"No! I won't leave him here! I can't do thisplease don't make me do this!" It was her own frantic voice that woke her, not her companion's presence, but the moment Captain Joy Grant opened her eyes she was aware of not being alone. She was grateful that she'd ignored protocol tonight and allowed her chief medical officer to go sleep by her side instead of sending him back to his own quarters at evening's end.
He wasn't sleeping now, of course. No one could have slept through the racket she'd just been making. John Woodlawn had waited patiently for Grant to rouse herself and now he was ready to gather her into his arms and hold her close while she trembled and fought down the last vestiges of her nightmare's panic. Only when she finally relaxed against him did he ask her gently, "The same dream, Joy?"
"Exactly the same. I've had it every night since we changed course, and each time I get a little further into it before I wake up." Grant shuddered, glad she'd been on intimate terms with this man for more than long enough that she had no hesitation about being this honest (and this vulnerable) with him.
Woodlawn had come aboard the St. Petersburg with her when she had taken command of her most recent starship twoyears earlier. He was newly widowed after a happy (although often absentee) twenty year marriage and she in all ways but one -- the quintessential never-married-except-to-the-ship Star Guard captain. Her long-term relationship with an Arian civilian research scientist had just broken up and left her feeling far more adrift than she'd expected (or than she'd cared to admit, even to herself).
Joy Grant and John Woodlawn were old friends anyway, though. They'd been at the Academy at the same time, he serving as her senior mentor during her plebe year. They'd stayed in touch throughout their careers and they'd served together on another starship that had also found its way to Zorti. That was nineteen years earlier when Woodlawn's marriage was young and when Grant wouldn't have looked at him twice as anything but a friend because someone else occupied the most special place in her heart and in her life.
Someone she'd just been dreaming about, again. Someone she'd left behind on Zorti, the first human to die there on the world where the second Earth colony on a true M-class planet had been established during the years since then.
"I'm your doctor, you know," Woodlawn reminded his captain now, but his tone was mild rather than insistent. He let her go without trying to hold her when she moved out of his arms and lay back against her pillow, the bedclothes clasped over her breasts by arms that were still faintly moist with the perspiration of dream-inspired panic. "I could insist that you tell me about it. . . ."
"The hell you could," Grant answered him; and although her lips twisted into a wry grin, no warmth made it as far as her blue-gray eyes. "But do I really have to tell you, Woody? You were there nineteen years ago. You know what I'm reliving whenever I have that dream. What's the point of putting us both through my telling it to you like some kind of badly written horror novel?"
"The point might be to help you stop having the dream every night," Woodlawn observed dryly.
"You didn't seem to be enjoying it much, so I thought you might like to unload it. Or unload the baggage that's causing it, is what I meant to say. Why not, Joy? You said it, I was there -- so there can't be anything you need to hide from me."
"Don't be too sure about that, Woody." Again that twisted, completely humorless grin distorted Grant's mouth. She was no beauty, never had been; but in her mid-forties she usually had an air of calm certainty that gave her perfectly average face a comfortable attractiveness whenever she wasn't finding it necessary to stare down an enemy or scare hell out of a difficult crew member.
Woodlawn remembered her as an Academy cadet who was still filled with adolescent uncertainties and as a junior officer who hadn't yet learned that it wasn't necessary for her to take herself far too seriously in order to command respect. He remembered her as a youthful executive officer on a ship much smaller, much less technologically advanced than the St. Pete, which would have taken twice as long to make a direct passage from Earth to Zorti. The smaller ship had been heading into the utterly unknown instead of visiting today's well-established colony there. That young exec had really been pretty whenever she'd smiled, but of course in those days her smile reached her eyes almost every time she'd worn it.
The mature woman might have been beautiful tonight if she hadn't long ago forgotten how to smile like that. She laughed at jokes like other human beings. She apparently enjoyed all the normal pleasures -- eating, drinking, working hard, making love -- but Woodlawn hadn't seen those expressive blue-gray eyes of hers fully include themselves in her smile. Not since they'd taken the old Rough Rider away from Zorti after being the first humans to land on that world all those years ago now. As far as he knew, she hadn't smiled like that even once since she'd left someone behind on Zorti who had been capable of making her light up like a Terran sunrise.
Hell, of course she wasn't going to talk to him about it. She'd allowed herself to be debriefed after her return to Earth nineteen years earlier. She'd talked to the press about all the conventional things that an explorer was expected to discuss and describe -- and as soon as some other drama had diverted the media's attention from the discovery of Zorti, she'd plainly been thankful to be allowed to stop talking about it. She hadn't willingly done so since, except maybe to the child that had been born to her eight months after that discovery. This was the child she had just learned that shewas carrying when she'd had no choice but to presume its father dead and to leave his body unrecovered somewhere on the alien world of which he had afterward been immortalized as discoverer.
An appropriate fate, perhaps, for Kirkland Gambol Rogers. How they'd joked about having an upper crust dandy of a young captain for a ship called Rough Rider! It seemed so poetically suitable before they'd realized their "discovered" world already had a name by which its native inhabitants called it, that Rough Rider's officers humorously suggested it should be dubbed "New Cuba" and that its highest elevation should be named "San Juan Hill."
Those high spirits of theirs had come crashing down soon enough, though. Although Joy Grant had since then risen in rank from lieutenant to full captain, although she'd commanded a succession of increasingly larger and more powerful starships and although the son she'd borne eighteen years earlier had grown into an intelligent and good-looking man of whom she had every right to be proud, it was her old friend John Woodlawn's opinion that she had left much more than a lover down there among the telepathic natives of Zorti. She'd left something behind that had by its absence changed her forever. Although Woodlawn had come to love her more dearly than ever during the months since she'd first allowed him to share her bed, he was always aware even when they were closest to each other both physically and emotionally that something essential was absent from their times together. There was some part of her that he was not touching because she wasn't in touch with it herself, or (a cold thought that horrified him whenever he permitted himself to entertain it briefly) because that part of her was gone, not just concealed. Really gone, destroyed, literally and not just figuratively sacrificed on the altar of initial contact with an unknown and in its terribly innocent way absolutely deadly alien species.
"Woody, I'm sorry -- this is going to sound awfully unfair -- but I need you to go back to your quarters now," Grant said, managing to use her command voice without looking or sounding ridiculous given their current circumstances. Two naked lovers in a bed, and she was giving an order like the Star Guard captain she was and she plainly was expecting to be obeyed. "I know I said you could stay, but now I really have to be alone for awhile."
"All right." Woodlawn wasn't sure whether he was agreeing because he wanted to give her what she needed, or whether he was a chief medical officer obeying his captain; and it didn't matter, because he'd long since given up worrying about it when the lines between official and private relationship became blurred. Such things were inevitable when men and women served together in confined spaces over months, sometimes years, out of contact with others of their own kind except their shipmates. The old "nonfraternization regulations" had been sent to the junk pile decades earlier and, as long as mature adults used discretion, there was no need to be afraid of discovery because no one really gave a damn what anyone else did in privacy. Not even when "anyone else" was the ship's captain, and when her relationship was with one of her own senior officers. It hadn't been against regs for something like this to happen, even as long ago as Rough Rider's return from Zorti. Yet when Grant's by then obvious pregnancy caused the intimate relationship that existed between captain and exec to become part of the exploratory starship's story as covered by the media, the brass at Guard Command was embarrassed and they'd frowned even though they could not openly censure. Woodlawn was well aware that between unofficial but decided disapproval from her superiors and hysterics from Kirk Rogers's wealthy, widowed and possessive mother, Joy Grant had hell to pay for returning first to base and then to Earth pregnant with her dead captain's son. That was one good reason why he never pressed her for more than she was willing to give him now despite the passage of almost two decades and despite thefact that he was a staff officer and therefore about the safest possible partner she could have chosen from a protect-the-chain-of-command standpoint.
Nevertheless, he was disappointed at being asked to leave her now, when he'd waited so long and so patiently for tonight's invitation to come. To wake up beside a loved one again, after missing that every morning since Mae's death!
Oh, well, he'd done without that pleasure more mornings than not even while Mae had lived. He'd been serving on starships and she had been teaching school back home on Earth during most of their married life. As for waking up beside Joy Grant some morning, he still had confidence that it would happen sooner or later -- provided that he was patient and cooperative now, provided that he didn't make her feel pushed for what she so plainly was not yet ready to give him.
So he got out of her bed now. He dressed with the uncomfortable feeling that she wanted him gone so intensely that she'd have winked him out of existence if that had been within her power rather than tolerate the delay caused by his need to don his clothing. Then he bent to kiss her goodnight even though he wondered whether she really wanted him to do so. "Go back to sleep if you can, Joy," he said, and smoothed dark brown hair that was just showing its first silver threads back from her forehead. "You've still got the medicine I prescribed?"
"Yes, and I haven't taken it once and I don't intend to start tonight." She was feeling repentant, maybe even downright guilty; she put up a hand and caressed his cheek. He noticed that she was very careful to keep the bedclothes tucked securely and concealingly around her body, very careful indeed to avoid doing anything that might look like an invitation or just a reversal of herdecision that he should leave. "I'll be fine, Woody. I need to think, that's all. You can understand that, can't you?"
"I never met a captain who didn't spend a lot of time alone, if that's what you mean," he answered her, and kissed her again. "It seems to go with the rank. Predisposition or consequence, I don't know -- but I guess it means you're normal and I don't need to worry about you, as your physician or as your lover. Good night, darling. I'll see you tomorrow sometime, I hope."
"You know damned well you will. St. Pete's not that big a ship!" Grant laughed ruefully and took her hand away from her lover's face. "Good night, then."
When had she ever used an endearment to address him, even in their most private and intimate moments? Never, Woodlawn thought with astonishment as he let himself out of the captain's quarters and walked to the nearest lift. The ship's passageways were quiet at this hour; there were on-duty crews at work, of course, in every department that required 24-hour coverage, but generally there was little corridor traffic at 0200. Even though he would not have needed to be embarrassed, would not have dreamed of trying to explain himself if he'd encountered anyone, he was still somehow relieved to make it all the way down to sickbay and his own adjacent cabin without having to politely greet anyone on his way.
He wasn't feeling polite. He'd just got through telling his captain he wasn't worried about her and now he was making himself a liar. He had no more hope of going back to sleep than she'd had, so he made himself a hot brandy and he sat in a chair, staring out a viewport instead of undressing and lying down again.
He sat there and remembered Zorti as they'd discovered it nineteen years earlier, knowing perfectly well that six decks above him in her own quarters, Captain Grant was doing exactly the same thing. The only problem was that although he'd "been there" just as she'd said, he had not physically or telepathically witnessed the most critical moments as she had done; had notbeen a command officer, had not been able to share fully in her pain and her responsibility. He had no illusions that his recollections could bring him any clue as to what in hers could be causing that disquiet, could be making her dreams so disturbed and her waking hours so tense. Ever more so, he thought as he mused, with each day that brought the St. Petersburg closer to Zorti and its newest mystery.
I just hope you can solve it this time, Joy, Woodlawn thought as he nursed his drink and his memories simultaneously while waiting for the infuriatingly cheerful voice of his chrono-alarm to tell him that the night was over and he was free to start his day. I hope so for your sake, and for mine.
Copyright © 2004 by Nina M. Osier