[Posted to alt.games.wing-commander August 18, 1996]
I had failed.
Numbly, I shuffled forward between two snarling Kilrathi guards. It was a singular honor not to be dragged ignominiously by tooth and claw, but I was too deeply mired in despair to appreciate it. The hopes of mankind had ridden with me, and I had failed.
At long, long last, we reached the dreadnought's great throne chamber, where I stood before my archenemy for the last time. I forced myself to raise my head and meet his gaze.
The evil Prince Thrakhath, heir to the throne of the Kilrathi Empire, looked down on me in triumph. Flanked by nobles from the great clans of Kilrah, surrounded by his underlings, he was obviously savoring his final victory. His voice, however, betrayed little of the excitement he must be feeling; it was, in fact, almost friendly.
"It is a pleasure, Heart of the Tiger, to have finally and completely conquered you."
I was too heartsick to answer. I had failed. How could I face my dead comrades when I joined them on their endless voyage among the stars?
"The Kilrathi, however, are not without mercy," continued the Prince. "We shall grant you the opportunity to plead for your miserable life."
As I stared bleakly at my victorious adversary, a ray of hope penetrated the fog in my mind. Had Fate granted me one last chance? I tried to speak, but only feeble croakings emerged from my parched throat--much to the amusement of my captors. Weakly, I motioned Thrakhath closer, that he might hear my final words clearly.
"You have something to say, monkey?" Barely controlling his emotions, the giant predator stooped, eagerly anticipating my abject entreaties. Summoning all my remaining strength, I found my voice at last.
"I said, YOUR FLY IS OPEN, NUMBNUTS!"
There was a moment of shocked silence. All eyes turned toward the Prince, then followed his own gaze downward. Suddenly the vast chamber exploded in raucous laughter. All around, nobles, menials, and even the toady next to the Prince, were howling with merriment. My guards were laughing helplessly, pointing rudely to their Prince's overexposure, which he was frantically--and so far ineffectually--trying to remedy. One of them poked me in the ribs and gasped, in passable Terran, "Good one, human!" before collapsing to the deck in convulsive laughter.
I nodded in grim acknowledgement. The deafening guffaws echoing through the chamber would be my epitaph. Thrakhath had defeated me, humanity was in chains, but at least I had humiliated my adversary one last--
"Yeeaauugghh!" Needle-sharp claws stabbed through my uniform, piercing my Calvins and penetrating deeply into my flesh! Writhing in agony, I was lifted up, up, transfixed on white-hot spears of hellish pain! Oh, God, why didn't he finish me?
As if reading my thoughts, the enraged fiend lowered me so we were face to face. "Oh, no, maggot, you won't die. Not yet. Not until you've learned that the price of ridicule is eternal agony! Hahahahaha!"
Now the bastard was bench-pressing me. "One, two, one, two..."
I sat up. My heart was pounding, I was bathed in sweat, and I gasped for breath. It was The Dream again, this time worse than ever. I could still feel the pain-echo of claws tearing at my guts, still smell the catnip on Thrakhath's breath. But gradually, as with all dreams, the memory receded. My heart slowed its pounding and my breathing grew less frantic.
I turned my attention to my companions. Had I screamed out loud this time? No, probably not, because they were still asleep. Robin was whimpering in uneasy half-sleep, but as I gently caressed her, she fell back into blissful slumber. I favored Rachel with a soft, loving touch, and she stirred briefly before her dreams reclaimed her.
I lay back in bed, careful not to disturb my loved ones. My thoughts returned to The Dream. Why, years after the war, was I still plagued by it? In my soul I had come to terms with my memories and made peace with the dead. I had everything a man could want: I loved, and I was loved; I had a home, fulfilling work, and a life lived in harmony with nature. For perhaps the first time in my life, I was truly happy.
Maybe that was it. Was it all too good to be true, and I was simply afraid the illusion would end? I stared out the open window at the enveloping darkness. Here, on the ground, the stars were friendly beacons, bringing a measure of warmth and reassurance in the night. In space, however, where I had spent much of my adult life, they were cold and pitiless, and deadly danger often lurked among them.
I sat bolt upright. Of course! I couldn't name it, but in my heart, I knew that unspeakable horror had hatched somewhere out in the endless void. My race was in danger again, from an as-yet unknown source. Any day now, the summons would come, and once again I would take up the sword; once again I would muster all my skill and courage in the service of duty, honor, and all mankind. I felt a stirring in my blood. The dream that had so unnerved me had merely been foreshadowing my unfulfilled destiny!
I fell back on the pillow. "Oh, shit."