Living under a blue sun and a red sun gave the planet of Vyndross the most breathtaking sunrises in the system. As the light of first dawn was scattered by Vyndross’s thin atmosphere, it shattered into vibrant purples and violets. The clouds, however, were shaded the colour of fire, looking to all the observers as though the horizon itself had turned into the pilot light of a lighter, with a blue core, and yellow licks of flame spreading outward.
Colonel Morrison took a deep breath of the brisk morning air, sucking in a mouthful of cigarette smoke, and breathing both out in a contented sigh. He tossed the butt of his cigarette over the railing, and turned back into his modest one-bedroom apartment.
Brushing aside the fuschia drapes, he stooped down to pick up the packed bag, and the transport schedule on his desk. His wife still lay sleeping beneath the duvet, with covers matching the drapes still billowing behind him.
Morrison gave her a doleful smile, fighting with himself on whether the risk of waking her up was worth one last kiss on the forehead, or a stolen peck on the lips.
Deciding against it, he turned around towards the bedroom door, and slung the backpack over his shoulder before he went.
“Where are you going?” a voice behind him gave him pause, and he sighed, letting the backpack fall from his shoulder.
He smiled at his wife and opened the bedroom door a bit further. “Sorry honey,” he said. “I didn’t wanna wake you.”
She sat up, clutching the covers a bit closer with a furrowed brow, wiping the sleep from her eyes. “You were just gonna leave without saying goodbye?”
Morrison scowled. “This isn’t goodbye, it’s just ‘until next time’.”
She huffed, folding her arms over her chest and turning away so her legs hung off the side of the bed. “I hate when you say that.”
“Why?” Morrison tilted his head.
“It’s a jinx,” his wife spat.
He laughed, trudging his heavy boots over to her and sitting down on the bed. “Hey now,” he said, resting a hand on her shoulder. “Nothing bad has happened so far.”
“No,” she shook her head, looking at him with swimming eyes. “But every time you leave I never know if it’s the last time.”
He wrapped his other hand around her, pulling her close and letting her warmth comfort his cold body. “That just makes these moments all the more precious to me.”
She clung to him like a drowning woman to a lifeline. “I don’t want you to go.”
“I know,” he rubbed up and down her back, ignoring the way her nails began pulling at his fatigues, wanting to pull him even closer than he already was. He took a shuddering breath and shut his eyes, planting a kiss on the top of her head. “But I have to.”
“No you don’t!” she pushed him away, staring up at his face. “You can just stay here!” Her eyes brimmed with the threat of tears. “No one will know. They won’t look for one man, they won’t care if you just never showed up.”
He shook his head and let out a breath. “I couldn’t do that. I have to go.”
“Why? Why do you have to?” she asked him, brows furrowed in an accusatory way.
He struggled for an answer, for a time, his mouth forming shapes and making noises, but no syllables. He clicked his teeth shut and reached down for her hands, gripping them with his and studying them, the way her delicate fingers locked with his calloused ones. The pale band of skin where she had taken her ring off for the night.
Every detail and imperfection, like he was trying to memorise them down to the cells. He looked back into her eyes and smiled.
“Honey, you don’t know how many times I’ve thought this through in my head,” he said. “How many times I’ve wanted to just turn around, hop the next ship, and come back to you. I think about it every single day,” he reached up to cup her cheek, and she leaned into the touch. “And it makes leaving you so hard.”
“Then why don’t you just stay?” she asked, holding the hand against her face with one of her own.
Morrison blinked and kept talking. “Twenty two boys have died under my command, Marci. Twenty two.”
Marci Morrison didn’t react, she only kept listening.
“I can give you all their names,” the Colonel continued. “Their ranks, and their serial numbers. If I deserted my post, it would be like,” he made a disgusted face at the prospect. “It would be like pissing on their graves.”
Marci nodded, but her green eyes still bore sadness. “I just don’t want you to be twenty three.”
“I know.” He cupped her face with both hands now, and drew her close so their foreheads were pressed together. “I know,” he repeated. “No one wants to be another number. But how many lives did those boys save?” he asked, drawing back slightly. “Ten? Twenty? More? Every alien they stopped is another human life spared, even if it meant their own life ended. That’s why I keep going back.”
“But why you?” Marci asked. “Why not some other soldier?”
“Imagine if every soldier thought that,” the Colonel said. “Why not someone else? Because if everyone thought ‘why not someone else’ then no one would be there to fight. Everyone can stay home with their husbands, or their wives, or their partners, but then no one would fight, and no one would stop the Covenant, and we would lose.
“The chance of me being the next one to die is better than the guarantee that without soldiers, the Covenant would kill everyone. Including you. And I couldn’t live with myself if that happened.” He drew his hands back away from her face, letting the cold of the outside air get to them once more.
She wasn’t looking at him anymore. He sighed and stood up. “That’s why I keep putting on the uniform. That’s why the soldiers I command continue to pick up their guns and fight. Because what might happen if we do is nothing compared to what will happen if we don’t.”
She looked up at him and nodded, accepting and resigned. He couldn’t bear to see that look on her face, so he bent down and stole a kiss. She grabbed a hold and followed him, standing up when he tried to pull away, pouring everything she had into that one last kiss.
When she finally let him go, it was with a baleful sob and another bout of embraces, and she scarcely let him go until he was out the front door. Before the door shut, he turned around to offer her one last smile, and a tip of his hat. “I’ll be seeing you, Marci. Until next time.”
She gave him a wave as the door shut behind him, leaving her alone in the apartment.