For Captain William Henry Mitchell, this was to be a hard day. He looked at the fogged mirror before him and could see nothing but condensation. With a clenched fist, he wiped it away and looked into the bearded man's eyes staring back. He saw all of the scars from hundreds of battles, hundreds of times where Hank should have died. Instead, he lived while others passed. This reality was one he had to face every day. Today was one day where this was truer than ever. As captain, he was to be master of ceremonies at the double funeral; Part for an old friend and part for a crewman.
Hank considered the task that lay before him. He considered the guilt that would always weigh him down. LeFleur was his responsibility. Hank was his captain and LeFleur his crew. In Hank's mind, he searched for ways to keep this from happening again. Somehow, LeFleur could have been saved. Somehow.
But Captain Mitchell put aside those thoughts. He had to. If he couldn't do that, then what business did he have being captain? With his left hand, he lathered his beard. With his right, he held the blade....
From a wheelchair, Emma watched the funeral unfold. She had to be pushed around by Dr. Lorentz, which was less aggravating than she had first assumed. Perhaps it was because she was not focusing on Dr. Lorentz, but on the casket sitting before her. It was not really a casket, but instead a box made of scrap metal from inside the ship that the crew's welder had made. This was all they could do. Emma, however, did not knew a funeral to be done in any other way. She had been to dozens on the Holdsworth and all of them were done in the same way. Today, however, was different. She and LeFleur had not really had the chance to fully get to know one another, but he was still special to Emma.
Emma felt that she should be crying, but there were no tears. Her eyes were dry. This disgusted her. Emma made herself sick inside. Her conscience panged her with guilt. She lived, he died. It shouldn't have been that way. But it was. Her heart throbbed with sorrow. LeFleur lay before her in a coffin. She could not see his face. It had been over a week since he had passed and his body had decomposed way past the point of atrocity. Had the materials been present, they would have embalmed the poor Frenchman. They did not. Emma's churned with a sickening disgust at herself. She should have felt more, she should have been showing something. Instead, she stared blankly at the casket before her.
What could she do?
“Are you alright?” Liam asked from beside her.
Emma thought about how to reply. She could not have answered any more honestly, “I don't know.”
Funerals on the Holdsworth had a pair of traditions. The first and most obvious of these was that Captain Mitchell would say words. He would eulogize the dead and give a speech. The whole ordeal was a simple affair, nothing grand in the least bit. Elaborate as it was not, the entire crew would gather on deck to participate. The engines would be shut down and all operations ceased for just the hour or two it would last.
The second tradition was that the ship's few musicians would play. That meant first mate Lena on violin, engineer Scott on guitar, and sometimes one of the communications officers, Jane Reading, who practiced classical singing. They would usually play a few songs as background music, mostly hymns or somber folk pieces. Once the captain was done with his speech, they would pick a single song. The crew silenced themselves as they listened. Once the music was done, the coffins were cast into the sea, where the dead would rest forever.
Lena's fingers danced over the neck of her violin. She played a sad Irish-inspired piece that she and Scott had written. It was nothing too complex, but it spoke the complicated messages of sorrow and of moving on. Despite the rather hopeful last bars, she still found herself depressed by the music. As the left few notes rolled off her bow, Lena looked up at the ceremony before her. She saw a mass of crewman and friends gathered around LeFleur's casket, but only one man dressed in a black suit standing over Ivanov's. She squinted and saw that it was Sergei.
To her “bandmates,” Lena said, “Hey, let's take a little break, guys.” She didn't wait for a response and instead set her violin into its case and closed it. She pushed her way past a few of the idle crewmen, but it did not take her long to reach him. Upon arrival, Sergei at least seemed to not notice her. Lena took a minute to find words, but only came up with, “Hey, Sergei.”
“Hello, Mrs. Mitchell,” he replied politely.
“Are you alright, Sergei?” Lena asked.
“I'm quite fine,” he said. “I am simply- well, not entirely certain what the protocol is for me right now. I didn't know this LeFleur or Ivanov. But I would like to show my respects. I noticed that no one seemed to have known Ivanov and they all seem to be flocking around LeFleur, so I thought it only appropriate that someone stand by him.”
“That's sweet of you,” Lena put her hand on his arm in approval.
“I think I remember mother telling me about him,” said Sergei. “She told me a story from when you, Captain Mitchell, my father, and my mother all took down the men behind the outbreak. Correct me if I get it wrong, but you had arrived at an airport in Russia and it appeared abandoned.”
“Mhmmm,” Lena nodded.
“A sniper opened fire on you and that sniper was young Private Ivanov?”
“That's right,” Lena said. “Ivanov joined us for a few years on some of the first Holdsworth missions; back when we relied on the Russians for support.”
“What was he like?”
She clicked her tongue, “Now, I guess a good word for Ivanov would be... spunky.”
“Yeah,” Lena smiled. “He was young, eager, fiery. Full of spunk, y'know?”
“I think I know what you mean,” Sergei smugged.
“We didn't see him for a long time after that,” Lena continued. “He came back to us just before we left port and he had changed. He was older, tired. And scared. Told us about this character he called 'The Shadow.' Sounded awful scary to me, but I can't imagine what would rattle poor Ivanov.”
“'The Shadow,'” Sergei chuckled. “Sounds so cheesy.”
Lena smiled warmly, “Yeah, it does, doesn't it?” The two stared for a moment at Ivanov's resting place. There was nothing more to say about him. Sadly, they barely knew him and, as such, had not the words to give him the departure he truly deserved. “I'm gonna head back to the band now. I just want to say, I think it's cool of you to stick by Ivanov like this.”
Had he been a weaker man, The Shadow would have laughed at the irony.
With a heavy heart, Hank finally took the podium. There was no microphone or amplifier of any kind. There did not need to be. When Captain Mitchell spoke, all were silent. The only sounds heard as he stood before his crew was the murmur of the ocean and the occasional shuffling of feet. No one said a word as Captain Mitchell spoke his. He stood behind a worn lectern and inhaled a soft breath as he prepared his mind for the hard words ahead. The faces looked up to him. Some showed confusion at their captain having added his beard to the losses mourned. He licked his lip and rubbed his smooth face. It surprised him.
The words to his painful message would not come. Hank opened his mouth to speak, but his lungs refused. He drew another breath. William Henry Mitchell had fought countless battles, he had swallowed his fear against thousands, but this terrified him. But he did it. He swallowed his fear. He looked into the eyes of his crew and told them:
“In twenty-five years of serving as your captain, I've found many joys. I've found the joy of being a real husband to my wife, your first mate. I've found the joy of being a father to two fantastic children. I've found the joy of leading the greatest crew a captain could ask for to the thick and thin. I've found the joy of standing beside each and every one of you. Not everything is joy.
“I've also found many hardships. I've found the hardship of ordering my crew to do things they don't want to do. I've found the hardship of- of ordering people to what is probably going to be their death. And sometimes it is. I've found the hardship of standing before you right now and telling you about the life and death of those under me.
“Laying eternally with you are two men, Christophe LeFleur and Master-Sergeant Boris Ivanov. Through their lives were many joys and many hardships. As we stand here with them one last time, we should remember both.
“Only a few of you still here remember Boris Ivanov. He was one of the original crewmen here on the Holdsworth and he was a good man. He worked hard and was eager. When the time came for him to leave us, I was- I was saddened. I saw him grow from just a youth to a man. A man he was. It was an afternoon in Lisbon when he surprised us all by showing up. Though he brought us bad news, he also brought back a dear old friend. Himself. I wish- I wish we could have had more time.
Hank smiled at the memory, “The first time I met Ivanov, he was shooting at us. He had half gone mad and the kid was scared shitless. First time I saw his face, I punched it. A few times when he served on the Holdsworth, I wanted to do it again. Never did,” Hank laughed with his crew. “He turned out a good man though. He really did. Goodbye, Boris. You will be missed.”
Hank paused as he mentally switched gears. “Christophe LeFleur is still a new member of the crew in my mind. I don't feel- I don't feel like I ever got to know him well enough. Right now, that is my greatest regret. We were in France just two years ago when we recruited him. He was just another kid from one of the villages, but there was something about him. Christophe had that- that drive I look for in my crewmen. It's the same drive I see in all of you. Christophe was young, eager, and wanted to save the world. I guess the very best word for him would be, 'idealistic.'
“I found out just recently that he meant a lot to my daughter, Emma, who you all know very well. I don't want to say too much about that, but- but I think LeFleur was a good friend to a lot of people here. He was certainly a good kid and I wish I had gotten to know him. Look, I- “ Hank sighed. “I- I have to be honest. I don't know what to say. I don't.”
Hank swallowed, “I, um- I don't want to hurt this anymore with bad words. I think more can be said with less. I believe I've said my piece. You who knew him better, honor him with your words. I don't have any and I'm sorry.”
He sighed heavily once again and looked for remarks to close and instead chose to say this, “Death is something we all have to live with. It's an unfortunate truth and it's especially true in the world of today. It's especially- especially true if you're a member of this crew. Christophe LeFleur knew that coming in and it's damn sure he knew it going out. Just by being here, you've all shown courage. LeFleur showed that courage and more. Kid had balls. That much I know about him.”
Hank felt a slight of pride at how he recovered that one. “As is tradition here on the Holdsworth, the band will play. When they finish, we cast our dead into the sea, their resting place forever. This is how it has always been and how it shall be until this ship joins them. There will come day when we will meet the ocean's bottom and be there together once more.”
Hank took a very deep breath, looked into the eyes of his crew, and reassured them wordlessly. He then looked over to where Lena, Reading, and Scott waited, and gave them the nod. He stepped back from the podium as they prepared themselves. The crew turned to watch as the first notes were played.
Lena had spent hours searching for the right place to play. In the end, she chose a slower, sadder variation of the old shaker hymn called “Simple Gifts.” It was a simple arrangement, but a very beautiful one, one that fit the occasion. Its notes and lyrics pondered a reflective yet hopeful tune. Lena's violin traced the melody, while Scott's guitar harmonized. The song became whole with Jane Reading's stunningly beautiful vocals. “'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free....”
While some of the crew let tears fell, most kept a somber, respectful silence. Liam was among the silent. He was not the crying type and he barely knew LeFleur. His emotion and sympathy went out to Emma, who was most broken by the whole ordeal. Emma sat in her wheelchair simply staring. She was not crying. No tears came. She wanted them to. She wanted to show her sorrow. But there was nothing. And she hated it.
“To bow and to bend, we will not be ashamed....”
“Hey, Emma,” someone whispered. Emma looked to her side to find that it was Jeremy. “You're not even crying. I thought you loved him.”
“Jeremy, screw off,” Emma scoffed.
“Guy saved your life and you won't even-”
“Go the hell away,” she growled. “I swear, I'll-”
“You'll what?” Jeremy laughed. “Bleed on me?”
“I won't tell you again.”
“Then don't!” Jeremy's mockery pressed on. “You're just a-”
Using every ounce of strength of she could muster, Emma launched herself out of her wheelchair and flew at Jeremy. She wasn't thinking. She wasn't. And that's why she wound up slamming into the steel deck. Her leg and her arm both flared in pain. Emma screamed.
Jeremy laughed. He just stood over her and laughed.
He laughed until a fist struck his neck. He recoiled and gasped for air. Everyone was surprised to see that it was Sergei who had delivered the blow. Jeremy stumbled back as he fought for hair. He shook his finger at Sergei, who stood stiffly, and laughed, “Oh, man! That! That was a huge mistake!”
Sergei cocked his eyebrow as if to say, “Hit me with your best shot.” But he kept quiet and kept his eyes fixed on his enemy.
Jeremy threw his fist at Sergei, who simply wasn't there. The next thing Jeremy knew, he was on the floor, his wind knocked out, his jaw bleeding, and his groin in desperate pain. Sergei had executed his expert take down in a split-second, moving so fast that no one could really tell exactly which moves he had delivered. Sergei stood over his enemy and then put his foot over Jeremy's neck. The downed man put up his hands in surrender. Jeremy wanted to say something, but he could barely even breathe.
Sergei shook his head and then slammed his foot down on his face. Jeremy was unconscious instantly. He straightened his jacket and then turned to Dr. Lorentz, “I think you've got a new patient on yours hands.”
“And so I do,” Lorentz stared in disbelief. He shook his head to snap out of his daze and then bent down to help Emma up, “Are you alright?”
“Son of a bitch!” She snarled. “It hurts.”
“What's going on?” Liam rushed over. He saw Emma being helped up and immediately turn to Sergei and pointed his finger, “Did you do this?!”
“He did,” Sergei gestured down to Jeremy, who was still out cold.
“The hell happened to-”
Dr. Lorentz grunted as he gently set Emma down in the wheelchair, “Sergei happened.” As soon as she was in her chair, he stood and rubbed his hands together. “Jeremy was antagonizing your sister, so, in typical Emma fashion, Emma lunged at Jeremy. She missed. When Jeremy laughed, Sergei, well-”
“Good Lord,” Liam looked at Sergei wide-eyed. “Jeremy's been asking for that for a long time.”
“If you would excuse me,” Sergei began to leave, figuring it was best not to stick around and risk a confrontation with any of Jeremy's friends. It was not that he couldn't take them, it was just that beating up crew members was not a good way to get on many captain's good sides.
“Hey, wait,” Emma called after him, pain still in her voice. “Sergei, I- thank you.”
He let slip a faint smile, “Not a problem. I'm sorry that had to happen.” Sergei opened the door to the bridge and stepped through without another glance.
Liam remarked, “Wouldn't have expect him to stick up for you like that”
“You should give him a chance, Liam. I'm going to.”
“You do that. I still don't like him.”
For only the most necessary of occasions, Hank kept a suit. He did not enjoy wearing it. A quarter-century ago when he was in the army, the uniformity and cleanliness might have appealed to him. Living on the Holdsworth changed his outlook on things. Instead, he grew accustomed to wearing loose and often dirty clothing; mostly tattered sweaters and grease-stained leather jackets. The suit seemed so tight, so confining. But today was one of those days where he had to wear it.
He popped up his collar, took a black and blue tie, and put it around the neck of his white shirt. In a manner one might consider rather clumsy, he tied a half Windsor knot. He looked over his work and then put his collar down. It looked terrible. Suddenly, a pair of hands more delicate than his flattened his collar for him. They were Lena's. She turned him around and worked out the kinks in his tie. Hank looked down and saw that his wife had worked a miracle. Without words, she took his jacket off the rack and handed it to him. That captain slipped it on and then Lena helped straighten it out.
Lena took a step back and looked her husband over. She smiled as she said, “You're lookin' good, skipper. After all these years, you're still smokin'.”
“You think?” He turned left and right, showing off. When he stopped, he look at his wife and saw that she wore a dress with a light jacket over it. After a lengthy pause, Hank commented, “You look beautiful.”
“Thanks,” she beamed as Hank kissed her on the top of her head. They briefly embraced before Lena said, “You ready?”
“Ready as I'll ever be,” Hank stepped out of their bathroom and into the bedroom. “Have I ever told you how much I hate this getup?” He sat down on the bed and rubbed his bare chin.
“On numerous occasions,” Lena sat down beside him. “It's all part of it though, being captain and all.”
“Yeah, it is,” Hank sighed. “There's a lot of crap that goes with this job. But this? This is the worst. I've always hated funerals. I've hated going to them, but a long time ago, I could never see myself, you know, doing one. Now it seems like we're having to do this all the time. It's like it's normal. And I hate that. I hate it so much.”
Lena nodded and put her hand on his shoulder, “I know what you mean, Hank.”
“Someone has to do this though. It's days like these I wish it didn't have to be me.”
“Yeah,” Lena exhaled as she leaned on her husband's arm. “I know what you mean.”
“Did you choose a song?” Hank asked, hoping to make the subject something less depressing.
“I did,” she came off his shoulder. “James and I picked an older shaker hymn called 'Simple Gifts.'”
“Have I heard it?”
“At some point, probably. It has one of those tunes you just know.”
“Well, why this one?”
“It just felt right. It's quiet, simple, maybe a little sad, but it's hopeful. And Jane sings it so beautifully. I think it works. I hope it works.”
“It will,” Hank stood and turned to face his wife. “Come on, honey, let's go face death.”