Author: J. Edward Hamilton
Fragments of shattered glass float elegantly before him, and as Cameron imagines the glittering specs are stars in a little microcosm galaxy, he realizes this scene is the last beautiful thing he’ll ever see.
It’s growing warmer now as their ship plummets into a foreign atmosphere. The railgun projectile that tore through their ship had left them in reduced electrical, and for a while, Cameron had been freezing, but no longer. To some extent, the warmth is comforting, but Cameron knows it’s only a sign that death draws near. “But that’s how we live,” he thinks, “knowing we are going to die…”
Cameron sees her in his mind, in alternating scenes. In one, they embrace and he doesn’t hold back like he always does, he holds her with everything he’s got, and she does the same. And he can hear her breath, delicate and fragile, like she might cry, and he can feel her heartbeat against his chest. They are surrounded by people they know, all talking and celebrating around them, but for that one moment, it as though everything else goes quiet, and in the darkness of the world, they are alone.
In the second scene, he leads her outside away from another party, and he tells her everything he felt in the first scene. He tells her how much he’s loved her and for how long. He tells her that she’s the only one he’s ever loved. That he feels it burning inside him. That her smile is the only thing that’s gotten him through each day for the last year. He tells her how smart and talented and brave and funny he thinks she is and how beautiful her eyes are and how he’ll love her forever whether she loves him back or not.
The first scene is a memory. The second is a fantasy.
The ship is vibrating now. He can see it in the walls. Drops of sweat roll down his face. And soon tears join them.
Cameron sticks his hand out and scoops up some of the tiny glass shards so that they pool gently in his palm. “If I could have altered the universe,” he thinks. “I’d have talked to her every day. I’d have seen her smile every day. I’d have never served on an orbital intelligence collection ship with no windows and no contact with the outside world, ultimately sacrificed for the furtherance of some asinine cold war about to go hot. I’d have said the words. I’d have told her…”
His body grows heavy. He pulls himself into a chair and straps in.
They could have surrendered instead. They would have been held captive, maybe tortured. But at least there would have been a chance, however remote, of seeing her again. Of making that second scene come to life. Or at least of sending a message. But it was the captain’s call. Now their ship is burning up in the atmosphere, and everything on board will burn with it. There will be no record left. Not even a scrap of paper.
The air around him feels like it is boiling now. The sound of tearing metal resonates through the hull. He isn’t ready to die. He closes his eyes and sees her smile, and the pain of knowing he’ll never see it again is even worse than the burning sensation he’s about to feel. “But this is how we live each day,” he thinks again. “Knowing we are going to die…” and yet somehow he’s arrived at the end, hounded by regret, consumed by a timeless and horrifying question–what if?