The breeze blew breath-warm over the nape of Kazumi's neck. She set down the bundle of kindling at the shelter's entrance and turned around. Closing her eyes, she tipped back her face to the wind and the sun.
She swayed where she stood.
Kazumi and Noriko had been here for several months now.
Where was here? Back on Earth, in the Northern hemisphere, somewhere at the boundary of the taiga and grass-covered steppe.
Beyond those details, they did not know. None of their instruments had worked since Earth came into view. Upon re-entry, their capsules - fragile things at the best of times - creaked, then shook apart. Critical systems failed, one by one, heat, then oxygen, I/O and navigation. Their viewing screens cracked under the pressure, darkened in the flames.
They were never supposed to return. Loss had been engineered.
Seen from space, the continents had been unrecognizable.
Drifting down through the troposphere, as the flames cleared and she caught her breath, Kazumi had become convinced she could make out the ghost of a road curving through the steppe. They have found no such road, only a slight rise in the earth. That could have been anything; erosion and glacial retreat were just as likely causes as engineering and earthmovers.
Perhaps they were already dead. Crushed in the Jupiter core generator, forgotten, utterly vanished.
So much time had passed. They might as well have been the last people on Earth.
The skin on her face and arms tickled. When she opened her eyes, for half a moment she thought it must be snowing. White down filled the air, swirled and rose with the gentle breeze. It was thick enough that she could look directly at the sun and see only a disk.
This was yet another alien world, transformed and seething.
"Noriko!" She set off at a run for the spring. "Noriko!"
The seeds filling the air adhered to her lips and caught in her lashes. When she reached the spring, she stood, panting slightly and wheezing, unable to speak.
Noriko reclined in the shallow pool they had excavated around the spring and lined with wide, flat stones. Making no move to cover herself, simply shading her eyes, she smiled up at Kazumi. Seeds and down drifted over her face, across the gleaming swell of her breasts, down the strong lines of her shoulders.
She had never been modest, and of course they had shared many baths over the years, yet Noriko's forthrightness never failed to take Kazumi aback. She couldn't name that quality beyond Noriko. It had to do with how she displayed herself, with such honesty and an almost bestial naturalness, lack of self-consciousness. She rose now, the seeds clinging to her wet skin, and went up on tiptoe in order to kiss Kazumi. First her cheek, and then, as Kazumi sneezed against the seeds, her mouth.
But first she merely reached, dusted with seeds, fuzzy with down and bright with spring water, and she might have been an alien, only superficially humanoid. Plant girl, a sentient lamb amid cherry blossoms and late snow. Faun, or dryad.
Someone new, someone lovely, loved.
Noriko should not have changed so much. She had only been in space for a short time, relatively. It was Kazumi who had lived half a life, lived and loved, aged and mourned, before returning to the service for their last mission. Yet here Noriko was, naked, covered with seedpods, pulling Kazumi down into the sort of kiss that used to make her blush and fidget when she saw them in American movies.
Her smile as they sank down to the pool's edge went as wide as the horizon. She twined her arm around Kazumi's, interlacing their fingers, and kicked at the water until Kazumi's trousers were spattered.
Kazumi was the last human being.
Noriko was something else entirely, and always had been.
But they were together, Noriko's chatter bright in the seed-blurred air, and that fact alone was remarkable.
She still drew breath. Noriko's chest rose against hers; her lips rested in the hollow of Noriko's temple. Their grip on each other's hand tightened as the seeds dispersed across the steppe.