By Sarah Hogg
“What’s your password, Commander?” the Ensign pleaded. “I can avoid the collision, but the controls will only respond to your password.”
The Commander was silent for a moment. Her lacerated body heaved on the fractured floor. Then she whispered his name, ragged breath scraping over the word. The Ensign took in the gravity of what she’d just revealed. Every time she passed through a secured door, every time she logged into her work station, she had said his name. In every log book, every account compendium, even in her private journals, his name was the access key. With one word, with his name, she answered the question that had haunted him through years of longing for her. Because romantic relationships between officers were strictly prohibited, this was the only form of love she had dared to express.
“Why didn’t you ever tell me?” he lamented.
Her eyes opened a bit. The bloodied corners of her lips lifted in a faint smile.
“Your safety more important,” she managed.
For one moment of bliss with her, and he would have endured every stripe the Master Punisher laid on him. But she had made the choice for him so that now, and only now, he would know the full weight of her love.
The endless possibilities of what might have been, of what should have been, permeated his imagination. Permutations of choices unfolded and aligned, a kaleidoscope of alternate endings.
In another reality, she might have chosen to reveal her love despite the cost. In yet another reality, she might have had him killed to be rid of the risk. He might have scorned her and turned her in. She might have lost her ship, her freedom, her life. Or they might have known freedom and bliss.
In this reality, pieces of the battered ship and crew littered the deck. Warning lights flashed around them indicating imminent collision with the asteroid. But her password, his name, could still save them.
“I’ll steer us away from the asteroid,” he said, dropping her hand.
The weakness that consumed her limbs had obviously spread. She nodded feebly, and her blood-matted, russet locks stuck to her forehead. Her eyes closed again, and he wasn’t sure if she had lost consciousness.
The endless mutability of contingencies haunted his steps to the console. Alter-realities beckoned to him. She might not reject him in all of them. He spoke his own name to the ship, and it responded, lurching hard to the left. The asteroid glided by their starboard windows. He exhaled, and relief coursed through his veins, releasing pulsing pain from the cuts and bruises his urgency had allowed him to ignore.
The asteroid had passed, but danger had not. Most of the crew were dead or dying. There was only one way to save them, to save her. The command was on the tip of his tongue. His fingers ached to key it into the system. He glanced down at her. She moaned.
“We’re clear,” he said, kneeling and lifting her hand once more. He pressed it to his lips. “Now I can save you and the crew. I know the command.”
Her eyes opened in panic. She shook her head.
“No,” she rasped firmly. “No.”
“But you’ll die. I can’t let that happen. I can’t go on. I can’t—”
She squeezed his hand. “No.”
“But in an alter-reality, a place where those bastards never found our ship and shot us, you could survive.”
“Wouldn’t be myself, not this me. I chose you. Made all these choices.” She gestured vaguely at the deck. “Start over. Keep the ship. Live.”
She coughed, her whole body spasming. He dropped her hand again and stood. In the infinite number of possibilities of life on this ship, he was unlikely to find another reality where she allowed herself to love him. He surveyed the splintered deck. The bodies torn by plasma fire, the pierced hull fretted with shards of beams, the bones of the ship and its crew exposed. There was no future for him here.
He stepped back to the console. His name gave it life. He entered the command and dropped the ship into a hyper sublayer drift. Realities swirled by like comets with long silver tails. Here in the space between realities, the Ensign could change the future for the captain and other crew members. He had no way of controlling their destination, but anywhere was better than this ruined place.
Glancing around the deck, he noticed that he was the only conscious person. With any luck, the crew would adapt to the new reality instantly. He alone would carry the weight of their past. Gritting his teeth, he completed the command, choosing one of the silver comets at random. He returned to his place, kneeling beside the Commander’s motionless body.
“I love you too,” he whispered as she exhaled a rattling breath.
The ship shuddered, engulfed in a deafening roar. Then silence and stillness. He opened his eyes and saw her boots pointed at him. He lifted his head. She was intact, her freckled copper skin unmarred by any trauma. She frowned down at him. The unshattered crew looked on from a perfectly whole deck. The command had worked.
“I just condemned you to the airlock. Why are you smiling, Ensign?”
“It worked,” he said laughing, tears in his eyes. “The command. I saved you.”
She squinted in apparent confusion and kicked him in the stomach. The no longer decapitated Officer of Arms and the now unscathed Master Punisher dragged him to the airlock. It didn’t matter. The sight of her unharmed body was worth the price of any crime he had committed in this reality. She strode to face him as they lifted him to his feet.
“Thank you for your service, Ensign. You are relieved of your command.” She ripped the stripes from his coat. Leaning close to him, she asked, “Do you have any final words?”
She cocked her head to the right with a raised eyebrow, exactly as his Commander had done. Her nostrils flared wide in frustration, and she tapped her boot to the same aggravated rhythm his Commander had done when she felt overwhelmed. Her kinetic energy had always been her biggest tell. Perhaps she was still his Commander. He seized the chance.
“I know,” he whispered, meeting her speckled hazel eyes. “I know my name is your password. I know, and I love you too. That is all.”
He saluted her, and she flinched, blinking several times in rapid succession, visibly shaken. The men shoved him through the security door. Taking a deep breath, he focused on the round window next to the airlock. He could still see her. Just before she released the exterior doors behind him, he saw it in her eyes. A tiny spark of love with a hint of rebellion.
She turned and sprinted to the console. It was only a few seconds before the blood vessels in his eyes burst and his limbs were paralyzed in hypothermia, but he felt the pull of the sublayer drift dragging him to another reality just before his heart gave out. In the infinitely shifting vicissitudes of choices made and denied, perhaps one of the alter-realities would allow enough freedom for some Commander to openly love some Ensign. But it wouldn’t be him.