The planet shuddered as the moon passed too close. Atmosphere dragged from the turbulent blue planet to the rocky satellite. Tidal tsunamis spread across the oceans and onto the continents.
Bryan spread his fingers against the observation glass. He squinted down at the planet, sussing out the obscured continents, searching for a large bay that might have grainy green beaches. Around him scientists rushed around the deck, shouting numbers and stats and atmospheric pressures. He didn’t listen.
A woman approached and stood at a distance. “Captain.” Her alto voice demanded attention; this was no request.
“Tamara, we’re not Fleet anymore. Just Bryan.” He didn’t move his eyes from the planet below, and his voice was tired.
“Fine, Captain. The scientists say we’re still too close.”
He gave a dry chuckle. “Of course we are.” He kept his hand against the glass but turned to her. “What’s Paul say?”
“He says we should be fine. Maybe. He thinks. His exact words were, ‘You know, if we’re going to die, I guess there are less interesting ways to go.’”
The corner of Bryan’s mouth turned up. “I trust my pilot to know what the boat can do.” He shrugged. “And if we go down? Well, he’s right.” He turned back to watch. No, that bay was too far south. It should be farther north, right? What did she say about the climate? Must be farther away from the equator.
“Captain, I appreciate what you’re going through, but I’d more appreciate not dying today.”
“I need to watch, Tamara. I promised.”
“Captain.” A cold edged her voice.
A flurry of activity from the scientists behind them interrupted. The ship bucked under their feet. The moon swung by outside the window. Bryan could see wisps of atmosphere hugging the barren surface. “It was her home,” he whispered.
“Yes. It was. But now it’s dying. And we don’t have to die with it.”
The scientists’ agitation grew. More shouts. More numbers.
“It’s all I have left of her,” he whispered. Was that the place? There. A dark smudge. Tidal forces pulled the waters back, but maybe that had been a bay before the moon got too close.
“Yes.” Tamara’s voice grew clipped. “You gave up commanding her ship. You gave up your position in her Fleet. And now you think that this is all you have. Captain. You will back us up to safe distance, or I will put you in a lifeboat and send you down there myself.”
“My boat goes where I tell it to go.”
Tamara snatched a metal tool from a nearby table – some gizmo the scientists used – and swung it at his temple. He dropped like a ragdoll. She leaned over to the wall and pressed the intercom. “Paul? Back us up.”
“You knocked him out, didn’t you?” came the staticy reply.
“You know that does brain damage, you do it often enough.”
“He needs to stop making stupid promises.” She clicked off and crouched over Bryan’s form. “All right. You miss her that much? Fine. You can have your last memories of her.”
Bryan awoke twenty minutes later with not the most pleasant of headaches. Also, his back hurt. Also, up seemed to be a number of different directions at any given time. Something blew static in his ear. “When you wake up, press go! When you wake up, press go!” The universe’s most annoying alarm clock, apparently, and Bryan had had a few clocks he had thought were bad.
With difficulty he flung his arm to punch a red button.
Tamara’s no-nonsense voice filled the small space. “Captain, I assume you’ve woken up. You wanted to watch your wife’s planet’s death. Fine. We don’t have to die with it. We put you in a lifeboat and dropped it in the safest orbit the scientists calculated. By the way, they want cheaper fare since we distracted them for a few minutes to figure that out. Thanks for that. But they figure your smaller boat might be able to ride out the gravity waves better than our retired capital ship, anyway. So go mourn and scream and cry or whatever. Assuming you’re alive at the end of it, we’ll pick you up. And if you’re not, well, then you’re where you want to be anyway. See you in a few hours. Or maybe eternity.”
Bryan smiled and clawed his way over to a window in the lifeboat. And there it was. The place his wife grew up, in its death throes. The place where she first smiled, where she first walked, where she first learned about the Creator. The place where she learned to shoot to protect herself when the colony fell apart. The place she was saved from when Bryan brought his ship out here, back when he was still in Fleet.
And now it died, just like she did.
And the moon. It fell from the sky and shattered the sea. The atmosphere boiled. The land broke in deep chasms.
The place where his wife had walked died.
He allowed himself his grief. The little boat hurtled around and around the disintegrating planet, and he wept. Everything that she had been… even her old home, even the land she walked on, gone.
He had nothing to hold on to now.
Nothing except his promises.
Hours later the lifeboat slid into one of the landing bays on Bryan’s boat. When the hatch blew, he clamored out and found Tamara waiting for him. He limped up to her, trying to get circulation back to his leg. And he embraced her. “Thank you,” he whispered.
She stiffened at the contact. “Captain.”
He stepped back. “No. Not anymore. You were right. I’ve made too many boneheaded promises. And I’m going to keep them all. But I don’t need a boat to do it. The scientists – they’re getting dropped off at Backwater Deep, right? Leave me there. Boat’s yours.”
“No, look, you’ll be a better captain anyway. You’re going to have to put up with Paul sassing you, but you sass him right back and you’ll be fine. Also, you might want to fix up the third engine. She likes shaking a bit.”
“I need to go pack. Tamara, you’re in charge.”
He limped back to his cabin. It’d be a few days before they made it back to the Deep, but that was fine. Over the days he laughed with the crew. Got maybe a little too drunk with Paul. Handed over all the secrets to Tamara. She didn’t approve of the contents of cargo bay twelve, but really, who did?
And then they were at the Deep. And Bryan disembarked with a rucksack, a flask, and a book. “All right, dear. I told you I would. And now… Well, I guess it’s time.”
And he limped to the nearest chapel. A man greeted him at the door. “This is a Christian chapel, sir. How may we help you?”
“Yeah? My wife said I needed whatever it is you offer. I promised her I’d finally find out… when I had nothing left. So… I guess… what’ve you got?”