It was time to go.
Erica stood on a steel platform, staring up at the ship. It was massive. She somehow hadn't expected it to be so huge. The hull was a complex mix of plastic with metal with a special silicone-rubber thread. This close, it had a texture, a little bit hessian, a little bit painted sand. But it still shone, the smoothed edges caught all the lights, maintained a polished, bright-white gleam. They were so smooth and curvy it was easy to imagine them being more beast than machine. And that great, white hatch, with its red lighting, which could so easily be a mouth. It was swallowing Sean up and it was swallowing him for good.
It was almost impossible for it to really sink in. This was the last time she'd see him. Ever. He'd step aboard that ship. They'd drug him, they'd seal him in his capsule, and they'd point him into the sky. He'd fly like a missile. And sometime over the course of his flight she would grow old and die. They'd never say a word to each other again. Not unless the scientists on board found something incredible, something that would turn them around....
And what hope of that?
“Oh, Sean.” She'd been determined to not shed a tear, to not make this harder for either of them than it had to be. But now she was throwing herself into his arms, her face was wet, and her heart was breaking.
“I'm sorry,” he whispered, his voice broke, he abandoned the no-tears policy. There was just no help for it.
“No. No, I'm glad for you. I swear it.”
“You're incredible. You're one in billions.”
Her stomach fluttered. That slice of guilt cut through her mind again. What if she should have told him? What if that was enough to make him change his mind? But that was the very reason she couldn't. Because he had to go. It was the last and best thing she could give him – this tough love, her insistence that he did go, that he grab this chance at living, that he carry the memory of both of them into the stars with him.
Sean leaned back, he cupped her cheeks in his hands. He stared into her eyes. She was puzzled by the new shades she thought she saw in them, by all the little details she had never noticed, and would now never have the chance to notice again.
“I love you so much,” he said.
“I know. Me too. Me too.”
“And I'll never forget you.”
“I'll never stop thinking about you.”
“Yes, I know you won't. I know.”
“But I don't have to. Erica, I could tell them I no longer want to...”
She'd been prepared for this. She'd been prepared to slap his face if she had to. To tell him that she hated him, and she wanted him to get on the ship and go, just so she could be rid of him. She'd rehearsed that in her mind, steeling herself to do it. Her voice shrank away from her. “Sean...”
She shook her head. “I couldn't live with it. I couldn't live with you, knowing...”
She stood on the platform, watched him walking in with the other fortunate few. He fell neatly into line, dressed whitely like the ships were, looking neat, looking already far away. They were a little bit like robots, moving in a smooth line, each of them giving their wrist to a stone-faced official, each one tested and double-tested, each one chipped, ticked off, sent inside to their assigned place. It was a strange, plastic process, so devoid of emotion, so stripped of humanity. Such a contrast to all the raw feeling cascading through relatives like her, to the other sobbing, desperate figures who stood all around her, seeing off some loved one or other. Grieving. Jealous. Bitter. Brave. Glad. There was all of them, standing around her, growing here in the metal like odd, fleshy weeds.
And in the meantime the soft-red mouth gaped open, admitting them all.
When it was satiated it closed slowly, leaving a white monolith – staggered in a line with others of its kin. Each one was bright, hulking, whale-like. Erica waved to Sean, knowing he wouldn't see her. And it felt so stupidly ordinary. Like waving to a plane as a friend flew off on a two-week holiday. And this was nothing like that. Forever, forever, forever. It was still not really possible to picture the rest of her life without Sean in it.
She was doing the right thing, she reminded herself, she was saving his life.
In front of her, the white beasts stirred, one by one they breathed blue fire beneath their feet. One by one they lifted off into a murky sky.