The room was barely lit, other than a large table at its center whose surface shone a light blue hue. This was the same hue that painted the underside of the face belonging to the man leaned over it. He looked up, his features distorted by the shadows. “Come in,” he said in a deep commanding voice. He left the table to walk around it and extend his hand toward Michael. “You must be Captain Rafferty.”
“No one's called me that since I showed up here.” Michael said, taking Stephens' hand and shaking it firmly.
“That's because a lot of these people grew up with your name on their lips. You're as known to them as their siblings. They've lived their lives thinking of you as a prophetic messiah, come to deliver them from this life of brutality and usher in an era of peace, prosperity and renewed justice.” The words cascaded off his tongue like a memorized speech, but Michael caught the suspicion that this man was a natural orator. That fact would help explain his position as a leader in such a desolate time.
Still, the words seared into Michael's mind and the injured self-image that was shriveling beneath his wounded body seemed to shrink a little more at the sound of these expectations. “How could they possibly think I can help them?” he asked, his voice almost cracking with despair.
Stephens smiled in a way that Michael would get to know very well. “You're a legend Michael. The first and only man to travel through the ebb of time. The last few generations have seen all the contents of Pandora's jar, and have been waiting with avidity for the only thing that has not yet found its way out.
“You are that thing Michael. You embody a hope that no other worldly trapping could possibly imbue them with.”
His words were like a battering ram, breaking down what little confidence Michael had left in himself. His eyes watered. His breathing became heavy. “How can I possibly help. Just today one person is dead because of me,” he said, pointing as if to designate the location of the smoldering van across the lake. Tears filled his eyes to the brim. “Another is laying in your infirmary with a hole through her leg and a slim chance at survival. With this track record you're better off putting a bullet through my head and moving on to the next messiah.” He blinked, and the salted droplets trickled down his cheeks. “I didn't come here to save anyone. I don't even know why I came here, I barely know where I came from, let alone anything else.”
Stephens remained silent, listening to every word.
“I'm a wreck. I was a wreck before I got here and that was a time when the world didn't need me at all. The only person who needed me was someone I abandoned. As far as I'm concerned, this world doesn't need me either.”
A hand rested on Michael's shoulder and he was surprised to discover it belonged to John whose face was as stern as ever, yet tempered by a softness in his ocean colored eyes that Michael had not yet witnessed. Michael's breathing calmed. He felt a sudden stab of inadequacy and selfishness that tore a whole new crevice in his being. There stood a man behind him who lived through hell, who fought for every single moment of his existence with tooth and nail, while Michael grew up in the relative lap of luxury; not a care in his world but the worry of a scratched knee or bad grades in school. As he looked into John's eyes, he heard a little voice, as though the message between their stare was “Buck up,” in a familiar, almost brotherly manner.