Garden for a Ghost
His bones ached. Of course, they ached most of the time; from age, from hard day's work, from the progressive failing of his implants. But today he knew the ache meant that it would rain.
Coffee in hand, he walked outside, and stepped into the garden. The sun wasn't yet fully up, casting a pale glow on everything as it peaked over the hills. The smell of dampness in the air confirmed what old bones had already told him. Good. He wouldn't have to water anything today.
I thought you liked doing things the hard way? her voice asked, and he felt a small tug at his mouth. She was here early.
I can't shoot flowers.
Oh, you can, and have, she reminded him. But I suppose now that you're an old man, you'll find other ways to solve problems. Far less explosive ways.
He sipped his coffee. The one vice he allowed himself was caffeine; he'd been introduced to the stuff on the Infinity, and now he couldn't seem to get out of bed without it. The dependency used to bother him, but that had been before, when the words unfit for service didn't mean anything to him, and he'd still been a soldier.
It had seemed a death sentence at first. Or rather, worse than one. To be discharged on the grounds of psychological distress. To be ripped from the world that had defined who he'd been. The first year on Earth he'd spent running, moving. He'd covered the distance of a continent before he'd figured out what to finally do with himself.
Gardening had seemed so ridiculous to him at first. Building something, maintaining life, had sounded like a Herculean task. He knew how to protect, not nurture. The first few flowers to wilt under his care had cut him just as deeply as losing soldiers had. He'd have scrapped the idea, deciding he was not fit to tend to weeds, had her voice not urged him on. Odd, that the thing that had forced him into retirement had been his greatest source of peace. All the other Spartans were dead now, after all, and she was gone, too. Or so he'd thought, before Cortana made regular appearances in his mind. They'd been sporadic at first, but quickly grew into a daily occurrence, only urged on by his confused, stumbling need to understand horticulture. By now, she played a quiet narrative in his head. As it had been before, so many years ago.
Mind the company?
Not at all.
He smiled again, and moved further into the small garden attached to the side of his home. It was fairly small, but the flora that was in the tiny fenced-in grounds bloomed with brilliance. He made his way to the back of the plots, towards the oldest of the plants. It hadn't been easy, finding flowers that lived long, but he'd had the spare time and the money to order seeds from other planets, and the oldest in the garden was over thirty years old.
Once he'd gotten the hang of keeping things alive, he'd begun to search for greater challenges, more demanding or delicate plants. A catalogue of names and soil types had taken up residence in his brain, and he was in the process of writing it all down. His mind was still sharp, but he knew clarity would not last, and he wouldn't dare risk forgetting something and letting what he'd been cultivating for the past few decade wilt away.
The oldest of flowers had been the very first one he'd planted in his official plot, and now it stood almost to his height. The petals were flushed a deep blue, specked with lavender and purple at its tips. Its stem was nearly as thick as his forearm, and the leaves were larger than his head. It was native to Reach, an added bonus that only made it more fitting. The head of the flower had closed for the night, and he sat down on the bench across from it, waiting for it open, as he did every morning.
It had been a struggle to keep it alive the first few years; it had almost died on him a number of times, unused to Earth's soil. It had taken to its new home, finally, and once it had, he'd never had problems with it since. He was not usually sentimental, but he'd taken it as a good sign. Cortana's chip had followed the seedling into the dirt when he'd first planted it, and now it still sat nestled at its base thirty years later.
A rough beginning? she mused, keeping him company while the sun rose in the sky.
But not a rough end.
All things come to a close, Chief.
This one won't.
Oh? she replied, humour layered in her voice. You plan to keep this flower immortal through sheer willpower?
It's worked so far.
You've only gotten worse with age, she commented dryly. Then again, so did I.
It wasn't your fault.
I know. Doesn't make it any less true, though.
He stood up, watching a petal pull away from the bulb. The first sign of movement. The wind tugged at it gently, and a leaf brushed against his hand when he took another step closer.
You're still here. You'll always be here.
I can't believe it, she whispered to him. Even after all these years.
I keep my promises, he whispered back to her, looking down at the curling green leaf that had touched him, still heavy with dew.
You're right, John. I'm alive. More alive than I've ever been. You can touch me now, after all.