Nau had, today, died with her eyes open.
Many years ago, when our journey was new and Sol’s light was merely old, we used to honor our dead. An acknowledgement of Earth’s pilgrims who gave up their home to seek a new one for their descendants.
Nowadays, the dead are dead. We mourn, but think not to their dignity.
I confess that, for most of my life, burials were rarely on my mind, even for my own family who have passed. They were stripped of their clothes and brought to the airlock on the far starboard side, and I never thought to look to their bodies.
Many years ago, when I was still an officer, the command crew carried our dead to the airlock. An acknowledgement of the responsibility they bore.
Nowadays, they leave dead untouched. They distance themselves for dignity’s sake.
Clothes-stripping and airlock-hauling became the duty of the damned. Stripped of my rank, I confess I wept when they passed the duty to me, to carry the bodies to the airlock, beyond the communal corridors, along hallways long empty.
Many years ago, when we were stranded in the midst of celestial doldrums, I was numbered among the dead. A scapegoat for the uncertainty and fear that threatened to consume us.
Understand, the dead had become a point of despair. A reminder that even after all these generations between us and our home sun, between us and Sol, we have still not even glimpsed the new home promised us. An omen, some said, that we never would.
These voices of omen only grew louder when I had unwittingly steered the ship into a gravity well, those celestial doldrums, five years back. So to appease them, I was cast from my quarters, from the sight of my neighbors, to live in the abandoned hallways that led to the airlock. Whenever I was called to retrieve a body, my path would be cleared, as empty as the halls I now called home. After all, one did not look to the dead.
Nau was the first living being I had seen in two years. I had woken to a sound: a soft, repeating tap-clap, footsteps that were certainly not from me. I set off along the hallways made larger in their loneliness. I eventually found her in the engine room, one of the ship’s many, long abandoned because of its proximity to the airlock.
Propriety would have forbidden Nau’s very presence in this section of the ship, so I should have pretended not to have seen her. Should have spared her dignity and slipped back down my hallways. But so startled I was by the presence of another being that I simply stood in the doorway and stared, reading her name off the back of her engineer’s jacket, covered in part by her white hair.
Eventually, she pulled away from the valves and wires of the engine, and caught me in the periphery of her gaze.
She looked at me, and compounding her act of impropriety, smiled and spoke. To me.
“Engine’s been sputtering along for the past three years, but no one’s bothered to do maintenance on it. Because of, well…” She gestured towards the corridor that led to the airlock. “No wonder we got stuck in these doldrums.”
Nau gave the engine a fond pat, the wrinkles of her age deepening, following her smile’s example. “Though we should be breaking free any minute now.”
Sure enough, I felt the familiar rumblings of the ship in motion, a small lurch of momentum, and Nau gave a whoop of triumph. I didn’t know what to say, so I simply smiled. After she left, I was alone again for three years, but in my wanderings and my summons to retrieve the dead, I did find her engineer jacket, tossed across the invisible line where my hallways began. Her impropriety had cost her rank.
Today, the single bell chime echoed through my halls, summoning me to my duty. To a set of quarters on the very edge of the communal corridors. It was not a barren corridor, and the carpet was a sharp contrast to my tiled floors, but the atmosphere was the same: that of the lonely and the damned. Her impropriety had cost her reputation.
Nau’s gaze, the last eyes to look upon me with kindness, I brushed closed. She had cast aside her dignity to save us all.
Caught in her gaze, I swore to restore it. Abandoned, my hallways may have been, but not devoid of supplies, as those too had been abandoned in their storage when these hallways lost their dignity. I washed her, wrapped her in a shroud, and set these words about her neck.
And as I decompress the airlock and commit Nau’s body to space, I will sing. My voice will be strange to me, but I will not stop. When the song has finished, my work will not.
Many years ago, when our journey was new and Sol’s light was merely old, we used to honor our dead.
Nowadays, under Nau’s gaze, I will do so again. They will be given the dignity they deserve.
An acknowledgement of Earth’s pilgrims, forgotten by their sun and ship alike.
Originally published on Splickety’s Lightning Blog for HAVOK on February 12,2018 (All rights revert to author – me – 6 months after online publication date)