I could hear Haowey breathing around me, feel the flesh of her port side pulse beneath my hand. Staring through the portal in the front of her command deck, the surface of Mars rolled past beneath us – red sands, green forests, the lilac of shallow seas. Together we sang the Song of Renewal, my voice a tiny fragment of Haowey’s sonorous, wordless boom, a voice from the whales that lay far back in my starship’s genetic past. Our hearts beat together, our voices rose together, and together we watched the sun sink toward the horizon, a bright disk of hope against the void of space.
If I could have been anywhere else, I would have been. I was weary to the bone. The war might not have battered my body as it had Haowey’s, but my soul was soiled with the horrors I had seen. Now it was over, I wanted solid ground beneath my feet. No more stars. No more darkness. No more reminders of what we had seen and done.
But this was Haowey’s last wish. How could I refuse her that?
She shuddered, the deck lurching beneath my feet. Her voice trembled, fading almost to nothing. I kept the song going for her, but a blackness was descending upon me.
Perhaps what I needed was not ground beneath my feet. Perhaps what I needed was the same fate now claiming Haowey – an end to all of this. All the guilt, all the grief, all the memories.
Looking at the helmet hanging from my belt, I wondered if I would have the will to don it when the time came.
I had always assumed that life still lay ahead of me, if I made it through the war. Yet I faced a choice.
The sun touched the horizon. Bright beams scattered across the upper atmosphere. I thought that Haowey fell silent in appreciation of the sight, as she had above the many other planets she had carried me to. But the deck shuddered again, and a rattle like the falling of skulls filled the command deck.
Haowey’s final breath.
Tears ran down my cheeks.
I knew enough ship biology to know that she still lived. I had ten minutes before the final spark would fade from her synapses; before the muscles of airlocks and cargo doors would lose their strength, voiding the atmosphere and me with it.
I welcomed it. My closest companion was dying around me. I had fulfilled my duty, and wished only for peace. What better way to find that than together?
The sun was halfway below the horizon as I unbuckled my helmet and cast it aside. My view through the portal blurred, and I tried to wipe the tears from my eyes, only to realise that I was cried dry. It was not my tears that broke the last light of day into flared fragments.
Haowey was weeping.
“It’s OK.” I patted the tender spot where the portal joined her wall. “You’ll be at rest soon. We both will.”
Her eyes still ran. With the last morsel of air in her vocal chamber, she sang the ending verse of the Song of Renewal. Though her rendition was wordless, still the lyrics echoed in my mind.
“Live on, my love. A new dawn awaits us.”
“I can’t,” I whispered. “There is too much darkness. How can I face that?”
Haowey was silent, her flesh cold and still. The final line of the Song came unbidden to me, one last message from a dying friend.
“Live on for me.”
A breeze stirred the command deck. The first of the air locks had opened. Haowey was venting.
Not Haowey. Haowey’s corpse.
With a lump in my throat, I picked up my helmet and stared at my reflection in the visor, a pale, distorted image of human being. The breeze became a gust, became a storm, became a gale that snatched at my spacesuit and hurled me from my feet.
I kissed the deck, one last tear running from dry eyes, and pulled the helmet on. The fleeing atmosphere snatched me up and hurled me into space.
In the distance, a retrieval ship appeared over the horizon, as the last crescent of sunlight disappeared.
* * *