“If only. Have any two words expressed more profound regret? Such magnificent loss?” Bartholomew Quasar leaned back in his reclining captain’s chair and stared up at the starlight rushing past a wide porthole in brilliant streaks of frosty white.
His navigator, the only crew member currently on the bridge, was a very hairy biped named Hank. Not one for conversation, Hank sat slumped in his swivel chair at the com with all four loose-hinged arms hovering over various controls on the blinking display. He looked like an overweight sloth suffering through a mean hangover.
“If only!” Captain Quasar repeated with feeling. And he raised a clenched fist, striking a meaningful pose. Then he frowned at the back of Hank’s hairy head. “Don’t you have any regrets, man?”
At first, it didn’t appear that Hank would answer the captain. But this was common. It’s not that Hank couldn’t speak, for he could and often did; it was that he chose his speaking moments judiciously, and the rest of the time he utilized monosyllables to —
“Humph.” That was all. For now, anyway.
The captain sighed and returned his gaze to the stars they passed at near-light speed. It was enough to take a body’s breath away.
“To right a single wrong, or to salvage a missed opportunity.” He shook his head. Then he half-grinned. “Not that I’ve missed many. With the ladies, I mean.” He chuckled to himself, glancing briefly at Hank.
Captain Quasar narrowed his sapphire-blue eyes and clenched his solid jaw. The muscle twitched on command. “To have that kind of power, that sort of magical ability — ”
“Magic?” Hank sounded incredulous. But tones were often garbled by Hank’s thick, phlegm-coated pair of throats.
“Yes.” The captain sat up straighter. “That’s what I said.”
“You don’t believe there to be any such thing, is that it?”
The superior pair of very hairy shoulders shrugged up and down, but otherwise, Hank didn’t respond.
“Yeah, well, that’s what they all say. That’s what they said about near-light-speed travel, isn’t it? ‘It’s not possible. It will never work. You’ll tear yourself apart.’ They always think it’s some kind of magical hocus-pocus until somebody actually figures out how to do it! And look at us, Hank. We’re perfectly fine — still in one piece!”
“Ah, yes.” A wry grin spread across Captain Quasar’s rugged features. “There are two of us now.”
“There were more.”
A complete sentence from the hairy biped? The captain hid his surprise.
“Your point being?”
Hank shook his head. No point.
But he was right. Once upon a time, and not that long ago, this ship, the Effervescent Magnitude, held teeming within its bowels a complete complement of 1,492 crew members — including Captain Quasar and Hank the hairy biped. However, in the past six months since the captain had insisted on installing a near-light-speed cold fusion reactor (“far-fetched magic” to the less-enlightened) and embarking upon this current quest, the Effervescent Magnitude’s crew had strangely — yet steadily — started to diminish.
Now there were only two souls on board, and both of them sat on the bridge. All hands were on deck — all six of them, thanks to Hank.
Did Captain Bartholomew Quasar ever think about his lost crew members? On occasion, yes. Did he have any idea what had happened to them all? Not really, no.
If he had to guess, it probably had something to do with the cold fusion reactor. He didn’t fully understand how it worked, only that for centuries the eggheads back on Earth had said cold fusion was science fiction (very poor sci-fi at that) and he was just glad to prove them all wrong. It worked, obviously! So what if the reactor had somehow caused 1,490 of his crew to disappear. If this current quest proved to be as fruitful as he hoped, he’d be able to bring them all back anyway.
“If only,” he murmured.
“Point zero-zero-zero-nine-two-five parsecs to destination.”
The captain broke from his reverie and frowned. “So, that’s about…” He waited for Hank to fill in the blank, having never been very good at unit conversions himself.
“Two days.” Hank cleared one of his throats, giving his tone an oddly harmonic quality as he added, “Give or take.”
The captain clenched both fists and pounded them on his armrests. “Not good enough, dammit, not good enough!” He licked his lips, eyes darting. “I thought we were almost there!”
“At light-speed, we would be.”
Captain Quasar threw up his hands with a short cry. “Confounded cold-fusion near-light-speed! How near are we, anyway? To actual light speed, I mean?”
Hank’s superior set of shoulders lifted, but they didn’t fall. They didn’t have the chance. For it was at that moment that the very hairy helmsman of the Effervescent Magnitude vanished from space and time without so much as a blip of sound or a flash of light.
“I was afraid of that,” mused Captain Quasar. Then he realized he was alone on the ship.
With a yelp, the captain charged headlong from his chair and took the helm with both hands flying across the blinking display.
Eventually, his nerves steadied; and eventually, he returned to his musings — now only an interior monologue.
“Two days more, and then I shall have you, my potable elixir. Ah yes, magical potion manufactured in the depths of Opsanus Tau Prime, far-flung planet of mystery. My ‘if only’ catholicon, my ‘do-over’ panacea. With you, I’ll never make another mistake!” And even if he did, so what?
He laughed out loud. He couldn’t stop; he was that gleeful.
Until the cold fusion reactor went kaput, and the sudden downshift in velocity from near-light-speed to no-speed-at-all tore the entire ship apart.
Captain Bartholomew Quasar’s last thoughts were, of course, only two words.
Milo James Fowler is a full-time junior high English teacher and a part-time writer. When he’s not grading papers, he’s submitting short stories to magazines, revising his manuscripts, and sending query letters to prospective literary agents. His work has recently appeared in A Fly in Amber, Everyday Weirdness, and AlienSkin Magazine and will appear in the October issue of 10Flash Quarterly. He lives in San Diego with his beloved wife and a head full of potentially good ideas.