Two a.m. was deep into the graveyard watch on the Valley Forge. Skeleton crews monitored essential systems and a few squads were functioning on night cycle, but for the most part the crew's quarters were quiet. In the darkened, empty ship's lounge a single figure stirred. It was Dizzy. Like so many nights before she had found sleep elusive; lying awake, staring at the bunk overhead in the dark made her feel closed-in and uncomfortable. On such occasions she often sought refuge in the abandoned lounge. She located a circle of chairs surrounding a low table facing the corner. Pulling the table close to her chair, she braced her bare feet on it and draped her arms around her knees. She was crying softly, silently so that no one would hear.
She had ruined everything and she didn't know what to do. Dizzy had always considered herself indestructible, tougher than any ape in the fleet. Throughout her childhood, high school and even the MI she had driven herself to be the fastest runner, the toughest fighter, the bravest soldier. She was proud to remembered at Camp Currie as the only woman to challenge Zim in hand-to-hand on the first day of basic. After she had been thrown four times, Zim finally had to call the fight to prevent her from launching a fifth charge. Cost her a separated shoulder, but reputations don't come cheap. She had responded to her defeat in typical fashion; she trained rabidly. By the time she reached the Roughnecks, any ape foolish enough to accept a bout with her was unlikely to repeat their mistake.
She had built a reputation for toughness in the social arena with the same dogged persistence. She was a soft touch for a party or a night out, but she always stayed firmly in control. Her good looks got her plenty of attention. She might set her bait for Goss, Higgins or some other trooper, only to yank it back before any serious action took place. A wink, a dance, a stolen kiss were as much as most men would get from her. Even when things got more intimate, she remained firmly in control, keeping her lovers at a distance. No one got past the gates.
But Johnny had blown that all to hell. They had met in high school and Diz had fallen for him from the first day. She had maintained a playful facade for a while, but couldn't keep it up. She was helplessly, hopelessly in love with him. Though Rico's eye was usually elsewhere, she had pursued him for so long, suffering endless slights and rejections in her quest to win his heart. It had all been for naught until yesterday. After the Hide and Seek op outside Buenos Aires, when she had gotten into a jam, he had come for her, rescued her. What's more, Rico finally confessed that he loved her. And she had pushed him away.
It just didn't make any sense! She had rejected him with the excuse of a jinx; that any man she cared about suffered terrible misfortune, but that didn't wash. Maybe she'd been hurt so many times, led along by Rico only to be disappointed, that her feelings for him had changed. She knew that was a lie. You didn't feel this kind of pain if you weren't in love. Slowly she came to the disquieting truth. She was afraid. All her bravado, her toughness, her need for control was a shield protecting her. But with Rico her defenses wouldn't work. There would be no games with him. She couldn't keep him at arm's length; she would let him all the way in. For perhaps the first time in her life, she would lose control; give someone the chance to know her, faults and all; the chance to hurt her.
The sound of soft footfalls interrupted her thoughts. She dropped her feet to the floor and hastily swept her face with her hands, brushing away the tears and wiping her nose. God, she hoped she didn't look like she'd been crying. As she turned to face the intruder, a familiar silhouette appeared to her left.
"Private Flores," the voice was soft and deferential, "Please forgive me for disturbing you." It was T'Phai. In the dim light Dizzy could just make out the slender outline of his powersuit and peaked helmet. He stooped slightly, respectfully.
"T'Phai," Dizzy's startled voice sounded stuffy and wet. She opened her eyes wide, blinking back the tears. "Wha ...What are you doing up so late?"
"I hope I am not intruding. May I join you for a moment?"
Dizzy emphatically did not want company but she was too embarrassed to chase him away. She motioned him to a nearby seat. Slowly, T'Phai folded his seven-foot frame into a chair just a bit removed from Dizzy's.
"I hope I did not alarm you. I could not sleep."
"Join the club," Dizzy sniffed and wiped her nose again, "What seems to be the trouble?"
"I hesitate to say, for you may find it amusing. On Tophet we have no night, as you call it. We sleep by 'the light of day'."
Dizzy looked at him puzzled.
"You see," T'Phai continued, "I am a Roughneck, but I am afraid of the dark."
A smile escaped from Dizzy's lips before she could suppress it. It was strange talking to T'Phai. Neither man nor human, he seemed incapable of playing the verbal games she had used so often. He was quiet, direct, and never seemed insulted or intimidated by her brash manner. He was neither rival nor competitor. She turned to look at the narrow face, so strange and unreadable, yet so familiar. Funny, she felt comfortable with him. Somehow his very strangeness made him safe. As her vision adjusted to the darkness, she could just make out his eyes behind the helmet faceplate: dark, liquid eyes like those of a horse. Diz fumbled for something to say next, but T'Phai continued.
"In the darkness, the mind turns inward. One feels alone." At these words the alien's splayed, three-fingered hand moved to his chest where a small album was hidden. Dizzy understood the gesture.
"You miss your family?" Immediately she regretted the question; she had stepped too far, maybe touched a raw nerve.
T'Phai gave no sign of hurt or anger at the question. "Yes," he answered slowly, "I think often of L'War. I love her. I miss her." He paused collecting himself, "Humans speak often of love; do you think it means the same for human and Skinnie?"
"I don't know." Dizzy was caught off guard by the strange question.
"What do humans think love is?"
Dizzy slouched back in her chair, propping her feet up on the edge of the table again. "I don't know," she hesitated, "I guess, ... it's a need; wanting to be with someone more than anything else."
T'Phai nodded in assent, "It is the same with us. We call it 'Il'd'nal'; in your language , it would mean 'the hunger'. I have felt it once, for L'War. She felt it for me as well, almost from the first moment of our meeting."
"So you knew you were in love with each other from the beginning?"
"No, it was not quite so simple." T'Phai's head bowed in embarrassment. Dizzy could almost imagine he was blushing. "I was not ready. L'War waited a long time for me."
"I don't get it," Dizzy was watching the alien intensely now, lost in his revelations, "You both loved each other. What more did you need?"
"I have observed that with human as well as Skinnie, the things we most love are often the most difficult to obtain," T'Phai replied. "I was a soldier, an officer. I was strong and proud, and had built my life trusting no one but myself. I thought I could be complete in myself, but it was not so. I had become a warrior, but love is not a war." He paused and shifted uncomfortably in his seat, "For a long time I would not accept ...what is the word? ... the paradox."
Dizzy shook her head, confused.
"Forgive me, the language is difficult. To my people 'love' is a contradiction, a paradox: to complete oneself you must join another; to become whole you must give; to win, you must surrender. It is hard for a warrior to surrender, is it not?"
Dizzy had no response. What was happening here? Why were his questions so unnerving? Though she had said next to nothing, she could not escape the feeling that he was talking about HER. She looked to him for an answer, but he was lost in thought. T'Phai's gaze was centered now on a small silver album open in his hand. She had not seen him pull it out. He was motionless, lost in memories. Diz understood ,without asking, that T'Phai had solved the riddle, accepted the paradox that had defeated her. He had discovered the love she so dearly wanted. Gently she reached for the album. T'Phai started, looking up at Dizzy's touch; his eyes registered understanding and he offered her the treasure.
Dizzy held the object in her hands, staring at the images of T'Phai's children and his only love. The pain of it began to overwhelm her: a life's companion lost, probably dead and children millions of miles away. How did he carry it all? He would know the answer to her question.
"Is it worth it, the pain?" her voice cracked with emotion.
There was a long silence. She looked up and through the tears that had welled again in her eyes she could see T'Phai looking intently at her. Then the deep black eyes lowered, their gleam veiled with pain.
"Another paradox," T'Phai answered softly, "That which we most love often causes us the most pain. It is dangerous to put one's heart in the charge of another." Tenderly, he reached for the album and took it from Dizzy's unresisting grasp. Softly he snapped it shut but did not put it away. Instead he held it before him and looked at it. "When you find such a love as I have found, you will know the answer to your question."
Dizzy was lost now in the swirl of her own emotions. The tears came again but she did not sweep them away. She did not see T'Phai or his family anymore. It was another face that she saw. Deep inside her in a long neglected corner of her heart, a gate opened.
T'Phai rose silently from his seat and walked to the door.
"T'Phai ..." Diz woke from her revery in time to see the alien at the door. He turned to her and bowed slightly.
"Thank you Private Flores, for speaking to me. I believe I shall sleep better now. Goodnight."
As he turned again to the door and departed, Dizzy's words followed him.
"Goodnight, Colonel." Then, her voice a whisper, she spoke to the empty doorway, "Thank you."