Some days later, while he was taking stock of their dwindling supplies, Pin decided the children would need to die before he did.
The notion was something he’d been struggling with for weeks, but no matter how he conceived of their inevitable demise, it just didn’t seem right to leave them to their end alone and confused. When the time came, they would need a shepherd into darkness. It was simply a matter of kindness.
Watching them now, as they occupied themselves with some childish game he was unable to understand, he could already see the hunger taking its toll. Growing little bodies need more than they’re getting, he thought glumly as he stacked the rest of the week’s protein rations into a jiggling tower of beige gelatin.
Adam’s cheeks, once plump and healthy, had become so sunken that Pin could trace the shape of the boy’s skull under the tight pink flesh of his face, while the sockets of Emma’s sapphire blue eyes had darkened so that she seemed to have aged five years since their escape from the Tian. Her blonde hair, once shiny and thick, now sat flat and dull atop her head.
They were wasting away before his very eyes, and Paddington Pin felt a stirring of self-loathing in his heart, as though he were solely to blame.
“Guess what, children?” he said suddenly.
Adam and Emma looked up, curious and expectant.
“What are we guessing?” asked Emma.
“Is it a game?” Adam chimed in.
“No, it’s not a game. Today is a special day, is what,” said Pin. “It’s our anniversary. One month we’ve spent together in this cramped little pod and I wouldn’t trade a single day of it.”
“Is that like a birthday?” asked Adam.
“I suppose it is, considering it’s celebrating the start of something special.”
“On birthdays you get a surprise and something sweet,” said Emma.
“Well, we’ll have both those things in one then. The surprise being each of us will eat an entire protein bar to ourselves tonight.”
“You mean it?” said Adam, greedily. “No sharing?”
Pin nodded, then looked into Emma’s hungry eyes. “I suppose it isn’t sweet like pudding or a tart, Emma, but tonight we’ll sleep with full bellies for once and that’s a sweetness to me.”
With that, Pin handed each of them a slender block of protein, which they ate slowly, savoring every bite like it could be their last.
When she’d eaten half her bar, Emma’s stomach gurgled loudly and she let out a little burp. Her face turned bright red at once and she covered her mouth with her hand, but not before Adam chuckled and pointed at her, tauntingly.
Not liking to see her embarrassed, Pin sucked in a deep breath and belched the air back out again. It sent such a low sound through the pod that Adam thought it sounded like the rumbling of an old ship engine and said as much with a laugh.
“Let’s see if you can beat that, Adam, my boy!” bellowed Pin, his heart swelling with joy to see a bright smile return to Emma’s face.
“I can!” shouted Adam and jumped to his feet.
Just like Pin, he inhaled a mouthful of air and swallowed it down into his belly. Only, instead of letting it out, he let it sit there for a moment, holding out his finger as if to say to his two spectators, Just wait until you see this! I know I ain’t much more than a scrawny boy nobody ever wanted, but I can belch as well as any king! And indeed, when the boy opened his mouth, the air came forth like a hurricane, and was just as loud as the old mariner’s had been.
Pin clapped his hands and Adam bowed. Then the old man turned to Emma and gave her a little wink. She smiled and winked back and they all returned to their special anniversary dinner.
For the rest of the night, neither one of them spoke of what the future might bring. Instead, they spoke of the past; Emma of her mother, wondering aloud if she thought of her from time to time in her charity work on Earth.
When the girl spoke of her, a flash of longing crossed her face. Pin could tell the girl thought highly of her old mom and wished upon wishes that he felt similarly about his own. But his had been a hard woman, made harder by a drunk of a husband. She used to say she had a cinderblock in her gut and seemed to make it her mission to ensure that Pin was weighed down by one as well.
While his was a mother worth running from, it seemed from the way she spoke of her, Emma’s was a mother that would wrap you in her arms and keep you safe from the all the world’s troubles.
“Your mom sounds like a fine lady, little mouse,” Pin said when Emma had finished speaking. “I’ll bet she thinks of you all day long and dreams of you when she’s sleeping. And if she were here now I bet she’d be mighty proud of how brave and smart you are.”
Pin turned to Adam, who’d remained silent during Emma’s talking. “You too, Adam. I’ll bet your parents would be some surprised at the little man you’ve become, strong and helpful to others. I see the way you care for Emma, putting her before yourself when things get tight. It’s a good way to be, my boy.”
Adam looked away bashfully and Pin was struck by a sudden sadness. With no children of his own and an ex-wife who’d fallen out of love with him so long ago he doubted she’d remember his face if they met the next day, Pin realized no one would think of him fondly when he was gone. Or think of him at all, for that matter. He began to wonder if, without that, life was a waste, when Emma’s voice chased his thoughts away.
“What’s wrong, Pin?” she said, her mouth curling down at the corners in concern.
Pin grunted and ran his fingers through his grey hair, greasy from so many weeks without washing. “Oh, nothing to concern a young mind like yours, child. Just the old thoughts of an old man. Now, why don’t you go ahead and sing us a song to stop my mind from wandering and fill my heart with love.”
Emma pressed the tip of her index finger to her chin and thought about what song she could sing to make Pin feel happy again. When she decided on one, she told Adam he could help if he remembered the words, but he said he didn’t feel like singing.
So Emma sang alone. Her voice was high and breathy, like a light breeze blowing across the top of crisp blue water. She sang:
“Blue Moon You saw me standing alone
Without a dream in my heart
Without a love of my own”
And Pin closed his eyes and was transported away across the vastness of space. Like a rocket travelling at the speed of light, he shot through constellations of stars, past ships and planets and the hot fires of suns until he was alone in a sea of black, lost to oblivion.
And his heart was full.
Six weeks later their food and water were gone, and their oxygen was almost depleted.
Emma was curled up on a bench, sweaty and sick, her arms folded across her stomach in response to hunger pains. She’d been all but delirious for days, muttering half-words and random thoughts to no one in particular.
Adam had given Pin permission to use the last of their water to wash her forehead and ease her fever, but she still felt hot to the touch.
Adam sat under her on the floor, his eyes closed tightly, though he was not asleep. Recently, night terrors had robbed him of a decent night’s rest and now he seemed to exist in a kind of waking sleep; his mind neither in this world, or the next. But he found if he stayed close to Emma he felt a little better, so the two of them had become inseparable.
At least they’ll leave this world together, Pin thought as he watched them helplessly. At least they’ll have that.
The old man shook his head and heaved a deep and burdened sigh. He knew he wasn’t helping them by prolonging their suffering. He knew it was time to end it once and for all.
“Children, I know you’re weak,” Pin said quietly. “But the air is almost out and it’s time to put on your suits.”
Adam opened his eyes and stirred, but when he tried to rise, his legs gave out from under him and he sat back down. “I can’t walk,” he said, tears forming in his eyes. “And Emma’s asleep still.”
“No bother, boy. You just sit right there and old Pin will get you sealed into your suit.”
Pin brought both suits over to the children, laying Emma’s over her body as he helped Adam up. He laid the boy’s upper body over his shoulder like a bag of coal and lifted his right leg into the suit, followed by his left. Then he held him up and stuck both his arms into the heavy sleeves and sealed the suit up the front.
Pin looked into the boy’s eyes and gave him a little kiss on his flush cheek before popping on the glass helmet and sealing it along the neckline.
Reaching around the boy’s back, Pin turned the valve clockwise on the oxygen canister and air flowed into Adam’s space suit with a sharp hiss. Pin watched him take a breath through the glass visor then helped him sit back down against the wall under the window.
When Pin sat Emma up, she half awoke; her eyes fluttering open momentarily and then closing every few seconds. And as the old man helped her into her space suit, she spoke to him as though the two had met in a dream.
“Do you smell that, Daddy?” Emma whispered.
“It’s not daddy, child. It’s only old Pin helping you into your suit.”
“Do you smell it?” the girl asked again.
“Tell me what you smell, little mouse,” he answered, lifting her onto his lap and hoisting the heavy suit up her torso.
“A sweetness, Daddy,” she said, her eyes fluttering open for the briefest of moments. “Like perfume on a wind. Do you suppose it’s flowers and trees?”
“Could be it is, Emma. It could be that,” said Pin through tears.
All at once, Emma’s eyes opened wide and she twisted and grabbed Pin around his collar.
“I see it!” she yelled, eyes wild. “Do you see it? Do you see the colors? Red, Daddy! Deep red in a blue sky! I see it!”
Pin held the girl to his chest and cried. “I see it, Emma! I see it, too. It’s beautiful! It’s enough to steal your breath away.”
“We’re saved,” Emma whispered finally before slipping back into a restless sleep.
Pin rocked her a moment longer, until his tears dried and he could allow himself to let her lay down again. When he did, Pin sealed up the front of Emma’s suit and slid the helmet over her head. Then he turned on her oxygen and watched through the dirty visor to ensure she was breathing properly.
With the children in their suits, it was time for Pin to get into his. As he pulled his legs into it for the last time, he thought about all the times he’d needed to wear it over the years. He’d always hated it as a reminder of humanity’s fragile existence among the stars. So now it seemed fitting that, in the end, he would die wearing it.
His life had always had a way of working out for the worst, and yet, as he watched the children asleep in their suits, he felt a strange joy to be going out this way; together with them. He had saved them from a violent death aboard the Tian, and they were sparing him from dying a lonely old man. Perhaps it was just too much to ask for them all to be saved from death, but at least they would all die peacefully and together.
Pin sealed his helmet along the neckline and turned the valve on his oxygen canister. He took a breath of stale air then moved over to where Emma was sleeping, still restless and muttering about flowers and blue skies.
He scooped her up in his arms. She felt as light as a newborn baby. Bending down, he laid her on the floor next to Adam. He thought they looked like angels lying there together. Or like ancient alien children floating through the heavens, asleep for eternity. And in that moment, he realized he loved them more than anything else in his miserable life.
Pin bowed his head and let himself cry. He cried for a long, long time. He cried for Emma and Adam. He cried for himself. And he cried for everyone who’d perished on the Tian. He cried for every child alive and yet to be born. He cried for the very end of humanity, for at that moment he saw its demise in the faces of the children laid before him.
Finally, sobbing, his face wet with tears, Pin reached down and turned the valve of Adam’s oxygen canister counterclockwise. The flow of oxygen to the boy’s suit stopped at once. He knew it would only take a few more minutes for the boy to lose consciousness and slip away forever.
Unable to look upon their faces any longer, Pin shut his eyes as he reached for Emma’s oxygen canister. He paused before turning it, wondering for an instant if there was another way. Something he hadn’t considered. Anything other than this.
“Just do, it you old coward,” he whispered to himself. The words bounced around in his helmet, sounding like various voices cursing him at him all at once. “For once in your miserable life, don’t you run away.”
Pin turned the valve of Emma’s oxygen tank slowly, the air flow becoming a slow hiss as the suit’s intake reduced by half. His hand shook so violently he found he had to grab his wrist to steady it and finish the job.
But it wasn’t just his hand that shook. The pod was rocking. It shuddered so slowly at first that he barely noticed, until it became so violent he could hardly stay kneeled before the girl.
Pin fell flat on his back and then rolled across the floor of the pod, crashing against the far, steel wall with a loud clang. Whatever force had captured the pod seemed to be hurling it through the stars at an enormous velocity so Pin was pinned to the floor and couldn’t move for some fifteen or twenty seconds.
Then a bright flash of light erupted all around them and, as quickly as the madness had started, the pod was still again.
Pin blinked as though waking from a nightmare. His cheeks were still wet with tears and his vision was blurry. He struggled to move from the floor, but his muscles felt taut, as though he’d just run a marathon.
“Look,” Adam’s quiet voice said somewhere in the dark.
Pin rose up and looked over at Adam, still lying across the pod. He was awake and looking up at something on the ceiling. He lifted his arm and pointed upwards.
“Look, Emma. You were right,” he said again with a breathless squeak.
Pin followed Adam’s gaze upwards until he saw what the boy was looking at— a muted red glow that spread across the pod’s ceiling like flowing blood. Pin watched it grow quickly, until the ceiling was covered and the pod was filled with brilliant red light.
Jumping to his feet, he shielded his eyes and stared out the pod’s window. There, off in the distance, was a red giant. Not believing his eyes, Pin rubbed them roughly before taking another a look. But when he opened them again the planet was still there, ten times as large as Earth and waiting to swallow them.
“Children!” the old man shouted. “Children, the gods have saved us!”
In an instant, Pin remembered everything. He dove towards the children and turned Adam’s oxygen valve back on. The suit began to fill once more, but Adam had since passed out. Picking him up, Pin shook him roughly until his eyes fluttered opened.
“Breathe, boy!” he yelled at Adam. “Breathe!”
Adam breathed in and coughed and Pin sat him back down.
“Now you, my little mouse!” yelled Pin as he reached behind Emma and turned her oxygen back to full flow. When she didn’t move, he pressed the glass of his helmet up to hers and watched her face carefully. In a moment, he saw her eyes move under their lids and knew she was still asleep.
Deeply relieved he fell back onto his backside. He pressed the rough fabric of his gloved hands against the glass of his helmet and let out a loud and agonizing cry.
“Oh, children! Children!” He shouted over and over, rocking back and forth as tears of joy flowed from his eyes freely. For even though Pin didn’t know anything about this planet—whether it would help or hinder them—he knew it was something special. He knew it had brought them there and saved the children.
He was sure it was a sign.