched from alongside, saw the crowds of soldiers teeming at their tables, drinking beer and eating hamburgers and whispering in the ears of girls they'd brought as their dates.
"Hello," said one of them, whose pale hair was tinted pink by the gels above the stage.
Winters nodded at her curtly, and after a moment she looked faintly disappointed. She chanced a look at Nixon too, but evidently she didn't see anything she liked there either, for she turned away and went back behind the curtain.
"You know who that was?" said Nixon when she'd gone.
Winters shook his head.
"Tamara Reed, the actress," he said. "Girl From Mars? No? You know, Dick had no taste either. No accounting for it, I guess.”
Winters shrugged. The only movies he could remember seeing were the ones they'd shown at the hospital. One night there'd been a big projection on the wall of the cafeteria. There were only a handful of people there, mostly staff, but Webster had sat beside him and drummed up enough excitement for both of them. He'd had a hard time following the story; things had been like that early on, and even now he found himself having to take a breath from time to time and draw his attention back.
Tamara Reed, as it turned out, was there to announce him. She stood at the silver microphone, which gleamed like a drop of moonlight in the middle of the stage, and she read a little blurb off the prompter that sounded so natural you'd think she made it up on the spot just for love of talking about him. He only realized she was going on about his service record when Nixon gave him a little shove towards the stage just as the crowd dissolved into polite applause and the band played a fanfare.
He couldn't quite see the crowd. The lights were shining in his eyes, and as he stood there he thought wildly of the operating room that last time, a mask descending onto his face, the lights above him brighter and brighter. He'd woken up with a headache then, and he was getting one now.
"Hello," he read off the prompter screen. "And welcome to the New York Station Canteen. For those of you just joining us—and by 'us' I mean the Allied Sector Armed Forces—I want to offer you a warm welcome and the reassurance that you've come to the right place. We need you. We need all of you to fight for the freedoms we enjoy in these four walls and out there on the streets, for the girl sitting beside you and your mother at home. And I'm here today before you as proof the army takes care of its own, even and especially for those who make the ultimate sacrifice."
He swallowed. He hadn't started out listening to the words, not strictly; he was too concerned about getting them out and getting the hell offstage. But as he listened to himself speak something twisted inside him, drawn all the tighter by the wide smiles he saw offstage once his eyes got used to the floodlights. They were all so young, and they all clutched their dates and the edges of the tables with an enthusiasm that threatened to launch them into orbit then and there. Had Nixon ever been that way? Had Dick, when they came back together on leave? Perhaps Blanche Nixon had imagined herself one of these girls, though the thought of that seemed more than a little ridiculous.
The band blared again, and Little Miss Saturn came flouncing out in her ringed tutu with a strapping pair of young men at her side. They produced a table and a set of chairs, and they beamed as Saturn came and linked arms with Winters and led him over to one of them. In the spotlight she made a great show of running her arms over Winters's bicep.
"What're you doing?" he asked her.
"Shut up and flex, hon," she said through gritted teeth.
Tamara whistled into the microphone. "Look at that, boys and girls," she said. "Now, I'm looking for a volunteer from the audience. Someone who thinks they've got what it takes to go toe to toe with Major Winters here. New York's finest new recruits versus the best this century has to offer."
"What is she talking about?" he asked Saturn.
She looked at him as though he wasn't very smart. "Didn’t you read the program? You're supposed to arm wrestle one of them."
"With your shiny new arm," she said, and sat him in the chair.
"Do I have a volunteer? You there, over on the right?"
Again the lights seemed too bright. By the way the crowd noise swelled Tamara must have chosen her contender, and indeed from stage right came a blur of motion as another of the planets—Mars, maybe, all decked out in red—collected a young man from the audience and walked him over to sit across from Winters at the table.
"What's your name?" asked Saturn, holding up the microphone.
"Peterson," he said, with just a hint of stammer.
He was a brand new private, uniform clean and pressed and straight from some stockroom somewhere. His hair was close-cropped, the flat yellow of a duckling, and his face was fat as a baby's. He had red hashmarks on his neck from shaving. Winters stood when he came over, and the kid saluted him. Winters returned the gesture, the kid looking him over with eyes like saucers.
"Sir, all due respect, but you look like you could break me in half," he said, and the crowd went wild.
"Don't sell yourself short, Private," Winters said quietly.
Behind the kid he saw Nixon watching, his face expressionless. Winters wondered if he knew this was supposed to happen and left it out of proceedings on purpose, told Halsinger to do the same. He felt distantly angry at the thought even as he doubted Nixon would do such a thing; Winters thought, from a distance, that Nixon looked as shocked as he felt.
"Drumroll, please," came the command.
Winters propped his elbow on the table. He felt ridiculous. He could feel the eyes of the crowd on him, could see the private staring at his arm, pale and hairless, its size and muscle tone roughly equivalent to its native twin but just different enough to snag the eye.
"C'mon, Peterson," called a voice from the crowd. "Let him have it."
Peterson gulped, and Winters couldn't help but grin at that. If he'd been full of bravado it might have been worse, but he wasn't; he seemed uncomfortable, like he'd been put up to it. Winters flexed his fingers, and Peterson sighed and clapped their hands together.
"All right," he said.
Winters had him against the table in half a second, which was, he guessed what everyone wanted. The crowd screamed again, and Winters wondered if he'd be hassled for it later. Peterson's palm was sweaty in his, and for a moment they held hands on the tabletop like sweethearts, until Peterson let go and they both wiped their hands on their trousers. He stared at Winters for a long time, long enough that Winters wanted to ask him what he was thinking of.
"How is it?" Peterson asked finally.
"The war. Being—being what you are."
Winters didn't know what to say. He hadn't been in the war, strictly speaking, and he hadn't been what he was for long enough to comment beyond, it feels like waking up alone. He shrugged and looked over at Saturn, who came and rescued him by way of fussing over Peterson until he blushed and escorting him back to his table in the audience with a fistful of drink tickets.
When he was gone Winters ceded the stage to the dancing girls and took his place in the wings beside Nixon again.
"Nice job out there," Nixon said.
"Shut up," said Winters, without thinking about it.
Nixon snorted, which was enough to make Winters laugh, and for a moment the two them stood there looking at one another and shaking with mirth. It felt unaccountably good to laugh together like this, unaccountably familiar. For once, he decided not to think about it, just put his hand on Nixon's shoulder and guided him down from the wings of the stage and down to the bar.
"What are you doing?" Nixon asked.
"Don't you want a drink?" Winters asked.
"I always want a drink," said Nixon, suspicious.
"So," said Winters. "Here we are."
The bartender recognized them from up on stage and assured them they were drinking for free. Nixon asked for a whiskey and kept his eyes on Winters, wide and disbelieving.
"What?" Winters asked him, leaned up close to his ear and muttered.
Nixon shuddered beside him and shook his head. "Nothing," he said. "I just—this. You. It's funny, is all. You sure did a number on that kid up on the stage."
"Yeah," said Winters.
"I didn't plan that, you know."
"I thought it was awfully strange, to tell you truth."
"I know," said Winters.
"Hmm." Nixon took up his drink when the bartender pushed it across to him, buried his nose in the glass and watched Winters over the rim.
By the time they left the canteen he was happy, and he thought Nixon was happy too. He'd never have imagined it from the way he'd felt on the stage, but all that was beginning to feel like a distant memory now. He saw Peterson in the crowd, a brawny man's arm around his shoulders, a girl hanging on his elbow. He caught Winters's eye and smiled, and Winters imagined he felt something shift inside him when he smiled back.
Outside the evening shadows hung long on the sidewalk. He'd forgotten about the crowds they'd seen on the way in, the signs they held up at eye level. The protestors seemed to have forgotten about him too, until he and Nixon came back outside with their escort and they hustled up off the sidewalk and began shouting and crowding them from both sides.
"Car's on the curb," Nixon said. "Just keep walking."
Winters had just looked back acknowledge him when there was a blur of motion from out of the corner of his eye. It seemed that several things happened at once: one of the men in the crowd leapt forward, brandishing a blaster. More than likely he'd been aiming for Winters, only in the scuffle he ended up colliding with Nixon, shoving the gun up under his chin. The two of them were pressed hip to hip like lovers, Nixon and the man, Nixon's face a grim picture as though, ten seconds in, he'd resolved to die at the hand of this overzealous idiot, who Winters was fairly sure had next to no idea what he was doing.
He moved in a blink, faster than the soldiers surrounding them, certainly faster than it was possible for the attacker to react. He cut in from the side and knocked him off of Nixon, who took the butt of the blaster in the face for his trouble. He went down, nose streaming, but Winters barely saw him. He had the man down on the sidewalk himself; his skull hit the concrete with a sickening crack, and now he had Winters's forearm against his windpipe and a knee on his chest. The impact had knocked the wind out of him and he was gasping like a fish. The gun had flown off in some undetermined direction, but Winters wasn't thinking about that.
"Major Winters," said a voice. One of the lieutenants tasked with getting them out safely and without incident, whose plans had obviously gone badly pear-shaped.
Winters shifted his weight. The man beneath his knee gasped, and his ribs creaked like old wood. He was a grey and lumpen man, flecks of spittle collecting at the corners of his mouth, his hair too long. It was unwashed and smelled greasy. Winters hated him; staring down at his purpling face he felt pierced by it as by some fierce spike, which he imagined driving into the man's body until it grew limp and useless. It was a reflexive sort of hatred. Perhaps it had been woven into him.
He leaned forward. The man's mouth opened wider in inverse proportion to his airway.
"Dick," said Nixon in his ear. He didn't have to look to know his face was bright with blood; he could smell it. He imagined he could feel heat steaming from it up this close.
"Let him go, Dick."
The man's eyes were screwed shut. It seemed to Winters that if he was planning on shooting someone he ought to at least have the wherewithal to look all concerned parties in the face.
He looked up. Nixon hadn't called him that before. He grabbed Winters by the collar and tugged him backwards, the gesture surprising enough that Winters didn't resist, let himself fall backwards onto his rear end on the sidewalk as a handful of MPs charged up and descended on their attacker. Winters let Nixon help him to his feet and brush off the front of his uniform. Nixon’s nose was beginning to clot off, but he had blood all down his front already.
"Are you all right?" he asked Winters.
He nodded. "Are you?"
"Yeah." Nixon shook his head. "Christ, if they wanted a demonstration they sure as hell got one, and it wasn't you armwrestling with Johnny Soldier up on that stage." He nodded at something behind Winters's back: an advancing MP, looking official and arriving as if on cue to deliver a dressing down.
"Here we go," Nixon said.
“Sirs,” said the MP. “You’ll need to come with me.”
They spent the remainder of the afternoon answering questions from higher up the command food chain. From what Winters could glean they'd liked the idea of a show of controlled force, but this was "a bit much, Major, if we're trying to make a point about stability." All he could do was shrug and look at Nixon, who in turn was trying not to look at him. More than a fair share of the ire seemed to be directed Nixon’s way, which Winters didn’t like. Eventually he was sent out and they’d spoken with Nixon alone.
When the two of them were free to go again they stood on the street. Winters watched as Nixon smoked two cigarettes in quick suggestion with hands that shook.
"Are you all right?" Winters asked him again.
"Sure," he said, smoke pouring out of his mouth around the word. "Only I'm going to make myself sick chain smoking." He made a face. Then, "Do you want to go for a walk?"
"Okay," Winters said.
So they set out down the street in the waning light, Nixon walking as though he had a destination in mind, Winters walking alongside with his hands in his pockets. Nixon had washed the worst of the blood off in a bathroom earlier, but he still wore a dark stain down the front of his uniform and his upper lip wore a faint pink tint.
"How's your leg?" Nixon asked him.
"It bothers you sometimes. I can tell. It bothered you on the shuttle."
"It's worse when I sit," Winters said.
When he sat it felt as though his muscles forgot they were supposed to do anything besides simply exist, and at times he felt the same way. He felt as though since he'd come back he'd done nothing but move from place to place. He remembered asking Renee to let him rejoin the company, and when he had he'd been acting on nothing more than the gut instinct that there was something there for him, somewhere he'd find he fit back into. As much as he hated to admit it, Webster had gotten his hopes up. He remembered sitting on the supply shuttle in their little makeshift room listening to him confess. He'd been angry first, and then he'd seen how bad Webster felt and resolved not to let him know. But the future then had seemed suddenly vast and blank and horrible. There were times it still did.
“What did they ask you in there?” Winters asked Nixon. He made a face and shook his head.
“Stupid shit,” he said. “Yelled at me mostly, about risking assets. Assets, can you believe it? Actually, I can. But they asked about you. If you were coming along all right. I told them you were.”
“Don’t mention it,” said Nixon.
The street went on forever. The station was a grid, graphed out. Above them was the dome and above that the stars, and below them the bowels of the station itself, transformers and computer hubs and endless nests of wire.
"Did you always live here?" he asked.
Nixon cast a glance at him, then up at the buildings that walled them in on either side. "Pretty much," he said. "My parents grew up here. Their parents came up from Earth on the first ship, as the story goes. My mother got a lot of mileage out of that. There was a society and everything. I don't know where the hell they thought anyone else came from."
"What do you mean?"
"They were all from Earth, weren't they? One way or another? Don't see why it matters they shipped out early."
He shook his head.
"I don't know, Dick. I wonder at people. Maybe one of these days we'll turn over some log somewhere and find ourselves a new species to get worked up over and that'll be that. I'm surprised we haven't already. Or maybe they're too smart to bother with us and decided to steer clear. Just—pass us on by."
He made his hand dart along like a shuttlecraft, and Winters smiled.
"God," said Nixon. He gave Winters a long look.
"What is it?"
"Nothing." He nodded at a set of steps. "We're here."
Here was a park. After hours it was quiet but not deserted; when Nixon pushed the gate open and led Winters inside he could see other people wandering here and there, in twos mostly, holding hands. There was something about the way they were paired off that plucked at him, but he couldn't say quite what it was, only that it reminded him of the way Nixon had looked at him a moment ago. It was the same genus of feeling.
They walked along a path that was lit as from within with warm white. Winters prodded at its surface with a toe. "Lights on the underside of the walkway," Nixon said. "Under our feet his whole thing goes a mile or so straight down to the guts."
"I wonder what it's like down there," Winters said, and Nixon shuddered.
"I always hated thinking about it," he said. "That was how my parents used to keep us in line, Blanche and me. They'd say they'd send us down there to live. We bought it, too. We didn't know any better."
"You didn't get along with them?"
Nixon barked a laugh. "You really don't remember anything. Good. I've got years worth of complaints to recycle."
Nixon led him along the path and into a stand of trees with tall, smooth trunks and silvery green leaves. The wind blew and made the leaves clatter. Nixon stopped and looked around him and grinned to see the bright disc of the moon through the tops of the branches.
"It's pretty," Winters said.
"I think it might be fake," Nixon said. "A hologram or something. But it's always been my moon, so I guess I never cared."
Winters watched him watch the sky, light falling on his face and beaming weakly up from above so that his face was bathed in it. He thought of something then, just for a moment, too fleeting to pin down. Lew with light on his face like this, moonglow and the scent of flowers.
By the time they returned to Blanche's apartment they were both exhausted.
"I need a goddamn nightcap," Nixon growled, going into the kitchen and pouring two glasses of whiskey. He gave one of them to his sister, who looked at it dubiously and took a minute sip. She was wearing her nightgown and a bathrobe, a testament to the late hour.
"So the two of you got into trouble," she said. "God, I'm glad I didn't go."
"Yeah, me too," said Nixon. "If only because you'd have seen Winters here nearly lose in arm wrestling to a noodly eighteen-year-old private, and I'd hate to dispel any illusions you might still have."
Blanche wrinkled her nose. "Arm wrestling?"
"It's a long story," Winters said.
Nixon shot him the same curious look he had onstage earlier, as though he couldn't fathom the lightness of his tone. "Drink your drink, Blanche," he said, turning away.
"I'll drink it when I'm ready," she said. "Lewis, what the hell happened to your uniform?"
Nixon brushed at the front of his shirt and gestured vaguely, and Blanche rolled her eyes at Winters. "He's unbelievable," she said. "Tell me you'd be straight with your own sister, Dick."
Dick had had a sister—she'd been listed in his service record, and had died when she was just a little girl—but he couldn't have said one way or another how they'd been together. He didn't think Blanche would actually appreciate a straight answer, so he simply shrugged and left her to draw her own conclusions.
After awhile he begged off, claiming exhaustion, and they all drifted towards bed. Blanche had made up the sofa for him, but first he wanted to bathe, and Nixon sat in the living room and read a book while Winters made use of the guest bath, stripping off before the mirror and stepping into the shower. He hit the sonics and leaned against the wall of the shower as the soundwaves rippled over his skin. He tried to clear his head, to think of nothing in particular, but Nixon's face kept drifting into his mind's eye. His earlier shock, to be sure, but more than that his smile, the way they'd laughed beside the stage after Peterson had gone, the way it felt like something they'd done a hundred times before.
He got out of the shower and went back out into the living room, where Nixon left him with a nod and a see you in the morning and he'd barely lain there five minutes before his eyes closed and he dropped off to sleep.
When he slept, he dreamed. First he was on a verdant planet, Earth maybe, though he didn't remember enough about it to say one way or another. He was swimming, lap after lap in a weedy pond, vegetation clinging to his wrists and ankles.
The dream changed. He was with Nixon, the two of them together in some unidentifiable place. A room with air dense as a hothouse, a bed laid with sheets that were perilously soft. Nixon was kissing him and touching him, and Winters didn’t feel the way he expected, didn’t feel nervous at all, or uncomfortable. He woke up with a start in the middle of the night tense and fractious, with a distinct heaviness between his thighs. He felt breathless. In the dream he had wanted it so much, wanted Nixon so much; he was astonished by how much and how happy it made him, both the wanting and the knowledge that in the dream what he wanted had been obtainable.
He lay and stared at the ceiling awhile and tried to make sense of things. He thought again of that morning at the swimming pool back on the ship, of the way happiness had seemed to leach in with the chlorine. Now it draped over him like a blanket. He looked down at himself as though suspicious of injury, and as he moved and the fabric of his shorts dragged over his groin he sucked a breath in through his teeth to feel it. As the dream drew back and he grew more alert he began to feel bereft, and without quite knowing what he was doing he got out of bed to chase the feeling back down.
At the end of the hall, Nixon's door stood ajar. He was sitting up in bed reading a book, a glass of whiskey sitting beside the lamp on the nightstand. He looked up when he saw Winters in the doorway. His head jerked level and he let his book fall to his lap. He looked at Winters, at his face and then down at his body. Winters wasn't wearing a shirt; he had been warm when he went to bed and he stood in the doorway in his underwear. Nixon had on a white undershirt. His collar looked as though it had been tugged down one too many times, hanging low on his neckline. Winters could see the dark hair on Nixon's chest.
"Nixon," he said. His mouth was dry, and it came out sounding like a croak. He licked his lips, tried again. "Lewis?”
"Hey," said Nixon softly. "What’s wrong?”
Winters shook his head. "I don't know," he said. "I had a dream. I—"
"Come here," said Nixon. He frowned, sitting up straighter and patting the mattress beside him.
Winters shut the door behind him and padded across the room, feeling as though his knees might give out at any moment. He sat heavily on the bed and drew his legs up after him and crossed them. Nixon was very close. He smelled faintly of whiskey and cigarettes, and Winters wondered if he'd leaned out of the window again, or if he'd gone all the way down in the elevator to smoke outside on the street. He smelled good, and like himself, and it made Winters's breath come faster.
"Dick?" Nixon prompted.
No, Winters wanted to say. I'm not, but in the dream—in the dream he thought he had been, and he didn't know if Nixon had misspoken or if he was asking, as if he thought Winters might have gone to sleep and woken up whole and original, with a head full of everything Dick knew. As though he'd wished for that very thing, over and over.
"Lew," Winters said.
Nixon swallowed hard and looked away.
"I should go," Winters said, “I’ll go,” though he had no intention of going, didn't actually know how he'd begin to coordinate the effort. He apologized instead, and it was this that seemed to spur Nixon to action.
He made a soft noise in the back of his throat and hauled Winters against him. “Don’t,” he said.
He wrapped an arm low around his waist and Winters jerked his hips up against him without thinking about it. Nixon gasped. Maybe he hadn't expected to find him hard, though he must have seen it from the doorway, must have known why Winters would stagger into his bedroom stripped to the waist and flushed.
"Tell me about your dream," Nixon said. "Tell me."
"I don't know," Winters said again. "You were there. We were—together."
Nixon took a shaky breath. "Together."
"And you wanted it?"
There was nothing for it but to be frank. "Yes."
Nixon sighed. He reached out slowly, as if to touch something he wasn't completely certain was there. He laid his hand palm down atop Winters's thigh, looked up at his face searchingly. Winters's breath grew shallow; the hand was warm, and in his state he felt as if Nixon was touching him everywhere at once. A fine sweat rose all over his body.
"Do you want this?" Nixon asked, and Winters nodded and turned his face to tuck it against Nixon's neck.
"Come on then," Nixon said. "Come here."
In the dream he'd tugged Dick's shorts down with his thumbs.
Winters wanted to feel what it was like to want something and get it. He didn't think he'd wanted anything in a very long time. He woke up and simply was, and Renee and his therapists and Sink and even Nixon had been awed at the simple fact of his existence. All of them had thought—Winters had thought—that in light of the alternative to exist must certainly be enough. But in the dream he hadn't thought about that at all, hadn't felt grateful or lucky. He'd had Nixon's hands on him the way he did now, and that was all that mattered. Then, as now, he'd gotten what he wanted.
Nixon moved like he expected Winters to take notes. Slow, so slow, and Winters found himself lifting his head and watching dazedly to see the way Nixon's hand looked on his cock, white fingers against reddened, heated skin. His free hand played along the mass of scar tissue at Winters's hip, the place where his leg ached the worst when it got started. It throbbed dully, and he knew that deep within there was a locus of metal, a long strut that had been eased into him and sutured in place, and he imagined he could feel it inside now, feel Nixon's hand wrapped around it, having unknit the scar some way to lay him bare, his flesh pale and pink, bone and sinew winking and shimmering like mercury.
Winters wanted to kiss him. The desire sprung up fully formed in his brain; he was suddenly absolutely certain that they ought be kissing, languidly, his arms draped around Nixon's neck. He turned and put his hand on Nixon's face. Nixon let him look, let Winters study his mouth and his eyes, but then he took Winters's hand from his cheek and held it, gentle but firm. There was a note of warning in the cage his fingers made, but Winters couldn't parse it. He was coming apart too quickly. He could feel Nixon hard at the small of his back and thought of touching him in turn, but even arching back against him in a way that might pass for unconscious had Nixon shifting away.
"No," Nixon said. "Just let me."
Winters lay back against his chest and gave over, watched the rosy head of his cock disappear and reappear from the tunnel of Nixon's hand.
"Did they fix this for you too?" Nixon muttered to him. "Make you perfect?"
He was teasing, and meanly. Winters knew already that was code for hurt. He was earnest and shook his head no, for it had never pained him, no stitches he could remember.
Nixon took the hand he'd been holding and made Winters grip himself and put his own hand over and kept on that way. In time he took his hand away and licked his palm and smeared it over the top of Winters's fist so he butted slickly into it and that was what did it in the end, hooked him in the guts and made him cry out. He didn't know if that was what Nixon wanted, for him to have done it himself, but he had, and the first shock of come over his own fist was a surprise.
Behind him Nixon was breathing as heavily as if he'd come too. For a moment he let Winters loll against him, their four lungs heaving in time. Winters could feel Nixon's breath against his forehead, could imagine the brush of his lips. He looked up at the ceiling and smiled, felt his chest might crack with happiness, and it was just like in the dream.
"Lew," he said again, as naturally as breathing.
Nixon cursed and stiffened and slid out from under him, and Winters fell back against the mattress, startled. His shorts were still down around his knees, and there was a dribble of fluid on his thigh that embarrassed him now.
"I'm sorry," said Nixon.
"Please—please don't keep calling me that. Call me by my last name. Call me by my rank if you want. Hell, order me to get out of here and save us both the trouble."
"Why would I?"
Nixon only shook his head. "We shouldn't have done that," was all he'd allow. "I'll leave you alone. Get cleaned up. You can sleep in here if you want to, I'll go out in the living room."
He ducked closer to Winters momentarily to retrieve his glass of whiskey from the nightstand. He needed to shave, Winters thought. His face was red. And he was hard, the loose pants he wore tented conspicuously. His shirt hung away from his chest when he leaned over, and Winters imagined reaching out and grabbing a fistful, refusing to let go unless Nixon said he'd stay. But such decisive action seemed impossible, and once Nixon had his glass in hand he darted across the room again as if eager to put the space between them.
When he had, the impulse to force him back to the bed faded. Winters was glad to see it go. He blinked slowly, half sure that in the time it took him to do so Nixon would vanish and he'd be back out on the sofa and only just waking up.
When he did, he decided, he'd stay put.
He rose early the next morning to artificial daylight filtering in the windows, and he lay in bed until he heard Nixon's voice in the living room. There was a clatter and a sizzle and the smell of meat cooking, and Winters lay still for a minute trying to place it until he remembered: Real bacon, Dick. His stomach growled, and he clapped a hand down over it, flexing his fingers against his skin. The feel of his own flesh brought a flash of memory, the way Nixon had touched him, the first moment he'd slipped his fingers below the waistband of his underwear, the flare of excitement Winters felt.
There was a knock on the door, and he scrambled up to sitting, tugged the blanket up to his navel. He leaned forward, elbows on his knees. "Yeah?"
The door slid sideways and Nixon swung around the frame. His eyes skated over Winters as though he was deliberately trying not to see him.
"There's breakfast," he said.
"Blanche said she'll make you an omelette if you want one. Cooked for real, not nuked in that godawful replicating oven. She gets it into her head to get fancy for houseguests. I guess brothers don't count."
Winters scratched at the back of his head. "I'll be out."
"Yeah, great." Nixon made his retreat, and he was a few steps down the hall before Winters worked up the wherewithal to speak.
"Nixon," he said.
He didn't think he'd been loud enough, but Nixon stopped and turned around. Winters could tell from the look on his face he knew what was coming and had immediately decided to preempt it however he could.
"Look, you don't have to say anything," Nixon said, leaning in the doorway and running a finger along the molding.
Winters watched his hands. The paint was white and against it Nixon's fingernail was pink as a shell. Winters thought of how he'd looked cupped in that same hand. In this same bed. He shifted beneath the sheet. Nixon swallowed, like he was thinking about it too.
"I shouldn't have come in last night," Winters said finally.
Nixon wouldn't look at him. "No," he said.
Winters hadn't quite expected agreement—maybe he should have, but even so, it stung. He pressed on anyway. "It wasn't fair," he said.
Nixon smiled at that and chuckled to himself. "Not really," he said. "But hey, you know what I figured out?" He was still fidgeting with the paint on the wall.
"Nothing in the whole damn universe is fair."
Over breakfast he could feel Blanche watching the two of them, as though the shift between them was palpable. But she made small talk and needled Nixon about his ex-wife and otherwise pretended nothing had happened. Winters barely knew her, but he knew enough to be relieved.
"You ought to see that dog," she said. "She makes it wear the most awful little coat in the wintertime."
"Jesus, I forgot they did that here," said Nixon. "What's the goddamn point of inclement weather if you control it all with the turn of a dial? I guess they think it builds character."
Winters snorted into his coffee. It was the delivery; Nixon joked as if it was a reflex. He and Dick must have done it all the time. It made him forget all about the bedroom, for the moment anyway.
"Oh, you think that's funny? I suppose next you'll tell me you had to walk uphill six miles in the snow back on earth to get to the fallout shelter, or whatever." Nixon shook his head. He looked relieved to be able to parry, as though he’d found himself back on well-trodden ground.
"I'd like to go to Earth," Winters said. He hadn't really meant to say it. It had just come out, but now that it had he decided it was true.
Nixon set his own coffee cup down beside his picked-over plate of bacon and toast. He and his sister exchanged a glance. "Would you?" he asked.
"I think so."
He saw Blanche kick Nixon under the table. He pretended he hadn't.
"See your parents?" Nixon asked.
"Sure," Winters said.
"Huh," Nixon said. "Okay."
Nixon didn't bring it up again until they were packed up and back at the shuttleport. He'd skipped over coffee given the hour and set up camp at a high top table at an actual bar, where he swirled his drink around in his glass and frowned.
"Why do you buy it?" Winters asked.
"Alcohol," Winters said. He nodded at Nixon's front pocket. "You've got your own, don't you?"
"It's a little classless to go around pouring your own booze over someone else's ice," said Nixon dryly. "Not that I'd expect you to know from class. That was a joke," he said, when Winters didn't laugh. "Say, about Earth," he said.
"What about it?"
"Did you mean it, about going back?"
"I suppose I did," said Winters.
"You want some company?"
"Sure," said Winters.
Just as he hadn't known he wanted to go back before he said it, it was only now, sitting across from Nixon, that he realized that if he did he wanted him there. Nixon looked briefly pleased. Then he wiped the look from his face and looked down at the table as though he thought Winters was in danger of withdrawing the offer. He spent the rest of their wait for the shuttle ripping his cocktail napkin into smaller and smaller pieces, which appeared to be a nervous habit, and he flicked one of two of them across at Winters with an uneasy sort of glee.
They made a handful of further stops before Earth. They made their way around the inner rim of the sector, and met with sector command and the press and groups of new recruits, and these were the hardest and the most troubling for Winters. For Nixon, too, he thought, based on the way he drank those nights, as though he had a specific goal in mind. They didn't talk about it. Winters didn't ask for specifics and Nixon didn't offer them. Nor did they talk any further about the last night on New York in Blanche's apartment, although it felt as though it was always there beneath the surface, the memory and all the feelings it conjured up. He thought of drinking himself once or twice; he decided that it must have something to recommend it, but the only night he asked Nixon for a glass of experimental whiskey he looked so shaken by it that Winters retracted the request immediately and kept the rest of his curiosity to himself.
When they were finally finished with their assignment they both felt drained and exhausted, and Earth seemed all the more daunting. But it was the young faces of the men they'd met along the way, Peterson the arm wrestler, and his own words at Terra Nivium that rolled around his head at night and dug in prickly as splinters and made the trip feel imperative in a way nothing yet had in his new life. He'd gotten little of what he wanted and chosen few of the places he'd gone. He worried about Earth, about seeing Dick's family and the place he'd grown up, but he'd chosen it and that was something.
"Do you remember anything about it?" Nixon asked him on the trip.
Winters shook his head and relaxed back into his seat, his shoulder bumping Nixon's next to him as he did so. They'd grown easier with one another, Nixon less cagey, more apt to ask about what Winters knew or didn't, remembered or didn't. When he was around, Winters felt something inside of him uncoil. He told himself it was force of habit. They'd been traveling together for nearly two months, and Winters wasn't immune to getting used to things.
They stood in tall grass at the base of a hill. The grass was greenish gold, and the day was hot. Nixon was sweating and Winters's head felt heavy. The lenses in his eyes adjusted to the light automatically and gave his field of vision a honeyed overlay. Around them everything was floral and buzzing; in the fields the summer growth swayed in the breeze.
"I didn't think it would look like this," he said.
"How'd you picture it?" Nixon asked him.
"I don't know," said Winters. "I didn't, really, but—" He didn't bother finishing. Nixon was already nodding.
He had also never pictured getting up to the house, the physical act of approach, the placement of one foot in front of the other. The farmhouse itself was perched on the swell of the hill like a tooth in a green gum.
"I never wrote to them," he said. "They're not going to know." They're not going to know I'm not him, he meant.
His throat was tight. They were halfway up the hill. It was taking them longer to get up the hill than it should, or maybe they were walking slowly. Or maybe Winters was walking slowly and and Nixon was matching his stride. At any rate, he felt like his feet were tangling in the thick grass. He'd nearly tripped up more than once.
"I did," Nixon said.
"I wrote to them," Nixon said. "So they'd know."
"Why didn't you say?"
Nixon shrugged. "You never asked. Sometimes I thought you didn't remember you had them. Parents, I mean. I never know what you remember."
"I don't remember anything," Winters said.
"Yeah," said Nixon. "Right."
He looked at Winters and rolled his jaw slowly, as though it ached. The next step he took was a little longer, the one after that longer still, and he kept at it so he was carried away ahead of Winters up towards the top. He waited for him beside the steps that went up to the porch, kicking at a broad root that reared up out of the greenery.
"I'll be damned," he said, looking at it, looking up at the tree. "You know, you read about this kind of thing. Back home they grow straight through the floor and form some kind of microclimate, get tapped for water. Something practical. Here they're just rambling all over, tripping people up." He laughed.
Winters nudged the root himself, dislodging a scrap of moss. He felt the same as he had walking on that backlit pathway with Nixon back on New York, or stepping out onto moon rock—curious and a little nervous, as if he could feel a hint of the settings' former context shifting beneath his feet.
"Hester said you gave him a shot in the arm," he said suddenly. "What did he mean?"
Nixon's head snapped up. At the same moment the door to the house opened, the door hitting the wall behind it with a noise to match. They both turned then, turned to look at the woman on the porch. Winters recognized her right away, from the pictures. She had her hair up; some of it had worked its way loose. Red, shot through with silver. She was wearing a loose dress in the heat of the day, one she looked as if she could move in. Winters hadn't ever thought about the way a woman looked—there was Renee, who had frightened him, and Blanche, who was pretty and too like Nixon, and there was Betsy, who wasn't a woman, and now there was this woman who was Dick's mother and who looked like she didn't care about anything but the fact she could move about in her dress and that he was standing in front of her now looking like her son.
Her hair smelled very clean, was what he thought when he had her in his arms. He stared at Nixon over her shoulder as his neck grew wet, and by the way Nixon looked back he decided he should probably be doing something, making some gesture of comfort. He put his hand on her back, in the middle. He could feel her spine bisecting his palm through thin fabric, feel her breathing hard up and down. He ducked his head and pressed his nose to her shoulder. His mouth was half on the dress and half on her skin. He screwed his eyes shut and tried to remember.
"Oh, come in," she said. "Come in, won't you?"
When he looked back up Nixon had taken his hat off.
The house was small and also perfectly sized. For two, he thought guiltily, and he wondered how they'd expanded to fill the space Dick left behind, if they assumed they'd one day have to reverse it all, to contract in kind. The living room smelled good, was full of wood like the tree outside, shelves and a sofa upholstered in some rich animal hide, soft leather scuffed and stained and a quilt draped over the back.
"Sit," she said. Her hands were shaking and she kept wiping them on her skirt. Nixon looked at him. He felt him turn and look at the side of Winters's face and keep looking until he sat down on the sofa, as though he thought the force of his gaze could drive Winters down and keep him there.
She perched on the edge of a faded ottoman. "Drinks?" she said. "Can I get you something? It's awfully hot." She clapped, a crack like the sound of the door opening, and sprang up again. "I know," she said. "I've got just the the thing. Stay here." As if they'd leave. As if Nixon would let him leave.
"What?" he said when she darted from the room, for Nixon was still looking at Winters like he thought he was planning to make a break for the door.
"Nothing," Nixon said.
"I wouldn't go anywhere."
Nixon rolled his eyes, which told Winters he'd been thinking about it. Dick's mother came back into the living room with a serving tray. On it was a glass of milk and a dusty amber bottle that looked as if it had been dredged up from some cool, earthen place.
"Richard has been saving this for a special occasion," she said. She held up a dull pocket knife and pried the cap off deftly. It rattled down onto the tray beside the bottle. She picked the bottle up and offered it to Nixon.
"Here you are," she said. For Winters, the milk: "Good grass this year. Nice and sweet." He took it. She set her hands in her lap.
Nixon looked at him, and then he looked at the beer. "I couldn't," he said.
"Nonsense. He'd want you to have it. I'd give it to Dick, but. Well, you know."
"Still doesn't," Nixon said. "Some things never change." He didn't look at Winters, who could tell he was thinking of the time he'd asked for a taste of whiskey.
She smiled as though someone had pried a great weight up and off of her. "Oh, Lewis. It is good to meet you."
He took the beer then, held it up.
A toast, said the ship, and showed him a picture.
"Cheers," said Nixon.
The milk was sweet and cold. Winters drank half of it in one long gulp and they watched him as though they wanted proof he could swallow it all down. Edith he understood, but Nixon looked inexplicably sad in a distilled way Winters hadn't seen before.
"Bad beer?" said Winters. Nixon didn't laugh.
"That was a joke."
"Shut up," Nixon said automatically. He colored. "I haven't had a sip yet. And anyway, don't insult your mother."
"Oh, it might have gone off," Edith said.She was smiling, too widely. He thought of that wide smile he learned, the one he wore to the USO shows, the one that hurt his face.
"It hasn't," said Nixon, though he still hadn't had a sip. When he did he spluttered a little, but he took another long drink right away, like he was determined not to let Winters best him with the milk.
"Tell me the story of this beer," he said, and Dick's mother let her smile shrink a little, so that it seemed less painful.
"We got it in a trade," she said. "Four bottles. We had a lot of corn one year, we took it up towards Philadelphia, they do a big swap once a season. We got the goats there. You should have seen me, Richard let us take the car and it was me and two baby goats the whole ride back. You know it was funny what we got up to after Dick left. We were like a couple of kids sometimes."
Nixon raised his eyebrows. "You drive down here?"
"Sure," she said. "We've got the gravity for it, and the air. It's the gas that's the problem, but you can get that if you know where to look. We drove to church on Sundays when you were little, didn't we?"
She looked at Winters. She hadn't been thinking. When she did her face fell quickly enough. She tried to mask it, rubbed at her cheek after a stray smudge of something or other. For the first time he thought back on Webster and understood the impulse to pretend.
Sure, he could say. Just one word and she'd smile at him for real. Nixon too, for all he wouldn't believe it, and when he wove the fabric of the lie richer and richer they'd take it and wouldn't say anything at all.
"Anyway," she said. "Your father will be back. I'd better go down the road and meet him so he doesn't have a heart attack. You'll stay for dinner? It won't be anything special. I don't know what you're used to, but—"
"It'll be better than what we're used to," said Winters, guessing, though it seemed to be the right thing to say, because her face softened. Perhaps, he thought, it had even been in character.
Now that they were here, the three of them in the little house together, he found he didn't want her to leave, and when she got up and ducked out of the door he shifted beside Nixon on the sofa uncomfortably.
"So you wrote them," he said.
"What did you say?"
Nixon sighed. His bottle of beer was unlabelled, but he picked at it nevertheless, as though there was something he could remove if he worked hard enough. He rubbed at the brown glass like a touchstone. Nixon seemed slow moving at times, he seemed to amble, but Winters often saw a frenetic sort of energy in him just beneath the surface. Sometimes he seemed to be grasping at something. Winters wondered what it was, and if Nixon ever imagined he'd find it.
Finally Nixon looked at him slantways, from beneath the roofbeam of his brow. "Do you know how it happened?"
"I read about it," Winters said. "I know the particulars."
"The particulars," Nixon said.
He had the file saved. If he thought about it he could open it. It would appear in his field of vision, not a thought but a tangible document on which he could read the minute details of Dick's last movements, how he'd come to rest on the bottom of a lunar crater. There was a list of men present; presumably the lot of them had been debriefed after the fact, though from the way Nixon's hands moved over the surface of the bottle, from the earthward tilt of his mouth, the facts Winters had at his disposal comprised the letter of the incident rather than its spirit. And if he was honest, he thought, wasn't that what he himself lacked? What he had forced Nixon to be for him, albeit unknowingly?
"You asked about Hester before," Nixon said. He swallowed. "When it happened I—I went to find him and made him help me convince Sink they should replace you. Like he said, there were already replacements in the army. There was that Second Armored platoon. There were even a couple with us on the ship before you died. You weren't happy about them."
"We never really talked about it," Nixon said. "Once or twice, maybe. You didn't think it was right, bringing someone back. I disagreed. Or maybe I didn't disagree. Maybe I just didn't think about it. I don't think I thought it was important until you died."
Winters thought about the photographs. Now they'd come all this way he found he could admit to himself he'd been carrying them like talismans. The way he'd looked at Nixon—no, the way Dick looked at him, but sitting here now he realized he wanted badly to elide the difference, and it was this sore and fruitless desire that made him ask the question again, with a dry mouth:
"Well, that's my trouble," Nixon said thickly. "I never could give a damn about anything unless I loved it. Really loved it. I loved you," he said. "Before."
Winters found himself nodding. "I know," he said.
Beside him Nixon looked as though he'd spilled something essential, let it like blood, and was unsure he could live with it outside of him. Winters tried to think of what to say, how to make him feel better, but he found his mind frustratingly blank.
Nixon opened his mouth, and Winters was sure he was about to say something to minimize the words, dispel them. Something to make things easier for both of them, but mainly for Winters. Before he could speak the door opened. The shuffle and clip of boots on the floorboards, Dick's mother talking at someone in hushed tones. She came into the living room smiling her wide smile again.
"Are you both all right?" she asked, looking between the two of them. "You look pale."
Behind her Dick's father slipped into the room, leaning against the wall. He was a tall man; they were of a height, he and Dick and he and Winters. He looked the way Nixon did, as though he was laying eyes on something he'd never expected to see again. He caught Winters's eye and nodded once, tersely.
"I gave Lewis one of your beers," Edith said to him, putting a hand on his arm. "I didn't think you'd mind."
Richard cleared his throat. "Of course not."
"And you remember Lewis Nixon, who wrote to us? And who Dick used to write home about?"
"Sure," he said. He was still looking at Winters, but now he turned his head to look at Nixon. Winters studied his face. He wondered how might might change, but it didn't. He seemed just as uncomfortable, which Winters supposed he could take one of several different ways.
"You sit," Edith said to her husband. "I'll go in and put dinner on. I just have to heat it. Leftovers. I told the boys it wasn't going to be very exciting."
They ate at a table for six, clustered down at one end. There were three long beeswax candles set in a row down the middle of the table. Edith lit the first two, and set a tarnished silver cup between them that held a handful of nodding blue-purple flowers. Winters couldn't help himself; without thinking about it he reached out and prodded at the yellow center of one with his index finger. It was spongy and soft, and left his skin jaundiced by pollen.
"Asters," Edith said, moving the cup aside to make room for a serving bowl. "From the house down the road." The way she looked at him he knew he was supposed to remember.
"Tell me about it," he said.
She was quiet a moment. She sat down at the table and fit her hand under her chin and traced the woodgrain with a fingertip. "Well," she said, and began.
She spoke with the air of someone telling a bedtime story, and she told them that once upon a time there had been a house down the road from the farm, and before Edith was born when the Earth was still full a family had lived there with a mother who had tamed the fields around her house with much effort, carved gardens out of them and planted them with every kind of flower so the colors were riotous year after year, the property so abuzz with insects you could hear it from the dirt road when you walked by. And as time went on and human life on the planet slowed and stuttered and very nearly halted the flowers grew on, grew and grew in grass tall as a man's eye. The rosebushes tightened up dense as hedges and the bees were overjoyed and hived in the attic of the old house. And when Edith came to live on the farm, brought her husband to live there and had two children she decided should love flowers and every other beautiful thing in the undead world, she would walk with all three of them to the house down the road and watch them as they picked handfuls and played in the tall grass, and fuss over Dick when he got crosswise with a bee and cried, and snitch wild honeycomb from the attic for payback.
When Ann got sick Edith put roses in bunches next to her bed to see her smile and to cover the smell of the sickroom, and when she died she went by herself to the house down the road and picked flowers for the funeral, and she went by herself every week after that to pick flowers to set on her daughter's grave, and lately she'd taken to gathering a second armful she told herself weren't for Dick, not exactly, and when Lewis Nixon had started writing she kept on and she'd gone down to the house just this morning and the asters had been so blue she couldn't help but pick them. And now—
"Now you're here. Isn't that funny?" she said. "Anyway, let's eat."
They ate stew with goat meat and carrots and potatoes and cornbread, none of it replicated at all. Winters ate heedlessly, not thinking of digestion. He could look across the table at Nixon and see him thinking of his sister's kitchen and the things she made in that magical oven of hers. He got a look on his face like he was thinking of telling a story about it and a separate look on his face the moment he decided it wasn't a good idea. Winters got a thrill from noticing, and he didn't think he'd had a thrill at all since the hospital unless he counted his arm on that man's neck on the street or the sight of Nixon sitting up in bed, and he probably shouldn't count either of those.
After dinner Edith produced a tin of dense golden cakes that tasted like the cornbread they'd just eaten might taste if it had been drenched in honey. He wondered if it was the same honey pilfered from up in the attic in the house down the road. He excised a corner of it and dragged it across his plate, watched the unctuous residue that it left behind, and he felt sure it was even without being told.
Dick's father watched him eat. He grew full and left a chunk of the cake behind and felt the man's eyes on him as though passing judgement on an infraction. He wanted to apologize. Presently Edith said something to Nixon about something she wanted to show him, something she'd written about in a letter, and she left the two of them alone. He was sure it was by design. Nixon looked at him on the way out of the room, and Winters thought he'd guessed the same thing.
When they were gone Richard Winters senior cleared his throat and set his hands palm down on the table. They were thickly veined and and piebald with sunspots and spoke of long days out in the undomed fields.
"So," he said. "You've come back."
"Your mother worried about you."
"Looks like she had a good reason." Winters looked up at him. "You didn't want him to go, did you."
His father sighed. "No."
"Why not? Why would he in the first place? Look at all we have down here, why would you—" He shook his head. "I'll never understand it. And if I asked you, you couldn't answer me."
"No," Winters said.
"You're here now. Whoever you are. You look like him, at least. You'll make her feel better."
"Maybe I can be him again," Winters said. He didn't know why he said it, and why to Dick's father of all people. If there was someone he'd offer that to, pledge the attempt, he wasn't sitting at the table now.
"Maybe," Richard said. He sounded unconvinced.
Winters got up from the table, pushing his chair back with a scrape. He took up his plate and Dick's father's plate and his mother's and Nixon's and stacked them in his hands and went and set them in the sink, propelled by an energy he couldn't source. When he had done it he went back out into the dining room and walked past Dick's father, through the doorway into the living room, past the sofa where he'd heard Nixon's confession. He went out the door and onto the porch, past the tree where it loomed in the growing darkness and over the roots he didn't trip on thanks to Nixon's earlier interest.
To the west the horizon was the color of wine, soaking down to a thin and bloody line. He put his hands in his pockets and stared hard out over the cornfield. A breeze was coming up, cool, and the dry husks of corn flapped in the field like wings. All around him in the young night were sounds and smells, and Winters's awareness of them was greater than Dick's had ever been, could ever have hoped to be. He wondered if he'd ever be able to sleep here, or if he'd just lie in bed and listen to the bats flutter by, to mice and beetles chittering in the walls.
There was a soft step on the grass behind him. He knew Nixon's walk from the way it rolled out from the hips.
"Hi," he said without turning around.
"Hi yourself," said Nixon. "Sorry I left you in there. Was it all right?"
Winters shook his head. "I don't know. He seemed—angry."
"Hmm,” Nixon said. “Haven't you ever been angry about it?"
"He seemed like he was angry before all this."
Nixon sighed. He stepped closer to Winters and shifted his weight so their shoulders collided. Winters was caught off guard and stumbled to the side, and Nixon caught him by the upper arm and righted him. He kept his hand on Winters's arm for a beat too long, which made Winters think about Edith's hand on her husband's arm in the living room earlier.
"Parents," said Nixon, like he knew what Winters was thinking.
He shook his head, a smile playing at the corner of his mouth. He dropped his arm eventually, but he stayed close, pitching forward and back on his toes nervously.
"Hey, Nixon," said Winters.
"Can I ask you something?"
Nixon stopped his rocking, looking strained, as if it was difficult to hold still. His face was pale again, growing blueish in the dying light the longer they stood out against the sky. "What is it?" Nixon asked.
"You said you loved him. Did he love you back?"
"I don't know," Nixon said. He sighed. "He never said. But he almost kissed me once."
Winters saw him chew on the inside of his cheek to keep from smiling, but he couldn't. His lips sprang up anyway. He was remembering something. One day Winters thought he might be able to ask for that memory as though he had some right to it, but today—
Today, he reached out and grabbed a fistful of Nixon's shirt front. Soft olive, not the nightshirt but close, and did the job when he yanked on it and Nixon gasped and stumbled forward and put his hand on Winters's waist to steady himself.
"Can I kiss you?" Winters asked.
"Yes," Nixon said.
Winters leaned in.
For whatever reason, the ship chirped to life then. Her voice in his head startled him. It was unexpected. He couldn't think of anything but Nixon right in front of him and the way he looked, not frightened exactly, but like he didn't quite know what he was looking at.
Captain Nixon's heart rate is—
I don't care about his heart rate, Winters thought. But he did. He cared about it beat for beat and in between.
The kiss was soft. Nixon's lips were dry and warm. In better light they'd be flushed, his own dusky and cool against them, and when he thought about the contrast he had a moment of pure quailing fear to think he couldn't do it right, that Nixon didn't like it. His eyes flew open. But Nixon's were still closed, and he made no move to indicate he was disappointed, or that he might want to stop.
The kiss deepened of its own volition, and after a minute of that Nixon took his face in both hands and drew back so there was a mouthful of space between them. He was breathing fast, but if the ship had specific data she kept it to herself.
"I think he loved you," Winters said. He wasn't sure how he knew it was anything more than a guess. A gut feeling, maybe, or muscle memory, or some residual chemical that clung for dear life in his mind.
Nixon drew his thumb along the corner of Winters's mouth. "But you kissed me."
Winters wanted to ask if it mattered, but he wasn't sure he could answer the question, or if he even wanted Nixon to try. Maybe it would matter more someday, or less, and they could talk about it then. He sighed. Nixon ducked his head and kissed him once more along the line his thumb had traced. Then he slipped an arm around his waist and pulled Winters to him.
"When you died you told me to come to Earth," Nixon said. "To see your parents. That's why I wrote them. After it happened I got to thinking that I should have asked them first, that it should've been their choice to make."
"You did what you had to," Winters said. He'd never known that Nixon, the one before. In that, he supposed, they were the same, the two of them here together. They shared a birthday. They would mark it with asters.