He looked at the frail hands of General Wingate as they wrapped around the bars. He thought about how funny the act of time was on the human body. This was a five star general. His mentor, a man he’d stood beside in battle. Looking at his hands now, Archer wondered if he even had…
“Commander, I said are you sure about this?”
Archer shook his head and looked up into the ice blue eyes of the General.
“Never less sure about anything, Sir.” He drew a breath and smiled. “But I’m doing it anyway.”
Without another word General Wingate pulled open the barred door and the guard on the other side stepped aside and saluted.
“I’ll let you take it from here Commander.”
Archer saluted and stepped through the door. It closed behind him. The sound of metal grinding on metal rang in his head.
He wasn’t fainthearted about prisons. He’d seen more atrocities in his lifetime than anyone needed to. He didn’t think anything would make him feel faint of heart at this point, but what he was about to face, he didn’t know how he would react, or how he would handle it.
He walked down the hallway, white on white on white, sterile. He could actually see a faint reflection of himself in the polished floor.
He hadn’t slept all night.
Sarah had tried to talk him out of doing this, but this was something that had to be done and as he was leaving for a three month space journey in the morning, it had to be done now.
“Commander.” The guard at the next locked door saluted him.
A second man came up beside them, another salute and then the introduction. “I’m Officer Briggs. I’ll be accompanying you to the lower level, Sir.”
Archer managed a small smile. He stepped into an elevator and Officer Briggs pressed the button sending the elevator down two more floors. As they stepped out this time, there would be no more doors, this was his destination. Level five secured solitary confinement.
“If you’ll wait right here, Commander.” Officer Briggs gestured to a small alcove off to the side.
There were no tables or chairs, no guards or windows, not even any bars, just white walls, ceiling, floor… and four doors, each with an electric panel beside it.
When the guard punched in his code on one of the panels and placed his finger on it, the door slid open. The guard stepped inside, ordering the prisoner to stand against the wall with his hands on his head.
Archer swallowed hard and gave a small tug to the jacket of his uniform. He wasn’t prepared for this, but how could anyone be? If he could have one wish in the world, it would be to go back nine months before all this ever started, and end it before it began.
“All clear Commander.” The guard stood at the door, saluting, allowing Archer passage into the room beyond.
“Thank you.” He moved passed and stepped inside and met eye to eye with the prisoner. His black hair was longer and thicker than the last time he’d seen him. His brown eyes held no real emotion. He was wearing a blue jumpsuit that of a prisoner, which he was, but he was more than simply that…
This prisoner was also his best friend.
“Archer.” He sounded calm, unconcerned.
While Archer on the other hand was sure Thoron could see his heart beating through his chest had he looked for it.
“I knew you’d come.” Thoron’s ankle was chained to the bunk behind him.
The room was spacious, all things considered, no window, sparse furnishings. It was cold. The kind of place designed to make you willing to do anything to have some color, some warmth, some sense of life.
“I want to know why.” Archer met his friend’s gaze.
This was a man he’d met in high school. They’d become close friends, had been through everything together from the loss of parents and siblings, to first loves and several broken hearts. They’d been to war together. They were brothers in every way that mattered. All Archer wanted from him now, was to know why.
“You wouldn’t understand.”
Thoron’s eyes may have suddenly flashed sadness, but that could have been simply wishful thinking on his part.
“Well try me.” He wished he could be cool and unfeeling, but his emotions were still raw from all that had happened and lying very close to the surface.
“What does it matter? Are you still going?”
Archer closed his eyes and straightened his spine.
“Lift off is in the morning. Why, Thoron?”
It was all he could do to keep from screaming his rage and frustration.
“Don’t go.” Two words, delivered coldly.
“Fuck you.” Archer turned and slammed his palm against the wall. Then turned back to stare at the man he once called friend.
“That’s all you’ve said for three months. No why, no reason, no compelling argument, just don’t go. Then you’re caught sabotaging the mission, tried and convicted of treason, Thoron, your life is over and you still haven’t said a damn thing that’s made any kind of sense. You throw away your career, your life, our friendship… for what? I deserve an answer to this, Thoron. You know I deserve and answer.
“Stay home with Sarah tomorrow, don’t go on that mission.” He repeated like a drone, standing in military stance, staring at the wall straight ahead of him.
“This will be the last time I ever stand in your presence. You have nothing to say to me?” Archer had been married twice, was engaged now, buried a mother and a sister and this heartbreak of knowing he’d never see Thoron again, was worse than any of the others.
Thoron only made it worse showing how little he really cared.
“I’ve said everything. I warned you for months. I begged.” He turned to stare directly into Archer’s eyes. “I’ve been your friend nearly twenty years. How much has that even meant to you?”
Archer wanted to punch him right in the face. It wouldn’t be the first time either, but he tamped down his emotion.
“How much has it meant? Thoron, you are my brother. I love you. I’d have given you anything. Was it money?”
“Is that what you honestly think?”
Archer dug his fingers in to his short cropped hair.
“I don’t know what to think. This is madness! Are you working with Al Qaeda, ISIS, The Merque?”
Thoron stepped forward fast and grabbed Archer by the collar and tie.
“Don’t pretend you don’t know me. I’ve lain in foxholes beside you. I pulled you out of bars after Lizzy left you. It was me who saw you cry the day your mom passed. I am as true to this country and its cause as you are, but I’m more loyal to you than you know.” He shoved him away.
“Then I don’t understand.” He was nearing the stage where only banging one’s head against the wall would bring any kind of release. “Make some sense, Thoron. I need you to make sense.”
Thoron walked away, then turned back.
“It won’t make any.” He balled his fists at his side. “No matter how I explained it, no matter how slowly I went, it won’t make sense, but I did it for you… I did it for humanity… and I failed both.”
“I’m done.” Archer hoped against hope, that it wouldn’t end like this. “This is quite possibly the most important discovery of our lifetimes; we were supposed to do this together. I fought for you. I believed in you. I told everyone there had to be a mistake, something was wrong, but in the end, the only thing wrong was me. I’m done believing in you. I’m done hoping in you, I’m done with you.”
He turned and knocked twice on the door, then waited for it to be opened.
“Oh Archer, that’s where you’re wrong. Our story is just beginning.”
The door slid open. Archer turned to see Thoron staring at him with an expression filled with both pain and peace.
“Look for me on the other side and, Archer—” He paused for a breath. “—when you hit the blind spot behind mars, hold your breath.”
Archer just stared at him for a long minute.
“You’ve lost your mind.” He turned and moved past the guard back into the open lobby area.
“Archer!” Thoron yelled after him.
He knew better than to go back. He knew this was how the sick mind worked. Thoron was playing games with him, tormenting him to the end and he should just walk away, winning the war, but he couldn’t… he didn’t.
Turning back he stared into the cell.
“Love Sarah tonight like it’s the last time you’ll see her and tell her, I’m sorry.”
A chill ran down his spine.
He forced himself to turn away.
It was game playing. Maybe he’d never know what really happened to Thoron. Maybe it was the war, maybe it was the last deep space mission, maybe it was just the loneliness, but something had made his mind snap. It was the only thing that even remotely made sense.
The sound of the door sliding closed as he walked the few steps to the elevator, was as loud as a roar in the otherwise silent space.
“Did you get what you needed, Commander?”
He pushed the call button and waited.
“I got what I expected.” Looking back one last time at what was now a closed door. “God be with you Thoron, because that’s all that can save you now.”
Thoron stared at the closed door, almost seeing through it to his friend.
Failure weighed so heavy on his heart he could barely breathe. He risked everything and failed… Yet he didn’t have the luxury of wallowing in that failure. He had to ready himself for the next phase.
“God be with you Archer, because that’s all that can save all of us now.”