“Thanks so much mister” said the little voice below him. “Thanks a lot.”
Phiker heard the tremble in her voice, the tell-tale tremble of the lower lip. He breathed deep, hoping the exhalation didn’t tremble as much as the girl's voice had. God but this was hard. So damn hard.
“He would have wanted it this way” Phiker said, blinking as a far of grav plate shot past, painting the rears of his eyes in neon stark light. Somewhere below the balcony someone was drunkenly cheering, the voice an alcoholic warble that echoed down the street.
The girl looked up then. She didn’t look directly at Phiker. Her eyes locked on the wide view before them, the mass of transit ways and grav-roads. She smiled at that and Phiker almost saw the shade of his old friend in that smile.
“I never really knew my father” she said, still with that tremble of emotion but warmer now, as if something had been returned to her. She held the bundle in her hand tigger then, the brown paper bag crackling lightly in her small grip. “He was always off on tour. He came home once when I was eight, in between the Kyber and Martian offences. He was so kind and tall and loving. It made me so sad when he had to leave.”
Phiker gave a small smile at that. He had never expected this to be easy, these things never were.
“Career soldier was our Damien” Phiker said, feeling the tightness in his chest grow as he spoke. “A good colonel. An even better friend. We were lucky to have him. Luckier still on the Venus front. but he never stopped talking about you doll.”
The girl looked at him then, surprise widening her almond eyes. God but she looked so much like him.
"He talked about me?” she gasped. “What did he say? We never really spent time together, I never really knew him. What did he say?”
Phiker felt his brow furrow. The pit that was his stomach yawned that little bit wider. It was always the same when he did this, the same pain, the same aching loss. The old soldier felt the echo of all those others he had visited over the last months, all those who had echoed the same loss, the same sacrifice. Phiker tried to hide the sadness from his eyes. He could tell by the way she looked at him that he had failed.
"Even after the divorce your maa still used to send him pictures of you” Phiker explained. “Pictures, old scholam reports, photocopies of your art. Most of the sculptures from high school went to him when you wished to throw them all out.”
"The art projects” she gasped.
Phiker nodded. “Real proud was our colonel. used to walk the length of the barracks with each little sculpture. Used to tell all of us how you’d be such a great artist one day.”
Phiker saw the well of tears that produced, the rush of warmth to the smile. The colonel had never been so cavalier about his daughter in truth. Phiker himself, probably one of the only members of the platoon to firmly know the colonel personally, had only caught small sightings of the sculptures. Most had been hidden away in the off-world storage faculties most Solar Colonials used. Still, he had done enough of these excursions into military families to know how much these little things meant to them. He watched the warm tears fall down the girl’s cheeks, the glassy expression as she imagined the scene, he had described of her distant barrel-chested father, and knew this was one of those times.
Then her smile quivered, a fractional shake which sent cold lashing down Phiker’s spine. this was always the worst part of it. Worst especially for him.
“How-” she broke off for a moment, the tremble in her voice morbid despite the obvious signs of merriment all around. A chorus of cheers went up from the revellers within the apartment, causing the perma-glass to shiver and hiss. “How did he die, Mr.Phiker?”
“Are you sure you want to know that miss?” Phiker did not raise his voice over a whisper. He nodded towards the paper wrapped bundle in her hands, the odd shapes and curves of the item within forcing the paper wrapping into odd contortions. “You have that now to remember him better. Knowing any more won't make you much happier, believe me.”
“It’s important” the girl gasped, a silver tear falling down her cheek. “I didn't know much about him in life anyway. Not at least until you came today mr.Phiker.”
Phiker nodded. He blinked away the rise of tears over his own eyes. It never did well to weep with them when in the middle of these things. Phiker had long come to understand this was about them, their loss, their questions and answers and desires to know those they never truly saw in life. There would be time, later, for him to mourn the colonel in his own way.
“It was in deep space when it happened” he said, trying to keep his voice flat. “We were enroute from Pluto just after the final riots had been put down. Several of the platoons had had a bad time of it there. Deep space runs back to the core are a good time to clean house. We were doing the pre-sleep training when the pilot suffered a heart attack. The asteroid we struck gnarled the void ship and cut open the hull. Your old man led the team to force the gap and reseal it. He didn’t make it back.”
The girl nodded at that. Her gaze went vacant, falling across the open fields before them. A transit cart rocketed past as she watched, the neon stripes of its lights reflecting from the cold fall of tears. Phiker let the silence stretch, familiar with the terrible silence.
He had told her exactly what the holo-vision had told them all, making sure the facts matched exactly. His gut twisted at the lie. The truth was much less savoury.
“Thank you Mr.Phiker” she whispered.
Phiker nodded, maintaining the long silence. The girl’s eyes where unfocused as they stared out across the vast field of train lines. She was reliving all those memories, all those awkward father-daughter moments she never had, living those few moments she had had again in all; the vivid colour of those memories you held fast to. A cold wind rustled the package paper in her hand, exposing the small sculpture that squatted within the brown folds.
“I think I should leave you to your thanks giving, little miss” Phiker said after a long moment. He rose to his feet, straining from the hard plastic bench. The cold had hounded his injuries whilst he sat there, ignorant and distracted as they chilled the many patches of scar tissue the civi-doctors hadn't quite managed to clean up.
“Ar-are you sure?” the girl asked leaping to her feet, the brown paper bundle scrunched tight in her hand. She cast a glance at the sealed apartment then down the cold iron steps leading directly from the balcony to the warren of streets below. “You can stay if you like. Thanks giving is no time to be alone. ‘Specially after what happened on the ship.”
Phiker supressed a shudder. He looked then, deep into her wide almond eyes, remembering another face which held those eyes, remembered the screaming, the explosions, the twist of hate on faces which should never have been onboard. The wounded soldier breathed deep, feeling the hollowness of another child lied to.
“Don't you worry about me little miss” he said, forcing a smile which he knew would not reach his eyes. “I have tickets for the mag-lev back to Polar shortly. I will be back in the barracks before you know it.”
She nodded then, forcing her own small smile that was so sweet it almost killed Phiker to see it.
“Ok. Ok then. Thank you so much again Mr.Phiker.” she clasped the brown paper bundle hard once more, her hands tracing the motions she had done when she was so much younger. “Thank you so much for everything. My dad was lucky to have a second like you. I’m lucky for it as well.”
Phiker nodded, smiled, grasped the woollen edge of his cap and placed it on his shaven head. He waved, followed the cold iron steps and turned onto the iron paved way which would lead him to the mag-lev station. He looked back only once, seeing the small shape of a girl re-entering the warm apartment, hearing the sudden swell of joyous voices welcoming her back. Phiker felt his face grow tight as he walked from there, one hand tracing the line of a scar where shrapnel and a torn hull had torn a red line down his right thigh.
He thought about those almond eyes. He thought about them every step of the journey, saw them in the reflection on the permi-glass of the mag train, read them in the cold dance of the Polar stars. They joined the gathered throng of ghosts, each one boring down with eyes only Phiker could remember, each one a parent to a child he had had to lie to. Major Phiker sighed, tensing with pain as he stepped from the mag-lev onto the cold platform below.
There would be more eyes up there by the time his dark task was done.