– April 16, 2615 –
Your vows have broken my heart,
Oh, why did you so enrapture me?
Now I remain in a world apart,
But my heart remains in captivity.
Jim Collier sang, so well as he could, slumped against the Diamond Lass’s galley stove. He pushed eggs slowly around in the shallow skillet on it, tapping his false foot in time with the folk song playing through the ship. The tapping was soundless – absorbed by the old woven mats that covered the deck, and hidden by the music and the sizzling of breakfast.
“Dad-dyyyyy,” Guin’s voice complained. “You sound like a dying donkey.”
Jim glanced to his right. Guinevere’s legs were hanging over the side of the chair at her toy-covered “copilot” console. She was holding Butter Bear up, though, so his faded yellow plush face peeked over the back.
“And why that song again? You always sing it.”
He thought for a long moment. Butter Bear’s black-button eyes watched him from just behind the copilot’s seat.
“It’s … an old Navy song,” Jim lied.
“Oh,” Guinevere said, pulling Butter Bear back down. After a moment’s shuffle, her eyes replaced the stuffed toy’s, looking at him. “From the lions?”
The eggs sizzled and popped.
“The lions. The Lorell lions.” Guinevere pointed upward, past him. He turned his head and followed her finger, to the crimson roundel with four golden stars within it. When the Diamond Lass flew in Imperial space, he made sure to cover it up with the dangling sleeve of his old Imperial Navy jacket, but in times like these, privately, he let the roundel show. That didn’t mean he talked about it, though. Perhaps not enough.
Jim moved the skilled to a cool burner and shut off the galley stove. “You mean the Lorell Alliance,” he corrected Guinevere.
“What’s a alliance?” Guin asked.
Jim pushed most of the eggs onto a round ceramic plate for himself, and the rest into Guin’s favorite yellow plastic bowl. The Diamond Lass’s pop-up table was stuck permanently in its stowed position, so he had bolted a wooden one into place atop it, where the benches could still be used around it. Guinevere didn’t have to be told to come to the table. She and Butter Bear were tromping over while he managed to push himself into the bench. The girl joined, beside him.
“An alliance is a group of friends,” Jim said. “who promise to keep each other safe.”
“Mm,” Guin replied with a mouth full of egg. She chewed, politely, and swallowed. “And they sing that song?”
“Well. Not every alliance does. But my alliance — my friends, and I — sang it.”
“Shouldn’t it be a happy song?”
“Well, sometimes friends sing sad songs, too.”
Jim’s eyes wandered from his seat to the front of the ship, to the girder-framed viewport of the Diamond Lass’s bridge. Outside it, as ever, he could see the infinite black, the pinpoints of the bright, distant stars.
“When did you sing it with your friends?”
For a moment he was back in low orbit, lumbering through the atmosphere and the debris of other wrecked ships. He was cursing as loud as he could, pushing the Diamond Lass’s throttle past its limit. Every channel was erupting with desperate chatter at once, as Messer’s Hammer pulverized the planet’s surface and slaughtered the civilians trying to escape. Organization had vanished almost instantly. Nobody could communicate with anybody. He couldn’t coordinate with Leah. He could barely make her voice out. Guin, just an infant, was screaming from the bed behind him.
Jim felt the press of his fork in his hand and forced himself to set it down.
“We … had to leave our old home,” He told Guin softly. “Everyone had to leave, and with everyone going at once, it was very … it was confusing. Everyone knew they had to go, though, so they got in their ships, and flew up into space. But mommy and some of our other friends were on a different ship.”
“But everybody was flying at once, and everybody was talking at once. So there was noise and confusion. And … everyone was scared.
“I … heard your mommy, on the channels. then. She was singing, so she would sound different than the noise of everybody else. So I could hear her voice and knew she was still all right. And I had to tell her that I was okay, too, so … I started singing, too.”
Jim pressed his eyes closed. On the backs of his eyelids, he could see Lorell below, swirls of clouds over the mountains that gleamed golden in the sun, the vast forests of crimson-leafed trees. Against the vista, the angular black silhouettes of hundreds of ships, of every class and size, pushing upward. Above, though, were the flashes and streaks of battle. Then the Hammer’s retaliators were among them, launching massive torpedoes – weapons larger than the ships they were aimed at. The voices on the comm channels gave out in ones and twos and threes, replaced by feedback and static.
“We all … started singing,” Jim said, his voice almost a whisper.
“Everyone that was up and away from home was letting someone else, anybody else, maybe, know that they were okay. And they were singing that song,” he repeated, reminding himself. “Leah’s favorite. Your mother’s favorite.”
Jim slumped back against the bench. How long, he thought to himself, had he lingered there as the chaos spread? How much time had he spent, listening as hundreds of voices faded to dozens, and dozens to just a handful? Not every voice had left the choir by spooling out for a jump. He couldn’t tell when he had lost track of Leah’s. He stayed, minute after minute, wanting to hear her one last time – until finally, he engaged the Diamond Lass’s drives, and from then on, he sang alone.
Jim’s eggs were cold, then. Guin stood on tiptoes at the galley sink, washing her bowl and cup. Her attention had wandered from the story, but she was humming. Jim quietly sang along.
Alas, my love, you do me wrong,
To cast me off so discourteously.
For I have loved you so long,
Delighting in your company…