Max poured himself a drink, hearing it splash softly in the quiet of his quarters. He brought it to his lips and swallowed it in a single fiery gulp. The first glass always burned. It also numbed his throat, making the successive glasses easier.
He wished it would numb his heart.
Setting the empty glass back on the desk, he sat back, feeling the weight of his years settling uneasily on his broad shoulders. Upon his desk sat a carved wooden box. Inside that box was Max Eilerson's best kept secret. The one thing that no one knew about.
Cynthia knew. Cynthia was the only other soul in the universe to know about Annabelle. They had vowed never to speak of it to anyone - including each other.
Max had kept that vow. Even though more than once it had nearly killed him inside, he'd kept it.
He hadn't promised to forget her. And he hadn't forgotten.
Steeling himself, he undid the latch with trembling fingers, wishing the whiskey would work faster. It always calmed him on this night - the whiskey. At first, he'd needed half a bottle to get through what he was about to do. As the years had passed, the pain had faded. But the memories were as vivid as ever. He still wasn't able to get through it without some form of fortification.
The tiny hinges creaked, nearly echoing in the heavy silence. Inside the box were the remnants of a life barely lived. A photograph in a small silver frame; a lock of fine golden hair; a pressed and dried flower, its blue faded over the years to a smoky grey.
Picking up the hair, his heart ached as he held it in his hand. Feeling the silken strands against his skin, he closed his eyes and remembered.
Max was pacing the room. It was too small. He'd been pacing for two hours while Cynthia was in there -- in pain. He wished for the thousandth time that she had let him be with her. She claimed she preferred it this way, she didn't want him to see what she was going through. Max sighed, he should be in there, holding her hand ... He tried sitting, but found he was too full of nervous energy, and resumed pacing. He cursed his wife's desire for surprise as well -- she hadn't wanted to find out the baby's sex, claiming she knew it was going to be a girl.
"Mister Eilerson?" A young woman called his name, making him nearly jump out of his skin.
"Yes?!" He virtually ran over to her. "How is Cynthia? Is she okay? How's-"
"Mister Eilerson, please, come with me, your wife is fine ..."
The nurse led him down the hall to a room, letting him enter alone.
Cynthia lay on a white bed, a small bundle cradled in her arms. He approached slowly, unsure, even after all this time.
"Come closer Max ... She won't bite." Cynthia smiled at him, her eyes sparkling with life.
"She? I- Sh- ... W-we have a daughter?" He went to his wife's side, gazing down at the tiny life in her arms.
"Mm-hmm ... I'd like to name her Annabelle ..." She smiled up at him.
Max whispered the name, reverently. "Hi, Annabelle." Slowly, he reached out touch her, his fingers caressing a curl of blonde hair.
"That's your daddy ..." Cynthia said to the baby.
It was the most beautiful sound Max had ever heard.
Holding the lock of hair, Max poured another glass of whiskey and swallowed it, feeling the alcohol beginning to warm his stomach. Annabelle had been their only child. Max had always longed for more -- he didn't want his child to be an only child as he had been. Cynthia hadn't wanted any more. Truth be told, she hadn't completely wanted Annabelle, but because she loved Max, she was willing to give him one child. She still loved her daughter with all her heart, but she'd always been Max's child.
Reverently, as though observing an age old ritual, he set the hair aside, reaching for the flower. Annabelle had been four at the time.
They were on an Earthlike planet, Norvid 7, working on a dig. Annabelle had clearly inherited her father's linguistic skill, and often accompanied her parents to the dig site, providing she was well behaved.
Max had been translating the same slab of stone for three hours when he realized his daughter wasn't beside him.
Standing, he dusted his hands off. "Annabelle!" He called, looking around for her.
When she didn't answer immediately, he began to worry. Max asked the person nearest him if he'd seen her. They remembered seeing her going to the south, towards a grove.
Fearful for his daughter's safety, he ran towards the stand of trees, calling her name. At last he saw her, sitting at the base of a tree.
Running to her side, he knelt. "Annabelle, why did you leave the dig? You know the rules." Max spoke more out of worry than anger.
"I found this for you Daddy." She held out her tiny hand, her fingers holding the stem of a delicate flower. The petals were a deep blue, matching the girl's eyes.
"Oh sweetheart, thank you. It's beautiful." He sat beside her, pulling the girl into his lap. "Honey, don't ever leave the dig like that again, okay? It scares me and mommy when we don't know where you are. You could get hurt."
She turned to smile up at him, warming his heart like nothing else ever could. "Okay daddy." She lay her head against his chest, curling up against him and falling asleep.
Max gazed down at her, part of him still not believing that this darling little girl was his. His and Cynthia's. He looked at the small blue flower still clutched in her tiny hand.
A single tear glistened on Max's cheek, unnoticeable in the darkness of the room. A third glass of whiskey, and he set the flower aside, very carefully.
The final item in the box was always the hardest.
Lifting the antique sliver frame, he choked back a sob as his daughter gazed back from the photograph. Her hair was long, curly, and dark blonde, just like his. Her eyes also came from her father - a pale slate blue that seemed to see straight through a person and into their soul.
She was eight when it happened. Max and Cynthia had taken Annabelle on a picnic during a day off the excavation on Locknar 6. Cynthia was leaning against a large boulder, Max's head resting in her lap. They watched Annabelle playing in the grass with Mr. Kitty. She stopped for a moment, apparently to catch her breath. She started coughing, and couldn't answer when they called to her.
They had rushed her to the nearest hospital, Cynthia driving the groundcar while Max cradled her in his lap, his heart aching with every tremble of her shaking body.
By the time they arrived, the coughing had stopped and Annabelle was out cold. The doctors took her, telling them to wait outside. Max wanted to go with her at first, but Cynthia convinced him that he would be in the way.
As he had eight years earlier, Max paced anxiously. The only difference was that Cynthia was there with him, worrying right by his side. Rather than pacing however, she sat calmly, asking him to please sit down. He tried sitting of course. Holding Cynthia's hand, wrapping an arm around each other for comfort. Soon though, the energy built up and he had to move.
He was pacing when the doctor approached, a somber look on his old-too-young face. "Mr. and Mrs. Eilerson?"
"Yes?" Max stood anxiously, taking Cynthia's hand as she stood beside him. "How's Annabelle?" He asked, fearing the worst.
"Your daughter came in a little over an hour ago suffering from an acute case of Morgenson's Disease. It's an extremely rare disease that strikes children, and only one in a million. We don't know what causes it, or why it strikes when and who it does." He paused for a moment and looked at the worried parents. Max would see that same look on Sarah Chamber's face many years later. "There's no easy way to say this. Morgenson's Disease is also one hundred percent fatal."
"What?! Is she-"
"She's alive, for the moment." The doctor looked downward, running a hand through his hair. "But, you have to understand .. We don't expect her to last much longer. I suggest you come and see her now and ... Make your good-byes."
Max couldn't move. "That's impossible ... Annabelle ... She's fine ... She was just coughing and ..." He didn't seem to understand the full extent of what the doctor had told him.
"Mr. Eilerson ... So little is known about this disease. Your daughter ... She didn't have a chance."
"We'd like to see her now doctor." Cynthia said, holding tight to Max's hand.
"Of course, this way please." They followed him to a room occupied only by a single bed. Annabelle lay on the bed, dwarfed in its enormity. They approached her bedside, hands clasped together in shared anguish.
Annabelle turned her head to face them, her keen eyes seeing more than most. "I'm gonna die, aren't I daddy?" Her voice was so sweet, so innocent. She knew her father wouldn't lie to her.
Max felt a tear roll down his cheek. "Oh sweetie ..." He stroked her hair, remembering doing the same thing over eight years before.
"It's okay daddy ... I know." She smiled then, and it broke their hearts.
"Mommy ... I love you." She held out her arms for a hug. Cynthia bent and held her daughter tightly for a moment. She stood and wiped the tears from her face. Max sat on the edge of the bed and wrapped his arms around her. She wrapped her arms around his neck and held him tightly. "I love you daddy." She whispered.
"I love you too sweetheart." He said, choking as he spoke. Max held her a moment longer, sobbing into her hair. He felt her go limp and her breath stopped tickling his neck.
It was several more minutes until he was able to let her body go.
It wasn't long after that Max turned to his work, excluding all else. His job was the only thing that seemed to mask the pain of loss. Cynthia also withdrew, pursuing her own career. Several months later, she filed for divorce, and he didn't contest it.
When he heard about the Excalibur's mission, he'd volunteered, under the condition that no one ever know he had. The Drakh virus struck a chord inside him, firing a need for revenge against the universe.
Max knew, deep inside, that he wasn't fighting for Earth, or even for humanity.
He was fighting for Annabelle.