I?ve been in the Imperial army since I was eighteen, and for all but the first five years of that time I?ve kept her last letter with me. One sheet of paper, a handspan square, yellowed and grubby with time, creased from being tucked into the side of my helmet; smudged, the ink fading into invisibility.
Sometimes I take it out and look at it, and hold it against my cheek. It?s warm from being next to my skin, and soft now from years of rubbing. It?s beginning to fray along the folds and the corners are missing - that?s how long I?ve had it - but I still imagine that there?s something of her left on it, that maybe even after all these years I?ll catch a hint of the scent she used to wear, that always reminded me of where she came from: a kinder world, home to a more innocent people.
Not my world, far from it. I was born on the other side of the galaxy, on a hellhole I was glad to leave as soon as I could.
It had been a mistake, joining the army. I should have known then that the only way you left the Imperial army was either after doing your ten years? service or in a body bag. I did know, actually, now that I come to think about it: I knew, and I didn?t care. When I?d left school, a nothing kid from a nothing family, it looked like the best option.
Ten years seemed like nothing. I had no plans. I was just another eighteen-year-old, the class loner in my case, tolerated by the others but by no means a friend. I tended to lose - still do - the liking of most normal people by correcting them when they got their facts wrong, by knowing more than they did, and by being cursed with a logical mind. That was what made me an ideal soldier at first; cold, calculating, able to keep a cool head come hell or high water. That was what made me the one on the edge, the awkward loner a little way off from the group, immersed in my own thoughts.
Three years into my term of duty, I met her on leave. She was younger than I was by a year or two, and clever enough for someone twice her age. I can still see her now in my mind?s eye.
Everyone who saw us together said she could have been my sister. Same mop of unruly brown hair, same set to the face, same eyes. I always marvelled at the last one, because looking the way I do, I always thought of my eyes as being about my only unusual feature - they?re a sort of greenish colour, closer to grey than true green, with a hint of hazel in the right light. She had them too, and she fitted them a lot better than I did. Maybe it was those eyes that made her smile light up a room.
When I was on duty on the other side of the planet, she?d write every chance she got: long letters from the heart. The last one, the one I?ve kept, is the shortest by far, but all the others seemed like rough drafts in comparison. I can still see the looks the rest of the troop used to give me when we were at breakfast, and whoever was on mail duty dropped a letter beside my plate. They all knew her slightly after a while, and I think some of them wondered how I of all people had managed to find a girl like her. I told them I didn?t know, and they may have believed me or they may not have believed me. Then, I was too busy wondering the same thing myself to care if other people did. All I knew was I had been lucky, extraordinarily lucky, and that I never wanted to let her go.
I had to, eventually, but it was never her fault. If anything, it was mine, for joining the army in the first place. If I?d never joined, we would never have met, but then at least only I would have spent what should have been the best years of my life crushingly alone.
The way things looked then, I was ninety-nine percent sure that our unit would never be moved. We were an auxiliary lot, young recruits, posted on a planet to keep an eye on the inhabitants and to keep the peace in local disputes. Those units were stationary; it was the way the army worked. The only way to leave was to be promoted to a unit somewhere else in the galaxy, which in my case was never very likely. The unit commanders had no plans to ask to be transferred - most of them liked our station as much as I did - and so I was pretty confident I?d be able to serve out my time with the army on the same world, and stay with her through it.
She wrote about that in her last letter, saying that she?d always known I might be posted somewhere else, and not to feel guilty for it. I felt guilty anyway, because when I read those particular words I could almost hear her saying them to me the way she used to. I felt guilty, because I knew that when she'd said them before, she had been sure that she had as long as she needed, that we?d be together more or less forever. When I read them written down, the first time I read her final letter, they seemed different: whether it was because she had changed, or because I had, I?ve never known.
When the news came through that there?d been a ?disturbance?, as they put it, over on the Rim and we were being reposted to deal with it, it took me and everyone else in the unit off guard. Maybe we?d got complacent from too long on a soft posting, or maybe we just hadn?t thought ahead. For whatever reason, the next morning the station was silent, and the morning after that, and the morning after that: the day we were due to leave, the day I got her letter.
I can remember the silence now. Normally the eating hall would have been full up to the rafters with noise, but that last morning there was nothing.
I was eating the tasteless slop they called breakfast, and trying not to think. There was a sound like a whisper at my elbow, and I looked down to see a simple folded square of paper lying on the table with my name written on it. This one wasn?t even in an envelope; just one sheet, folded into four and closed with a snippet of flexitape. I remember how light it felt as I picked it up. Later, when I finally had a chance to read it in private, I remember holding it irrationally tight, as if I was scared it would try to fly out of my hand.
That first night out on the Rim station, I wasn?t the only one nursing a broken heart. Sometimes I think that every soldier in the whole Imperial army has something like it locked in the back of his mind, a store of memories of the girl he left behind. And then I remember that I was always the freak, the hopeless sentimentalist who still believed in fairytale true love. All the others would forget and rebuild, while I could only dream and cry for the one girl I?d grown to love.
All through the years I served on the Rim, I kept that letter with me, pinning all my hopes on her promise that we?d someday meet again. She wrote that she would stay in the city that I knew, so I wouldn?t have to spend my life searching for her. An unrealistic promise, maybe, but it says a lot about both her and me that she meant that promise to the depths of her soul, and that I would have done the same in her place.
Even after the war began, I still hoped I?d be able to leave the army after my ten years were up, honour served. They raised the service limit to fifteen years when I was six months off leaving, taking another five years out of my life. Another five years before I could see her. But I still hoped and waited, keeping her letter in its now-familiar crevice in the lining of my helmet and imagining the day I?d see her again.
Then the news came from Central Control that the rumour none of us had actually believed had happened: that the High Command had done what they?d always threatened to, and used their ultimate weapon - the Death Star - for the purpose for which it had been designed. They had turned it against a single world, and with a press of a button had turned billions of innocent beings to ash. That was the first news, the simple news that it had happened.
Then they told us the name of the world, and in the space of a few seconds my universe fell apart.
She had promised to stay at her home on Alderaan, so I would know where to look for her when I was finally free of the army. She made that promise for my sake, and I never knew her to break her word. I know as surely as I know my own name that she was still on Alderaan when it was destroyed, waiting for me. Waiting, right up until when the new star flared in the sky and the lethal light cut into the planet crust and through to the core.
During those twelve years apart, I was with my unit, serving through gods know how many petty conflicts on the Rim, and she was on the other side of the galaxy. Between us there was only her letter, nestling in the side of my helmet, losing its legibility day by day. Now I can barely read what?s actually written there, but now it doesn?t matter, because I learnt it by heart a long time ago.
Twelve years is a long time. A long time to nurse a pathetic hope: to the point where it becomes almost plausible, almost within reach of fulfilment. Perhaps it wouldn?t have been so bad if she had died soon after we had parted; perhaps I would have learnt to let go. But to carry a memory and a letter for twelve years, until it became part of my existence ... and just let go? Not after that time, no.
When she died, something of my soul went with her, and sometimes when I watch the younger recruits hiding away their own love letters, I feel the space where the missing part used to be. She took away my ability to be jealous, to envy love, and I thank her for it. Maybe it?s sad, to forever be in love with someone who is now nothing more than thoughts set down on paper, but she wrote like an angel, and even those few words are enough to bring her alive in my imagination.
Thanks to the destructive power of the Death Star she?ll never have a grave, but I know she would have liked her own words to be her epitaph. She once told me one particular couplet that I thought was beautiful. I asked who had written it, and she laughed and wouldn?t answer. Later, when she wrote that final letter, she added it at the bottom, and I?ve never forgotten it.
Immortal as the stars that light the endless sky above
Love does not forget, and who does, did not love.
Original cover by Nemesis. HTML formatting copyright 2004 TheForce.Net LLC.