By Ann Marie R. Harvie

Nine stood silently at the open casket and stared at his friend’s body.  He examined the face of the corpse that was heavily made up with mortician’s wax and coloring to make it look alive.  Nine let out a short huff – it never worked.  When your soul leaves, you’re just an empty shell.

He stared at Arion hard, still not believing that the lifeless form before him was once his adventure-loving friend.  A voice in his head asked, “How could this happen?  He was one of the best.”

Nine let out an angry breath and answered his own question out loud.  “War happened.”

Arion’s body was dressed in a black Special Forces dress uniform signifying Federation Defense Forces, the same Nine wore.  His lifeless, white-gloved hands clutched a Federation Chain of Life flag, as was tradition when burying a soldier killed in action.

Just a week before,  Arion’s team was called out on a mission to evacuate scientists off of a planet that had been invaded by the Wardon Empire.  All of the scientists made it out, but three of the five soldiers that made up Omega Force didn’t make it.  The other two were seriously injured in the battle.

After a Special Forces soldier dies, they are never left alone – that’s the code of the Special Forces teams.  A teammate or family member stays with them until they go to Warrior’s Hill for burial.  Arion’s only family was his team, and two of them joined him in the hereafter.  The other two teammates were in the hospital.  Nine volunteered  to stand guard.

Even with the truth lying before him, Nine secretly hoped that his friend would get up.  His common sense knew it wouldn’t happen, but still he wished it.  He never wished for anything so badly in his young life.  He knew he and Arion would never speak again.  No more battle tales and adventures.  No more fighting side by side.  No more anything.

Finally, nearing the end of his lonely vigil in the funeral chamber, Nine spoke to his friend.  “I’m so sorry.  I don’t know what to say.  There are so many things going through my mind right now.  I don’t want to believe it, but here you are.”

Nine stared at his friend, not really expecting an answer.  His face turned red and distorted into an angry expression.  “I’m so pissed right now I can’t even tell you!  I just want to hit something!”  he said through gritted teeth.

He was careful not to make too much noise so that others would not come in to see what was wrong.  This was his time with Arion.  No one else was allowed.  His white-gloved hands balled up into fists.  He lifted them up and slammed them back down to his sides.  “I hate this.  I really hate this, Man!  Not you.  I never thought they could get you.”

Nine’s heart raced from the emotions flooding through him.  He paced from one end of the coffin to the other.  His breath quickened and he paced in an effort to relieve his uncontrollable frustration.

After a few minutes, he stepped back to his position by his friend’s head. Tears welled up in Nine’s brown eyes.  “I’m going to miss you so much, Arion.  I’m going to miss going to Sully’s with you and talking about our missions.  Bragging about how we outsmarted Tozar and his idiot army.”

Tears rolled down his cheeks.  “I guess you couldn’t outsmart them this time.”

As Nine wiped away the tears from his face, he became angry at the smell of the bouquets of flowers that filled the room.  “Man, it’s a good thing you can’t smell all these stupid flowers.  You’d gag.  It smells like a funeral.”

Nine let out a short laugh.  “Well, I guess it is.  But you’d hate it trust me.  It’s suffocating.”

More tears welled up in his eyes.  “I can’t believe it’s over.  I mean, this is it.  I’ll miss your advice, Arion.  I’m sorry I’m making this about me, but I’m really going to miss you.  What I wouldn’t give to hear you laugh at me just one last time.”

Nine once again wiped away tears from his reddening eyes and turned his head sadly towards the door.  “They’ll be coming for you soon and then we won’t even have this.  I mean, this sucks, but soon there won’t be anything.”

Nine turned back to his friend and lowered his head.  “You successfully completed your mission, you know.  All those scientists are all okay.”

Nine cleared his throat.  “Sammi and Frankie didn’t make it, but you probably already know that.  Neptune is standing with Sammi.  Neptune always liked her.  Star is standing with your commander.  She’ll take good care of him until it’s time to go.”

Nine pulled on his dress jacket to straighten it and adjusted his hat.  He swiped at his eyes once more and held his head up.  “I have to look presentable when they come for you.  We can’t let them know we’ve been carrying on in here.  All of this right here, this will be our one last secret.  Never show your emotions, right?  Always look brave.”

Nine reached into the coffin and squeezed Arion’s cold, hard arm.  “And you were brave, Man.  They said you gave it your all.  You were the best of the best and I’m so honored that we were friends.  I love you, Man.  You’re a hero and I’m proud of you.”

Just then there was a knock at the door.  Nine gave no response.  He straightened his posture and put his hands behind his back as the door opened.  Two morticians, General James Hunter, General Matthew Stewart and the head of Federation Defense, Mr. Richard Sanderson entered the room.  “Major, it’s time,” said General Stewart.

Nine could feel Mr. Sanderson’s eyes on him, but he did not look back.  He nodded, gazed at his friend’s soulless face one last time and stepped back to allow the morticians to close the coffin.

Nine felt a lump in his throat when he heard the slight creak of the lid and the small click when it locked into place.  He watched stone-faced as the two generals draped another flag on top of the coffin as Mr. Sanderson looked on.  Nine  took his place at the back of the coffin and walked with his friend one last time into the ceremonial chamber.



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