Last chapter. I am kind of sad to be done now but it has been tons of fun posting this and hearing the comments. This is the chapter where the last remaining questions are answered, including: "What in the world is the deal with the name of this story?"
So, enjoy, and thanks for reading.
I make the most of the opportunity to rest and I doze through most of the day, coming back to full awareness just as the sun is setting. I am surprised to see that I have a visitor. Tazzi is sitting in the chair in the corner and he is staring out the window at the rain that is dripping serenely down the glass.
"I'm glad you came," I say, my voice still slightly rough from sleep.
Tazzi turns to look at me with surprise. "I didn't mean to wake you," he says.
"You didn't. I was hoping to see you again. Where's Neeka?"
Tazzi glances at the door and then back to me. "Sleeping," he says. "She was exhausted and I took the opportunity to come and check in on you."
"She's okay? Nothing serious that she didn't tell us about?"
Tazzi shakes his head. "She's fine. Just tired."
"I want to thank you," he says softly and his eyes are deep and honest. "Neeka told me what you did for her."
"She probably did a lot of exaggerating," I say with a chuckle. I can feel my cheeks growing red and I look down to my lap. "She's not shy when it comes to compliments."
There is a rustling sound and I look up to see Tazzi shifting his chair so that he is right at the side of my bed. He sits back down and then leans forward, resting his forearms on the mattress near my right hip.
"Neeka does not exaggerate," he says. "She is truthful, open, caring and beyond loyal. If she says that you did something, then you did it. And she says you cheered her up on the bad days, that you stayed by her side when no one else would, and that when things started to go wrong, you took it upon yourself to keep her safe. You did what I could not, you kept her safe. And for that I am forever grateful."
"Crew comes first," I say with a nervous chuckle. "You taught me that."
"But you listened and applied it," Tazzi says. "Don't sell yourself short."
I am not sure what to say but Tazzi doesn't seem to mind my silence. He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a small datapad. He stares at it for a moment before looking up at me.
"Neeka told me to give this to you," he says. "She said you had been asking about something and so she wanted to make sure you got an answer. You can open it later. She said that she would have given it to you herself but the doctors here told her that she is free to go. She doesn't want to go alone and so I will be going with her. We will be catching a ride on a cargo ship that is running through the system on its way back to the inner worlds so we will be leaving early tomorrow morning.
I am disappointed that I won't see her but I nod anyway. I am aware of the rules of these tiny stations. There are not a lot of supplies to go around and so anyone who does not have a good reason to stick around is asked to leave so that they won't be an unnecessary drain on limited resources.
Tazzi holds the datapad out to me and I accept it with a sense of bemusement. I cannot remember asking Neeka a question that would require a datapad to answer.
"Thanks," I say. "For this and for everything else that you've done for me. I've learned a lot from you."
Now it is Tazzi's turn to be embarrassed. "When we first met I couldn't help but like you, kid," he says with a goofy grin. "You were like a little lost puppy. In time I learned that you kept your distance when I asked and you didn't bombard me with questions even though I know there were many times that you were extremely curious about my past."
"I just paid attention when you talked with the other members of the crew," I say. "I started noticing which questions you tended to avoid and which ones you were okay with. It wasn't hard to figure it out from there. I realized you were just a private person who didn't want to talk about his past. So I kept my mouth shut and stuck to safer subjects."
"And it was noticed and appreciated," Tazzi says. "Thank you."
I nod in acknowledgment. "You are quite welcome," I say. "I want to thank you as well for coming to find us on that mountainside."
Tazzi waves a dismissive hand and shakes his head. "No need to thank me for that," he says.
"Yes," I say with a determined tone. "Yes, I do need to thank you. I was talking to some of the rescue crews earlier and I found out that you just about killed yourself by using one of the crew ejection pods to make it down to the surface of the planet after you had found out what happened to Neeka and I. Well, when you learned about what happened to me, considering that you only learned about Neeka after you opened the hatch to the cargo pod. But, either way, you risked your life to come find us and I want to let you know that it was noticed and appreciated."
Tazzi chuckles softly at my reversal of his words. "You're welcome," he says.
"I can see why Neeka followed you across the galaxy."
Tazzi's smile fades at my words and he begins to look somewhat nervous. His hands are twisting together and he cannot seem to make eye contact.
"Is something wrong?" I ask.
He sighs and bites his lip, as if considering something. "I am not sure what to do now," he says finally. "I don't have many options outside of cargo ships. But Neeka needs a good home. She needs to feel safe and secure. I don't know where to go or what to do."
I purse my lips and give my own sigh. It is a big change for him, to have a woman to care for. But I also know that he is better off with Neeka at his side. I can see the peace that has settled over him. He is much more comfortable with himself than before and it is so nice to see.
"Have you asked Neeka what she wants to do?"
"Yeah," Tazzi replies. He sounds hesitant. "She just wants to be wherever I am. She says she doesn't care where that happens to be."
I think deeply for a moment, weighing the options and trying to come up with a possible solution. In the end I can see why he is so troubled. Just about every option outside of cargo running requires a person to have a planet of residence. It looks as though he is stuck. There is one option, but I do not know if he is willing to give it a try.
"There are some routes closer to the inner worlds," I say. "Less danger and the ships are generally in better condition than some of the outer system runners."
He considers my words with a thoughtful look on his face. "Still quite dangerous, considering the cargo that they haul."
I know he is right. The cargo runs between the inner worlds generally deals with moving various types of power sources for the science stations and asteroid mining ships. Radiation exposure can be a big concern if one isn't careful. But I know Tazzi. He is nothing but careful. He would be perfect for the job.
I tilt my head and shrug one shoulder. "It is dangerous," I say. "But it is still better than your other options."
"I will have to think on it for a while," he says. "But thank you for your input." He glances to the timepiece on my nightstand and frowns. "I should get going. Get some rest. I will send you a message as soon as I can while we are aboard the cargo ship."
After he leaves I feel a sense of contentment that have not felt in a long time and I wish that he and Neeka did not have to leave so soon. I wish that I had not been told by the medics that I was to be kept for observation, but there is nothing that I can do. I give a heavy sigh and look down at my lap, instantly remembering that I had been given a datapad. I am curious as I press the power button.
The screen lights up and I can tell that it is a letter.
I want to thank you for everything that you did for me while I was aboard your ship and for everything that you did to help me when we came under attack. You do not know how much your efforts were appreciated. Thank you ever so much!
There is a phrase on Pantoo. Invi Rosta. It is something that we use when we want someone to truly appreciate something of value. It means 'Winter Rose' in our language. A winter rose is a very rare thing on our world. It is something to be cherished and admired for its amazing qualities. Like its resistance to cold.
You are like a winter rose. You are a colorful soul among gray personalities. You are a brilliant red that defies its drab surroundings. And you are resilient to the cold remarks of those around you. I saw how much you were shunned by the others just for associating with me. But you never let it dampen your spirit when you talked with me. I will never forget your kindness.
When we were in the cargo pod, just before Tazzi showed up, you asked me if the song that Atti created for you had any lyrics. I told you that I had only thought up a few.
Well, now I am proud to say that your song is complete. At least for now. As I get to know each person, I continue to add to their song over the years. You are no different. Your song will continue to grow as I learn more about you.
For now I give you the beginning to a song that I hope will continue on for many more verses.
Below the letter is an audio file. I touch the file link and sit back with a smile as the sound of Atti chirping and Neeka singing floats out of the speakers to fill the room around me.
"I love you like a winter rose,
Precious and unusual.
Blood red petals kiss the snow,
Resilient to cold.
While other blooms are still just buds,
You are reaching for the sun,
I love you like a winter rose,
A bloom I've never known.
I love you like a winter rose,
Precious and unusual,
Blood red petals kiss the snow,
Resilient to cold."
Her voice fades away and the screen returns to the letter from before. I am left speechless, near tears, and I close my eyes against the well of emotion. The lyrics are so heartfelt and lovely and I nearly break when I remember that they are a creation to help her remember me and my personality. The song is a guide for her to follow in her treatment of me. It is a lot to take in.
I had thought that I was only following orders when I was talking with her, that duty was it that it was when I sat down next to her during meals and asked her about what she did that day. A fear of reprimand from my captain for not keeping my charge happy was all that it was when I would go out of my way to show her how to do something that she was unfamiliar with.
But now I am unsure.
Was it just because I had been following orders?
I find it did not really matter in the end?
Even if it had just been my duty, I still followed through. I did it even though the others thought me crazy and refused to talk to me. The statement about always having a choice in a matter is so very true. I had a choice and, in the end, I chose follow orders and help Neeka get through a rough trip aboard a ship full of selfish cowards.
Why? Because not just crew, but passengers as well, come first.
That night I fall asleep to the sound of her song playing on repeat.
In the days that follow I find out what happened to Captain Varta's cargo. Even though the pod that Neeka and I had been in had tumbled down the side of a mountain, the cargo within the interior containers was undamaged due to the built in inertial dampeners. The other cargo pods had landed without incident inside the Sanctuary boundary and so had fared much better, their cargo completely intact as well.
All in all it ended quite well.
Seven months later, I am back on Earth. I am still with Captain Varta, except I am now a full fledged copilot. In a couple days we will be leaving to make another run to the outer worlds and I am already missing Tazzi's presence. He and Neeka had gone off to get married and to try find a less dangerous job option. I have not seen either of them in quite a while now. If there are no other openings, then Tazzi will just return to Captain Varta's crew. Captain Varta made it clear that there would always be a place for him should he choose to come back. And Neeka too.
The day before we are scheduled to leave, Tazzi comes to visit me. He looks happier and I rejoice when I see his broad smile. I also notice that the scar that used to run up over his jawline has shrunk and is now just a tiny white line barely peeking up over the collar of his shirt. Neeka is floating along at his side, looking just as content as Tazzi.
We spend most of the day catching up. Tazzi tells me of his adventures from when he was still a captain of a cargo ship and Neeka gives me more verses to my song. Atti accompanying her as she sings them to me.
And then the mood changes and Tazzi develops a look that makes me wonder what he is up to.
"I have something that I want to tell you," Tazzi says.
"Yeah," I say. "What's on your mind?"
Tazzi hesitates but Neeka nudges his side with a smile and he continues. "I plan on taking a position on one of the inner world routes," he says. "It is a sure thing now that I won't be on Captain Varta's crew anymore."
I feel a deep sense of loss sweep over me but I do my best to keep it hidden. As it turns out, I am not all that successful.
Tazzi and Neeka quickly spot my distress.
"I know you do not want me to leave," Tazzi says. "But I am not about to just abandon you. I have a proposition for you."
I am curious. "What do you have in mind?"
"I have been able to find a way to take on the command of my own cargo ship," Tazzi says. "Apparently, Captain Varta had some connections that I knew nothing about. I am now in a position to run cargo for a private company. The trips are shorter and far less dangerous. Neeka has informed me she is good at organizing cargo manifests and handling orders, but I am currently looking for someone to fill in the position of copilot. Is that something you would be interested in?"
I sputter in surprise. How can he even think of asking me to fill such an important position?
"Are you sure?" I say. "I am not even a year out of command training. And I have almost no experience."
"You have shown me that you have sense," Tazzi says. "And you have shown me that you have courage to spare. You told me that you learned a lot from me. I learned a lot from you as well. Come be my copilot and we can keep learning from each other."
I suck in a breath and find I have no words. I am beyond honored, but I am also scared to death to take up his offer.
Neeka steps forward then, her eyes searching my face. "You would be a valuable member of our crew," she says. "At least take the offer into consideration."
I can only nod. I am shocked at the offer. Why would they ask someone like me to be such an important part of their crew? Surely I am not worth it.
"Why?" I suddenly blurt out. "Why me?"
"Because you show all of the characteristics of a great leader," Tazzi says almost instantly. "And I do not want our lives to part just yet. If you do not feel comfortable with taking the position, just tell me and I will look for someone else, but I would rather have you behind the controls with me. We will be there to send the ship off tomorrow, but if you need more time to think it over, just send your message through Captain Varta, he will know how to get it to us."
When they leave that evening I continue to stand in the doorway of my home watching them walk down the road. Thoughts are flying through my head. I am thinking about all that I have learned while working with Tazzi. I am thinking about how he told me that crew comes first and that if you can prove that to your crew then they will be forever loyal to you. And I am thinking about how Neeka is a living breathing example. Tazzi put her first, her happiness and safety, and she followed him to one of the most dangerous places in the galaxy. She had given up so much just to find him again, to save his life.
And now I have the chance to work under him, to have him as a captain and be his copilot. It is a chance that is once in a lifetime and I am overwhelmed with a sense of belonging. I am sure now what my answer is.
I snap out of my thoughts and quickly spot Neeka and Tazzi just turning a corner. I break into a run, calling out loudly to stop them. Tazzi halts at the sound of my voice and he turns as I sprint up to them.
"I have thought over it long enough," I say with a wide grin. "I am happy and honored to call you captain."
Tazzi sweeps me into a firm hug and Neeka laughs with delight. On her shoulder Atti sings merrily and I feel as though I have just landed myself in a family instead of a crew.
The song lyrics that Neeka sings to Chito are not mine. They are from a song called "Winter Rose' by 'Karliene' from the album 'The Ballad of Anne Boleyn'. Yet another song that helped to inspire this story.
And there you have it. The end of the story. I hope you enjoyed it. I am thinking of maybe writing a sequel so if you are interested in seeing more of these characters and some new (hopefully) interesting ones just drop me a line and let me know.
Thanks for reading and thanks for sticking around to the end.