They sat quietly at their table in the bar; the three men from Terra silent in their shared emotion. A fire had gone out in them, and they drank their drinks with the soft contemplation of those who are uncertain of when to speak and how to begin, shoulders rounded from bearing an unseen, unspoken burden. Their eyes lingered longingly in brief glances on the empty seat in their midst, darting away before they could develop anything like a sentimental feeling, even though that was what they all felt. The first man broke the quietude with a cough, and the other two looked up expectantly at him, hoping to be freed from the stretching silence that loomed over them from the shadows of the empty chair. The first man looked startled as their eyes met his, and he shook his head, denying them solace from the quiet. So, the three men from Terra sat quietly at their table, trying to find a way to say goodbye to a Starman.
“Best damn pilot I ever knew,” one said suddenly, his chin tilting up in defiance, breaking the lingering shadow. He knew someone had to speak, to fill the empty seat with reminiscence, and he drew bravery from another fast swallow of the warming synthohol. “I knew he was special from the moment I met him. That man could about sing the stars into alignment. He could fly that ship like a musician can strum a string.”
The other two men nodded in agreement, eyes lifting from their drinks to watch as the eulogy began. The man continued, the act of remembrance loosening his tongue in a way no alcohol could. “I remember the day we were on the station to station patrol, between Black Tie and White Noise Stations. We ran afoul of those pirates, and we’re telling them straight how we’re not worth the trouble, and he comes on the comm system with that smirk on his face.”
The men chuckled as one, warm in the comfort brought by shared experience. “I’ll never forget what he said, long as I’m alive. He was a man that could sell you a world. Do you remember what he said?”
Another spoke up, his voice caught somewhere between a smile and a sob. “I remember. ‘Hello, heathens! Don’t mind us Earthlings, we’re just running station to station, but I’ll tell you something important, so listen close. If you feel the need to show us the outside of our ship with those big guns of yours, know that these aces have never let me down. We’re a bunch of scary monsters and super creeps, so if you want to dance with us, then let’s dance, but only one of us is floating away to see the next day. Are you sure that it will be you?’”
They all laughed uproariously, leaning back in their seats, wiping their eyes to cover the tears of mirth mixed with melancholy.
“Do you remember the time we got called to muster by the Admiral? And he was about to read us the riot act for those maneuvers we pulled on patrol?”
They nodded, smiling at each other. “We were going to get put to task, for sure, but then he stepped up and said, ‘Let’s get the reality of this situation in order, admiral, sir. These fine young pilots are like diamonds, and if you intend to throw them to the dogs, then you’ll have to start with me. I called the shots, I had command, and if anybody deserves to be taken to task for it, it’s me, not these fine young starmen.”
They shook their heads, and one spoke up hesitantly. “I never knew why he called us that.”
“What, starman? It’s the recruit rank.”
“Right, but none of us were ever starmen. OCS places you right into Ensign, or Midshipman at the least.”
“It was like a term of affection. Like we were his young recruits, and he was our instructor. He was always saying ‘watch and learn, starman!’ You never picked up on that?”
“Ah, lay off him. This is supposed to be our time off.”
“He never took time off…” one said, quietly. They all grew silent for a moment, letting the words come. “Whether he was helping the mechanics, or covering a rotation, he was always busy. Always up to something. You never knew when he’d pop up with something exciting. A new modification for your ship, some little joke or prank. It was never dull with him.”
They all smiled, nodding to themselves. The words came easier, now that the shadow was banished, and the empty chair felt a little more full.
“He was a man who knew no limits. A wild-eyed boy from Freecloud, risen up out of the muck and the smog to something more. He lived every day like it would be his last, up to the day when it was, and he made us live a little better for his being there.”
“The day he… the day Vega was hit. We were a full system over, but he turned to us with fire in his eyes and said, ‘Gentlemen, it’s time to stop pretending things are hunky dory. Let’s go be heroes.’ And damn if we wouldn’t follow him into the black when he got like that.”
“Sixty nine civilians. Sixty nine. It’s a good number. He would have appreciated the lewd joke, probably laughed at his own expense, if he…”
They grew silent again, their eyes searching for meaning in the bottom of their cups. One of them murmured, soft, “We should have known to tell him no. We could have stopped it from happening.”
They all looked at each other, before one smirked, rubbing a hand across his eyes. “Get off it. Us? Tell him no? He would have sooner died then not go back for that last run. He didn’t know how to be anything more than courageous, and that bloody genius left us with a legacy that was more than just twenty seven successful patrol runs. He left us with good memories, a clean conscience, and the knowledge that he helped more people than he’d ever know.”
They all nodded, and stood up as one, glasses in hand. “So, here’s to one of our best. Today, a bright star turned to a black one, for with his passing ends an era. Here’s to Major Thomas, known better by his callsign.”
“Here’s to Ziggy,” they said, voices as one.
The three men from Terra finished their drinks and slammed their glasses down, the slosh of synthohol hiding the tear stains on the table, and as one they walked out of the bar, leaving three empty glasses and one full one behind. Their fire was back, burning brighter, enkindled by the beauty of the legacy of a good man. “Let’s get back to work. It’s what he’d have done.”