The Warm Heart (Part 2 of 2)
On the horizon there was light. Movement. It was enough to rouse Rocko from a half doze. Toni didn’t have any sleep in her. She audited the horizon, hoping for something –what kind of something - its form – her imagination left open.
Rocko rolled to a sitting position. “What’s that?”
Her withering look was partway lost beneath the cover of her helmet.
“Just some atmospheric lights?”
“Something like that.”
He said: “You know, if the air was breathable and the ground wasn’t ice, I’d have you out of that suit and we’d be doing it. You and me. Just like I always dreamed about.”
“Are you on something?”
“Just being realistic.”
“What makes you think I’d be up for that?”
“Well, at least I’d kiss you.”
She turned back to the horizon – to green and gold flashes of light against an impenetrable blackness. Soft waves of the same colour, fluttered and fading. “Storm maybe?”
“Maybe. I would kiss you.”
“You’re mad. We’ve had over a year, up there, on the ship.” She could gesture, but she wasn’t quite sure where.
“On the ship’s different. Out here, there’s just you and me and emptiness and death. So there. I’d want to kiss you. I’d want your warmth. So sue me.”
Toni felt her eyes sting. “Well, there’s no lawyers anymore, are there?”
She remembered saying goodbye to Mariel, her daughter.
“I’ll come back for you. We’ll come back and take you somewhere where things still grow. Like I showed you in those pictures.”
“No you won’t,” she was seven and she was twenty-seven, these past six months having scratched and clawed so much of the childhood out of her.
“Don’t say such a thing. I’m going because of you, so I can bring you back a new world. Now you just need to stay strong for me. Keep faith. Can you do that?”
The girl nodded reluctantly.
“And be good to your grandma. Do as she tells you.”
“And look at my photo every night before you go to sleep. Just the same as I’ll look at yours.”
She did. Every night. But what were the chances Mariel had survived for this long? What were the chances she would still be there to come home to?
And she’d wake up from that nightmare, into this other one: dark, cold, desperate; fighting for breath and silence, not wanting Rocko to know.
They moved on.
She told Rocko about 72 hours.
“Not a good sign.”
“There’ve been no good signs.”
“So what? Are we just marking time?”
She swallowed a sigh, she swallowed sharp words. “Well, you’re still walking, aren’t you? Forward?”
Rocko would have shrugged – she thought – if his suit allowed for it. And maybe he did inside that voluminous plastic-fibreglass weave. “Which way is forward?”
Toni didn’t answer. She scanned the ground. She compared the ground level scans with what had come from the ship’s scanners. They matched up. Bleakly. The finer detail of the same grim news, the magnification of dashed hopes.
“What do you think it was like here once?”
“No. Rocko. Look.”
She bounced him the feed.
“Are you sure?”
“See for yourself.”
“I’m not imagining it am I?”
“We need to call this in.”
“Not yet. Let’s get closer. Let’s get a proper look. We could be misreading… there could be something else…” He wasn’t going to grasp hope until it sat smiling in his hands.
And she got that. She’d had her fill of disappointment too. There’s only so many times you can be raised high and then dashed against the ground. Only so many times that can happen before it takes something permanently out of you.
But the scanner showed what it showed. Just beyond a clump of iced-over hillocks, a plain of pale ochre, blushing white across the screen, a gem set in darkness. This was something. Toni started up the hill with Rocko beside her. A part of her wanted to reach out and take his hand. A part didn’t dare breath.
Standing on the little ridge she looked down at a basin. This had been a crater once, with most of it’s edges eroded away. And the centre was sunken, warped a little bit, rippled. As if something had reached up from beneath, maybe something with heat and breath. She adjusted the scanner, noting a spike in temperature. The ship’s scanners weren’t spotting this?
“We need to call it in.”
“In a minute.”
“Rocko. Look. We’re sure.”
“I’m getting a closer reading. And a sample, why not?”
“Never,” she murmured.
Rocko ran forward, dropping to his knee where the rock was smooth and glassy, where it looked as if it had melted and set again, distorted by what surely had to have been a fierce, fuelling heat. They couldn’t settle here, that much was long decided, but they might find fuel down here – natural gasses, flowing lava – that could spur the engines sufficiently to push them into space again. Enough…?
Rocko called back: “I can feel it! I can actually feel it! Come here!”
She would have. She almost did. She was ready to leap over the last little rock and come hurtling down to him. She would have. But she saw the cracks. They flowed out quickly from beneath Rocko’s feet. Far more quickly that she could have ever given credit to. They raced. They were like molten gold, like fork lightning, and they swam the basin in only a few seconds. She was lucky not to be able to see Rocko’s face clearly inside the helmet, not to be able to see the moment when his expression changed. The moment when he knew. She only had just enough time to scream his name, to see his head tilted to look at her, realising, thinking… how could she know what?
And then the ground gave way beneath him. It crumbled like eggshells – it might have been that thin – and the light beneath it swallowed him. There was no time for him to release a tether, or time for him to activate a burst of propulsion – even if it could have gotten him far enough. He was Rocko for a second, then a clumsy silhouette, and then the light washed over him.
Silence came after that.
It was unknown minutes before she could move, before she could go there and look over the edge. She was getting messages now on her feed – Rocko’s life signs gone dead, his locater beacon burned up. They wanted to know what had happened. But I don’t know. I don’t know. And she dropped to her knees, leaning over what seemed as a pool of concentrated moonlight.
It wasn’t as deep as the scans suggested, not as deep as she’d thought. Deep enough to extinguish any hope, but brutally shallow enough to let her see the shape of him, starfished on sandy ground, swarming with soft yellow light. A warm gas that fluttered against her helmet. Glorious at first discovery, and now it was stained in blood. I could have kissed him, I could have given him a night or two, while we had the chance. I could have given him that.
He’d fallen on his back, so she could see the glint of his face-plate. She could see already that he wasn’t in there, even as she watched the suit sag and flatten, she could see the emptiness inside the helmet, the light swarming where no face, no skull, no trace of him now lingered.
From above the clouds: Toni. Toni. You need to respond.
But she couldn’t yet. And that was unprofessional, and probably worthy of a write-up in the discipline logs. As if it could matter. Right at this moment when everything was just beginning to matter again. But it was later, a half arc of a foreign sun, before she could bring herself to call it in.
You wake. And at first you don’t remember. This: light. A power of brightness that exists all around you. Light that is you. You think you remember a name – was it Rombo? Rocky? Rocko? Ricky? It doesn’t matter. That much is gone. Burned away. What you feel is that you could fly. You feel warm currents wrapped around absent limbs. The air is thick with fibres. These sounds: the beating of a half-dozen hearts; the whisper of a breeze exploring an infinity of complex stone formations; the ancient, endless rolling and grating of the deeper stone, of the slowly thawing ice floes.
There was a gem embedded in the sky, clean-white, clean-edged, but having drifted away now. Only the clouds. The peeking of stars. And a face – a woman: coffee-haired, with dark eyes, with freckles, a strong chin that you loved, even as she considered it her worst feature. A wish. A want. You remember that. But the face fades away from you, it dissolves as you try to keep it from fading.
There is only the light. And all of you – so many millions – are light.
Picture credit/discredit: author's own work