© Aleksandr Korchagin | Dreamstime.com – Shooting star in the sky
By Chris Hutton
Talia sat before the terminal, her fingers hovering before the ‘enter’ key. One click and twenty-four years of messages would begin to unspool. She glanced at the black & white photo of her family before Launch Pad 73C, their fake smiles beaming out in false reassurances. Though she looked barely a day older than when that photo had been snapped, her husband and son would now bare little resemblance to their images, the smiling faces of the photo no more than ghosts of their past.
She stopped and waved her hand before the screen. The play window slid away and Talia tapped open another app. Her image popped up, consuming the full screen, and a record button blinked transparent in the middle of the monitor. She air-tapped the button and a red light lit up the corner as she began her message.
“Well, we’re here boys. We’ve landed and… it’s… let’s say Anima is not everything that we expected. I assume newscasts went out years ago, but we landed in the dark maybe ten kilometers from the twilight zone. Who knew Anima was tidally-locked, right? Our projections predict another six years of dark before Alpha Centauri B casts its light on our side of Anima, and that the light of a dim evening at best.”
Talia froze up.
“Recording stop.” The red light blinked out of existence. She gestured with her hand and a delete window popped up. Yes or No? She tapped yes.
Her family deserved better than a rote ‘we landed and ‘they’ fucked up message.’ She had so much more to say than the flight went smooth, but the accommodations are subpar. She needed to tell them something of significance – something that mattered – anything that would make the lost years tolerable. Nothing came to mind.
Instead she swiped over to the backlog of messages, and tapped the first one.
“Hi, Talia.” Milton smiled into camera, the green of a park stretching out behind him and trees swaying in the distance. Milton reached off camera then hoisted Bernard into view. He beamed at her, no older than the day Talia had left, and dripping wet.
“Say hi to mommy, buddy.”
“Hi” he squeaked, then began to squirm until at last he pulled free from his dad’s grasp and ran offscreen.
“As you can tell, he’s enjoying the fountain. We went to Riverside, after all. The weather’s good and he’s having fun. We miss you already.” Milton cast his eyes away in his usual I’m not saying everything diversion, then looked back to camera. “Thanks for the message this morning. It was a… lovely way to start the day.”
His eyes began to water. “We love you, Talia. And we’re so proud of you. I just can’t tell you how much –”
“– Daddy!” Bernard shouted from off camera.
Milton rubbed at his eyes. “What buddy?” he screamed back.
“Sorry, honey. Gotta go. We’ll talk soon!”
The verdant greens cut to black, with bold white text at the center of the screen declaring: ‘237 Messages Remaining.’
Why so few, Talia thought. Even at an even distribution that would be no more than ten messages a year. Of course, why should she have expected more? She left them behind to carry on without her. How painful were those messages to record? Were they all as hard for Milton as the first? What would it be for Bernard sending messages to a mother he couldn’t remember? In the end, Talia decided she had been lucky to receive as many messages as she had.
Thinking to the years ahead, she knew any message that she sent now wouldn’t be returned for at least eight years. Logically she might as well pace out the messages from her family, giving something to which to look forward in the slow but brutal days ahead. Even so, she knew that wouldn’t happen. She’d binge the 237 remaining messages in two Earth days or less.
The colonists had been using Earth as a metric as best as they could. With Anima tidally-locked days did not really exist. One planetary rotation took nearly one and a half Earth years, the same as one revolution around Alpha Centauri A, or one Anima year. And in that entire time, no true day would come to Enhet Basen. Alpha Centauri B would eventually create a twilight period, but for now that star’s orbit placed it in conjunction with Anima’s main star, leaving night impenetrable. The colonists would have to last six more years for a chance at twilight.
Talia could not yet bring herself to tackle the problems that this existence created, so instead she plunged further into her messages. Locking her quarters she settled in, shutting out her fellow colonists until she had done what needed doing.
By lunchtime the following “day,” Talia had noticed a disturbing trend. The messages began abundantly, with nearly fifty in the first year. They ranged from short clips like the first, to long monologues from Milton expounding on the minutiae of everyday life, to desperate rages as anger at their abandonment boiled over. Those last messages were usually followed by softer, somber apologies muddied by grief. The emotional turbulence tearing her family apart wracked Talia in guilt, but it was a different trend that threatened to snap Talia’s last, delicate sliver of hope. The messages were dwindling year over year. By two years in ninety-two of the two hundred and thirty-eight messages were done. After two more years worth of mail, only eighty-two messages remained. Her family sent fewer and fewer messages with each passing year.
Talia forced herself to watch straight through, her anxiety mounting as each message finished, signaling one less contact with Milton and Bernard. With each communication she watched her son age, from the toddler that she remembered to a young child at his first day of school, to a boy of nearly nine. At that point, only eighteen messages remained; eighteen messages for over seventeen years of travel.
Talia had stayed behind when the other colonists had left for one reason: a chance to still have a family, and yet, as best she could tell that family had given up on her long before she reached Anima.
At the end of the second day of her binge, Talia had two messages remaining. With a sense of dread, she opened the penultimate recording from home. It had been sent not quite eight years after she left.
Milton’s haggard eyes darted back and forth, unwilling to settle on any one point, set deep in sockets more hollow than Talia remembered. Those were accompanied by a new pair of crow’s feet clawing at their corners, but more disturbingly, Milton’s eyes lacked the typical shield of his glasses. As he glanced about, Talia could imagine his confusion, unable to rely on the crutch of cleaning those lenses in order to avoid direct confrontation.
“Um…I don’t know,” he started, then stopped. He swallowed, and rubbed at the bags of his eyes. “Where do I start?”
As he asked this last part, he glanced offscreen and paused. Talia could read his hesitance, but even more his deliberation. Talia had seen that look many times as Milton mulled over his words.
Finally, he turned and looked directly into the camera. “I can’t do this anymore. We can’t do this, Talia.”
His eyes shifted downward, and he bit at his lip. Almost instantly he shut his eyes, ashamed at his lapse. Talia understood. Milton didn’t want to face this truth any more than Talia did.
His eyes back to camera, Milton plowed on.
“We receive your messages almost twice a month – your ageless messages. Do you know how weird it is to hear from you over and over again in endless variations of the same theme, and you never aging, and always in that same uniform? Message to message only minutes have lapsed for you, while weeks and months leave us in the dust. For Bernard, he might as well be sending fan mail to a favorite television show, only it’s less than that. Your messages are like a familiar commercial, you the recurring spokesman. What connection…. No, still more… how do you think he can hold a connection with a mother that he knows so little?”
Talia winced. She had seen this coming as the messages dwindled. The dread had been building over the past day, but she had hoped it would prove unfounded, no matter how little she had believed in that hope.
“I understand this will be… beyond hard on you, but you can at least,” he said, then hesitated once more. “You can at least hear it all at once, rip it off like the proverbial bandage. For us, this dissolution has been dragged through years – years of carrying on the pretense that a relationship could survive this distance. I love you. Don’t get me wrong, but I can’t do this to our son.”
Milton’s voice shook now, overcome. His eyes watered, but he would not let the tears flow. Not this time.
“It’s not fair for either of us, for any of us, to live like this – to carry on increasingly separated through time. This isn’t an attack on you or me railing against your decision to leave once more. We’ve had those discussions, if you can call these messages that. My piece has been said time and again when it comes to that decision and there is no need to rehash that here. At this point, I’ve accepted that you had to leave. I’ve even managed to accept your departure for what it was for you, not as an abandonment of us.
“But that being said, even acceptance does little to mend the rift created by your travel to your new home. Over sixteen years to go before you even hear from us, and in that time, we’ll receive some pleasantries, but not one shred of real conversation. Nothing shared. Hell, it will be twenty years before I can even hear from you in response to this so-called conversation. No, It’s just not tenable. That’s all there is to it. We have to stop pretending. We have to say goodbye.
“There. I’ve done it. I’ve said my piece.”
Milton paused one last time, again biting at his lip. Talia guessed that lacking lenses he had resorted to a new diversion. Still, where were his glasses?
“Anyway,” he said, “that’s it. There’s only one thing left to say. We love you, Talia. Both of us in our own ways. Bernard didn’t know what to say, and I didn’t want to force it. So this it. Goodbye.”
The screen cut to black, white text dominating the center of the screen.
1 Message Remaining.
Talia couldn’t do it. She pushed back from the monitor, unwilling to open the final message.
Back to Part 1
On to Part 6