Shila felt soft against him. Isaac stirred and turned his bulk to one side and then the other. Shila mumbled and rolled over, taking the sheets with her.
The air was cool against his chest. Isaac closed his eyes, but it was no use. He was awake.
The battlecruiser Tahoe was returning from a deep-space escort and security mission that had gone smoothly. Isaac was eligible for some R and R; he had been able to spend some quality time with his woman...
... and still he felt like crap.
As he sat up, his eyes drifted to the digital calendar readout on the far wall, counting down the time until the ship's arrival at the planet Haven.
Below the countdown he had set, Isaac glimpsed the date: 02.06.2504.
Sixteen years since the catastrophe at Gamma Dorian.
Sure, the Confederacy had basically won the wars, and sure, Isaac had found a place within the new order of the Dominion when the Confederacy had been wiped out by the former rebel leader Arcturus Mengsk. But Gamma Dorian lingered always in the back of his mind, an unwelcome guest that refused to get the hell out.
Isaac hefted his 280-pound frame out of the bed and plodded to the bathroom mirror. His earnest, doleful brown eyes stared back at him as he stuffed a sonic toothbrush into his mouth.
After Gamma Dorian, he had spoken to the families of the victims, accepted the forgiveness of some, weathered the scorn of others-or perhaps accepted the scorn and weathered the forgiveness, now that he thought about it-hoping it would help. He had stood trial for negligence, but with the aid of his company commander, Zeke Turner, he had been found not guilty... though he'd been busted back down to private.
There was a part of Isaac, perhaps the most honest part, that wished the verdict had been guilty.
Turner, however, had believed in him. He'd told Isaac that he could make a difference, maybe atone somehow.
Slowly, bucking the system every step of the way, he had worked back up through the ranks.... He had parlayed his experience as a bomb technician (or "niner," as the grunts called it, jokingly asserting that all bomb technicians possessed only nine fingers) into a role as a Marine Corps marauder, a kind of one-man artillery battery.
But the guilt was always there, just under the surface. Isaac had fought it until, just under a year ago, Commander Turner was murdered during a furlough on Bacchus Moon.
It was then, for the first time, that a voice inside Isaac's head told him to stop fighting, to go and get resocialized. He knew that the Dominion could do things with your brain, mess with your memories: reprogram you, in a way. Out with the bad, in with the good.
But there was still a small part of him, just enough, that wasn't ready to give up. He decided that resocialization would be like running away all over again. He wasn't ready to let the guilt win. Not yet.
"Go back to sleep," Shila muttered.
With a long exhale, Shila turned, looked at Isaac, then looked at the calendar. "Gotta let it go, babe." She rolled to her other side. "You still got hatred in your heart. That tree won't bear no fruit."
No one else could read him like she could. It was why he and Shila had been exclusive for nearly two years.
She was right, of course. Even after all this time, he was still stuck in the Guild Wars, still battling the KMs. Maybe he and his guilt were good company after all.
Isaac's thoughts were interrupted by a chirping melody on a nearby console, where a holographic adjutant head-robotic, with a human-like female face-blinked on. The soothing voice intoned, "First Sergeant White: incoming message from Master Sergeant Sousa."
"Put him through."
The adjutant's pale, kind of human, kind of machine head wavered and was replaced by Sousa's farm-boy features."Sarge! How's life treatin' ya?"
Shitty, Isaac wanted to say, but he refrained. Sousa was always so damned chipper. Of course he was: he had been resocialized. Not that it was advertised, but some things were just obvious.
"Livin' the dream, Master Sarge," Isaac replied, knowing the sarcasm would be lost on his younger superior.
"Glad to hear it! I need you geared up for a mission briefing on the flight deck at 0700. Commander's orders."
Isaac swore to himself. Looked like his leave was postponed.
No doubt this was Commander Rindge's doing. Rindge was Turner's replacement. The new CO hated Isaac with a passion, which was okay, because Isaac didn't like the CO either.
Rindge... even the man's name grated on Isaac's nerves.
"What's the mission?" Isaac asked.
"We got pirates to kill! Mining operation in this corner of space got attacked by a group called the Players' Club... and it looks like we're the only muscle in the neighborhood."
Isaac nodded. "I'm always up for lendin' our boys a hand."
The holographic image flickered. "Damn straight! 'Cept these miners ain't our boys."
"No? Then who exactly we savin'?"
Sousa's smile widened as his eyes lit up.