“I can’t do it.”
“Yes you can.”
Dax slowly opened his eyes, huffing and puffing for his life. He was exhausted. Every muscle ached. Sweat dripped down his face, and the world was a spinning blur. “I’ve got nothing left.”
“Dig deep. You’ve got this.”
The back of his head stung and throbbed. He grasped at it and felt a warm wetness. Blood was on his fingers. “I’m done for. Just leave me to die.”
“All right, sir, now you’re being overdramatic,” SAMM protested through the comm pin.
Dax lumbered slowly to his feet, shooting a stink eye to the treadmill that bested him, and the wall that broke his fall. “Easy for you to say. Titanium alloy doesn’t get a beer gut. Hell, you don’t even rust.”
“Technically speaking, it is possible but at an extremely slow rate. I suspect you would be long gone before that becomes a problem.”
Dax stopped the treadmill and headed toward the locker room. “Oh, don’t talk like that Sammy. You and me, we’re gonna live forever.”
“Unless perhaps, both our lifespans are cut short by extenuating circumstances. Say, a crash landing?”
“You’re really not letting that one go, are you?” Dax sighed as he stood at the locker room sinks, rinsing the spot of blood from the back of his head. “Come on. I bought you your fancy servos, didn’t I?”
“And I am graciously thanking you by keeping you on track. Ten more minutes of cardio, then the barbell.”
Dax groaned, throwing a towel over his head and reluctantly marching back. He would spend the next month docked at Central, rotating through the station’s multiple expansive fitness centers. Dax had never struggled with any significant weight issues per se, but as Sykes put it, “Get back in fighting shape. The people need to see their hero, and what you got there isn’t exactly muscle, is it?” A training montage, like the ones from his movies, would have been convenient right about now.
He appreciated it finally as he was buttoning up his dress uniform with ease, on the way to the ceasefire anniversary opening gala. He stood in the elevator lift, mumbling to himself. “On behalf of the Alliance, we welcome Ambassador Ni—Nilana. Ni… hama. Dammit.” He gave up and tapped his comm pin.
“Harrison to Sykes.”
The massive grand hall was filled with Alliance military, high society attendees, and press for the extravagant gala. Sykes stood in a greeting line by the entrance, exchanging handshakes, salutes and smiles with the entering dignitaries as his comm pin chimed.
“Hey, Cap. You there?”
“Dax, where the hell are you?”
“On the way.” Dax admired the fit of his old uniform, flexing to the reflective wall of the lift. “What’s that Carteagan ambassador’s name again? Nilana? Nirana Banana?”
Sykes rolled his eyes. “Ni-dah-nah. And you’d better get it right. They take pride in the family names. Now get here quick. The Admiral wants us smiling for the cameras, and if I’m suffering through it, so are you.”
“Got it.” The lift stopped and the doors slid open. Dax readied his charmer smile and walked out into the grand hall. He took in his surroundings. To his left, Sykes and the dignitaries. To his front, the grand ballroom floor, with a stage and podium behind it. His smile faded slightly, as he bet himself ten credits they would make him give a speech tonight. To his right, Ah-ha! The bar!
He made it two steps before a hand on his shoulder stopped him in his tracks.
“Commander Harrison!” Dax turned to see Admiral Bennett. The man was nearing his mid-sixties, but his iron grip kept firm on Dax, juxtaposed with a warm smile.
“Admiral. Reporting for duty, sir.”
“Oh, nonsense. It’s a party, Harrison. Relax.”
“Thank you, sir.” The two expert bullshitters, well aware of their mutual dislike, carried on with their smiles. Bennett released his grip, leading Dax toward Sykes and the dignitaries.
“It’s been awhile since you’ve been back here at Central, hasn’t it?” Bennett continued. “I trust you found your way to the party all right?” Dax heard the translation in his head. Why the hell are you late?
“Yes, sir. No trouble at all.”
“Glad to hear it. Nidahna!” Much to Dax’s relief, the admiral turned his attention to Ambassador Nidahna. The female Carteagan was sure to turn more than a few heads at the party. Middle-aged (which was around the 150s for her species), she wore an elegant gown and was pulling it off in spades. Despite the green pigment and scales, even Dax had to admit she was rather stunning. He briefly wondered whether that was meant as a cunning negotiation tactic.
“Ambassador, this is Commander Dax Harrison,” Bennett announced.
“Commander.” Nidahna greeted him with a subtle bow.
“Ambassador.” Dax returned the gesture.
“Admiral Bennett, always a pleasure.”
“Oh, Nidahna. Xavier, please.” The ambassador and the admiral exchanged pleasantries for a few moments further as Dax smiled politely, keeping his amusement to himself. Lousy poker faces, these two.
“And it is a pleasure to finally meet you, Commander,” she continued. “I have heard a great many things.”
“Oh. Well, I hope you won’t hold that against me.” Small, polite laughs all around.
At that moment, a nearby buffet table was incurring the wrath of a hungry young corporal, saved only as he overheard the laughs and looked up. His eyes widened across his boyish face as he spotted Dax in the crowd.
“Commander Harrison,” he announced to himself in awe. For a moment, the world around him began to quiet. Nothing else in the room mattered as THE Commander Dax Harrison stood a mere twenty feet away.
The young man remained, seemingly catatonic, as chunks of au gratin potato slid from his spoon and plopped back to the serving dish.
“Sanders!” Med Chief Dan O’Reilly smacked Sanders on the arm, knocking him out of his trance. “Jesus, kid. Come on, you’re holding up the line.” The two moved down the table, Sanders still fixated on Dax and O’Reilly grumbling over the lack of finger food selection.
“Now if you’ll excuse me gentlemen,” Nidahna concluded. “I have a salad bar to raid.”
More polite laughs. Bennett extended his elbow. “I’ll join you.” She took it, and they walked off, leaving Dax to annoy Sykes.
“He seems… uncharacteristically charming tonight, wouldn’t you say?”
Dax refrained, but he could only resist for a moment. “I guess some like it green, huh?”
“Shut up, Harrison.” Sykes walked off. Dax followed shortly behind.
“Do Carteagans blush? I honestly don’t know. I’m amazed Bennett can, that’s for sure…”
The rest of the evening flashed by in a blur, or dragged in a slow slog depending on whose opinion was asked. Dax posed with smiles and charm through some photo ops, shaking hands with Bennett and standing alongside Nidahna and other Alliance delegates. Later, the admiral would pull Sykes aside for a private chat, in which he requested Sykes’s reassurance that Dax wouldn’t muck up the campaign.
“There’s been talk, captain,” Bennett warned. “And the public is catching wind. Harrison’s outlived his usefulness as far as I’m concerned, but if he wants to keep his retirement package, he’d better see this through.”
“If I’m sure of anything, sir, it’s Dax’s sense of self-preservation.” Sykes reassured himself as well as the admiral.
“Fine. So long as he doesn’t screw up, he can have his honorary and be out of our hair for good. I’m tired of that wise ass.”
As expected, Dax found himself pushed to the podium before the night was through. With the help of some prepared cards, he thanked the gala attendees, congratulated Nidahna and the other Alliance ambassadors for maintaining diplomacy in the galactic community, and recounted a brief but harrowing encounter during the final days of the war.
“And when I saw their leader,” Dax carried on in full bravado. “In the middle of that battlefield, death surrounding us, I looked him dead in the eye—” He paused briefly, glancing at the notecards on the podium. “I looked him dead in the eye and said, ‘Earth? Surrender? Not on my watch!’”
Applause ran through the grand hall, Sanders markedly jumping the gun near the back of the crowd. Dax silently wondered how he still managed to make that terrible line sell. He figured the thanks was owed to Chet Fontana, the long-running star of several Commander Harrison cinematic adventures. That handsome jerk is better at playing me than me, Dax mused.
The night wore on, and he was eventually allowed to wander off to exactly where he planned to be in the first place. Sanders spotted Dax nursing a drink at the bar, daydreaming into it. He approached, hardly containing his glee.
“Commander?” Dax remained in his daze. “Um, Commander, sir? Sorry to disturb you. I just wanted to say that was a great speech earlier. The Battle of Tarsis Three was always my favorite story from the war.”
Dax poured himself a refill while Sanders rattled on. He wasn’t in the mood, but he made a half-hearted attempt at feigning interest. “Oh, why thank you—”
“Sanders. Alex Sanders, sir. I really enjoyed the movie too, but I wish they captured more of your dealings with the Darshyll mercenaries after the battle.”
“Yeah, well, you can’t believe everything you see at the movies, huh?” Dax made a small toasting gesture, then gulped his bourbon.
“Right,” Sanders chuckled. “Um, say, I’ve always wanted to ask you, when you negotiated the release of the colonist hostages on Titan, how did you—”
Dax couldn’t take any more. “Whoa, whoa, kid. Calm down.” He turned around, getting a good look at his young fan for the first time. “How old are you?”
“Wow. Okay, and you want to be all you can be, huh?”
“Absolutely. I’d like to follow in your footsteps. I mean, I’m trying. I even talked to Captain Sykes about joining your medical support team at—”
Dax cut him off with a dismissive laugh. “You want to follow in my footsteps?” That’s just great, Dax thought. This was the Alliance’s dream come true. Fresh faces eager to join the cause. A dream that Dax helped build, not that he bothered to ever let the gravity of that notion sink in, save for a few of the longer, darker nights at the bottom of a bottle.
“Here’s what you do, Sanders. Keep your head down. Don’t get it shot off. War’s over, so you shouldn’t have too much trouble. Just jump when they tell you to jump, salute when they tell you to salute… Oh, and don’t buy those toothbrushes they’re selling with my face on ’em. I hear they’re getting recalled. Some kind of chemical on them or something.” He finished his drink and made a break for the exit, patting Sanders on the shoulder as he passed him.
The corporal stood lost in thought, processing the unexpected words from his hero. “Sir!” Dax turned with a sigh. “I think I understand,” Sanders continued, his enthusiasm restored. “The best way to be a hero is to be a good officer, follow orders and maintain discipline.”
Dax shrugged. “Yeah, sure. That’s what I was going for.”