The butterflies filling the greeting bay were intended to instill a sense of lightness and peace. Purser Hardy Dickens heard only the incessant tapping of metalloid bodies against metalloid walls, a reminder of the endless droning of days of his last hundred or so years of life aboard the Interplanetary Love Ship.
He straightened his lapels and fixed a stolid grin onto his face. Company-paid Rejuve treatments had kept his body fit, but his soul had been leaking into the void for decades.
This would be his final voyage. He’d said that before, but this time he meant it. He would opt off ship at Saturn Station or maybe the Uranus fly-by. His company debt would be settled by then and the lack of contemporary medical facilities at the outposts would mean a quick enough end, a few years at most. Whatever holdings he left behind could be distributed to his great-great-great-great grandchildren, if anyone could find them. He had long ago lost track of family.
The bay door began its rumbling ascent. Butterflies whooshed outward like gas molecules through a breech. A single one landed on his sleeve, blue and black patterned wings pulsing open, closed, open.
Such a fragile, useless creature, much like a purser on a modern cruise ship. There was no need for money handling, leaving him to serve as a mere cheerleader for the passengers.
He cupped his hand above the butterfly, not quite touching the glistening antennae protruding from its wedge-shaped head. Light pulsed their length in cadence with the wings, indicating the transmitter within the creature was functional.
They would lose between one and five percent of their colorful cargo; he had done his stint on the administration deck and knew the delicate balance between a showy display and out-of-pocket expenditure. Would this little butterfly be among the losses? Or would the ship’s recall signal bring it home?
His heart stuttered as the butterfly leaped, brushing his hand ever so gently. He flexed his fingers closed, open, closed.
Tears suddenly steamed behind his eyes. Maybe life felt empty because he wanted it to be. And if he could want that, well couldn’t he want something… else? A truer smile tested his lips. His gaze sought his butterfly among the evaporating masses. I hope you return.
Still smiling, he stepped forward, spreading his arms wide to greet the passengers.
Stephen V. Ramey has been published on Strange Horizons and PodCastle as well as in Triangulation: Taking Flight. He lives and writes in New Castle, PA USA, where he regularly visits the odd ducks that live along the river.