"Tired," he said, breathing in deeply and exhaling slowly, the smoke billowing from his nostrils making him look like a dragon.
Looking at him, I wondered if it wasn't a bad analogy. He looked old, like you always think of dragons, and I knew this was a man capable of violence. Lots of violence, come to think of it. His eyes, weary and downturned as they were, had seen so many things - things done by others to others, things done by him to others, things done by others to him, things done by him to himself.
Not for the first time that night, I thought of making an exit. He wouldn't mind if I left. Hell, he probably wouldn't even know I was gone. I was the last thing on his mind that night.
But I had to know. I had to know. I didn't come this far to have finally found him, only to walk away at the last moment.
I leaned forward in my chair. His eyes were on my knees, but mind was elsewhere, far away. Shadows danced across his face to the crackling of the fire, the only source of illumination and heat on this bitterly cold night.
"Tell me about the captain," I said, striving to keep my voice controlled. "Louisa."
Louisa Meyer - "the captain", as he still referred to her - was the captain and commanding officer of the Hiroshima, planet Earth's first spacefaring warship. After decades and generations of silence from the stars, the human race had come to the grudging and anti-climatic conclusion that there was no other sentient life in the universe. Oh, various space agencies had sent probes out - clumsy, primitive things that beeped, looking for other beeps - but nothing was found. Faster-than-light travel was still considered too dangerous for humans, so they built probes by the dozens and sent them out to the nearest star systems - Andromeda, Alpha Centauri, PSR B1257+12, 55 Cancri, God knows what else - and while some of the probes went silent, others kept beeping merrily away, never receiving a reply. If the aliens were out there, they either didn't know what the probe was (and couldn't reply), or ignored it. Or, some speculated, they didn't want us to know they were there.
Humans being humans, plans were drawn up to design the first ever spaceship geared for war. The logic wasn't entirely unsound - if there were hostile alien species out there, we had just introduced ourselves to them. As a compromise with the popular demonstrations and polite messages from world governments, only one warship was built - the Hiroshima, launched in 2147, with a purely defensive mission. The ship would orbit the Earth, and nothing more. No boldly going forward to explore the stars, no standing ground against a possible alien horde - nothing. Just hanging in space, like a gigantic toy suspended above a baby's crib. Enthusiasm at being posted to the Hiroshima (because anything was better than being posted to yet another mining ship) was soon tempered at the unmitigated boredom of orbiting the Earth and doing absolutely nothing else (because at least on board a mining ship, at least something happened, even if was just more ore extractions).
Of course, humans being humans, more warships were designed. Thanks to nanoconstruction, the ships could be assembled in a few weeks, with a speed and precision that would have eluded human construction. But to allay the fears of those who were afraid that the military was looking at space as one giant battlefield and shipyard, the other ships were left at the design stage, and in complete secrecy. In a world of almost eight billion people, barely one hundred knew that, with the right provocation and the right commands, six more warships could take to the stars in under a month. Whether these ships (plus the orbiting Hiroshima) could actually stave off an alien invasion was anybody's guess, but it was a comforting thought to know that planet Earth would put up some semblance of a fight.
Owen Crane was the first officer on board the Hiroshima, second only to Captain Meyers herself.