Read chapters 1-20 here.
Thank you to all for your patience in waiting for this chapter.
Fair warning: There are three story strands taking place here, woven together throughout the chapter. It is my hope that in the end they will all come together in a way that - well, that makes sense.
I hope you enjoy.
It was strange to be looking at the stars from below.
Their light fell softly into the room where Up sat, perched on the edge of his bed, unmoving. A book lay beside him, a small book with a tattered cover, a book he’d first found in the rubble of a broken schoolhouse. After a while, he picked it up.
“Historias y leyendas de México,” he read, slowly, his accent laughable, each syllable a struggle to pronounce. Well, the title wasn’t so hard to understand.
He reached over to tap the computer screen next to his bed. “Translator, please. Spanish to English.”
It was a beautiful old book, though the pages were torn. Faded illustrations showed images of ghostly figures, talking animals, twisted old witches. Up stopped at one, a once-richly coloured drawing of a couple, a man with a sword, a veiled woman, their faces turned toward each other, their eyes full of love. Drops of browned blood discoloured the page, disguising some of the words. Was it hers?
“La Calle de la Quemada,” he read aloud. Taz had read this one to him before. With the help of the translator, he began to read it for himself.
In childhood, we dream, dreams of fame and fortune, of great adventure, of fantastical creatures and magical worlds. Some dreams stay with us as we grow, others die within us, and some we die chasing. There lived a man once called Don Luis de Velasco, a man who dreamed of power and wealth, a man who left his homeland of Spain and came to Mexico to find it.
“Up – that’s an unusual name, isn’t it?” Dr. Renley leaned back in her chair and shuffled a few papers around in her hands. “And it’s the only one listed on your file, Commander.”
“It’s the only one I’ve got.”
The psychiatrist eyed him over the top of thick-rimmed glasses. “You’ve only ever had one name? Even as a child?”
Up remained stony-faced.
Dr. Renley turned her eyes back to the file in her hands. “It says here you were raised in an orphanage. Did the administrators there give you the name?”
When Up continued to remain silent, she put the file down on her desk and folded her hands. “This is your counselling session, Commander. We can avoid the easy questions if you’d like to. Would you prefer to talk about your feelings?”
They stared at each other. Up crossed his arms. The movement was becoming easier, more instinctual. But he just felt so tired. Nothing mattered anymore, so what was the harm in answering a few questions? “Not much to tell. I was just another war baby that showed up on the orphanage’s doorstep when they were already full. I was given a number, not a name. It was the other kids started calling me Up.”
“And why was that?” Dr. Renley asked smoothly.
Up leaned back in his chair. “I reckon it was cause I was always looking at the stars.”
The doctor took this in. “And you were never adopted?”
“Caused a fair bit of trouble for them at the orphanage. Getting in fights all the time. Who’d want me?”
“Did you always dream of being a Starship Ranger, Commander?”
Up paused. “I did. Those stars were awfully inviting.”
“So you enlisted when you turned eighteen.”
Up chuckled, a hollow sound. “Sixteen. I ran away from the orphanage when I was sixteen.”
“But the enlistment age-”
“I lied,” Up said simply.
Don Luis had a daughter, just one. Her name was Beatriz, and when they came to Mexico all marvelled at her beauty, her lily-white skin, her waterfall-dark hair, her luminous eyes. Her father found his dreams, and their fortune grew, but that meant little to Beatriz, for Beatriz dreamed of love.
Her suitors were numerous, but despite her father’s pleas, she would not have any of them. She saw not love but lust in their eyes, lust for her beauty, lust for her wealth. Beatriz dreamed of completeness, of finding the other half of her soul, of someone who would understand her better than anyone ever had. Someone to wake up to each morning. Someone to dream with.
Up woke with tears on his face. He blinked a few times, and looked down at Taz, resting curled against his chest. She was frowning, and even asleep she was filled with tension, coiled like a small tiger about to pounce. He was grateful she was there. He always slept better when she was able to sneak out of her room to stay with him at night - her presence seemed to help keep the pain away. He reached out to gently brush a dark lock of hair from her face. She stirred, and Up hastily wiped the wetness from his cheeks.
“Morning,” he said, as she stretched and looked up at him.
“Hola,” she said sleepily,searching his face with her eyes. Could she see that he’d been crying? He pressed a kiss to her forehead and nudged her up, maneuvering his legs onto the floor.
“Knock, knock, you two!”
Taz groaned and buried herself back under the thin hospital blanket. They’d learned very quickly that it was impossible to keep secrets around this place. Whatever it was that their relationship was becoming, the entire nursing staff of the G.L.E.E. hospital seemed to consider themselves co-conspirators in the matter.
A nurse with curly hair and a round, kind face poked her head around the door. “Not interrupting anything, am I honeys?”
Taz’s hand emerged to throw a pillow at the door. Up waited patiently.
The nurse ducked the impromptu projectile. “Just wanted to let you know that Dr. Tripp was admitted last night, she’s had her little girl. And what a sweetheart! Red hair, just like her mother. They’re resting now, but Dr. T asked if you would visit when you can – both of you.”
“Rosie’s had her baby?” echoed Up.
“About time,” came Taz’s voice from under the blanket.
“I’ll leave you to it, now,” the nurse said, giving Up a saucy wink. He pressed his face briefly into his hands as she left, then turned and pulled the blankets down far enough to see Taz doing the same thing.
She lowered her hands and they looked at each other. Her new haircut always made her hair stick up all over the place when she first woke up. Her eyes were still sleep-filled, her skin a little puffy. He wanted to get back in the bed and kiss her a thousand times over.
“Are you ashamed of me?” he asked instead.
Her eyes flashed with something he couldn’t read. “Stop asking estúpido questions, Up.” She rolled lightly out of the bed and walked toward the bathroom. “Let’s go and see Rosie. And don’t forget, we’re sparring today. I hope you’re ready.”
She said it playfully, but he couldn’t help but hear a warning there. Had he imagined it?
They arrived at Rosie’s hospital room to see her awake but looking exhausted, little Ty sleeping beside her, a bundle of squirming blankets curled in her arm.
“Rosie,” said Up.
“Hi, Up,” she said, in a shaking voice. Her cheeks were creased with tears. “Hi, Taz. Thanks for coming.” She smiled, and pressed a kiss to the top of the bundle. “This is Ree.”
“Ree?” asked Taz.
“Rheanna, it was my grandmother’s name,” she said, looking at the bundle with love. “But Connor would have called her Ree. He had a thing for nicknames – Ty hasn’t been Tyson since the day he was born.” She took in an unsteady breath, and gave them another small smile. “She’s awake - would you like to hold her, Up?”
“Oh, no, I don’t think-”
“Don’t be silly,” Rosie said, raising the bundle toward him. Doubtfully, he reached out and took it, nestling it awkwardly against his left arm, and his chest.
It – she – was so tiny. Her little eyes struggled to open, and a miniscule hand emerged from the blankets to grasp at him. He let her wrap her hand around his right index finger - her grip was surprisingly strong. “Hi, Ree,” he said. “Your daddy would have been so proud of you.”
The baby scrunched her face together and let out a whimper. Up held her quickly out to Rosie.
“You’re not going to break her,” said Taz, reaching out to take the baby, letting her nuzzle into her chest. She bounced her gently, and the whimpering subsided.
“You look like you know what you’re doing,” Rosie observed.
“Had a lot of cousins,” Taz said, something misty and far away in her eyes. “Do you mind if I sit?”
Rosie gestured her consent, and Taz took the baby over to the rocking chair by the window.
“How are you doing, Rosie?” Up asked quietly.
Rosie tried to smile, and shrugged. “Oh, you know.” She stroked Ty’s hair as he nestled closer to her in his sleep. “I just didn’t ever think I’d be doing this alone.”
“Is there anything-”
“No, Up,” she said. “Unless you can bring him back.”
She looked so sad. Up thought of the first time they’d met Rosie on the Eagle, Tripp practically falling over himself in an effort to impress her, a small smile on her face, amusement in her eyes. He thought of their wedding, watching Tripp pick her up and swing her around, both of them laughing, their joy contagious, their happiness complete. They’d fit each other so well. It wasn’t fair that they had been torn apart.
He looked at Taz, who was engrossed in the baby, telling her something in Spanish, stroking a tiny cheek with her finger. They had always fit together, too. That must have been why he’d taken her back to the ship with him, her and her torn dress and her defiance, why he’d fought for her to go to the Academy at fifteen, why he had thought of no one else while he was on the Eagle those three uncertain years. Why they’d made such a great team.
Something was different between them now, even as they tried to become something more. But who was he kidding? It was him – he was the one who was different. And he couldn’t ever be the same man again.
“By all accounts, you did well at the Academy,” Dr. Renley read, peering through her glasses. “Top of your class, well-liked, respected by your peers. No mention of causing any trouble at all.”
“The Academy was the first place that felt like home,” Up said. “I needed the discipline. Military life suited me.”
“And you made friends there?”
Up eyed the papers in the doctor’s hands. “What’s the file say?”
Dr. Renley raised her eyebrows. “It says that you did. Particularly one Connor Tripp. And that he was the trouble-maker.”
“Tripp liked to have a bit of fun, that’s all,” Up said. “We were young and stupid then, can you blame him?”
“You served with Tripp several times in your career, did you not? You took your fighter pilot certification together?”
“Yes,” Up said. “He took to it better than I did, I’m more suited for combat.” He paused. “Or I used to be.”
“And when you both served on the Eagle, you made him your second-in-command when you were unexpectedly promoted to Commander, is that right?” Dr. Renley was watching him intently, far more so than he appreciated.
“There weren’t many Lieutenants left to choose from,” Up said, frowning. “And I knew I could trust him.”
“It was on the Eagle that Tripp first met his future wife, Dr. Rosie Baker, is that correct?”
“Why are you asking me this? What does it have to do with anything?”
Dr. Renley folded her hands. “I’m your psychiatrist, Commander. It’s my job to try and understand you, and where you come from, and that includes the relationships you’ve had with those around you. You seemed to have lived a rather solitary life, Commander. The Tripps appear to be some of the few individuals you’ve let get close to you.”
Up continued to eye her suspiciously. “Yes. That is where they met. Rosie was on the medical staff - it was her first starship assignment.”
“And when you were attacked by the robots-”
“We lost most of the medical team, yes. Rosie became the ship’s doctor. She stepped up beautifully.”
“That must have been a very difficult time for everyone on the ship. Did you believe all along that you could bring the Eagle home, Commander?”
Up was silent for a long time. “No,” he said finally. “But I had to put on a good show for the crew, didn’t I, or we’d have never stood a chance.”
“Did you ever get lonely?”
“In those two and a half years without contact with anyone on Earth. Tripp had Rosie-”
“Tripp didn’t have Rosie. She was engaged to some fellow back home, someone her parents had arranged for her. I don’t think she ever loved the guy, but she was too good of a person to betray him like that.” Up shifted uncomfortably. “It was only after the Eagle had returned to Earth, and she had broken it off with him, that they were able to be together.”
“Nevertheless, would you deny that it was on the Eagle that your friends fell in love?”
“Well – no-”
“So then,” the psychiatrist continued, looking annoyingly pleased. “Tripp had Rosie. Who did you have, Commander?”
Up was silent.
It was at a village dance that Beatriz first met Don Martin de Scópoli, an Italian gentleman, a Marquis, and her father’s next potential suitor. Their eyes met from across the room, and Beatriz was struck by the way he held himself tall, the keen look in his eye. They met in a dance, and he proved his mind as keen as his look,his words like those of a poet. They challenged each other, in the dance, and in conversation. They were equals. He complimented her beauty, but Beatriz was struck by his as well. Their eyes never left each other once.
Up stepped onto the mat in the hospital rehab centre. He and Taz were not the only patients there today, there were others working with therapists, using the weight machines, on the treadmill. He bent his head, feeling exposed in a t-shirt and sweats, remembering a time when he’d strip down to his waist and take anyone to the carpet, showing off for the cadets, showing off for her.
“Hey,” Taz said. “Mírame.”
He looked at her, standing on the other edge of the mat. She was wearing her red headband again, and she looked more the Ranger he was used to.
“Forget them,” she said. “It’s just you and me, okay?”
Dropping his gaze, he stepped forward, and she did the same, dropping into ready stance.
“Okay, Up,” she said. “You remember what to do.”
It took concentration, but he managed to get his robot leg to sink into the same, crouched position. He raised his hands in a defensive pose, his fists near his face, his elbows shielding his chest. They’d been practicing punches, shadowboxing, jabs and uppercuts and hooks, but this was the first time they were going to practice on each other.
“Are you ready?” she asked, so that no one else could hear. “You first.”
His first punch was slow, stiff, and she blocked it easily. “Look at me, Up. That’s what you always used to tell me, remember? Never take your eyes off your opponent.”
He tried again.
It was so different now from the first time they’d fought, when he’d been the teacher and she the student. Or when they were equals, circling each other, challenging each other, putting on a show for the other Rangers on the Cazadora. She was getting frustrated.
“Hit me!” she said, blowing the hair from her eyes, pulsing back and forth on her feet. She aimed a blow at his head, but she wasn’t really trying and he was able to push her fist away. He aimed another, and she blocked him again.
“Up, you can do better than this!” she said. This time her fist was faster, and hit its target. He fell back, blinking at the sudden pain in his cheek, remembering what it felt like, remembering when he would have barely felt it at all.
“Hit me back!” Taz growled, opening her hands wide so that she was defenceless. “I can’t make it any easier for you, Up, hit me back!”
His eyes met hers, and he shook his head.
Taz dropped her hands. “Up-”
He turned his back, on her, on the others watching, on his weakness, and walked away.
The attachment between Beatriz and Don Martin soon became known, and the men of the village were enraged. Suitors knocked on the door of Don Luis’ mansion, demanding an audience with his daughter. Don Martin was stopped in the streets and challenged to duels. It wasn’t long before the first dead man was on Beatriz’ conscience. Soon the local police were picking up a new body each morning from her father’s front yard.
Don Martin was fighting because he had to, fighting to defend her, and it was all because of her beauty. Every drop of blood spilled felt like a knife through her heart.
“Hey, Lieutenant! When you coming back to the fight, eh? Still got some robots to clean up, and you’re down here just sitting on your arse. You look healthy enough to me.”
Up stopped in his tracks, just before he entered the hospital cafeteria. The voice was unfamiliar, but it carried the authority of a Ranger – was there a ship in port?
“I’ll come back when I’m ready to, idiota,” Taz’s voice replied. “You guys having some trouble up there on the Bright Eye or something? Need a little help?”
“I hear she’s been screwing the Commander,” said another. “That’s why she’s still here, cause she can’t get enough of his-”
“Cierra la boca si usted sabe lo que es bueno para usted,” Taz said, her voice dangerous.
The voices fell silent for a moment.
“The Commander!” Someone laughed. “Didn’t you hear, he was all chopped up by the big bad robots on Qo’noS, he ain’t got no balls! He wouldn’t be enough of a man for Lieutenant Taz anymore -”
There was a thud, and then shouts and the scraping back of benches. Up started to move, and then froze again. What could he do, other than give them evidence that their claims were true? He couldn’t help her – he couldn’t even throw a proper punch. He leaned back against the wall, listening to Taz’s stream of Spanish insults, her opponents crying out in pain. He closed his eyes, hating himself.
“Break it up! This is a hospital, not a karaoke bar, for dead god’s sake!”
The sound of more scuffling, and then the doors burst open to reveal Taz shaking off a hospital security guard and seething with anger. She stopped short as she saw him, cowering against the wall. Shock, and something worse than that, filled her face. Her cheek was beginning to swell, and blood streamed from a cut above her eye.
They stared at each other for a moment, and then Taz turned and stalked off. Up hung his head.
“Your career has been a successful one, Commander. Graduating top of your class, quick promotions in every field, widely acknowledged as a respected leader, a war hero. The return of the Eagle was nothing short of miraculous, and the Cazadora was instrumental in the destruction of the robot fleet, which all would acknowledge to be the turning point in the Robot Wars. And your actions on Qo’noS ensured the robots’ defeat. The only reason you’re not a Rear Admiral already is because you refused the promotion, and there is little doubt you could have been Admiral someday if you’d wanted to be.”
Could have been.
“The newsfeeds have been calling you a super-soldier. Dr. Claw has been careful to praise your sacrifice – and, admittedly, his own medical prowess in bringing you back. You’re the Robot Wars’ greatest hero. How does that make you feel?”
“I was just doing my job,” said Up. The psychiatrist wasn’t blinking, and it made him uneasy. “I wasn’t trying to be anyone’s hero.”
“What happened on Qo’noS-”
“What, getting sawn in half?” Up said bitterly.
Dr. Renley paused. “Yes, that. You should have died, Commander Up. But instead you were saved, brought back to life by a man who – unless I’m wrong – has convictions you don’t agree with, using the kind of controversial technology that pioneered your enemies.”
“You’re not going to ask me how I feel about that, are you?”
Dr. Renley eyed him. “Just doing my job, Commander.”
“I should have died,” Up said. “Doesn’t that say it all?”
Beatriz’ tender heart could not bear it any longer. Too many had died for her, needlessly, recklessly. Her beauty was a curse. If only she had been born ugly, plain. Don Martin would never have loved her, nor any of the others – loneliness would be better than this guilt-ridden fate.
The brazier was red-hot and filled with coals, water sizzling into air as her tears fell upon them. The curtains were closed, her bedroom sweltering. Beatriz sent up a silent prayer as she knelt above the brazier, her perfect face raised toward the heavens. She choked back a sob, and pushed her face into the fire.
“Maybe we should go back to dancing,” Up said, twirling a noodle on his fork, forcing his robot hand to learn the simple movement, practicing it over and over.
They were eating dinner in the hospital cafeteria. Taz looked up, but he kept his eyes downcast. He couldn’t bear to see the bruises on her face and know that he had done nothing to prevent them.
“Dancing helped you get your mobility back,” she said. “But you can’t dance a robot to death. How are you going to get back on active duty without learning how to fight again?”
“Maybe-” He didn’t want to say it. “Maybe I’ll never be able to fight again. Maybe I can’t go back on active duty, Taz.”
Her fork paused in mid-air. “What?”
“Just look at me, Taz,” he said, finally lifting his eyes.
What did he want her to say? That it didn’t matter to her if he was broken, washed up, doomed to a desk job for the rest of his career? That she didn’t care if he wasn’t the hero the press made him out to be anymore? That it didn’t bother her that he walked with a limp, that his moustache was fake, that the idea of hitting someone, shooting someone, killing someone now turned his stomach instead of giving him a rush?
Yes, that was what he wanted. He wanted her to tell him that she loved him anyway, no matter what. Instead, he saw disappointment in her eyes.
“Dr. - Dr. Claw! What a surprise! We weren’t expecting you today!”
“Well, being Admiral keeps you busy, you know, but I was in the area, and I thought I would drop by and check up on my favourite patient – they told me he’d be here in the cafeteria.”
Taz looked at Up in alarm as Space-Claw’s voice drew nearer. Then she stood, looking defiantly at someone over his head.
“Ah, Lieutenant, how good to see you again!”
“Mierda,” she said. “Up’s not your patient anymore, Space-Claw. What do you want?”
“Now, now,” Space-Claw said. “There’s no need for hostility.”
Up stood, his back to the Admiral.
“I think there is,” he said quietly. He turned.
“Commander,” said Space-Claw jovially, but there was an edge to his smooth, deep voice. “You’re looking well.”
“Am I?” said Up.
“I would have thought you’d have been pleased,” Space-Claw said, a frown on his face. “I’ve given you a working body, Commander. Another chance at life.”
“But I never asked for it, did I?” Up said, his voice rising unusually high. “Who gave you the right to make me your experiment? Your plaything? Why couldn’t you have left me be?”
“Dead?” Space-Claw said evenly. “You’d rather I left you dead?”
“Than this?” Up said, gesturing with his left hand at everything he’d become – weak, sterile, less than human. The tears were coming now, and he couldn’t stop them. He was powerless.
The cafeteria had fallen completely silent. Up choked back a sob.
Then hands on his arms. Taz had jumped over the table and planted herself between him and Space-Claw, her back to the Admiral. “Up- Up, what are you doing? What are you saying? You don’t really want to be dead.”
He covered his face in his hands, wanting them all to go away, even her. Especially her. His shoulders shook.
“You don’t really want to be dead,” Taz repeated, though she sounded less sure.
He felt Taz turn. “Shut up, Space-Claw. Go find someone else to play mad scientist with.”
Her hands gently pulled Up’s away from his face, and there it was, the evidence of his failure shining wet on his cheeks, in his eyes. Hers were unreadable again. She stared up at him for a long time.
“Let’s get out of here,” she said finally, and taking him by the hand, she led him away from Space-Claw’s astounded face, from all the prying eyes, from everything.
“There’s someone you haven’t mentioned yet, Commander. Someone who, unless I’m mistaken, has played a significant role in your life these past eleven years. The newsfeeds have varying opinions on your relationship, and the nursing staff yet another – I was hoping that you could help me understand it better. Certainly you have let this person closer to you than anyone else, even Tripp.”
Up remained silent throughout this speech, gripping the armrests of his chair very tightly.
“Tell me about Lieutenant Taz.”
Up stared at the psychiatrist for a long moment, then got up and walked out the door.
Beatriz waited for Don Martin behind a black veil. When he saw the veil, matted with drops of blood and clinging flesh, he dropped to his knees before her and pulled it carefully away. Where there had once been eyes were blackened holes, her cheeks open craters. Kissable lips had become nothing but a horrid, gaping grin.
“My love,” he whispered. “What have you done?”
She could not speak.
“Beatriz,” he said, “It is not for your beauty that I love you.”
Tears fell from her monstrous face.
“Only this morning I asked your father for your hand,” Don Martin said, tears shining on his own. “And my intentions have not changed. Beatriz de Velasco, will you have me for your husband?”
He knew what she was going to say when she came to his door that night, dressed not in sweats but a full Ranger’s uniform, swinging her hands together nervously, like she did before a fight.
“I’m leaving, Up. I’ve been discharged.”
He sat on the edge of the bed, and didn’t say anything. Rosie’s words echoed in his brain. ‘I offered to discharge her, and she wouldn’t take it.’
“I’m going to the Bright Eye, to help with the clean-up effort. They gave me a promotion, I’m a Lieutenant-Commander now. Commander Li said she never thought she’d see the day when you picked me up all those years ago.”
“Congratulations,” he said dully.
He looked up.
Her eyes were big, and dark, and guilt-ridden. “I just can’t-”
“Just go,” he said.
Her face scrunched up, and she crossed the space between them in two swift strides. He closed his eyes as he felt her warm lips press softly to the top of his head.
“Good luck,” she whispered, and her voiced cracked a little.
Then she was gone, and Up was left alone, in the starlight, with nothing left of her but the book she had left behind.
The wedding of Don Martin and his Beatriz was one of the most sensational anyone in the village had ever seen. Don Luis spent his fortune to give his daughter the wedding of her dreams, and no one had ever seen a happier bridegroom. Beatriz wore a white veil, and took her husband’s hand, and knew that she had finally found the other part of her soul, and that nothing would ever tear them apart.
Some dreams stay with us as we grow, others die within us, some we die chasing.
And sometimes dreams come true.
With shaking hands, Up closed the book. The sky was clear, and the stars were bright tonight. He looked up at them, tracing patterns he’d memorized as a boy, when the vastness of space had been just a dream. He wondered where she was now, among the stars without him. He wondered if he’d ever reach them - reach her - again.
The tears came once more.
Taz watched the Earth fall away beneath her as the Bright Eye climbed into the stars, her forehead pressed against the viewscreen in her new quarters. Her face was dry – she’d vowed that there would be no more tears – but her heart was in a thousand pieces. She’d made her decision, she’d hardened her resolve, and she’d done it, she’d left him, the man who was her everything. He was falling apart, and she couldn’t keep watching it happen, knowing she was powerless to stop it.
“He’ll do better, if I’m not there,” she told herself. “He’ll pull himself up without me to depend on. He’ll have to.”
She knew it was a lie.
“I’m sorry, Up,” she whispered into the glass. “It’s me. I’m just not strong enough.”
One last, rebellious tear rolled down her bruised cheek as the starship took her away.
The story of Beatriz and Don Martin is a real Mexican legend called La Calle de la Quemada (The Burnt Girl’s Street), which I found a [poorly translated] version of here. The version Up reads is my adaptation.
I love your comments. This story thrives on them. Because Tumblr will not allow me to ask for them here, I would greatly appreciate if you could leave your feedback on this chapter in my ask box or by reblogging this post with your thoughts. :)
Chapter 22 is now up here.
Thank you, and thank you for reading. Always.