He came back to me five times.
The first time was like a meteor across the night – sudden, unexpected brightness. It was the reopening of the new, renovated Benbow Inn and all my friends were there. There was dancing, and cake, and music, and the Doppler babies to dandle and play with. The only one missing was my Jim, but it couldn't be helped. He had started at the Interstellar Academy only three Standard weeks ago, and there was no vacation-time coming up.
Still, he managed to show up. My heart gave an odd little jolt when I saw him standing in the doorway, self-conscious but proud in his new Academy whites, one hand scratching the back of his newly-shorn head. All at once, images of the boy he'd been – smiling toddler, curious child, defiant teenager – and the man he might grow to be flashed through my mind, and I thought how Jim was the one thing in my life that gave it meaning.
The next time I saw him was during the break between his third and fourth years of the Academy. The Academy curriculum took four years to complete, with breaks of two Standard months in between each term. It was the custom for the cadets to spend these breaks not with family, but serving on starships as a sort of additional, hands-on apprenticeship. My Jim was top of his class and never lacked for offers. He served on the flagship of the fleet twice – the Admiral beginning to take an interest in him – and, once, for variety, on a merchantman ship. But that year, he elected to spend his break at home, with me and BEN and the Dopplers.
I remember thinking how tall he had become – taller than me, for certain, and taller than his father had ever been. He was nearing six-foot-two by the time he was eighteen, and by the way he ate still had some growing to do. His face had begun to mature, becoming more angled. He carried himself with the easy, yet efficient, way of movement that the Academy had been drilling into him, and it was amusing to see how the teenage female clientele of the Benbow picked up when he was around.
Amelia was pleased with his progress – Jim was her protégé, of a sort – and so was I. The Academy had drawn out the potential in him, and made it shine. The dream of being on – and one day commanding – a starship captured Jim's heart; the hard work made him forget the hurts of his past.
I waved him off as he boarded the shuttle to the Academy, the Dopplers beside me. Amelia had spent the last fifteen minutes – as she had spent a great deal of Jim's vacation – asking Jim what he was doing at the Academy, how the various professors were treating him, and giving him advice. Most of Amelia's advice was very good, but most of it was also something Jim had heard before. He bore it with good grace, grinning and nodding at the proper times, knowing she did what she did out of concern for him.
I was content to stand back and watch, stepping forward once to adjust the collar of his uniform. And when he left I stood on the dock and watched for a good long while as the shuttled soared into the sky, stood and watched even when I couldn't see it anymore.
The third time was just before graduation. It had been a year since I'd seen Jim, and although that was less than the last period of separation, I still missed him terribly. He had attained his full growth now, was a man now. Barely out of boyhood, yes, a very young man – but a man nonetheless.
But still my son.
He was nervous as graduation day approached. Delbert, dear fumbling Delbert, worked himself up until he was nearly as nervous as Jim. Amelia, who had gone through the same exact thing herself and could understand Jim in ways none of us could, tended to smile amusedly and ruffle Jim's hair a lot. BEN, though he had wanted to come, had been left behind to mind the Benbow and the Doppler children. He called us a lot on the comm, though. Morph, of course, zipped and hovered around Jim, making happy chirping sounds and shifting from shape to shape.
Jim was the valedictorian of his class, a position he had fought hard to earn. He seemed a little scared of the speech he had to give, though. He got himself through it, a little awkward in the very beginning but losing himself in memorized word-patterns so that he earned a standing ovation by the end. The ceremony was beautiful, and I (as were many of the other parents in the audience) was moved to tears. Amelia looked a little shiny-eyed herself, and Delbert was loudly blowing his nose into his handkerchief.
I was so proud when I saw Jim up there on the presentation-stage, shaking hands with the huge bipedal lion – not the same race as Amelia, but related – who was the Headmaster of the Academy. Jim received his diploma and the Academy sigil-ring, which was almost more important, and then stepped down, and I clapped and clapped till my hands were red.
My little boy had become a man. Actually, what the Academy had done was turn my little boy into a soldier, but I didn't – as of yet - grasp the distinctions between the two very well.
I got an inkling, though, the fourth time he came back to me. Jim, as valedictorian, had been granted – right out of school – the rank of lieutenant and was assigned to one of the Interstellar Fleet's battle-cruisers. The SS Wind of Dawn had a tour-of-duty about the outer reaches of the galaxy.
Around the outskirts law and order was somewhat less prevalent than they were, here near the galaxy nexus. People weren't as tied to the government as they were here, and a lot of separatist movements flourished there. One of those movements, in the Mosespa System, erupted into violence.
The Wind had been the only Fleet ship in the vicinity, and they were ordered to immediately pacify the uprising.
No one had reckoned on the Mosespans managing to procure a hundred or so of the new SA-203 fast-attack assault skiffs. Nor on certain Mosespan engineers modifying the skiffs until they were 20% faster and 50% more powerful.
No one had expected that the leader of the uprising would be a genius, and would manage to get his forces organized to almost military discipline, or that he would come up with such brilliant tactics.
No one had expected the Mosespans to have so much pent-up anger, or that nearly a quarter of the population would flock to the banner of the Separatists.
And so the Wind never had a chance. They were well-trained, and well-armed, but they were only one ship, three hundred people, against the pent-up anger and the formidable equipment of a planetary system. After three months of frantic battles, all but cut off from the rest of the Fleet and knowing there was no back-up coming, they managed to limp out of the Mosespan System. Barely.
I remember the sheer relief that had rushed over me when the notification of his return arrived. All those nights I had sobbed into my pillow, sure that I had lost him; the hours spent watching the news networks coverage of what they called the Mosespan Crisis; the pitying looks of nearly everyone when they talked to me.
And I remember the look in Jim's eyes when I saw him again. I hugged him, hard, trying to convince myself that my son was back and alive and not gone. But…he was gone. A little bit of him was. He stood stiffly in my arms as I wept with pent-up worry and grief and relief into his chest, his arms tensing. Combat reaction, from a young man who had not had any physical contact with another living creature except for hand-to-hand combat.
Later that night, with his head bowed and his hair – again long enough for a ponytail – overshadowing his face, he told me about his ordeal on the Wind. His story was rough and sketchy, his words the barest lines of a horrible image.
"And then we fought at Tooin…"
"…we got back on the Wind…"
"We launched a mission to get supplies for the infirmary…"
"… had to ration our food…"
"The men were tired…"
At the end he told me that his best friend, Myka di'Tal – a Lycian from Imako and Jim's closest rival at the Academy – had died in action at one of the battles. And then he went to bed.
Every surviving member of the Wind's crew was granted a three-month leave, and could petition for more if they felt they needed it. Jim spent most of his leave in his room, silently tinkering with some bit of gadgetry or other, playing with Morph or just staring at a wall or the ceiling. Sometimes he'd emerge to rip through the skies on his solar-surfer, flying hard and fast as if to escape something. To the residents of Montresor he was no longer a juvenile delinquent but a legendary war-hero, and the police would not touch him even if he went on a murderous rampage through the capital, much less for his solar-surfing.
Sometimes I wish they would. Sometimes I feared I would lose my son, after regaining him from that nightmare, to his own desperate recklessness.
In the meantime, Amelia had dug through her own contacts in the military to get the whole story. Soon I had sheaves of mission reports to read through, and grainy flatvids to watch, and audio clips to hear. I don't know what I could do with that information – but I had to know.
There was a rather large part of the story that Jim had left out. The Captain of the Wind of Dawn had died in one of the early skirmishes, and through circumstance and lack of alternatives, my Jim had ended up in command. He, at the age of 21, had been in charge of nearly three hundred men – nearly half of whom had died – and the ship and making decisions on which hinged victory and survival.
His battlefield promotion was ratified and James Pleiades Hawkins was a Captain of the Interstellar Fleet, the youngest ever. And that meant that when civil war, sparked by the Mosespan Crisis, erupted, he was called to duty.
When he returned to me for the fifth time, he didn't return alone. A pretty young Fleet officer, human like us, with brown eyes and long black hair, accompanied him.
As military protocol dictated, an officer had been sent along with the coffin to explain the manner of my son's death and how he was a hero to the Fleet.
I wanted to bury Jim in the Montresor churchyard, but he had to be buried at the Morarium Bayani, the Graveyard of Heroes, on the capital of the Interstellar Empire, Corisca. Now I stand here, on the third anniversary of his death – at least the day reported by the Fleet – looking down at his grave. Delbert and Amelia are with me, Amelia leaning heavily on her husband. She'd lost her left leg and some fingers during her own campaign during the civil war; but at least she'd kept her life.
The sky is unsuitably bright today, Corisca's silver-red sun big and clear. It is too beautiful a day – it ought to be rainy and stormy. It just isn't right.
None of this was right.