Many years and worlds from here, where the stars shine differently and the moons move oddly, there was a world that died, and had gone thin and cold, and there was a man who lived there, for he was the last of his kind, mankind, in a far and rocky world, under an old and dusty shell of metal engraved with the name Icarus, a name that rusted slowly like the steel pinions of his dead ship on his dead world.
There were many things there that were dead, for the man and the men who once walked with him had walked the surface of the canyon-strewn world, had measured the boundaries of the sky, had ridden through the air on irradiated fuel. Now, the last of his kind, he kept company with the drawings and cases of dead bones of things that once walked the world under his feet, under the ruined bulk of the Icarus, and knew himself to be alone under a strange sun.
Deep in the ship, beyond shields of lead and other, stronger metals, the core of the Icarus burnt, not quite eternal, not quite quiescent, but safe enough from the portions of the once grand starship that the man was confined to. Below, under the shields of lead and other metals, lay the last, gone to repair the heart of the dead ship.
And much like the bones of the creatures and the surface of the world, they were dead.
The man slept and woke oddly. Sometimes he laid down in a cryogenic chamber, sleeping for generations, waking only to check the song of distant satellites, the beacons calling on aid from any passing ships, the great, moldering dishes that tended them, and the decay of the Icarus.
Sometimes, more rarely, for he had nightmares when he dreamed out of the ice and preservatives, he laid down in the captain's bunk and gazed at the plate metal of the quarters until he dreamed of the bones walking under the alien skies, of the faces of the dead crew, and of ships, like petals, coming down out of the endless and strange sky. He dreamed of green and blue oceans, he dreamed of flowers, he dreamed of a family centuries now dead and a world now consumed by the bulk of a swollen and angry Sun.
The song of distant satellites was constant, the hum and pitch of bandwidth between the constellations. Always, ever, the same call for rescue. Century and century went by in the blink of a second, the cycling of his cryogenic tank, waking for shorter and shorter periods of time. At last, it seemed he was only a robot himself, trudging out in his spacesuit to tend the dying equipment, salvaging what could be salvaged, waiting for the heat of the infernal engine to touch him or a falling rock to end him.
For he was dead, you see, like those trapped in the heart of the Icarus, even if his heart beat, slowly, on the inside of his suit.
It was the year 5024 when the song of the satellites changed, and the signal came in, tinny and attenuated on receivers long left to the cold of space.
At first, he didn't recognize that the pattern had changed, and he stared at the screen, mesmerized by the climbing and falling. Eventually, the sounds filtered into his suit, and with trembling fingers he adjusted the signal, boosted the power to the receiver, turned the antennas on long-unused arms to better filter it out.
Numbers, rising and falling in a female voice.
"41, 13. 41, 13. 41, 13. 41. 41.2095, 13.2495. 41.2095, 13.2495. 41.2095, 13.2495. End. End. End."
"Echo, November, Delta. Echo, November Delta. Echo, November Delta. Over."
Three times it repeated before fading into nothing. Furiously, he worked the controls, adjusting the receivers, combing the skies with red-rimmed, tired eyes. Surely, surely there was more. Surely.
He wept, then, before the console, and even that was denied him, his suit sucking up the precious water from his face before the salt could trickle down his cheeks.
At last, it came to him: coordinates. With clumsy hands, he cycled the lock of the receiving station. With clumsy feet, he descended onto the alien planet. He bounced, silent, across the dead landscape, in the cold light of the stars to the single remaining vessel, and drove, fiendishly, quickly, to the location.
It was dusty. It was cold. His suit had enough processed air to get there and back. Waiting, sunken into a small impact crater, was a spaceworn and atmosphere-pocked metal shell. He lifted it like a child, and brought it back to the Icarus.
He scanned it for radiation with shaking hands. He checked it for contaminants with procedures he barely remembered. Finally, tenderly, he opened the shell, and found a letter inside on, of all things, a single printed sheet of paper. With it lay a small cache of food, of tiny, fragile parts, of medicine, of seeds for environmental bays.
With trembling hands, he unfolded the letter, touching the paper with reverent fingers like a talisman.
"Icarus - signal received by main New Earth Fleet. Dispatching rescue operations, ETA five years high speed via Einstein-Rosen Bridge construction. Please be advised on further signals from New Earth Fleet. Please maintain position and do not attempt transmission - please conserve power. Report to be taken on recovery. Please maintain position and conservation for recovery. Please be advised next transmission will be..."
He read on and on, and he wept again, unashamedly. Elated, shocked, alive again, he planted the seeds in the environmental bays, set the rusty equipment to tend then, and consumed some of the food with a thick, long-numb tongue. Then, mindful of the paper, he folded it, sliding it into a slipcover, and placing it in the cold for preservation. With a lighter heart, he lay down in the cryogenics capsule and slept for another three months.
When he woke, he dressed hurriedly, sealed his capsule hurriedly. Traveled to the dishes of receivers hurriedly. With sure, steady hands, he adjusted the feed from satellites, and listened.
"45, 12. 45, 12. 45, 12. 45.3325, 12.4145. 45.3325, 12.4145. 45.3325, 12.4145. End. End. End. Echo November Delta, Echo, November, Delta..."
It seemed the voice was warmer this time, no mere recording, and he replayed it again and again, crying again for the voice of another human, a woman, singing out between the stars. He wondered, there, what she looked like: blue eyed, tan-skinned? Dark-eyed, dark-skinned? How human was she, and did she think there was a single man remaining in the shell of the Icarus, hanging on her every word?
He drove to the coordinates; he found the capsule. He fell into a deep sleep in the captain's bed, seeing not the immolation of his crewmates, but the face of an unknown woman with a soft and soothing voice, of a vessel coming down from the stars and the smooth curves under a spacesuit.
He slept for almost three months more in the cryogenic chamber, and it was a cold and empty and dreamless sleep from which he struggled.
"47, -2. 47, -2. 47, -2. 47.2305, -2.175. 47.2305, -2.175. 47.2305, -2.175. End. End. End. Echo..." And off it trailed with the ending sequence.
He huddled by the dish, waiting, mildly desperate, and as if hearing his silent prayers, the signal sung to life again, tinny through the depths of space and the cold emptiness between the stars.
♫ Des yeux qui font baiser les miens, un rire qui se perd sur sa bouche, voila le portrait sans retouche, de l'homme auquel j'appartiens.. ♫
The signal faded in and out, and he listened, astonished to what seemed like a language he ought to know, but did not. Finally, painfully, the song faded into static, and the repetition of the numbers as well.
As he drove to find the capsule, he replayed it for himself, constantly, echoing over and over again, the voice of a distant woman in an unknown tongue. When he lay down to sleep in the captain's bunk, he heard the soft voice, the static of space, the pause between breaths.
"Icarus, maintain. Icarus, conserve." he heard too, softly.
He lay down to sleep, lighter than before.
He slept, he woke.
He woke, he slept.
Now, longer, and on, she sang after the transmissions, and he imagined her singing to him. Sometimes, he imagined her beside him, the halls of the Icarus filled with singing. His own voice was raised now in rusty, tuneless accompaniment. Three months, each time. Only five minutes of voice. Number strings, sometimes singing, sometimes verses.
"Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach? I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach. I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each."
After that transmission, he dreams of her, dressed in linen like a Grecian muse, sitting beside him, offering up the slices of a blood-fuzzed peach. And indeed, in the next capsule, cushioned in cold, is the single pit of a peach.
He plants it amidst the other environmentals in a single remaining tray and sleeps eagerly.
The songs sing down between the cold of sleep. The cryogenics allow him dreaming now. He sees her eyes, the soft fall of her hair, the ephemeral, unknowable touch of her hand. The taste of fresh peaches, the soft song spilling between her lips.
"I should have been a pair of ragged claws, scuttling across the floors of silent seas..."
He dreams of burning, now, but not as his crewmates burnt, for he has forgotten them. He dreams of peaches now, ripened. When she comes to rescue him, he dreams, he will feed them to her and take her by the hand to live with him. He is selfish of her voice, and all others who hear it.
He burns, he waits, he sleeps, he wakes, he listens.
When they come to find him, the ship smells of peaches, and he is old and thin and worn, there within the bulk of his ship. When he asks for the woman to come and sit beside him, his eyes blind from the stimuli of sensors blown out with the unfiltered light of a dying sun, they exchange knowing looks, and set him beside a radio. It plays softly, Edith Piaf, down through the ages.
♪♫ Non, je regrette rien... ♫♪
Somewhere, there is a man on a dead world with a peach tree, and the dying heart of the Icarus, and he is waiting for the song of distant satellites.