The drive out to the foothills had been worth it. Below them, the city lay blanketed in fog; above, the Milky Way painted the night sky in a bright, broad swath. Suddenly, an orange streak bloomed into existence – then faded. The two men lowered their binoculars.
“Did you see it?” Howard whispered.
Robert nodded. “That was really bright. Didn’t hardly need the binoculars,” he said loudly. All crickets within hearing distance fell silent. “It’s hard to imagine someone would pay five grand just to launch their ashes into orbit… I mean, they’re dead, right?” Without waiting for an answer, he rambled on. “And it’s just a bunch of dead body cells burned once already. Not like they’re sending their soul to heaven or something, or that they’re going to enjoy the ride – and they don’t even get to see it. Just doesn’t make any sense.” He paused to take a noisy sip from a steaming thermos cup. “So, this guy was a friend of yours?”
“Yeah, very close.” Howard spoke softly. “He planned ahead with his ashes… started young, thinking about it. Saved fingernail clippings and hair, then added baby teeth to the lot. When he had his tonsils removed, he talked the doctor into letting him have them for an imaginary science project… that was before doctors started calling everything a biohazard. When he cut himself building a balsa model plane, he added a bit of blood to the lot. Even a tumor he had removed—he had to bribe a doctor to get that back—became part of the bounty that, eventually, became part of his ashes.”
Robert made a retching sound. “Like a witch’s brew,” he said. “Your friend was nuts. I’ll bet his family was pretty pissed off, him throwing away all that money on a space burial.”
“Throwing away? It’s the only chance he ever had to – to go to space. He’d dreamt of it ever since he was a child. You know, walking on the moon, exploring Mars… but at his age… well, this was his only chance.” Howard turned to gaze at the stars. “He paid for a package deal with the burial company. For an extra twenty-five grand, he got a moon burial package and a deep space package. They don’t send the whole body, you know. Most of it stays here on dear old Earth, they just send a few grams of ashes taken from the total.”
“I’m surprised his descendants didn’t call a lawyer. What a freaking waste of money.”
Howard laughed. “That’s what he figured would happen, too. Once he was dead, his money-grubbing kids would cancel the whole show. But he planned for that.”
“Like you said, it’s just a bunch of dead cells. It’s irrelevant whether the host is alive or not. He arranged it so he could see it all, know that his intent had been executed and observe the bright pyre of reentry himself – he just burned to ash what he’d already gathered and called it part of his corpse, the corpse-to-be… a premeditated, partial death.”
Robert gaped. “And you knew – you know this guy?”
Howard sighed and shook his head. “It’s me, you idiot. It’s me.”