Story and Artwork
It was a silent war, from the outside. Sound doesn't travel through space. But the noise was deafening if you were inside a direct hit. The sharp-edged vreeeeeet! as beams sliced through metal like a rusty knife with a dull blade; the explosive hiss, as life-sustaining air was blown outward; and, worst of all, the screams.
I've lost track of the sunsets. A dozen? A hundred? All mesmerizingly similar; orange and pink streaks across the sky, surrounding two huge, glowing gold or red balls sinking into an ocean horizon.
This sunset is much the same, although there is a splotch of teardrop-shaped, brilliant yellow just above the lower sun. I probably shouldn't stare directly at it, but I suspect it's my basic nature to zig when most people would zag.
I say "suspect" because, quite honestly, I can't be certain.
What do I actually know about myself? Nothing. I woke up on this so-goddamn-beautiful-it-makes-your-heart-hurt-just-to-look-at-it beach a day or a week or a millennium ago. Strange as it sounds, I can't be more specific than that. I can say that the beach, the sun, the stars absorbed my pain, healed me, and made me feel whole again. What else do I need to know?
The cliché question when awakening in such circumstances would be, Where am I?
The answer is merely, Right where I want to be.
Another basic question: Who am I?
I awoke to no sense of identity. None. Not even gender-wise. How the hell could that be? I was a slate wiped clean. But there was a simple solution. Feeling oddly embarrassed, I took a quick grope down the front of my shorts to at least check out which type of body I was in. Male. Definitely male. Oh yeah. Damn. Seriously, there was all kinds of impressive awesomeness down there. My first thought was, throw a saddle on me and point me toward the finish line! That instant flash of male ego told me my psyche matched my physical shell. There was a huge, smug grin on my face.
I gave myself a minute or so to savor it, then moved on.
What about my age? I felt young-ISH. Not young enough to feel fresh and new to everything, but not old enough to have grown tired and jaded. Technically, though, these discoveries weren't who I was so much as what I was.
So, the question.
Who am I?
As those first moments ticked by and the sun held me in its embrace, the sound of the sea soothed me, hell, the salty air even cleared up my stuffy sinuses, I realized the answer was: Who the hell cares?
I suspect (there's that caveat again) I could figure it all out if I really wanted to. Not long after discovering Giganticus in my shorts (oh, come on, I had to name it), I realized that lurking at the edge of my consciousness was a faded memory, a vague sense of self. It's still there. I don't shoo it away, but I don't invite it in, either. Why would I? I'm happy. What more do I need to know? Matter of fact, if I had companions here, I'd tell them they could call me that from now on. Happy. It's a perfectly good name. Wasn't that one of the dwarves in the ancient mythic tale?
Who wouldn't be happy here? Or Happy here, heh heh.
The visual aspect alone takes my breath away.
The waves that rush onto the beach are an amazingly beautiful turquoise, and the deeper water farther out is an eye-popping cerulean with cream-color caps. When the sun is directly overhead, it actually glows. It's as if Nature knew it had an audience of one, and decided to show off.
The sand is a pleasing but slightly peculiar golden-pink, which can look one color or the other depending on how the sun hits it. Each granule is flat and smooth, and clings to my wet skin. It peels off in clumps, and I swear as it lets go I can hear a smoochy mwah! This beach loves me, what can I say?
The air? If I could bottle it and sell it somewhere, I'd make a fortune. My lungs savor each breath. I get the impression they remember only stale, canned air from my former life. Here on the beach, air feels like a living thing, there to nourish your body and give you energy. I can taste the sea breeze on my lips and feel refreshing coolness as gusts waft across my body, which has yet to dry.
Have I moved from this spot today? This week? Ever? I don't remember. Seriously. I don't remember.
There's not a soul on the entire beach. Perhaps not even my own. Do I even have one? Do any of us? See, you can ponder such profundities when every second of every minute is peaceful and undisturbed.
The one thing I know for sure is that I needed this, craved it, with every fiber of my being. The world before this one was terror, pain, heartache, desperation. I know that. Without seeing images in my head, without knowing the whys and whos and wheres, I know that.
I was there.
Somewhere far from here.
I suppose I could wonder what would happen if I called out to that place, or if my mind's eye locked on to that something/someone lurking there like a shadow, at the edge of my conscious mind, and I embraced it. Would I remember everything? Would some sort of psychic SOS be sent out to the heavens?
I don't know.
I don't care.
I belong here.
The reddish orb winks its final goodbye and disappears beneath the sea. The golden orb above and to its left has followed it almost to the waterline. It'll be gone in a few minutes. The palm trees and thick jungle behind me will sound more and more alive, the darker the night becomes. Chirps and clicks and nightbird trills. And farther in, strange, gutteral growls; an occasional roar.
I don't mind. Whatever lovely, toothy creatures they might be, they don't come for me.
Not yet, at least.
There. At last. Both suns are gone, and the stars have emerged. Thousands of them; hundreds of thousands. As each day nears its end, and the suns sink below the waves, I both long for and dread them. Those damn stars. So beautiful. Cosmic artwork. They make me feel connected to the Universe, and at the same time, completely insignificant.
But that's not the problem.
They draw me.
As if I know I can reach out and touch them. As if they're waiting for me to join them.
And they are.
I know they are.
The breeze has become a wind, as it always does after sunset. I feel a chill. As I always do. I'm wet, still. You'd think I would have dried by now, after hours in the sun. Yet I never seem to.
The surf licks at my toes. I love the silky sound, the soft whoosh! as the water rolls in and out. But I'm cold now and it's not as pleasant a feeling as it is in the sunlight, when the almost-clear shallow water washes the sand from my toes as it recedes, then pushes more onto them when it returns. That tickly feeling warms my heart as I sit in the blazing heat, but here in the darkness it chills my feet, my legs, and I begin to shiver, as I have every night, for however many nights that has been.
The stars call to me.
Lying beneath them, I listen to the rhythm of the water. It lulls me toward sleep. My eyelids start to give in, my breathing slows.
I'm jolted awake. Again. I hear this voice every night at this time. I recognize it. Don't I? It doesn't matter. I just want it to go away. There is peace where I am now. Solitude. Acceptance.
"Wrap the light cord around his leg. Quick! He's bleeding out!"
I'm wet. But it's not water. It's not the lovely, briny sea that is soaking my body, my hair, my...uniform?
Damn. That sound. So blaring. So disturbing. Clanging. It warns. Make it stop.
But it won't.
It never does.
Here on the beach, the surf teases. Gently, it tugs at me. Come with me. Come with me and be free, it begs.
But the voice persists.
"Help me get the undamaged suit on! There. Close it up on your side, Tiah. Bram, get his helmet on."
There is worry all around me. Hurrying hands. Expert movements.
"Plug that damn hole with something, Kharl. You don't need— Just stick strips of xi-duct tape across the wall, then. And turn off that damn alarm!"
The comfort is leaving me now, sucked away as if through a hole in a hull, out into the deep void of space.
"Wait...Where's the other glove?!"
I feel hands on me. Well, not on me, exactly. On something covering me. Familiar hands. Strong yet gentle. Quick and expert. And now I'm floating, being led toward...what? Where? More importantly, why? I'm happy here. I'm Happy. Or I was. Where is my ocean? The surf is no longer lapping at my feet. The waves have pulled back, far back, out of reach, almost out of sight.
In a flash, those warm and comforting sensations that have sustained me for what felt like an eternity are gone. I'm in my body, in it, and my body is here.
I don't know where "here" is, and frankly, I don't want to know. It's not soft. It's not soothing. It's not caressing. I've lost everything. The Universe, in a drop of water. My immersion in ancient starlight.
"Wait, stop! His stats are dropping! It's not-- Oh dammit, the threads didn't catch. Here, let me lock the damn helmet on right!"
A few seconds of silence. They're waiting. For what? Oh. There's air now. I'm no longer gasping.
They let out breaths in unison. They seem relieved.
But I'm so cold.
"There. His O₂ levels are better already. Come on, let's get him back to the Nova."
I see her now, a hazy image in a bulky spacesuit, outlined in the bright orange of the emergency lights. Like everything else around me, she seems vaguely familiar. I don't care. I long to dip my fingers in the surf, to lie back on the sand with my eyes closed, and breathe it all in as if it were the entire Universe. Because it is. It truly is.
"I've got him. You take his feet. Hurry!"
"What? Come on!"
"What? No. I saw his breath on the face plate."
"Last breath, probably."
"No. I— No, dammit!"
"He must've bled out. I mean, look at all these blobs of blood floating around, and who knows how much is inside his flight suit."
For a moment, for them, the war outside faded away—the damaged ships motionless in space, the powerful beams slicing into others and tearing the troops inside to pieces.
This was Trey.
He was their center. His inspirational speeches gave them hope when all seemed lost. His silly imitation of the Emperor lifted their spirits when they desperately needed it. Downright made a few piss their pants laughing, in fact.
If only they'd gotten to him sooner. It broke their hearts to think of him painfully wounded, with no one to help him. Out in the cold emptiness of space, dying.
It must have been an ugly, lonely thing.
Copyright ©2017 Nik Barnabee