Well you only need the light when it's burning low
Only miss the sun when it starts to snow
Only know you love her when you let her go
Only know you've been high when you're feeling low
Only hate the road when you’re missin' home
Only know you love her when you let her go
And you let her go
Staring at the bottom of your glass
Hoping one day you'll make a dream last
But dreams come slow and they go so fast
You see her when you close your eyes
Maybe one day you'll understand why
Everything you touch surely dies…
-Let Her Go, Passenger
Derek Wildstar was distracted. Nova could sense it. After a year in deep space, a home-cooked meal was a novelty, even if everything on the plate was derived from algae rations and shaped to look like something palatable. Yet, he absently poked at his meal with his fork.
Nova's talkative mother offered up several open ended questions, but rather than elaborating on a subject, he answered with short, crisp, but polite replies. When the answer required only a yes or a no, he replied with a respectful 'yes ma'am' or 'no ma'am', at least, until Mrs. Forester struck him dumbfounded with the most awkward subject of the evening.
“So, Derek... do we consider the two of you an item? Or, can I introduce my daughter to George?” Nova gasped and stared at her mother. She could feel the heat of embarrassment rising in her face. Then she glanced at her father at the other end of the table. He passively removed himself from the conversation by staring down at his plate. Nova’s mother winked back at her as if to say, 'Don't worry, dear! I know how to motivate this young man!' “He's the lead architect for the entire underground city!”
“Uh...” was the only thing that escaped Wildstar's mouth, and even that sound trembled.
“Mother!” Nova dropped her fork onto her plate. “Oh, good grief...” There had been no discussion between she and Derek on exactly what they were and she was not about to ask for clarification in front of her parents. Obviously, her mother's distraction with prospective grandchildren caused her to fall right off the deep end. Nova only mentioned bringing a friend to dinner, when she left her parents at the Argo's landing site to meet Conroy at the hospital. ‘I knew I should have taken him out to eat!’ she thought as she crossed her arms.
“Uh...” Wildstar stuttered again. “I supposed that would be up to Nova,” he said softly.
The entire table fell silent as the two women stared at him. Her father continued to avoid eye contact as he poked, at what appeared to be, mashed potatoes. Finally, Mrs. Forester smiled broadly and replied, “Oh, very smooth! I like that answer! Is anyone ready for dessert? I made cheesecake!” She rose from her chair and stacked Wildstar’s plate on her own before going to the apartment’s tiny kitchen.
Nova followed, clearing her father’s plate and a few utensils. “Thanks, Dad! You were a big help!” she whispered when her father finally looked up at her. He rolled his eyes in silence.
“So, when are you planning to submit your resignation?” Her mother said as soon as she crossed the threshold.
“My resignation?” Nova glanced back at her mother as she placed the spices in the appropriate cabinet.
“You can’t raise a family as an officer in the military! We talked about this before you left!”
“No, Mother. You talked. I listened.”
“Well, you need to settle down and start a family!” she said over the water running in the sink.
“Why? Because it’s safer?” Nova added a little sarcasm.
Her mother hesitated and looked back at Nova as she rinsed the dishes. “Watch your tone, young lady!”
“I’m doing important work as an officer and a nurse, Mother!”
“Your work as a wife and mother will be just as important! You have your education now and enough experience to secure a job in the private sector!”
Nova sighed as she turned from her Mother and left the kitchen, waving her hands as she walked. “I’m not having this conversation with you, Mom.”
“George is coming for dinner on Saturday!”
“I have a shift at the hospital on Saturday!” Nova called over her shoulder as she came to the table and cleared more of the dishes.
“Cancel your shift!” Her mother demanded when Nova entered the kitchen again. “I know they’ll understand!”
“I’m not canceling my shift for a social engagement! They’re short-handed enough as it is!”
“Alright! I’ll reschedule for Sunday evening!”
“Argh! Can’t I unpack first?’ she said and before she picked up the pile of dishes in front of her, she mouthed a quick ‘Help me!’ to her father.
He raised his glass of wine to her and smiled. “It’s so nice to have you home, Nova.”
When Derek wasn’t looking, Nova stuck her tongue out at her father and he laughed. She picked up the dishes and disappeared into the kitchen again.
The voices of the women carried into the dining room, where Wildstar and Nova’s father sat in silence. The man at the head of the table sipped at his wine, seemingly lost in deep thought. His eyes were focused on some obscure point on the finely appointed table.
Wildstar suddenly realized, this was the first moment he had with his own thoughts since coming home. The smell of a home-cooked meal, the claustrophobic feeling of a small apartment, crowded with modest furniture, voices in the background discussing the future, as if the past had never happened. It could have been his childhood home, before the bombings. The memories swelled in his head until his heart pounded in his ears.
It had only been days... only days, since he grieved over Nova’s lifeless form. Only days, since he carried her to the Argo’s bridge to look upon their precious Earth as its wretched, dying surface filled the windows.
It was only days, since the miracle, since Nova suddenly awoke in his arms and smiled at him. His heart leapt from the very depths of its sorrow to the pinnacle of euphoria. But, not enough time had passed for him to forget the weight of her lifelessness in his hands.
It seemed strange to Derek, almost surreal. Nova was engaged in a common struggle between mother and daughter, about family and career, as if she had never confronted her own mortality. It was for this very reason Nova refused to share her heroic, but reckless actions with her parents. She launched the Cosmo DNA as the Gamilons invaded the Argo. Her selfless actions thwarted the attack. She saved them all, but she paid with her life.
Derek glanced at Nova’s father. The man quietly sipped at his drink, occasionally smiling when the brewing conflict between mother and daughter produced amusing dialogue. He seemed blissfully content to listen to the voices from the kitchen, even if they were locked in a heated argument. Mr. Forrester had no idea how close he came to losing his only child. He didn’t know he was sitting next to the soldier that failed his daughter in so many ways.
Nausea gripped Derek. It slowly squeezed his stomach like a half inflated balloon. What little food he managed to get down, felt as if it would come back up. The mission to Iscandar was his only reality. This normalcy before him, this pedestrian existence, with polished silverware, cloth napkins, and fine crystal was a strange dream. He didn’t belong.
He was certain, at any moment he would wake up in his bunk on the Argo. Part of him even wished for it. The Argo was his home. It was more his home than any place he had been since his parents died. The mission gave him purpose. Haphazardly knitted together by the common bond of purpose, the people around him gave him a sense of belonging, a family. It was all gone. What remained of the crew were scattered to their own families like dying leaves.
If he had been more vigilant in his role as the deputy captain, if he hadn’t been so arrogant and assumed they finished the Gamilons with the destruction of their home, they might have been prepared for retaliation. The resulting death of more crew members and Nova’s sacrifice might have been avoided.
The mission was considered a success. He was exulted as a hero, thrust into the spotlight and greeted with standing ovations and handshakes. All of this, before his moral being could calculate the true cost of the mission.
Everyone around him was anxious to fix what was broken and move on. ‘If they only knew how I failed them,’ he thought as he glanced at Mr. Forrester. There were fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters who would never see their loved one again.
He felt frozen in place, like a massive boulder in the center of a raging river. Icy snowmelt rushed passed him and swept over him. The current pulled at him, urging him forward. No matter how much he wanted to move with it, the weight and the measure of his memories held him in place.
Too fast, he thought. It’s all moving too fast! How can the world ever go back to the way it was? How can it ever be normal again?
Derek noticed it was growing warmer in the modest dining room. He couldn’t seem to catch his breath and his heart was pounding in his ears. The walls seemed to be closing in on him. He placed his hands on the table to steady himself, but he couldn’t feel the tablecloth. His hands were tingling and numb.
“Derek. Derek, are you alright?” Mr. Forrester placed a firm hand on Derek’s shoulder.
The touch shook him from his thoughts and Derek stared at the man, “Sir?”
“You look like you’ve seen a ghost, boy! Are you feeling alright?”
“I…” Derek hesitated. He glanced at the sliding door in the living room. It opened onto the balcony. Sheer curtains billowed in the stale breeze of the underground ventilation system. “I… I think I need some air. Excuse me,” he said softly and stood on unsteady legs.
“Did something disagree with you, son?” Mr. Forrester called after him, but his voice was faint and distant. “Can I get you some water?”
Derek didn’t answer. He quickly pushed past the curtains and leaned against the railing. He finally took in a deep breath, closed his eyes, and released it slowly. The air was cooler and it briefly calmed his anxiety, but his memories gave him no reprieve. Scattered and fragile, they moved through him, like shards of brittle glass, each leaving their mark on his soul.
Smoldering wooden beams reached into a flaming sky. Black smoke oozed from them and dissipated into the murkiness overhead. It was all that remained of his childhood home. For days, he futilely searched the rubble for his parents, until his brother finally found him. This is what he knew of love. The bitter taste of loss:
Wildstar opened his eyes and stared out at the city before him. Life was too fragile, too fleeting. He remembered the fading light in Captain Avatar’s eyes and the diminishing strength of his grip when they shook hands for the last time. He remembered the feeling of Peter’s life slipping away in the medevac and how helpless he was to stop it. Megumi’s sweet laughter echoed in his head. He could still feel her loving embrace around his neck. He could still feel the cool lifelessness in her, the last moment he touched her. Even Jessica left her mark, a painful bruise on his heart, when she slipped away from his reach and fell from the Argo. Finally, he remembered Nova, a frail beauty, cold and wilted in his arms, the final toll for his mistakes.
The realization hit him suddenly and like a crushing blow to the abdomen, it left him breathless. He couldn’t look at her without loving her, but to love her, was to risk the pain of losing her again. She willingly gave her life for love, and he had no doubt she would do it again. Nova had strength beyond her years. He had seen it. However, he knew his own weakness. He couldn’t hold her like that again. He couldn’t see her lifeless in his arms. He wouldn’t survive her loss a second time.
What could he give her in return? What was worthy of love like that? Certainly not the life he could offer her; leaving her for months at a time while he fulfilled his commitment to the Earth Defense Forces. She deserved more. She deserved normal. The obscure thought drifting in the back of his mind worked its way forward. ‘If I’m not in her way… she might have a chance at normal.’
Moments from the mission debriefing flashed in his memory. In honor of their return, the Commander of the Earth Defense Forces conducted a private meeting with each surviving crew member, with the exception of Conroy of course. The meeting was slightly informal and Derek was invited to sit across from him as an equal. It seemed, like everyone else on Earth, the Commander had aged rapidly in the past year.
“In light of your honorable service, Wildstar,” he began, “and because you have helped to ensure a future for this planet, it is only fitting that I offer you a choice for your future. You can remain with the Earth Defense Forces and you will, of course, be honored with your choice of assignments, an increase in rank, and in pay. However, if it is your wish, by completing this mission, you have more than fulfilled your commitment to the Earth Defense Forces. We can hardly ask more of you. Each surviving member of the Star Force will be given the opportunity to retire from the military, with all the benefits that entails. I only ask that you consider these choices carefully. Our current state is… fragile. Your continued service and leadership would be greatly valued.”
Of course I will stay! Where else would I go? he thought as he looked upon the city lights from the Forresters’ balcony. There was no turning back for him for him now. This was his new normal. What he had done, what he had seen, changed him. Whether it was for the better was yet to be seen.
His heart was racing. He felt the crawling sensation of sweat rolling down his chest and back. He lifted his hand and examined it with concern. It trembled before him.
“Derek?” He gasped at the gentle sound of his name in Nova’s voice. His surprise left him speechless. He found himself staring into the softness of her eyes. He suddenly threw his arms around her and embraced her. She caught her breath and her body stiffened with surprise. “Are you alright?”
He held her in silence for a long moment. “You mother’s right, you know?” he finally said.
“Oh, Derek! Not you too!” Derek sensed Nova was smiling.
“She just wants you to be safe, Nova!”
“I know, Derek,” they were so close, Nova only needed to whisper. “This is normal for us. Without an argument about my sole responsibility for repopulating Earth, I wouldn’t be home!”
He didn’t laugh at her light-hearted reply, he just held her tighter. “You deserve to be safe! You deserve to be happy!”
Nova hesitated in response. Her body stiffened again. “What is it, Derek?” His only reply was silence. “Talk to me. Derek…”
“She was a little girl,” he said feebly, “just a little girl!”
Nova tried gently to push back from him, but he couldn’t release her. If he did, he would have to look into her eyes again.
“So, little… she’ll never…” he swallowed hard, “She deserved to be happy too!”
“Derek? You’re frightening me!” She finally pushed back from him. She touched his face, but he couldn’t look at her. “Tell me what happened!”
“Jessica,” he suddenly met her eyes, “she killed a little girl!”
Nova hesitated as her expression dissolved into confusion. “I don’t understand, Derek! What little girl?”
“Megumi! She was a sick child! A refugee!” He hesitated and finally stared deep into Nova’s eyes. “She had brown eyes… like yours…
“Jessica was caring for this little girl?”
“I wanted to help them! I told Jessica I could help them, but she refused!”
“She’s caring for refugees?”
“There were syringes on the floor… when I came back…” he swallowed hard once more. “She wouldn’t wake up!”
Nova lingered in silence for several moments as her mind seemed to assemble the pieces. Then she whispered, “She didn’t take the meds to sell, they were for the refugees!”
“I shouldn’t have left her! I should’ve stayed with Megumi! I didn’t know! I didn’t…”
“Triage…” Nova whispered.
Derek hesitated, utterly confused by her subdued reaction. “What?”
She pulled away from him, and looked out over the city. She touched her lips with her fingers, as she often did when she was thinking. “It makes sense,” she whispered softly. “I should’ve seen it!”
“I don’t understand!”
“It’s triage, Derek!” She suddenly looked at him. “What she’s doing is an extreme form of triage!”
“And that’s the basis for killing a little girl?”
“No, it’s about saving the ones you can with what you have…” Nova seemed to search for words. She shook her head as if she dismissed something before she said it. “Derek, I respect your judgment. You know that. Your role in the last year has taught you to evaluate a situation and make decisions based on fragments of information.” She paused to take in a deep breath. “This is different…”
“I saw it, Nova… I…”
“You don’t know what you saw!” Nova said firmly, but she touched his arm gently. “Jessica was trying to make her more comfortable. Sometimes they just…”
“They just what?” His words were hard and brusque.
“They just slip away,” She withdrew her hand from him and averted her eyes to the floor. Derek sensed her dissuasion from his tone. “You have to see with different eyes. This is what I know. You need to take me to her, Derek.”
“You made a promise to a friend, a friend that wanted to help you!”
Derek audibly sucked in a breath, preparing to raise his voice at her, but the truth in her words quelled his hostility. He stepped away from her, taking a turn on the small balcony to pacify his restlessness. Finally, he spoke with a soft, but urgent voice, “She doesn’t want my help!”
“She still needs it!” Nova spoke softly to the floor.
“What…” Derek leaned toward her, trying to hear her better.
“I said, she still needs it!” She suddenly met his eyes, with anger laced in her own. “I can’t let you abandon her…”
“Abandon her?” Derek snapped as he straightened. “She refused me! I offered her help and she turned it down flat! She kicked me out of the clinic, and then she hit me in the butt with the door on the way out! Thank you, but no! I’m done!”
“If you accused me of killing a child, I would have thrown you out too!” A long, tense moment of silence fell between them and hit the floor with the weight of a brick.
The sudden swing in her tone took him by surprise. He softened his voice and spoke with gentle caution. “Why are you defending her?”
“Why are you condemning her?” Nova turned to face him. Her voice had an unyielding decisiveness to it. “You don’t get to do that! You don’t get to judge her out of context!”
Derek was silent. He couldn’t just stand there, yet he couldn’t walk away. He took in a deep breath.
“Jessica never had the luxury of formal training! If that child died by her hand, it wasn’t intentional!” She turned from him and stared out at the lights of the city. “This is not a battle, Derek! Strategies and calculations don’t work here! She could’ve been me, Derek. Do you understand?” Her brown eyes reflected the city lights in the distance.
“No…” Derek shook his head in disbelief. “No, you wouldn’t…”
“You don’t know that!” She snapped, but she couldn’t seem to look at him as she continued. “Refugee camps were training grounds for new medical personnel. Trial by fire... I made plenty of mistakes!”
There was never enough, never enough of anything. The doctor’s couldn’t handle them all! It was up to us to… sort them out…”
“Sort them out?” Derek repeated softly, attempting to minimize any accusing tone in his voice.
“Make decisions… who would have the best chance at survival,” Nova replied softly. “Limited resources…you see?” she began, but her voice trailed off.
“A life is not a waste of resources!” Derek snapped defiantly. He was surprised by the trembling in his voice.
“Sometimes there’s nothing more you can do!”
“There’s always something!”
“Stasis?” She met his eyes again. “How many functional units do you think are left? Do you know how much care and maintenance they require? How much power?” When they diverted power to launch the Argo, hundreds died of their injuries when the units failed!” She hesitated and turned back to the railing.
Derek felt his face flush. He had been so isolated from everything during his assignment on Mars.
“You know about the shortages, Derek. There was no more manufacturing! Everything was diverted to building underground! We couldn’t get antibiotics, much less replacement parts for stasis units! As governments and borders collapsed, countries lost control of their stockpiles. When the EDF was formed, another rush ensued for the recovery of lost resources. Some supplies were obtained by scavengers and hoarders, but most were retrieved by the EDF or the Civilian Corps because they had the means to get to them.”
The EDF and the Corps worked together for years, sharing human capital and trading. As things became more desperate… so did the need for more supplies. We both know the original purpose of the Argo. An order was given to obtain what we needed, at any cost…” Nova finally turned and looked him in the eyes and emphasized her words, “at any cost.”
Derek wanted to say something. He opened his mouth, but nothing came forth.
“We both know who had the advantage,” Nova continued. “It was the side with the most artillery.”
A chill ran through him. The Argo was originally intended as an ark, before the historic contact with Iscandar. It was a final, desperate effort to save the remnants of human civilization. However, the Argo’s capacity was limited. ‘Did that mean those left behind on Earth were expendable?... Of course it did.’ Derek swallowed hard. “The drugs on the Argo…”
“Especially, the drugs on the Argo!” Nova said.
“Jessica was evening the score.”
“No.” Nova shook her head. “I suspect she was taking back what was taken from her... or perhaps her father.” Nova looked down at her hands, resting on the balcony railing. “Did she talk to you about her him? Did she tell you how he died?
“Doctor Conroy was listed in the hospital database, but his file is locked. I don’t want to think about what I already know.”
Derek looked down at his feet. The nausea churned his stomach again. “You’re saying this is our fault. We caused this…”
“No, Derek,” Nova’s voice was sympathetic, almost sad. “The evil here is human suffering. It’s just people, trying to survive.” She hesitantly stepped closer to him and touched his arm again. He stared at her pale, delicate fingers over the contrast of his dress blues. He was doing everything he could to hold back his tears. He knew if he looked into her eyes in that moment, he would be overwhelmed.
“It’s not Jessica’s fault, the little girl died. It’s not your fault, she couldn’t be saved.” Nova paused and tilted her toward him. “What I did… was my choice… It wasn’t your fault.”
Derek gasped and met her eyes. ‘How could she know?’ he thought. ‘How could she know what I was thinking?’ He stepped back from her touch, suddenly dazed and off-balance.
“Parents die. Friends die. Mentors die. It’s not your fault.”
He turned his back to her and steadied himself with the wall before him, leaning into it as if his life depended on it.
Nova seemed to have a sense for what would reach him. She seemed to know him in ways he could hardly fathom. It intrigued and frightened him in the same moment, because she was such a mystery to him. He felt her arms around him, her body against his back and her hands over his chest. “You can’t save everyone...”
“Please… don’t!” his words were strained. He wanted to shut her out. He needed to shut her out. He wasn’t prepared for such raw, bitter vulnerability.
She tightened her embrace around him. “We’re so human... We’re so imperfect. We hurt each other and we disappoint, but we need each other too.” He could feel the vibration of her voice in his chest and the anchoring strength of her embrace. “It’s not your fault,” she softly repeated the words. “It’s not your fault.”
He grasped her hands as he bowed his head. He was so angry. Where was it coming from? His brother was safe. His mission was complete. Yet, the sheer absence of tension left him without release.
Why did he want to condemn Jessica? Why did it feel so good to target her with his rage? He was tempted to strike her, which was disturbingly out of character for him.
Jessica was a bitter reminder of an profound grief born from losses too great to acknowledge. They remained undigested in the deepest, darkest part of his soul.
Megumi’s passing was the trigger, the release which threw open the flood gates of emotion. Wildstar desperately wanted to fulfill his promise to Peter and protect his young sister, but her reckless nature torcher. He couldn’t intervene without the risk of yet another loss. He had been paralyzed and angry. That is, until Nova’s gentle touch.
The years of anguish he had quietly ingested and failed to acknowledge finally came forth in stifled sobs. Raw emotion crashed against him like massive ocean waves, yet Nova held him steady in her embrace. In that brief moment, he let himself drift with the uncertainty of the tides because he knew, Nova would never let go.