Ablation: Part 1

© Aleksandr Korchagin | Dreamstime.com – Shooting star in the sky

By Chris Hutton

          They had made a mistake – a monumental, astronomical mistake.

          Dr. Talia Ernst stretched out across the window seat of her hab unit, collecting her sole pillow beneath her head for some modicum of comfort, and stared out into the night. The stars stared back, both familiar and foreign. Her whole life the stippling beauty of the night sky had provided her great comfort, but now she found no solace in its infinite expanse. That feeling of relief had been supplanted by a jumble of disparate emotions, the two most prominent of which were excitement and grief; and both battled for dominance. For only the second time in her life Talia found herself at a loss.

          Above her a meteor streaked across the firmament, a “shooting star” disintegrating from the heat of atmospheric entry. There had been a time in the history of humankind when the term meteor had been defined in specific relation to its entry into, and subsequent ablation within, Earth’s atmosphere, and as Talia watched in a mix of childlike wonderment and detached observation, she pondered the ego of that etymology. The definition existed as a remnant of both a geocentric ideology and a pre-cosmic explanation of the universe, finding its root in the Greek metéōron. In that earliest form the word included a host of atmospheric phenomena from wind and rain to rainbows and, of course, meteors. Then came an understanding of the cosmos and the word meteor’s expulsion from that family tree, but the geo-centrism of the definition remained. And then at last humankind reached beyond the confines of Earth, spreading across the solar system and even out into the icy hell of the Oort Cloud, and wherever humans spread as a species, if an atmosphere existed, then meteors followed and with them came the magic of the shooting star.

          Talia closed her eyes and made a wish.


***


          “Do you see it?” she asked.

          “Umm… are you going to judge me if I say no?”

          “Of course not,” she said, casting a definitively judgey glance at her date, Milton Barnes. Handsome, if delicate, he wore an old-fashioned tweed jacket and a pair of thick-rimmed glasses, both of which gave testimony to his status as a relic – especially the glasses. Tweed jackets had come in and out of fashion over the centuries, but after corrective surgery became the norm glasses had gone the way of the top hat and the parasol. The eccentricity of his dress made Talia want to roll her eyes, but it also intrigued her. Milton existed a man out of time, a historian immersed within the culture of his study. There was something endearing in his devotion.

          “Just look there at Pisces, just a little down and to the left from the bottom star of the western fish’s head,” Talia continued, pointing up into the sky. “You can’t miss it.”

          “Okay, so now you’re just making stuff up. I mean fish heads?”

          Disgusted, Talia cut her eyes at Milton. What an ignorant fool, she thought. How can he not know the constellations? The conquering of the stars was the driving mission of the current generation, the pinnacle of academia, and yet he knew nothing of them.

          “One question. Do you ever lift your head from the page and just look at the universe above? Have you even ever seen the night sky?”

          “In all fairness,” he started, “that’s two questions. And first off, no. Kind of need my nose in the books when that’s where the history is. Plus we have people like you for the stars.”

          “People like me?”

          “Yes. Dreamers, explorers, adventurers: the people who drive the expansion of the frontier. People like you.”

          Talia blushed. “That’s the first thing you’ve said right all night.”

          “Didn’t know I was being tested. I would’ve read up.”

          “That’s okay. We’ll call tonight a study session instead. Come here.” Talia motioned Milton over.

          “Yes, ma’am.”

          He walked closer and, as Talia pointed up at the sky, Milton bent low to her eye level and pressed in close to get the best angle of view. Talia could feel the heat radiating off of him as his face pressed within an inch of hers. She lowered her voice, taking on an intimate tone, and reached one arm around his shoulders guiding him as she pointed out the stars with the other.

          “You see,” she said, “that there, those six bright stars forming a circle, that’s the circlet. And just off from the lowest star of the circlet, you should see it, brighter than the others. Do you see it?”

          “Yes,” he said, his breath warm against her skin. A tingling pimpled across her flesh and Talia felt an unfamiliar flutter of attraction. She stumbled, at a loss for words.

          “Yes,” Milton said again, this time inflecting a question.

          “Yes,” Talia said, finding her voice at last. “Well that’s, that’s Venus. With the naked eye it looks no more than a bright star, the Evening Star, but now we have stations in its orbit, scientists up close studying the atmosphere and the history of its runaway greenhouse effect in which its oceans boiled away. In fact, some say it was Venus and that very same greenhouse effect that inspired James Hansen to some of our earliest computer climate models.”

          “You don’t say.” Milton turned towards Talia his face almost pressing against hers.

          “I do. This part’s history, you know. Kind of your area.” Their faces were intimately close, and Talia could feel the imminence of their first kiss, and yet Milton moved no closer.

          “Uh huh,” he said. “Not my era, though.”

          “Oh.” He’s dragging it out, she thought, and decided that was unacceptable. She grabbed the back of his head and pulled him close into a deep kiss. The act was passionate and new and, much as she would have liked to remember it as magical, it was also awkward at best.

          They unlocked from each other.

          “Wow,” Milton said and fell back pulling her down to the grass.

          “Yeah, wow.” Talia lied falling down beside him.

          “I never knew the stars could be so spell-binding, so amorous.”

          “It pays to study.” Talia laid her head back against Milton’s chest and stared up into the sky. Despite the awkwardness of the kiss, she still felt elated, her head swimming in the ecstasy of the moment, yet also tangled in a web of meanings. Stars had been used to describe passions before, in the time of Shakespeare with the star-crossed love of Romeo and Juliet. Contextually the term had come to mean ill-fated. She laid there beside Milton staring up at the cosmos and pondered this meaning both new and old, hoping that it offered no true portent beyond her propensity to drown out her own joys through overthinking.


***


          The alarm sounded over the intercom, and the emergency lights flickered to life.

          “One hour until launch,” came the computerized voice. “All personnel should now be at their rally points. Repeat. One hour until launch. All personnel should be at their rally points.”

          Talia sighed, then, with great effort, heaved herself from the window seat and stepped over to her bed. Two small cases set open on the mattress, each half-packed with an assortment of clothes and personal effects. She reached in slipping out a printed photo, a curiosity, the fascination with which had been imparted upon her by Milton – one of his few anachronisms that she had adopted. The photo was black & white, neither having learned to develop color film, and showed Milton, Talia, and a small child posing on the side of the road, a behemoth structure towering into what she remembered as the cerulean blue of the sky, but which showed here as a dim gray. The structure was the largest launch pad ever built, its service tower piercing upwards in a twisted skein of trusses and bridgeways: Launch Pad 73C. Despite the grandiosity of its purpose the government had avoided any flight of fancy in its naming. In the photo, Talia, aged 35 years, smiled from ear to ear showing more teeth than in any picture for which she had ever before posed. The glow of pride enveloped her.

          She turned towards a nearby mirror. Her face still displayed the same youthful appearance, yet the glow had faded. She hadn’t aged more than a year, and yet she had aged decades.

          A knock sounded from the entryway to her hab unit, alerting her to the presence of Dr. Darshan Vaidyar, one of many resident geologists and also one of the maybe one hundred colonists that Talia had met pre-launch. That had been during initial team training. In the end, however, Dr. Vaidyar had been assigned to Group Ogma, while Talia had been placed with Group Mímir. Their paths had not crossed again until disembarking from Unity’s landers. Since then they had struck up a casual acquaintanceship, each finding in the other a comfort in their mutual ability to focus on the details of their studies instead of dwelling on the mistake that had sent them to an in inhospitable planet.

          “Yes, Darshan?”

          “Haruka was looking for you at rally point Mímir.”

          “And he sent you?”

          “Not exactly. I swung by on my way to Ogma. Thought I’d wish you well on the return. When Haruka reported you unaccounted for, I volunteered myself. We need to hurry. Boarding is underway.”

          “Thank you for your concern, Darshan.” Still clutching the photo, Talia turned and cast a quick look through the window and into the great dark and the mysteries that it hid. What discoveries awaited beyond and soon to be abandoned?

          “Of course.” Darshan cast furtive glances down the hall, anxious to be on his way.

          Talia turned back to the elderly geologist. “Enhet Basen was our home for so short a time. What has it been? Four weeks? Five? How quickly we decided to pack our bags and move on.”

          “The atmosphere is not tenable, Talia. What would you have us do, create a second Mars? To what end?”

          “The same?”

          “Not good enough. Most of us came here with a promise of a second Earth. Habitable. Breathable. That’s not what we found.”

          “The Great Mistake. I wonder sometimes if when the message of our failure finally reaches Earth, will anyone from that administration still be in a place of power to be held accountable for the error? Will they even be alive?”

          “Some. We can discuss this on our way. Really, Talia, we must hurry.” Darshan nodded down the hall. “Come.”

          “To where?” She glanced about her disheveled room, so much still to pack and yet so little of it of any actual importance.

          “Home,” Darshan said.


***


          “No, really?”

          “Yes.” Milton swept his tweed clad arms in a wide arc showcasing the small cottage before them. “All that you see, our grand new adventure.”

          “You bought it?”

          “No. I murdered the tenants and buried them out back. They were hermits. No one will ever suspect a thing. I’ve forged the deeds and the transfer is complete. We’ll live on the lam. A modern day Bonnie & Clyde.”

          “That would mean we were nomadic, Milton. And murderers. Who get caught.”

          “Ah, the best laid plans. Very well, then. Forget the lam. We’ll live here. No one will suspect a thing. But we’ll know our misdeeds.”

          “You’re an idiot.”

          “Yes, very true. Now come here.” Not waiting for Talia to comply Milton rushed to her side and swept her off her feet, hefting her like a sack of potatoes over his shoulders.

          “What are you doing?” Talia beat on his back with her fists.

          “It was once tradition for the groom to carry his bride over the threshold of their new home.”

          “Not like this.”

          “No, I’m pretty sure this is the way. I am a historian, remember. We know things.”

          “Put me down.”

          “No can do. Tradition is very clear. If you step over that threshold you will be beset upon by demons. History does not lie.”

          “Perhaps,” she laughed, “if you hadn’t slaughtered the occupants there wouldn’t be any demons to descend upon me.”

          “Ah yes. Well, live and learn my dear.”

          With that he charged through the door with great flourish, pivoted from the foyer into the living room and flung his wife down upon a mattress discarded in the middle of the floor among a towering labyrinth of moving boxes. Mid fling he shouted, “Veni, vidi, Vi — shit!”

          Milton collapsed to the mattress clutching at his back.

          “Oh hell, I think I threw a disc.”

          “Serves you right.” Talia sat up taking in their new home. A part of her felt anger that Milton had taken it upon himself to make such a momentous decision. Another part of her loved him for that same eccentricity. It wasn’t until she saw the skylight with a perfect view of the stars that she realized which part of her held dominance.

          “You better be faking that back injury,” she said.

          “No, it is really most excruciating. I will likely never recover,” he moaned. “You ought call an ambulance. Of course, if you do that, our number may be up. Any prolonged investigation is bound to discover the former resi–”

          She placed a finger to his lips. “Shh.”

          “As you wish.”

          At that she fell against him and they embraced. They had never been happier. She had never been happier…


***


          …not until that day, outside of Launch Pad 73 C. Yet now, looking at the photo in her hand, she realized that she had been the only one happy that day. Milton smiled beside her, as did her infant son, Bernard, yet neither of those smiles carried up into the eyes. They had feigned that joy for her benefit.

          “Home, Darshan?” she asked. “Do you really think we have a home to which to return?”

          “Not the one we left, perhaps, but a home nonetheless, yes.”

          “Then you’re more the fool than my Milton ever was.”

          Darshan regarded her with a puzzled expression.

          “Tell Haruka that Mímir can board without me.”

          “You can’t be serious.” He stepped forward as if entering that room could somehow sway Talia. Of course, even his meager knowledge of her told him that Talia would not be swayed.

          “Completely,” she said and began to unpack her bags.

          “You’re certain? Nothing I say can convince you?”

          Talia embraced him in a light farewell hug.

          “Yes. Now get moving. Otherwise you’ll be forced to join me for an extended stay.”

          Darshan nodded, unable to mouth goodbye, then ran down the hall. Talia listened as his footfalls retreated, perhaps the last sounds of another person that she would ever hear within the halls of Enhet Basen. There would be no second launch, no rescue vessel, and no return to Earth. This decision marked the claiming of her new citizenship, a citizen of the Alpha Centauri system in a nation of one.




On to Part 2