Better to Burn

Author: Beck Dacus

He lowered the faceplate of his emergency spacesuit’s helmet, sealing it under his chin. In his ear, a voice suddenly said, “Hello, Commander. I’ve set your suit to play this recording approximately when you’ve crossed the event horizon of your life.”
He froze in the middle of the hallway, startled. The tremor of a distant explosion brought him back to the present. He followed the signs on the walls at a sprint.
“You don’t know me. I’m one– no. I was one of many engineers that worked on your ship. In particular, I was among the POWs you forced into cooperation with your killing. Keeping the village-burning hawkships and planet-killing battlecruisers in ‘ship-shape.’”
There it was: the airlock. His fingers punched in the code on muscle memory, opening the internal door, which automatically sealed behind him. He broke a glass compartment on the wall and hammered the external vent button, quickly pumping the airlock’s atmosphere outside rather than into the ship’s reserve tanks.
“As much as I hate this life, I wish you had given my family the same chance you gave me. Children can be surprisingly resilient, and they would have given me a reason other than the tardy alarm to get up in the morning.”
After an eternity, the external door opened; on the other side was the curved limb of the planet below, shining in reflected sunlight against the inky sky. Tongues of translucent red flickered across the threshold– the ship was entering atmosphere. He activated the flickering Mach shield on his forearm, held it in front of him, and jumped.
“You might be wondering what I mean by ‘event horizon of your life.’ I did some back-of-the-envelope calculations on this ship’s antimatter reactor, as well as a little research into the specs of your jetpack. There is a certain point where no amount of thrust it can give you will let you escape the detonation of the Pax Romana’s reactor; if I got the numbers right, you’re well past it.”
Once his freefall stabilized, he engaged the airbreathing turbine mounted to his back, putting as much distance between himself and the ship as possible. The Pax fell like a stone, nosing into the thick air, seeking the alien surface.
“The explosion will take out this hemisphere of the planet, along with you. Even if flying supersonic with your Mach shield behind you, protecting you from the blast rather than the wind, didn’t tear you apart, its power cells would explode trying to shed the energy it was absorbing. And the shield is transparent to gamma radiation anyway.
“I want you to know what it was like, Commander. I want you to feel what my children felt, waiting to go in front of the firing squad. I want to give you time to think about how you die. No jetpack malfunction, no early reactor breach, no suit leak. I want you to know that, even though you still have all your toys and your tricks, you’re a mortal like the rest of us. Your flesh is made of carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen.
“And in the fire, it will burn.”
Through his Mach shield, he could see the sun setting upon the curve of this world. He sighed, turning off his turbine, then his shield. He let himself fall.
The Pax touched down, a new sunrise igniting this planet between one instant and the next. But not fast enough.
The darkness took him first.

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