Six years later, I was being discharged. I was in the waiting area, about to review and sign my discharge papers when we all stopped in our tracks, frozen to the visual display, unable to comprehend what was happening. The UFF general identified the planet in the hologram as Augusta. Augusta was an unaligned planet not on either side in the current wars. Technically, Augusta was an enemy of the UFF because they were not with the UFF. However, Augusta had no off-planet military forces and was not a military threat to any planet.
We, all of us, saw Augusta, home to six billion humans -- and many other life forms from one celled creatures to massive creatures of the sea as large as an E Class freighter -- tremble, convulse, implode into a cloud of dust and tiny rubble. The whole planet was gone, all its life extinguished.
It must have been special effects propaganda. It had to be a lie, but the voice-over claimed it was a new UFF weapon that would soon be used again if there was no immediate unconditional surrender. It was foolish bluster. There was no such weapon in the history of the universe ever.
We were all, I thought, in a state of shocked disbelief. All work had stopped. There were sounds of sobbing and despair, a feeling of emptiness and great unease.
The alleged weapon was displayed. I recognized the Nina instantly and I immediately understood that the super Dark Matter Drive I had helped construct was the instrument of planetary destruction.
I emptied my bladder, bowls, stomach on the spot.
I awoke twenty-four hours later in the Base hospital. Over the next twenty-four hours they stabilized me on heavy duty drugs. I was a zombie.
I was scheduled for release to out-patient care the next day when we received the news that the Nina had destroyed the planet Frieden with twice the human population and five times the non-human populations of Augusta.
I lost the next thirty days. I have no idea of what happened during this time.
Somehow, I made a friend, Francisco O. Ortega. He saved my life. The day they discharged us, he had us working aboard a civilian military supply mail ship. The work kept my mind and body occupied. It gave me space and time to start to build a wall around that part of my life I spent with the Nina.
I believed that if I could just wall that part of life off, I might just survive long enough to find a way out, because there was no way to live with what I was and what I had done.
* * *
"Fuck! And Fucked up! Repossessed? Our ship is fucking repossessed? So, do we get paid? Do we get passage back to Dash 23 Alpha? What the fuck is this? We are fucking stranded! Stranded at the End of the fucking World!"
It was two years after my discharge. The five person crew of the Good Ship Salvation II was at the End of the World Three, one of four planets officially designated as the very edge of the human frontier in space. We were at the Omlask shuttle station, where we had been denied a ride to the ship we had manned to this desolate place.
Again, Captain Yang explained it to the four of us, but he addressed his attention to our very irate Loadmaster, Omar Abraham.
"Loadmaster, the Good Ship Salvation II has been repossessed by lenders. We no longer have access to that old cargo tub we called home. We'll be allowed to go aboard to reclaim our personal gear tomorrow morning. "
"Man, that is so much bullshit! They can at least let us bring Salvation home." Even as he said it Omar knew that was never going to happen. The Captain just shook his head in frustration and continued. "The owners are apparently bankrupt. They have disappeared. We are on our own. The Sailors' Fund can help us back to our debarkation planet, Dash 23 Alpha, but not for another week. I will cover your reasonable expenses out of pocket for the week. And that's that."
First Mate Ortega rolled his eyes, caressed the sleek flank of the red headed bargirl strung out on Sopa or some other similar drug. He nodded at me to join them. Ortega makes the best of every situation.
Christa, our Pilot/Engineer, worked her phone-com, trying to reach someone. She had believed from the start that this would be an ill-fated journey.
I had no one to call, so I might as well be here on the End of the World as any place in the universe. My great concern was that without work I might have time to think and remember.
And that's how I, Dark Matter Mechanic Third Class, Heckman Kawahara Estrada, ended up at the end of the known universe.
* * *
The New Apollo was the biggest tavern in the small village of Omlask. The tavern catered to: riff-raff, smugglers, dock workers, fisherman, military and criminal veterans, deserters, active and over-active criminals, addicts, con people, whores, pimps, politicians, and the lost and the lonely, in other words, everyone on the End of the World.
"Estrada, how does a Mechanic Third Class become a Field Commander --"
"Bullshit, bullshit, Captain, Estrada a Field Commander? Never happened! We need to cut your ass off. No more grog for you, my Captain."
Omar was drunk. The Captain was buzzing and talking too much. I was on my way to buzzed. I was almost drunk enough to tell the Field Commander story, but there was a huge roar from our fellow patrons. We stood and turned toward the front of the bar to see what was going on.
She was what was going on, a rail-thin, brown skinned, bald girl with huge eyes and luscious lips. She was standing on a table.
She parted those lips and the place was as quite as a bar with nearly two-hundred people could be. The voice, the sound was clear as glass, diamond hard, precise as a laser, as delicate as a daffodil.
And powerful; there was no weakness to that voice.
I didn't know the song or the language, but I did know it was about loss and pain and anger and forgiveness. I knew that. I saw the cost, the price she paid to make her magic. I knew that too. I felt it.
I saw men and women weeping without shame or even awareness of their tears. I saw Omar sink to the table in tears. I heard the Captain choking back sobs.
When the song ended, when the song ended we were exhausted, drained, too wasted to applaud.
Someone helped her down from the table. It started slowly and rose to a sustained tidal wave of noise, hand clapping, foot stomping, finger-popping noise of appreciation, love, and communion. It went on and on.
I raced to the front of the bar looking for her. I was stone sober now. She had disappeared into the kitchen. I barged in after her. A cook the size of dump truck blocked my progress. She was disappearing out the back of the kitchen.
"Wait. Wait, Please!"
She stopped. She turned. We locked eyes. She beckoned me to her.
We walked down to the Bay. She was so weak she leaned on me. We sat on the dock. Not a word said at all.
After her shift was over she took me to her quarters.
That's how I met Keer.
* * *
We sat on the floor at her low table in her small room that first night sipping a strange tea that hummed in my mouth and tingled down my throat to warm me from the stomach outward.
I looked into those huge eyes, getting lost ... I was just visiting ... just visiting and feeling my way around, making myself at home.
"Do you want me?" Her voice was a low rasp wrapped in honey.
I nodded yes, vigorously.
"I'm not a woman or a girl or female.
I shook my head, pulled away from the eyes, tried to recall her words. "You ... you ..."
She smiled lightly, "I'm not a male, or man or boy. I'm not."
I was wordless. I swallowed hard. The tea, the tea has made me disoriented or her words or, or this close little apartment ... I was losing it. She -- it -- touched my cheek gently and the world stopped spinning and I could breathe and stop shaking -- I didn't know I was shaking.
"I can be what you want, if you will be patient."
"What are you? Are you mixed-sex, or a, an artificial genetic code --"
She, it, it poured more tea, folded its hands, captured me with its eyes again, "I'm worth waiting for." And smiled again, ever so slightly.
I was at the End of the World. I was at the end of my wits. The things I had done ... The rope of my life was nearing the end. I could feel it.
I closed my eyes. I took slow deep breaths. "You, you aren't even human. What are you?"
A real smile this time, lit up the whole room, "I might be ... maybe ... sometimes ... I think, not today and not for a while." I rose quickly. I stood looking down into those eyes. In there was a rain forest, a high desert, a sand storm, an oasis. I broke away, looked around the room. I tried to burn it into my memory. I crossed to the door and turned back to it. "I don't understand. I don't know you ... what you are. I'm not ... I'm ... confused ... I have to go."
It looked out the tiny porthole of a window. "You're afraid, but not of me. You are afraid to change maybe, or to accept who you are. But you do understand. You know all there is to know about me, about us. You understand us completely. Slip your fears, find space for us."
* * *
"So, this is me. This shoulder patch with the three black rings means I'm a Dark Matter Mechanic Third Class or DMM 3. I earned my rating in the military, in the Eighth Normal West Navy in two wars in seven years. This, this business I do. It will kill me sooner rather than later, Keer. Do you understand?"
It was later in the night. A storm raged outside the porthole. We sat on the floor, legs akimbo, knees nearly touching. We ate sitting on the floor. If we slept it would be on the floor.
"You are damaged goods, spoiled and soiled ... a dying wind ... hiding behind walls." She had the little smile on her face and her eyes reflected her sliver of a smile. "You must give me a new name."
"Now, right now?"
"But have we started already? I mean we're just talking --"
"A name please."
"If you're starting to change, I mean, what should I do?"
"A name from something good in your life, a name you remember with a smile."
"You said your first ship as the ship's mechanic was a very good time ..."
"Yes, yes a good crew and an able ship ... and no war ... we were out of the war zone ..."
"The name of the ship?"
"China Girl, but --"
"It is an excellent name, thank you very much, Heckman Kawahara Estrada. Tell me more. The more you tell me the easier it will be for me."
* * *
"Do you have to change? I like you as you are. I --"
"It is my nature to change. What you like about me will not change. I cannot change the center of me. Tell me more, please."
I told her that a Dark Matter Drive or DMD was a mystery to even the discoverers and engineers. We knew it worked, but no one was quite clear on how it worked. The best explanation I have heard is that the DMD bends two far points in space and time together.
The drive was not a propulsion drive, it just reduced time and distance between the ship and the destination.
"It sounds foolish and dangerous, like ignorant children playing with fire."
In the dark recesses of my mind, I rejected Keer's -- China's -- idea. It was more like fire playing with children, playing with us, toying with us. My heart froze for an instant. I waited it out. I kept talking.
* * *
"China, this is not going to work. You don't know who I am or what I've done. I'm sorry, China, I should have, have told you ... I should have never let this get started."
We were having a calming tea. The gray-green fog had crept in. More slimy than damp, it was repulsive in its touch and sickening to inhale. It was a poison pox on The End of the World. It put everyone's nerves on edge.
She touched the back of my hand with two fingers; it was like a connection to a peaceful place. "Estrada, you are something yearning to be better and do better for more than yourself. That I know about you. And what I don't know you will tell me, and you will still flow in the same direction, we both will."
"China, I worked on the Nina. I helped build that, that monster. I'm responsible for --"
"Responsible for your actions tempered by your intentions and your youth. In time we will share bitter cups. We will."
"You, you have never done anything like working on --"
"Come hold me. The fog is as thick as nightmares. Hold me for a while."
She put her warm finger to my lips to quiet me.
Later I told her everything. I demolished the wall like the Nina destroyed Augusta and Frieden. China was not sympathetic to my plight. She said I was less concerned with the loss of life than I was with the fact that I loved the perpetrators, the Nina, Captain Banks and Asase Yaa, even after their mass murders. "Estrada, sweet as you are, who you love, who you are attracted to define you in so many ways. You might want to come to terms with them, the bitter and the sweet ... without attractions there is no us."
"No, no, no you can't, I can't love evil like that. I can't. If I did, if I did I would be as bad or worse, I can't ... I can't ... that is so messed up ... so wrong ..."
"Wrong or not, it would make you lucky to be loved and to love, as lucky as you and I. That lucky. Lucky, that's what you are."
I left. Walked out. I walked outside of town to the great cliffs looking down 1,600 feet down to the sea. I stood on the very edge. I looked out to the sea. A breeze crept up behind me and caressed me, promised me a wonderful ride and a smooth landing on the soft bosom of the sea. I spread my wings wide, ready for the best flight of my life.
Part Three of Five