The Death of the Lantau
Captain Raphael S. Richardson stood silently before the flames as they flickered across the ruined bow of the Lantau, bulky ceramic boots locked onto the listing steel deck. The tongues of cobalt flame waved as the atmosphere rushed past them from within the bowels of his crippled lady to the waiting expanse of empty starlit night, their movements capricious like the weaving hands of fate which had led him here. They cast disorienting, flickering reflections on his visor. He watched, silent and impassive. A great calm seemed to seep out from between the stars and into his bones, while his heart pumped what felt like poison into his bloodstream. It all felt wrong: one part of him wouldn't let him weep for his ship and crew, the other wanted nothing more.
Raphael's life didn't flash before his eyes when the wound was rent in the ship's flank, the missile's explosion ripping open the secure bridge like a spherical tin can, scooping Lantau's entrails out and spreading them in the open for all to observe. That was just a myth, after all. But there was some wisdom to the myth even if it wasn’t true; when you were about to die, reflection could heal the soul. It was as good a time as any.
He'd grown up on Mars, a boy-scout who would grow up to be a loyal Starsailor of the Pact. That story wasn't unique—a million others could tell a similar one. And his was ending the same way too. In the final reckoning, he regretted one thing: leaving his wife. Dying, he didn't mind; it couldn't be avoided and he'd been trained since he was eighteen to accept it, even expect it.
A good captain goes down with his ship. An ancient sentiment, and yet it still held so much power. It was almost as if, the further humanity voyaged from its green and blue cradle, the more important the old sentiments became—like Man was lost in the eternal firmament and looking for something old and unmoving to grasp. Each new discovery was met with increasing suspicion as the old traditions were clung to that much tighter. Space brought the fear and love of God into a man. Church organs were, they had found, the Music of the Spheres.
Raphael certainly felt desolate, moreso because he'd never caught religion. He'd witnessed his entire bridge crew die to explosive decompression right before his eyes, their own eyes popping like macabre, bloody water-balloons. He'd felt the hand of a god in that bitter moment—but hardly one he could love: a vengeful, jealous God who visited the iniquity of fathers upon sons. The ship had coldly reported the casualties: 99.9975 percent. Why had he been the only one quick enough with his helmet?
The ship groaned like a living thing, and he heard something pop and the great grinding sound of metal ripping. The spin of the ship changed, and as the ship continued turning, impelled by the catastrophic kinetic energy of the projectile that had killed her, the baleful red eye of Mars slowly rotated into view. How fitting. The god of War watches his children die in each other's arms. How many of the ships-of-the-line loyal to The Pact of Integration were left? Not many, if they'd let their flagship be annihilated. There couldn't be many ships loyal to the Citadel Syndicate left either.
As the full bulk of Mars' eye rotated into view, framed by that ragged oblique-rectangular hole—the memento of his lady’s violation—he saw it at last: a great expanding circle of boiling blue, like a wrathful star, expanding low on the horizon of the Red Planet.
Shockwaves and bright-red fire—like waves in the pond he’d first seen her beside.
As it expanded, the hot ball of plasma distorted against the planet's weak magnetic field. A moment later, another sphere was born nearby his ship.
It expanded slowly, the roiling surface blinding Raphael. Dear God, hallowed be thy name...
When the edge had passed where once the Lantau had floated, there wasn't anything left but ash and stray atoms. Far away from the scene, carried out by the zephyr of exhaled atmosphere, the Lantau's dying breath, a picture fluttered. On it, a man in military uniform, and a young blue-skinned woman. They both smiled at the end of the human race, embracing.