Tales From The Void Contest
Word Count: 4,185
Summary: I still call this moment dawn, even though it's not the sun that rises.
Disclaimer: Twilight belongs to Stephenie Meyer. I'm also indebted to Tom Godwin's "The Cold Equations" for the 'weighty' problems of this premise.
I've never seen Earth. Never felt grass or paddled through water. No living human has. What I know of that planet comes from ancient films and novels. Earth only lives on as the Eden of our fairytales.
It was our homeland for millennia, and we destroyed it.
Every morning, I stand and face the direction of my species' birthplace. I still call this moment dawn, even though it's not the sun that rises.
As Vega's rays flare outside my window, I press my hand to the glass, splaying my fingers so that the blinding white and amber rays cut through the gaps.
Hands snake their way up my back and over my shoulders. Lips press against the nape of my neck. "Come back to bed." Hot breath against my skin.
My hand squeaks slowly down the glass before I let it fall away. I retreat from the window, following her back into the tangle of sheets. She smells of fruit trees and pine, crisp leaves piled on the ground. Or perhaps it would be better to say her scent is what I think of when I imagine those things.
She is my home planet, and her gravity draws me, makes me orbit. I bury myself within her in every way—body, mind, my hands in the volume of her hair. When I move, time seems to shudder through me. It has always been this way with her—seconds last for years. But it's different now. Maybe it's because I know this is the last time we'll be together. I'm leaving today, and no one who leaves Echo IV station comes back.
I try to cocoon her body with my limbs, as if to cage her somehow, like a butterfly trapped between my palms. When I was a boy, I used to ask my father to get me a butterfly—an impossible creature from my books. If I had been wiser then, I would have asked my father for nothing more than himself. Like many men, he died young.
A long, unsteady breath escapes me.
"Let me come with you," she whispers, nestling close to me. "I'm not afraid."
"Then take me. Please, Edward. I can't be here alone."
I had hoped she was convinced by now, that we could part in peace. I see now that our final minutes together will not be serene. I shake my head, already feeling the dampness of her tears against my chest. Volterra isn't a place for love, or for lovely women. It's a place human beings go to die before their time in desperate warfare, and I would never ask for her downfall. She knows all of this. Now, she's just grasping recklessly.
"The law says I can come with you," she pleads. "I can be with you. Support you."
She presses herself against me, proving her resolve with the firmness of her grasp. Everything about her is temptation. She has offered me a shred of paradise in the final countdown of my life. For a few ticks of the clock, I can't find the strength to deny her. But Vega's light suddenly gleams in her eyes and reminds me of the beauty there, within this wonderful creature. I won't let her suffer on my account.
It takes all the determination I possess to roll away from her.
It's a long time before she speaks again, or maybe it's only seconds. "I know why you're doing this. You want to protect me."
I don't reply.
"If not for us, then for my father. Let me come for my dad." She sniffs, and I know she's crying harder. I want to turn and hold her, tell her everything will be fine, but I know it's better if I don't. "My dad's sick from the radiation, Edward. This is the only way I'll be able to see him before… before…"
I speak into the void of my room. "Don't resign yourself to the fate of a soldier's companion, Bella. Nothing good will come of it."
She reaches for my arm and tries to pull me back to her, but I refuse to move. "This is my choice. And I choose to stay with you."
I brace myself. I had hoped it wouldn't come to this, that she would see reason in the end. But I know her inner strength, and now I know what it'll take to make her stay. "That choice isn't good for you."
"I don't care."
"And it's not good for me." I shove the blasphemous words from my lungs, and they hang hostile in the air.
Her reply is hardly more than a ragged breath. "What?"
I can't bear this, not while I'm next to her, where I can still feel her warmth and her pulse, proof of the heart I'm about to break. So I rise from the bed and turn to face her, where she's curled up and uncharacteristically feeble. I say the words I need to say.
"Bella, don't you get it? I don't want you to come."
I find my clothing and hastily dress myself before I can let the truth seep through my eyes. If she sees my face, she'll know I'm lying, and that potential is far too attractive right now.
Yet I never look back at her. I only shove the heel of my hand against the button beside the door and exit as soon as it glides open. As I leave Bella Swan behind, the hydraulic hiss of the closing door drowns out her sobs.
Hours later, I sit alone at the controls of the tiny transport pod that will take me to Volterra. I try to focus on that planet, which circles Vega like a film negative of Paradise. It's all rock and dust, and wind gusts polluted with radiation. It's rough and unwelcoming—the antithesis of the woman I left behind.
Volterra is no Eden, but it has enough oxygen and ice to support what's left of the human race. For that reason, our people have been fighting for generations to steal a world that isn't ours. Since before I was born, we've been trapped in a deadlocked battle with the native Volturi—aliens if you want to call them that. To us, they look like strange, crystalline insects, hardly capable of waging war. But they thrive in an environment that wears us down, and killing humans is hardly an exertion. They're ungodly fast and nearly indestructible. Most men who are called to fight on Volterra don't live to see the next season.
I should have rested last night, but I don't regret those precious moments with Bella, even if our final exchange of words was the biggest lie of my life.
My sorrow hangs visibly in my red, dark-circled eyes. She'll always believe I didn't want her, even long after I've died in battle. For a moment, I think about the other man she'll eventually find—one who won't have to leave her. Something painful strikes my heart, and I'm not sure if it's guilt or jealousy.
I try to escape the feeling by moving. Gingerly, I lower the transport's throttle, taking in a sharp breath as the acceleration presses me into my seat. The journey will only last a few hours at this speed, and for that, I'm thankful.
As I pass through the dark emptiness between Echo IV and the planet below Vega, my mind drifts nebulously from one thought to the next. Yet no matter which subject or memory I traverse, Bella follows.
I think of Earth, of the beach I saw in a film years ago. The waves lap steadily with a pulse of their own. It's dark and I'm barefoot, sand filling the gaps between my toes. I wonder how it would feel to really touch that sand or wade in salty water. The speculation, as usual, leads me to think of her, and in my mind's eye, she joins me on the shore. I imagine how her hair would flutter in the breeze. An unstable laugh escapes me at the thought; I know I'll never see her again, except in my dreams.
I shake my head vigorously to escape my impossible fantasy and fixate instead on the control panel. The transport's autopilot does most of the work for me, but I can at least distract myself with system checks.
After flipping a few switches, I watch the display pulse its familiar succession of green lights. The computer pings in affirmation each time—all electronics functional, external thrusters intact, oxygen levels stable.
And then I flick the last switch.
The control panel blazes red and the alarm screeches through the tiny cockpit. Fear instantly seizes me, stopping my breath and, by the feel of it, my heart as well. This is impossible. The readings must be wrong. As the alarm blares shrilly, I flip the switch back and forth, first slowly and then so frenetically that I'm in danger of breaking it off. But no matter what I do, the computer tells me the same thing.
I don't have enough fuel.
This is supposed to be impossible. Fuel is so scarce that the port guards always measure it precisely. The computers on Echo IV are accurate to eight significant figures, and they can judge exactly the amount of propellant needed to reach Volterra. Distance, weight—they take everything into consideration. There is even a small fuel reserve for unforeseeable events, but the harsh blare of the alarm tells me even that won't be enough to secure my passage.
I flip off the alarm with quaking fingers. How could there be an error? I'm not even carrying cargo, just me and this miniscule pod. I don't know how this happened, but I do know that my transport ship is somehow unable to take me all the way to Volterra. The fuel will run out before I enter the atmosphere. In the lightless void of space, my oxygen will trickle thin and I'll perish before I even step foot onto the craggy planet below.
Yet no matter how attracted I am to negative speculation, I'm not ready to surrender. Possibly this problem can be solved. Maybe there's a kink in the fuel line. I calm myself with the thought that some errant piece of cargo could have been placed in the hold. It would only take something small to alter the weight and drag, to unbalance the vital equations. The backup fuel reserve gives me about an hour to investigate; anything beyond that and my fate will be locked.
So I drag myself up from the smooth console and force my shaking legs toward the hold. If it's cargo, all I'll need to do is open the airlock and let it fly off into the darkness. A simple fix.
My boots clink along the metal grate that leads to the small hold. It's so quiet here that every noise resounds explosively—my footsteps, my heartbeat, my breath. I can practically hear the sweat dripping from my forehead. When I reach the door to the hold, I don't hesitate to slide it open. Time is precious now, and wasting it might kill me.
When light flows into the shadow-filled compartment, I see it gleam in a way that I will forever recognize. The light illuminates a pair of brown eyes—not in my imagination, I realize, but right there in my cargo hold.
"Be… Bella…" I stammer, stumbling backward. "No."
I can barely see. My thoughts carve through my neurons like razor blades, destroying all coherence in their path. I hold my eyes wide, shaking, speechless, as she emerges from the dark. At first, she's surprised to have been discovered, jumping a little as I stare at her. But now she wraps her arms around herself, seemingly cold even when my entire body is burning to the quick before her.
"Edward, I'm sorry. I… I wasn't trying to be a stowaway. I just needed to see my dad. I didn't want—"
As my mind finds order, realization forces tears out of my eyes. I feel them run down my cheeks as I look at her, where she stands completely unaware of what she's done. Of course, she misinterprets my emotion.
"I understand that you don't want me to be here. And that's… that's okay. I can deal with it. I promise. When we get to Volterra, I'll leave you alone. I'll go straight to my father, and—"
"We won't get to Volterra." My voice growls unsteadily from my lungs.
She pauses and suddenly seems to see the real emotion written on my face, the real anguish falling from the corners of my eyes. Her arms fall slack to her sides. "What do you mean?"
"We'll never get there, Bella." I'm shouting now. "We can't reach Volterra!"
She still doesn't understand, but I can't think clearly enough to explain. Instead, I grab her arm and tow her across the metal grate to the console. As soon as we're both in the cockpit, I pound my fist against the radio key.
"This is Major Cullen," I gasp into the first sign of static. "Sierra Tango 5316. Reporting an emergency."
Bella watches me silently from the opposite wall, her back against bundles of wires, and her entire body trapped in a tremor. But I can barely see her as I yell desperately into the radio, so blinded am I by panic. Her presence has chased away all sense of calm, replacing abstraction with the full force of reality. Fate has granted me more time with her, but that gift comes at an incredible cost.
"Sierra Tango 5316!" I shout again. "This is an emergency!"
But no one answers. No one even receives my distress call. I try over and over again anyway, yelling franticly into the receiver. "Please! Anyone! I need help!"
It's all futile. At last, I slump back in the console chair, utterly helpless. Mine is the only ship between Echo IV and Volterra. There is no one near enough to bring us home. I knew this already, but now it's real.
Bella remains rigid against the wall, and for a long while she seems too afraid to speak. Or maybe it's only seconds. It's not until I lower my head to my hands that she addresses me.
"What's happening, Edward?" she asks in a tiny, almost inaudible voice. "Please tell me what's going on."
"The fuel for the transport pod…" I murmur, blinded by my palms. "There's only enough to get one person to Volterra. There isn't enough for the weight of both of us."
I hear the metal platform whine as she sinks to the floor. "I didn't know," she breathes. Her guilt seems to diffuse through the air toward me, and it's enough to pull my head up from my hands.
She's folded up against the wall, knees to nose, looking completely numb. "Bella…" I begin, but I can't think of anything else to say.
"One of us has to die," she says, emotion suppressed from her voice.
Her eyes rise to mine and, for a moment, we simply gaze at each other. And then, with cold, truthful gravity, I nod.
"How long do we have?"
I glance at the control panel before answering. "The reserve will last a little over thirty minutes. Anything after that, and we're both dead."
She swallows audibly, and I watch her fingers dance where they grasp her knees. The color that I adore so much is gone from her cheeks. "We can't turn back?"
"No. We're too far out now."
Something hardens in her expression, and I know exactly what she's going to tell me. Bella Swan is the bravest person I know, and she's also the last person to acknowledge that fact.
"I'll do it. I'll be the one." Her teeth trap her lower lip for a beat. "This is my fault. All of this. I'll suffer the consequences."
She speaks rapidly, hardly pausing for a breath between words. She wants me to believe she isn't afraid, but I've known her since we were children. Nothing she does can disguise her terror from my eyes. I know she's frightened, but I have no clue what to do. I can't move myself to comfort her, or argue with her, or think much of anything at all. Instead, I merely gaze at her through wide, frantic eyes, breathing harshly.
"Is there some way I can contact my dad from here?" Her voice is quiet now, defeated. "I just… I just want to say goodbye first."
"I can probably raise him on the radio."
I use this as an excuse to turn away from her, because I can't bear the look in her eyes. All the liveliness is gone, the youth and intrepidness. She is my Earth, and I can see her dying already.
My eyes blur again, I can't tell whether from tears or terror. Nevertheless, I manage to fiddle with the radio controls until I reach the base operator on Volterra. I explain our situation, desperate for any sort of help.
All I receive is the dull military tone I expected. "Jettison your stowaway," the operator tells me. I don't reply in the affirmative, pleading instead for access to her father's radio.
Eventually, the operator grants my request and I beckon Bella to the pilot's chair. She scrambles to her feet and sits down by the radio, her knuckles white where she grasps the armrests.
"Hello?" Charlie Swan's voice crackles faintly through the static.
"Dad, is that you?"
"Bella! How've you managed to get through to me? These frequencies are blocked from Echo IV." There's a pause, and when he speaks again, it's with unexpected joy. "You're coming with Edward, aren't you? He let you join him after all. You're coming to see me. Oh, Bells, I've missed you so much, I—"
I watch the tears spill down Bella's cheeks. Her chest heaves as she breathes. "No… No, I'm not coming."
"You're not?" Static crackles harshly through the cockpit.
"Daddy, I screwed up. I made a mistake." More static. "I hid on Edward's ship, and now there isn't enough fuel."
"Stop lying to me, Isabella." His voice wavers, cracks. "That's not true. You wouldn't do that."
Her next words are so transformed by her sobs that they're barely intelligible. "Dad, I have to die, okay?"
"No!" He shouts through the radio. "There's got to be another way. Throw something off the transport!"
"There's nothing else here."
"Go back to the station! Call for help!"
"There's nothing else to do, Daddy."
For a long while, all I hear is radio static and the muffled sounds of Charlie Swan as he cries.
"I'm sorry," she whispers into the receiver. "Please forgive me, Dad. There isn't much time."
"Bella… my Bella. I love you so much."
"I love you, too, Dad. I wish… I wish I could have seen you again before…"
"Bye, baby." His voice is stretched and raw, and the words stumble coarsely through the speaker.
I watch as Bella forcefully cuts off the conversation, pressing her palm to the button beside the radio. For a few long minutes, she remains frozen, her head drooping close to the control panel. She looks like a felled bird, like paradise burned to the ground.
When I see her like this, I finally remember myself. I remember how to love her. With remarkable swiftness, she's encircled by my arms. We fall together, away from the chair and onto the floor, but it's all the better, because we can lie close this way, filling the void that had opened up between us.
She reciprocates the strength of my arms, clinging to me with simultaneous relief and desperation. I run my hands along her skin, whispering into her hair. "It's going to be all right, Bella. It'll be all right." I tell her this, even though I know it won't be all right.
She doesn't protest or disagree with my words. Instead, she cries into my shoulder until the extremity of her emotion fades. And I hold her all the while, stroking her back, showing her that I'm here, even though in twenty minutes it won't matter. We're both reckless now, and our hands grasp and roam with abandon. We press ourselves together, as if this way we can stand as only one being, and neither of us will have to die.
My lips hunt blindly for hers, first finding the cusp of her shoulder, then her chin, and her brow. When my lips finally meet hers, it feels like we haven't kissed for years. We melt into each other's warmth in the barrenness of this place, this claustrophobic pod drifting through space. It's what both of us need.
I pull away for a breath and rest my forehead on hers, with my hands pressed to her cheeks. "Did you believe me?" I breathe. "When I said I didn't want you to come?"
Her hands tighten on my shoulders. "I always believe you."
"You were wrong," I mutter into her mouth, kissing her deeply between sentences. "I always want you with me. I always love you. I never should have lied to you."
These words break some final cord within Bella. She sputters out a delirious noise on the border between a hysterical laugh and an anguished cry. And then we're both crying and laughing, cursing God and thanking him. We cling and kiss as the clock on the control panel counts down.
Time ticks, and when I resurface to reality, we're both sated. It's always like this with her—minutes pass like hours. I sit up, holding Bella in my lap, and take in the glowing numbers above me. We have five minutes left.
She sees the numbers, too, and the tremor jumps back into her muscles. She glances at the airlock behind us. "Will it hurt?" she asks, looking away from the glass doors and into my eyes.
I search her brown irises for the solution that has eluded me until now, and suddenly the answer springs to life in my mind. My spirit lifts and I take her hands.
"No, it won't hurt." I help her up to her feet. "It won't hurt, because I've just thought of a way to fix this."
Her lips twitch, too shocked to either smile or remain frowning. "You… you have?" She sniffs and wipes a stray tear from her eye.
I nod. "If I turn off the thrusters and let us drift for a while, we can conserve fuel… if not until we reach Volterra, then at least until we can call an extra transport."
"You think that'll work?"
"Pretty sure." The clock glares in my eyes. Three minutes. "Let me just change the autopilot, and I'll go to the back and manually shut down the thrusters."
"Okay." She follows closely by my side as I enter the landing coordinates and lock in the autopilot. Two minutes.
My eyes meet hers once again, and I say the one thing I should have told her in our bedroom this morning. "I love you, Isabella Swan. Always."
She smiles slightly, returning my words, and my whole body is lightened by the opportunity to undo my biggest regret. I take her hand and plant a single kiss on it. One minute.
"Now, those thrusters…" I turn and hasten to open the doors, and I don't look back. One of Bella's Swan's greatest weaknesses is that she trusts me.
She sees me press the button for the airlock but she's not fast enough to react. The glass doors snap shut just as she reaches up for them, and she's stuck on the other side.
"Edward!" she shrieks, pounding madly against the unyielding glass. "Edward, no!"
Her shrill cries are muffled on the other side of the door, but I keep myself composed. I merely place my hand against the glass, studying every detail of her being as long as I have eyes that can see. Her fists beat against the door on either side of my hand.
"I'm sorry." I say through the glass. "I love you."
I hear the alarm blare from the cockpit, signaling the final thirty seconds. As Bella cries my name and hammers against the glass, I turn away from her. She may be losing me, but I know she'll be with her father now.
Vega shines amber through the other side of the airlock, and my whole body seems set alight. I open my eyes to the distant stars and search for the angle of that tiny planet, light years away. I think of my ancestors, who killed their own paradise, and I suddenly realize that I'm not like them. I made a sacrifice to reverse my treason when they could not. I've saved my reason for being.
At last, I find the angle of that lost solar system, and I exhale easefully. As I raise my hand to open the cargo bay door, I turn to face Earth.