Part Two

The transparent bubble of the observation room distorted the stars outside a little, but Paul Wang did not mind. He knew he could use a viewer to get a "cleaner" picture, but that was not why he came there - he wanted to look at *real* stars, not some technologically enhanced projection. The coffee in his hand was getting cold, and he knew he would be needed, soon, back in conference room, but he cherished these short breaks, these returns to certitude that he allowed himself during the course of the day. The stars were always there, always the same. They changed so infinitesimally as to be changeless. And he needed that, these days.

In truth, though, the stars had *always* provided him this sense of permanence. From the time he had been a child walking home from school he had looked to the constellations in the night sky as the one thing he could count on. And though he could no longer make out those formations singular only to a particular vantage point from Earth, he could still identify individual stars and systems, and the recognition made him feel better.

It was a surreal experience for an ex-Marine fighter pilot to sit in a room and conduct negotiations with an enemy no longer an enemy, to bargain technology and raw materials with representatives of a race who had terrorized his life, killed his friends, almost killed him, a few years earlier. To put all those memories behind him in the name of peace and the Galactic Federation and Alliance. He was more successful than he had ever imagined he could be. The truth was, Paul Wang had a genuine talent for the tasks for which he had been chosen. and he frankly loved the job. The Chigs, it was turning out, were clever businessmen; it took all of the skill of the primary negotiators to stay even with the deals, and Wang found the atmosphere electric. And on his own strength, Paul Wang brought a certain aura of callowness to the table that the Chigs had yet to see through, an air of guilessness that masked a shrewd analytical mind. His superiors complimented him on it as the fact surprised them, but had Wang's old squadron commander heard the comments he would have only smiled.

Wang owed most of his current position on the Earth Forces Industrial Trade Committee to McQueen's faith in him. When the war had finally ended, it was the USS Space Carrier Saratoga that again played host to the opera of peace talks as it had to that first, and tragically aborted, attempt. The Saratoga, and on her, Commodore Ross, as her commander, fulfilling a lifelong dream to be part of such a monumental effort. And along with Commodore Ross, Lt. Colonel Tyrus Cassius McQueen had again sat in the negotiator's circle - at the special request of the Chigs themselves. McQueen had chosen then Lieutenant Paul Wang as his personal aide. That experience had brought the young man to the attention of several civilian negotiators, and when the elements of peace had finally been settled to the satisfaction of both sides, and the Chig war declared over once and for all, Wang found himself the dubious holder of several very lucrative offers. With the blessings of his commanders, and his friends, he had surrendered his commission and joined the ranks of the diplomats.

He might be good at what he was doing, but some days the act of doing it gave Wang a creepy feeling. Despite his current position, he had a hard time getting past the idea that the Chigs were the enemy, that peace was an expedience, not a heartfelt desire. And he also had the strangest feeling that the Chigs, themselves, recognized Wang's reservations, and respected him for them. It almost seemed, at times, that those very reservations were what made him most palatable to the beings that sat on the other side of the negotiating table.

One of the more interesting results of peace with the Chigs was the removal from Earth of the central seats of world power. Though the New York Secretariat was still the site of the World Federation, and the place where the current Secretary General kept his offices, the seat of the real Galactic government was situated on in Groombridge 34, occupying sites on two planets, and a large annex of the John Glenn Space Port. Groomsbridge 34 was a comfortable commute for both sides, and brought neither group too close to the other's home planet. It also moved the real power out into space. Paul Wang was glad. He missed the Earth, sometimes. But he found, as time went on, that he liked living out there. He found a certain peace, dwelling among the stars.

A door opened behind him, but he did not turn. He knew who it was.

"Sir? The delegates are almost ready to reconvene."

Wang glanced over his shoulder at the blond haired girl standing in the lighted doorway.

"Thank you, Katherine," he smiled. "I'll be there in a few minutes." The girl hesitated, then left. Wang sighed, and chugged the last few dregs of cold, stale caffeine. The mug was from the Saratoga; one he had pilfered from the mess before he had left. It was his good luck piece, and in truth, he sometimes felt that the wretched brew served in the spaceport cafeteria actually tasted better when he drank it out of that mug. The one thing he could always count on with the 'Toga had been the excellence of the coffee. And the excellence of his friends.

Wang wondered, sometimes, if he was crazy to miss the war. And in truth, he did not miss *war*, but he did sometimes miss the simplicity of fighting an identified enemy. Nice, clean, black and white us against them. With friends to share the victories, and with whom to weep at the defeats. In a few minutes he would return to his padded chair in the softly lit conference room, with his soft spoken colleagues who were not necessarily his friends, and re-initiate the video-conference with the Chigs housed in a more Chig friendly atmosphere on a neighboring moon half an AU away. Nothing nice, simple or easy about negotiating the exchange of resources with an alien species

He sighed one last time at the stars. Then, giving the empty Saratoga mug a thoughtful look, he turned and left the observation blister. Duty called.

2064 WANG
The world around him was very black, and it occurred to him, distantly, that he probably should have felt cold. He did not, though, he was actually quite comfortable. There were stars all around; wonderful, dancing points of light. He had always loved the stars. He let himself drift among them, relaxing in their company, letting himself become one with them. It had been a dream of his, a childhood fantasy, really, to become like the stars one day. He could not be sure when it dawned on him that there were no walls around him, no ship, no pressure suit faceplate, no oxygen hiss; that he floated there, in space, unencumbered, unprotected, among millions and millions of stars. It was not possible, of course. And somehow, he knew he was not dreaming. He must be dead, then.

Funny, the idea did not bother him as much as he had always thought it would, when he was alive. There was no sense of loss, no panic. No pain. No regret. He merely floated, his thoughts drifting peacefully, like his body. Well, no, not his body. His soul, then? He tried to look down at his hands, at his feet. His head would not move, he could only look outward. A feeling of wonder overtook him. So this was what it was like, then.

He had no sense of time, really, although some residual awareness of distances remained. He felt... infinite. Expanding. And totally at peace. Peace. Memory assailed, strange that he should have memory, of war and peace. Peace talks. Terrible aftermath. Explosion. Someone had been hurt. Desperately. Someone who mattered. Who? The question drifted away on the solar winds. Darkness enveloped him like a soft, comforting blanket. Darkness and dancing lights. He could hear them singing, flutes and timpanies. He had always known that the stars had music.

Memory drifted back, again. Shooting, loudness, fear. Must save. Others. Gonegonegonegone... Someone. Gone. Lost. Love her, loved them. Must go. Who?

Stars. Quiet. Peace. Silence.

He was in a room. White, yet not white. Filled with... shelves. No. Platforms... racks. Looking down. A door opens and a man walks in. Looking sadly, quietly. Know him... Lies down upon a rack. My... Who. Name him. Direction. Hope. Hopeful direction, quest... West. Yes. Go westward, young man; go questward, young man. Always faithful He looked at West. West had tears in the corners of his eyes.

Door opens and a tall voice enters. "I though you were Wang..."

Wang. The word had a curious sound to it. Wang. He wondered what it meant. The tall voice lay down; he could see their mouths moving, but could no longer make out their words, sounds were too distant. They were sad. He felt sad for them. Come and listen to the music of the stars... "take him nd cut him out in little stars..."

"Always faithful, my friend..."

Grief, pain, terrible pain, no music, no music. Faithful, faithful. Must be faithful. Semper Fi I love you. Die. Not die. Die not.Roaring roaring. In his ears roaring. Exploding. Pain. Loudness...

Paul Wang opened his eyes. And then he lay there for a long time, barely breathing, not moving, aware that his eyes were open, but of nothing else. Gradually, slowly, he noticed the tiny lights above him, and he could make out the seam of a blank barrier over his head. A joint. Flat plane stretching downward. Flat plane stretching across. Wall and ceiling. It was very black, except for the tiny points of light. He moved his head.

Pain shot through him and he closed his eyes again until it subsided. Taking a deep breath, he tried, again, to move his head. Better this time, the pain was there, but distantly this time. To his left, he could see the fine pin points of more emergency lights. They cast a faint glow downward, and he could make out a solid barrier. Hatch. Red with white letters. Squinting, he tried to remember what the combinations of figures meant.

>Warn... Decompress...<

He strained to remember. Red warning. Decompress. Decompression. Decompression chamber? No. Cabin pressure. Cabin pressure decompressing. Door to stop it. Yes.

Darkness folded over him again, and the lights went away.

Later, the lights came back, again. And the roaring. He realized what it was, this time. It was his heartbeat he was hearing, the blood roaring in his ears. He must be alive, then. Interesting. The red emergency hatch came back into focus. Yes. He remembered the door. Maybe his last clear memory was of that door. Door crashing.

Wang. My name is Paul Wang. Undead.

He tried to turn his head the other way, but could not. Something stopped him. Hard. Wall. He was wedged against a wall. He remembered the explosion, impact tearing. Flying. He remembered flying through the air. Flying. Cockpit. Flying. Stars.My name is Paul Wang, and I can fly...

When the lights came back this time, a little more memory came with them. He remembered the vibrating in his hands. Shoulders hurting, he screamed and screamed. Knowing it was over, knowing there was no hope. Calling , calling to all the ones who had gone before him.

He tried to move his legs. Feet moved in boots, but not legs. He could feel them. He knew they were there. But no movement. Was he paralyzed? No. He could move his feet. Pinned, then. Pinned under the debris from the explosion. Explosion, impact. Juggernaut, bearing down. Wild laughter. Firing firing firing. It was over. Lights. Crash, impact, doorcrash...

Wang expanded his chest and realized that his lungs filled with air with the motion. He must be breathing. He was sure of it. Yes, he was certainly alive.

Tired, though, very tired. Sleep. Sleep with the stars.

The sobbing woke him. He opened his eyes, and strained to listen. Someone else there with him. No. His cries. Yes. Pain, but distant, far off, down a hallway. Are you listening WangPaul. Did you do it, WangPaul. You took innocent lives. Innocent lives WangPaul the red stink creature. You confessed, and then you thought you could cheat us. You thought you could get away with it. Steal the thunder, steal the light, steal survival from your loved ones. Trade the future for an optical disk. No one would ever know. But you would. And now they're gonegonegone and you are gonegonegone...

Wang tried to move his hands. One moved. The other. Uncertain. He could feel his shoulder, but not the rest of his arm. Think. Visualize his fingertips, on the ends of his fingers. See them. Trace the line. To palm, wrist, elbow. Ah. One arm was pinned beneath him. That was why it would not move. Broken? Probably broken. He nodded mentally. Satisfied. Concentrate on the other hand. Can you lift it? Think. Focus, and don't focus. Like coach used to say. Visualize yourself doing it, and it will be done. Under the spreading chestnut tree... floating, floating.

His hand moved forward, though he was not sure that he was reaching. He could not feel the arm. Forward, up and forward. Stopped. Touched. Hard. Irregular surface. Familiar. Yes. Cannon, base and turret lay in his lap. Heavy. Not so heavy. Could lift it, if he could move. Strained. Think lift. He shifted his shoulders. Blackness...

Later? He thought could hear a hissing. Snakes? Were there snakes in there with him? Though he never minded snakes, though. Cockroaches. Hated cockroaches. Did cockroaches hiss? Quiet. Listen. He listened harder. Hissing very soft. Like a valve on a bicycle tire. Valve. Air. Oxygen. He could hear oxygen being feed into the room. Where, oxygen. What room.

Where was he, exactly?

He remembered the fight. Chigs coming at them from all directions. A hit, and the airlock door between the cargo hold and the cockpit had jammed. Auxiliary power was off line. Could not open. It was over, no other choice then. Nathan had to take her home. Captain said so. Captain who used to be Shane. Plain Shane. But was always captain. Captain, my captain. When lilacs last in the dooryard bloomed... Dooryard, door. Unlock the door. No. Unlock the cargo hold. Unlock from the fuselage. Throw the levers. Semper fi, never die. Grab your gun and run boy, grab your rifle grab your gun, this is for shooting this is for fun...

Floating away. Like Captain Shane had floated away. Chigs shot her off the transport. Cockpit from fuselage, and they all went tumblin' down. Phousse and Shane. Ah, 'Phousse, Damphy, Vanessa. Sweet warm lips. Smile. Gone, faded. Like the cat that Alice met. All gone but the smile...

He was in the cargo hold of the ISSCV that he and Nathan West were flying back to the Saratoga. The hostages had been evacuated. Fly the bird home. Double their firepower and their chances. It had been his idea. It was right that he was the one to be caught because of it. Trapped in the cargo hold because the cockpit airlock door was jammed. The Chigs were everywhere, all over them like bees on honey, like flies on shit. Can't get back up, have to go down. Nathan has to bring her home, and Shane can't do it. Jettison the cargo hold so he can hard dock with the other. Hawkes is over there, he'll know what to do. Faretheewell see you in hell if you're goin' anyway, get one for me...

Paul Wang closed his eyes. It dawned on him, suddenly, that his nose was very cold.

The Chig had come screaming down on him, and he fired and fired. Screaming to keep from screaming. Hit him. And was hit. The emergency decompression hatches had dropped so fast he never heard them. Only the loud roaring, and the sensation of flight. But they must have dropped as soon as the Chig fighter had breached his hull. They were run by battery. Not dependent on auxiliary power. Fail safe. Had he been in any other part of the hold he would be dead. But the tiny thorax behind the cockpit where the manual gun turret was, that one area would seal off like a cocoon. The oxygen was also fed by back up battery. How much battery power did he have? How many days oxygen? How long had he been out there? And were was there?

The impact of the Chig ship would have sent him spinning through space. Nothing out there to slow him down. Newton's second law: an object hauls until something stops it. Second law. First law? What goes up, just keeps on going? Anyway, what did old fig newton know.

He had been knocked out of the ball park, and there he was, drifting, millions of miles from the Saratoga, light years from home. Adrift, until his oxygen ran out and he suffocated. Or the cabin temperature dropped until he froze. Wang closed his eyes. He was so tired. And his eyeballs hurt from the cold.

Always faithful, my friend, always faithful. Semper fi. Always...

Next : Part Three

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