Chapter 1: November [Farewell]
Cate approached the simple metal casket through the throbbing vibrancy of the crowd. Escorted by a burly pair of police agents, she kept her head bowed under her black veil.
The casket emerged from a wall of the same uniform grey aluminium, making it look closer to a drawer in an old morgue than a coffin.
Music he would never have listened to pounded in the distant corners of the chamber, while hundreds chanted slogans and waved placards adorned with his face. She knew that funerals would often become a light-hearted celebration of a life instead of a sober farewell, but this was far beyond that. It rapidly descended into chaos, a protest against nothing in particular fuelled by emotion and crowd dynamics.
There was a respectful space between the crowd and the casket, its boundary lined by the half-dozen or so people that were, along with Cate, the only people to have ever actually known him.
They nodded solemnly, as she tried to avoid eye contact. Their quiet dignity was a surreal contrast to the madness just a few feet behind them.
Behind this small group of friends, a line of military police held the throng back. Cate watched, on the verge of crying at the sheer inappropriateness of it all, as a girl crowd-surfed just slightly too close to the police. She screamed as they manhandled her to the ground.
She was subdued in seconds, Cate couldn’t quite see by what means, before being dragged limply away. Her heavy-set black boots made two trails in the thin layer of dirt.
One of his friends finally caught her eye and, behind the reassuring smile, Cate’s paranoia saw curiosity, suspicion and a mild hatred. Cate smiled back, wondering if he saw the same.
Messages flashed onto the walls and ceiling of the round domed chamber, urging the youthful crowd to calm and retreat a suitable distance.
Cate knew that he would have hated this. She knew that he hated crowds, that he could only be comfortable in peaceful surroundings. Cate knew that her husband had been humble, with no real desire to be the leader of a mob like this.
The most painful, frustrating thing was that she hadn’t been in any position to do anything at all about it. No one asked her about the funeral arrangements, either because they had assumed that she wasn’t interested, or they just felt that it wasn’t her place to be involved.
And now he was stuck with this, lying helpless, losing all dignity, in the middle of thousand-strong herd of fanatical teenagers. His funeral was now, basically, a rock concert.
Cate gingerly approached the casket, unsure that even she should be there. She was very aware that she was probably older, at just twenty-five, than the vast majority present.
Did they even know she had been his wife? Did they care? If they did, she doubted they had the intelligence or compassion to show any respect to a widow bidding a final farewell to her late husband.
Estranged late husband, she reminded herself.
He lay in a simple, traditional brown robe. Eyes open, hands clasped on his chest, mouth gently closed. He could easily be mistaken for just being in deep thought.
With tears suddenly, surprisingly, uncontrollably streaming from her eyes, Cate knelt slowly next to the metal box. She wanted to whisper that she was sorry. Not for the inappropriate funeral, not for the terrible music, not for the thousand strangers staring at what should have been their last private moment together. She thought that she wanted to say sorry for not being there, for leaving.
But she couldn’t apologise, it somehow felt wrong. It felt pointless. Too late. The words choked inside her.
‘It was because I needed you,’ she whispered softly, barely able to make the sounds.
He stared upwards at the ceiling, regarding some distant detail with an indifferent cool. Cate shook uncontrollably, tears falling from the tip of her nose and splashing onto her hand as it rested on the cold metal.
She couldn’t speak any longer; her mouth had frozen in grief. But she still thought the words of her explanation at him, praying that he would somehow still hear her.
‘I needed you, Nik. I needed you as much as they do.’
The tears subsided as she rose to stand, as if the sadness had been trapped by his side.
No one approached her, no one lent a helping arm to lead her away from his body.
She raised her head to properly regard the crowd for the first time in several minutes. The madness had not subsided, but she knew she had to find a way out now before her strength gave way completely.
She would be the last to see his body, and those in the crowd that knew who she was would surely expect her to watch the final ceremony. The narrow path her escorts had cut for her through the crowd had closed and now she was faced with a wall of faintly familiar faces, military police and, beyond them, an indiscernible mass of bodies.
Something crossed her mind, a surreally rational thought cutting through the lunacy. The crowd was in clear violation of habitat safety regulations and the police should, technically, attempt to disperse them. Obviously they had decided not to further agitate the mob, and wait for the event to burn itself out. As long as it remained confined to the chamber, it was probably the most sensible idea even if it didn’t conform to the rules.
Cate guessed that the easiest way out might be skirting the edges of the chamber, and moved towards the wall. She passed one of her husband’s friends, she didn’t recall his name, and he pointedly ignored her. She found little resistance from the police, who were obviously concentrating their riot shields and weapons towards the crowd.
There was a gap of about a meter between the police and the crowd that she hadn’t noticed on her approach. It was while walking across this odd gap that she saw him.
He had positioned himself right at the front of the crowd, anchored against the wall, and now stood exactly in front of Cate. Very aware she was stuck in no-mans land, with nowhere else to go, she froze.
His stylus halted on his pad, obviously mid-sentence, and he slowly looked up at her. The indicator light on his shoulder-mounted AV recorder went out, and it returned to its default position pointing straight ahead.
Saying nothing, looking at the crowd or the floor or anything else that wasn’t him, Cate attempted to push past Dill. He caught her, grabbing her gently around the waist. She didn’t struggle.
‘Cate,’ Dill talked firmly, insistently. ‘Cate, I need to talk to you.’
She gently tried to break free, to carry on walking.
‘No bullshit, Cate. This is important.’
She couldn’t believe his nerve; his presence here was massively insensitive.
‘I know what you’re thinking, Cate, I didn’t want to be here. Cate, it’s my job, I had no choice. You have to realise that.’ He moved closer, almost whispering despite the noise. ‘Meet me after this is over.’
She grabbed his arm, making sure her fingernails dug into him, and threw it away from her.
He shouted to her as she pushed her way furiously through the crowd and away from him. He was barely audible above the crowd, but she could easily have guessed what he had said even if she hadn’t heard it.
‘Cate, you know where I’ll be! Please!’
She didn’t look back.
The music suddenly ceased, and the crowd seemed to calm slightly. Cate glanced upwards, images of the waste disposal unit (masquerading as a funeral casket) being closed and engaged were being beamed onto the walls and ceiling of the domed chamber.
The body would be ejected from the unit, on a slightly different trajectory from the usual garbage, to land on the unprotected surface of the planet. There it would be slowly buried by the frequent sandstorms. Presumably it would be gone by the time that terraformation had reached a stage where humans could freely venture outside.
She pulled the black veil further over her face, jet black hair falling in heavy curls on either side of her head, and tried to quicken her pace. She had to get as far away as possible, already she knew that she had to drop everything however impossible that seemed. Dill was right, they really should talk as soon as possible about strategy, about alibis, about short term survival. They could both be in a lot of trouble, there was no way of knowing yet.
But would she be meeting Dill after this was over?
Would she… hell.
More about the author, Graham Hopgood, here.