Sergeant Spencer Blackwelder stood behind the upper railing on the observation deck of the AES Barack as he admired the scene. At this distance, Saturn’s girth took up about a third of the view. He’d been coming to the deck with a lot more regularity, determined to take full advantage of the break in fighting; the Elumerians had been relatively quiet since their flagship had been destroyed, and they’d retreated just beyond the reaches of Neptune. It was 1900 hours, but Blackwelder’s face was as fresh as if he’d just woken up, his dress browns as pressed as if they’d just been dry-cleaned. His reputation for being the best-dressed enlisted man in the Allied-Earth Forces was well deserved. More so, given what he had to work with.
Below him, about a half story down, he noticed two enlisted soldiers, a male and female, sharing an intimate moment as they gazed at the vastness of space. They seemed so happy to be with one another. In public. In the relative privacy of the deck, which, granted, was walled in with floor to ceiling glass, but in view of other people nonetheless. Blackwelder sneered at them despite himself.
“Don’t know why you keep coming here,” a man’s voice said behind him.
Blackwelder snapped to attention. His hand flew to his brow and froze there as if had been carved from granite.
“You’ve seen one of the Solara-Neuf, you’ve seen them all,” he continued.
“Sir,” Blackwelder said, his salute picture perfect.
“At ease, Sergeant,” he said with a sigh. “You’re always so formal.” Lieutenant Robby Macke had the effortless charm of a six-year-old boy: every joke he told was the funniest, every adventure he had was the most exciting, every compliment he paid the most endearing. A wink and smile later, Blackwelder’s own face shone brightly, as if every happy memory from his childhood had flooded back to him en masse. Then he took a quick glance around, and the light beaming from him dimmed considerably. He had to remember that he was in public. The rules that applied to that couple below him didn’t apply to him.
He turned away from Macke and faced Saturn. “I come here because it’s still the same. The Solara-Neuf… these are our planets, you know? Our own little pocket of space in this whole wide universe. Everything changed so fast after the attack: the Peace Accords… space battles? Off-world colonies?” Blackwelder slumped down a bit on the railing. “When they came the first time, they left the moon in about a dozen pieces floating pointlessly above us. Who knows what damage the next major incursion might cause? Gotta appreciate the beauty of our solar system before it gets blown all to hell.”
Macke rested one arm on the rail next to Blackwelder and slung the other arm over his shoulder. He leaned in close.
“See, that’s what I love about you. You’re so sentimental,” Macke said, his eyes glistening mischievously.
“Don’t do that.”
Blackwelder pushed Macke’s arm off and started walking toward the far end of the deck. Where the hull met the shatterproof expanse of glass, there was a somewhat narrow archway that led back to “The 2030,” the Barack’s on-board bar and principal point of post-work convergence. The day was only just winding down, so the boozehounds hadn’t made it out yet. Through the glass wall, Blackwelder only saw the two bartenders prepping glassware and one or two patrons who were clearly too absorbed in their own lives to notice him. Not that they could hear him at this distance anyway. Macke caught up and grabbed Blackwelder by the elbow.
“Hey, don’t do what?” Macke asked.
“Don’t put your arm around me and then look at me like that.”
“Like what?” he said innocently.
“We’re in public, remember?” Blackwelder reached the very end of the deck. On the hull wall was the image of a giant globe with two Lego-like hands, one yellow, one brown, almost touching, the letters A and E displayed in the center in huge block font. The symbol of the newly Allied-Earth. He leaned his back against the wall. Macke took up the space next to him.
“Being in public’s not a big deal as long you don’t make it a big deal,” Macke said, almost imperceptibly scanning his periphery.
“Well, I’m sorry I can’t be as subtle as you.” Blackwelder was careful to keep his volume in check. “When you look at me like that, it makes me want to kiss you. And if I kiss you, here—” Blackwelder indicated the wide-open space of the deck. “—and someone sees us, I’ll be court-martialed. At best. More likely, I’ll wake up one day on the wrong side of an air lock.”
“That’s not true.”
“Maybe not for you. I could take a picture of us having sex, blow it up, staple it to this globe, and everyone on this boat would still deny it. ‘Not Macke. Can’t be. Blackwelder must be trying to frame him or something.’”
“Stop being dramatic. You’re a well-respected EO, and the best damn marksman in this command.”
“That makes a difference to you, and one or two other folks, maybe. But it doesn’t matter, not in the end. Not to the people who really count. And you know that.”
“You know, you’re being a real downer right now.” Suddenly, Macke’s forearm began to ring. He touched two fingers to his arm just below the elbow and slid them towards his wrist. A view screen appeared. “It’s Lyta.”
“Ah. Well? Are you going to answer it?” Blackwelder asked.
Macke slid his fingers back towards his elbow, and the screen vanished. “I’m with you right now.”
“You’re with me.” Blackwelder shook his head. “I wonder what your new fiancée would have to say if she knew you were ‘with me’?”
Macke’s eyes flashed dangerously. Blackwelder suspected, for a moment, that he might have to put his expert marksmanship to use, but then Macke’s look dissolved into a playful smile.
“Let’s grab a drink.”
Blackwelder and Macke had downed several drinks by the time the bar began to fill up. Blackwelder looked up from his vodka tonic and saw a steady stream of soldiers, officers and enlisted alike, as well as the Barack’s civilian crew, filing into The 2030 in earnest. Some were coming from the mess hall, some were just finishing their shift, but they all looked like they were ready for a drink. One officer in particular waved to Blackwelder, and then started to make her way over.
Lieutenant Lyta Abernathy was a Disney princess: smarter than most of the men around her, bold beyond her years, beautiful, and motherless. She’d joined the Force to escape an abusive home life, and she hadn’t regretted a single day of her journey since. When things got tough for her, she remained secure in the knowledge that everything would work out, in the end.
“My two favorite boys. Should have known you’d be here, together. And you’ve started without me, I see.” Lyta nodded toward their nearly finished drinks and then gave Blackwelder a hug and a quick peck on the cheek.
“Sorry, babe,” Macke said. “Blackie and I were just hanging out. You know, a little guy time.”
“Right,” Lyta said. “More like ‘guy on guy’ time.” She sauntered over to Macke and plopped down into his lap. The cheap chair gave a dangerous groan, but held steady.
“That’s not funny, Lyta!” Blackwelder looked over his shoulder nervously at some of the bar’s other drinkers, but no one seemed to have heard her comment.
“Oh, it’s a little funny, Blackie. Calm down,” Lyta said. To Macke, she said, “Hello, my love.”
“Well, hello….” Macke and Lyta’s lips met, and it was like the entire bar dimmed in deference to them.
Blackwelder stared into his drink. He was afraid that he wouldn’t be able to control his expression if he looked at them straight on, sitting there, being so open—like the couple from the lower deck. Blackwelder thought of Saturn’s rings instead.
“So did you make captain today, my love?” Macke asked.
“No, not today. Though, grapevine has it Hanson is still buzzing to the top brass about that coded message I deciphered, about the Elumerians possibly regrouping in Neptune space. He’s convinced them to redouble our efforts on Triton.”
“Triton,” Macke blurted. “The moon colonies are the worst. Practically a death trap.”
Lyta nodded, then reached down for Macke’s beer and finished it off in one quick swig. Blackwelder was still looking in every direction except at the couple, though as inconspicuously as possible.
“Well you’re awfully quiet over there,” she said.
“Just got a lot on my mind.”
“Hm. Like Trey Licata?”
“Lyta!” Blackwelder said, blushing, but also smiling.
“Wait, Licata? The new mechanic? You two….”
“No!” Blackwelder fired out. He met Macke’s eye, an apologetic expression starting to cover his face. Macke’s eyes narrowed.
“But they could,” Lyta offered. “He’s hot, Blackie!”
“But he’s not gay,” Macke said.
“As far as you know. You didn’t believe me when I told you Blackie was gay either, remember?”
“Boy, were you right there.” Macke seemed to remember himself the moment the words escaped his lips, but it was too late. Blackwelder shot him an icy glare that Macke reluctantly met. Lyta, for her part, looked back and forth between the two, trying to interpret the unspoken as if it were just another alien code. She finally slipped from Macke’s lap into the chair next to him.
“Anyway, let’s talk about this engagement party,” Lyta said. “I’m so glad you’re gonna help me with this thing.” Thankful for the break in tension, Blackwelder managed a small smile.
“Look, Lyta, just because Blackie’s of the queer kind doesn’t mean….”
“That’s not why I asked him, Mack. It’s because he’s got the best taste of anyone in this fleet. If I asked you for help, I’d be stuck with Irish Car Bombs at the mess hall with cut up old White Papers as streamers.”
They all started laughing, a small, intimate laugh at first, that slowly grew into a roar. The three of them were laughing so hard their eyes watered, Macke suddenly in danger of falling out of his seat. Blackwelder steadied himself, gazing at his two friends. He realized then that he would miss them both terribly.
“Well if it isn’t the three musketeers! Macke, Blackie, and Abernathy. Together as always!”
“Sir!” the three of them yelled in unison, jumping to attention.
“At ease, all of you. I heard the news, Macke! Just wanted to come over and congratulate you two fine officers in person!”
“Thank you, Colonel Hanson.” Macke shook the colonel’s hand vigorously.
“And our prize code cracker! You’re gonna make the prettiest bride this ship has ever seen.” Colonel Hanson leaned in for a hug, and Lyta obliged, leaving the old man with a kiss on the cheek as well. “Set a date yet, young lady?”
“No, sir. I’m still trying to fumble my way through this engagement party I’m supposed to be having.”
“Well, I don’t wanna pressure you kids, but I would think sooner than later might be best. If your intel’s correct, lieutenant, and we have every reason to believe it is, the ‘quiet’ days might be long gone here real soon. I’d hate to see anything get in the way of your special day.”
“I have a deal with God, sir. We’re covered until at least a week after the honeymoon.”
“I bet you do, you slick bastard!” Hanson said, pounding Macke on the back.
Hanson turned to Blackwelder, who was looking pleasant enough, but was obviously uncomfortable. “You ought to get yourself one of these fine young ladies too, son. Folks round here might start to get the wrong idea about you.” Still smiling, Hanson playfully clapped Blackwelder on the back, who was trying very hard not to take the joke as the accusation he knew it was meant to be.
Macke glanced nervously between Blackwelder and the colonel. “Uh, buy you a drink, sir?”
“No, no. Like I said, just stopped by to wish you my best,” Hanson said.
The colonel turned back to Blackwelder. His look wasn’t unsympathetic, but it was stern, as hard as the steel girders that held the ship together.
“Just got your scores back from yesterday’s training, Blackwelder. Exceptional. Can’t wait to put that eye of yours to good use.”
“Yes, sir.” Colonel Hanson gave Blackwelder a knowing nod and excused himself to the bar.
The three of them sank back into their chairs a bit uneasily. Blackwelder’s latest run in with the brass had left him shaken and a little pale. He downed the remainder of his drink. Lyta reached out and patted Blackwelder on the hand.
“It’s nothing, okay? Just like Staff Sergeant Nguyen back when we were in boot camp. He’s just blowing smoke.”
“Still, maybe you should lay off the party planning wagon for a while,” Macke said. “I’m sure Lyta and her friend Jacobson can handle it.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Blackwelder said without any confidence. “Lyta’s been fantasizing about finding her perfect prince and getting married for as long as I’ve known her.” Another quick look passed between Blackwelder and Macke, but Blackwelder pressed on. “You’re one of my best friends. I want to be there for you.”
“I’m your best friend!” She punched him in the arm from across the table. “I know you two like to think you’re it, but you never would have even met if I hadn’t introduced you. So I should get top billing.”
“You absolutely should.” Blackwelder’s smile faltered. The other two pretended not to notice. “Well, I’m gonna get going.”
“Already?” Lyta asked.
“Yeah, I’m on rifles tomorrow. And being hung over around live ammo is a recipe for disaster. We can talk more about the party tomorrow, though. I promise.”
“A word? Before you go? Be right back, babe.” Macke kissed Lyta on the forehead and followed Blackwelder back through the archway and onto the observation deck. Blackwelder didn’t stop until he’d reached the lower deck, now empty and guaranteed to stay that way until after The 2030 booze rush died down. Macke followed.
Down on this level, the deck had a photograph taken at the Peace Accords, the summit where 75 percent of the world’s leaders created the Allied-Earth Council. In the photo, thirteen men and women shook hands as if they’d always been best friends. As if each of them hadn’t tried, on more than one occasion, to blow the other up. Blackwelder focused on Chancellor Bumani, the former French president who’d somehow managed to get everyone on the same page just in time to stop the Elumerians from blowing a gigantic crater into mainland China.
“What are you doing, Blackie?”
“Spencer,” Blackwelder corrected.
Macke sighed. “Look, I know that Hanson sniffing around for a bite can really mess with your head, but you’ve got to keep your shit together around Lyta. She’s been asking me what’s wrong with you.”
“What’s wrong with me!? What’s wrong is that I’ve been living a fucking lie, Robby! I’m secretly in love with my best friend, not to mention fraternizing with an officer. With Lyta, I’m betraying the one person who’s had my back since day one, and I’m hiding my true self from every other person I meet. It’s not fucking fair.”
“Look, Spence, I really don’t want to have this conversation with you again. It can’t be the way you want it to be, okay? No matter how unfair it is. And it’s unfair to all of us, not just you.”
“I’m not talking about me. For once. I’m talking about Lyta. Every time I see her face I hate myself that much more. I’m sleeping with her fiancé while helping her to plan her engagement party. Do you have any idea how fucked that is?”
Blackwelder turned toward the view. From this angle, he caught a much better shot of the rings: hundreds of thousands of kilometers of ice and rocks and dust. He wondered if he’d ever see anything as beautiful again in his lifetime.
“I can’t do it anymore,” he said, turning back towards Macke.
“You’re not going to tell her, are you?” Macke’s brow knit together, his mouth taking on a sour expression; an intense panic was coming over him. “You can’t! Do you have any idea what that will do to her?”
“I know,” Blackwelder said. “But I can’t keep lying to her either. That’s why I’m leaving. I’m transferring to Triton, to the front line command. I’ll be training ground troops at the colonies.”
“You can’t be serious. Triton? All of the tech in the colonies is so faulty. Every other day you hear about somebody getting nitrogen poisoning or freezing to death. And you heard what Lyta said: it’ll most likely be the Elumerians’ first target when they come back.”
“I know. That’s why they need trainers. I’m gonna stay on board the Barack until after this party, and then I’m gone.”
Blackwelder started to leave, but Macke grabbed him by the arm.
“Wait. Just… wait, okay?” A deluge of emotions rushed over Macke’s face: anger, confusion, fear… love? Desperation. Blackwelder’s own heart pained at the sight of him. He wanted to hold him, even started to open his arms, but remembered where they were and thought better.
“Don’t,” Blackwelder said. “Because there’s nothing you can say….”
“I’ll tell her. I swear. I just… I just need a little more time, but I promise….” Macke started to shiver as if he’d walked into a cold front.
“No. If you don’t love her, which I know you do, then don’t marry her. But don’t tell her because you’re trying to convince me. It’ll destroy her. And, quite frankly, you deserve to carry that guilt and shame around. We both do.”
“But you’re throwing your life away!” Macke whisper-shouted. “No one asks to get sent to Triton. The number of people who actually make it back….”
“It’s my choice, Robby. I don’t have the faith or the patience to wait for the ways of the world to change again. You heard Hanson; it’s only a matter of time before someone finally presses the matter. At least this way it won’t hurt you or Lyta when they do. Besides, it’s only a six-month tour. I’ll be back before you know it.” The lie was already effortless. Blackwelder knew he’d be saying it to himself every day until he met his end.
Blackwelder headed for the door again, but this time Macke didn’t try to stop him. He watched his friend pass through the automatic doors and vanish. Taking a deep, steadying breath, Macke turned towards the skyline. As he fought off the sensation of tears, he realized that he’d never noticed before just how beautiful Saturn’s rings really were.
© Christopher Johnson