We toast in silence. It’s symbolic, the water—no whisky here. Once released, it will float in perfect spheres before our mouths can swallow. Such things made us laugh, in the beginning. But tonight the mood is somber.
We gathered without premeditation, coming upon each other in the aft viewing alcove, squeezing in, no words required. A shared vigil.
There should have been five of us. In the reflected light of incalculable stars I imagine her ghost, smiling. I raise a refreshment pouch to her memory. It isn’t enough.
“So long, Jeanne Rousseau,” I whisper. The others mirror me.
Though it’s been weeks, the launch seems years ago; the memory far too loud. Now, as we manoeuvre to leave Earth behind for good, I can’t help picturing the smiling faces back there, proud and self-assured, confident of our success. Families with glistening cheeks, waving shakily on video received when we’d already passed the point of no return. Bright farewells we sent them, too, no hint of trepidation in our hearts. No time for fear. I told Dad I loved him, promised Rhakisha to name someplace after her. Wriggled my fingers to make my nephew giggle. Shared my hopes and dreams.
Everything was so exciting, in the beginning.
I wonder what Jeanne said to her family. What the Team said to them, when she didn’t make it past Mars. Were they glad, knowing she made it as far as she did? Was at least a comfort or a condescension?
It’s been weeks. The Pioneer’s freezer wasn’t built for humans, but the decision was unanimous. We waited. Tonight, Earth sits tiny in the window. Framed by nothing, the matter of our universe. Blue and minuscule from here, catching the light of the sun, itself almost green. Sometimes I dream of warm afternoons spent in its yellow rays I know I’ll not experience again.
What did Jeanne dream of? The dust of a distant planet in her fingers? The light of another’s moon? We found her paintings, after; her use of colour delicate, exquisite. She’d have been the best of us. Someone to bring us through dark times with more than engineering, science, maths. She could make a bubble beautiful.
If only her heart hadn’t had one.
The Pioneer shifts with a whir and hum. Air vibrates, and I imagine the ship is singing her own farewell. Her bay is loaded with a parcel no one thought we’d have to make—not so soon, not out here, anyway. I watch as the commander turns his back on our pale blue dot; gulps his water; pulls away. He volunteered to do the deed. I’m glad it isn’t me. The other two drink and leave as well.
I stay and strain my eyes until our planet fades from view. We are on our own now. In the beyond. Her goal.
When the airlock alarm sounds, I take my mouthful of water. “Here’s to you, Jeanne Rousseau. You made it.”
I hope we make it too.
And Beyond was written originally for the August 2021 Furious Fiction competition. Thanks for reading. 🙂