© Aleksandr Korchagin | Dreamstime.com – Shooting star in the sky
By Chris Hutton
“Sounds like a fool’s errand to me.” Milton threw a log on the fire. The flames licked around the curves of the latest addition, embracing and consuming it, as the smoke filled the fireplace and climbed up and out through the flue, the whole setup yet one more of the many anachronisms that followed in Milton’s wake.
Talia turned away from her personal screen setting her eyes on Milton. “The mission of our time. You understand that right?” She didn’t wait for him to answer. “The planet is in the habitable zone, an actual Goldilocks planet. Terrestrial. Potential oceans. This could be it – an Earth analog and its only one system away.”
“So only 5 light years? Sign me up.”
“I was in the ballpark. That counts for something, right?”
“It would, if you weren’t so condescending about it. This is huge. How can you not see that?”
“And the Global Coalition is only what, two years out from completing an interstellar colony ship? Good thing we found a prime target within her only remotely realistic range. Otherwise we might have wasted nearly a trillion dollars of the economy on that boondoggle.”
Talia gritted her teeth, unwilling to have her excitement dampened by the cynicism of her husband. “Barnard’s Star is within range.”
“Okay. Rephrase. Good thing, we found a prime target around the closest possible star.”
“Technically, Proxima Centauri would be closer.”
Milton stopped stoking the fire and set his face in his hands caught in an irrepressible silent laugh. “You just have to be right.”
“I don’t have to be,” Talia said, smiling once more. “I just am.”
“Of course you are.” Milton rose, crossed the gap between the fire and his wife, then leaned down and planted a kiss on her forehead. “You’re always right.”
She shoved him away. “Don’t patronize me.”
“Not my intention at all.” He took a seat beside her, stretching his hands towards the fire for warmth. “I didn’t mean to spoil the news. If the consensus is a habitable planet within our reach, that’s huge. That’s the New World huge.”
Talia narrowed her eyes. “Why are you giving in so easily?”
“I’m not. It’s a big day. Lots of good news. Distant planets. A great checkup. Everybody’s healthy. I just want to keep us on a positive note.”
Talia eased up, cozying beside Milton. She set her head against his shoulder. “Fair enough.”
“So, what do you say? Do we want to know the gender?”
“Of course, I do. Come on, Milton. You know I hate surprises. You?”
Milton pondered for a moment, Talia watching as he did. Always so lost in the past, he often overlooked modern convenience. As such Talia took his response as somewhat of a surprise.
“Yes,” he decided. “I think I would like to know.”
“Good,” she said, settling back against his shoulder. “It’s a boy.”
Milton jerked back in surprise sending Talia tumbling from his shoulder. At the last minute, he reached out to catch her and they both spilled across the floor in front of the roaring fire.
“Surprise,” she said.
She laughed remembering Milton’s shock. How had he really thought she wouldn’t have found out the baby’s gender at the earliest possible moment? Why would she miss out on that?
Talia scanned the empty room, the bed littered with the half unpacked contents of her suitcase. The black and white photograph of her family lay prominently on a heap of clothes. What am I thinking, she thought. I can’t miss this.
And she couldn’t. Not really. That rocket was a once in a lifetime opportunity. If she missed it, she would have to live with that regret the rest of her life. She had to go. She had to go now.
She dashed from the room empty-handed. There was no time to waste. She had wasted too much time already.
Talia pivoted around the first corner, exiting Mímir Corridor, sliding across the metal floor paneling, and slamming into the far wall of Yedinstvo Kholl. A burst of pain bloomed in her shoulder, a firework flashing to life lighting up her nerves.
“Son of a –”
She righted herself, and sped off down the hall, stretching out her arm and testing the shoulder joint, but giving herself no break for a full examination. The clock had already started ticking.
On cue the computer chimed out its warning. “Fifteen minutes until launch. All personnel should now be boarded. Repeat. Fifteen minutes until launch. All personnel should now be boarded.”
Talia picked up pace, her footfalls echoing through the empty corridors. Up ahead she could see the opening from Yedinstvo onto Zhōngxīn, The Hub. Beyond that she’d find the entrance to the Terminus. Rally Point Mímir was four doors down that hall, and the launchpad one airlock beyond that.
She bolted through the door into the vast expanse of The Hub, the former cargo bay of Unity, detached from the main ship in orbit. Now it stretched out, an empty square meant to be the thriving center of the colony, yet instead empty save for barren stalls and discarded cargo. Talia’s side ached, not used to the exertion, but she pressed on crossing the wide gulf of The Hub as swiftly as she could.
As she had crossed half the expanse a scream rang out, piercing the echo chamber and reverberating from wall to wall in the cavernous common area. Talia tripped and rolled to a stop, slamming into a cast-off pallet. She grabbed at the new pain swelling in her back, as she hobbled to her feet and searched for the source of the scream.
A goat bleated from a neighboring stall filled with grass and hay. Who the hell thought it was a good idea to bring livestock? The goat let out a third bleat, it’s eerily human-like wail causing Talia to shiver. There was no time to actually consider the answer. The goat was just one more incongruity in this grand theater of the absurd.
Regaining her feet, Talia pushed on all the way to the doors onto the Terminus. They opened automatically upon her approach, revealing yet one more empty hall. One door down. Her side howled in agony and her breath came in heavy rasps. Two doors. Three doors. She couldn’t feel her legs and every step came as an act of absolute will.
Four doors. She’d made it!
“What do you mean you made it?” Milton shut his book and slid his feet from the ottoman by the fire. He was a smoker’s jacket short from a complete stereotype.
“I’ve been selected for the Unity mission. I made it.”
“Okay…” Milton ran his hands back through his hair. “So did you consider telling me that you had applied?”
“No,” Talia said. “That would’ve been rather pointless. Unless I was selected it bore no impact upon us.”
“But you were selected and that’s a huge impact, Talia.”
Talia paced hurriedly, every step reverberating with the excitement and dread that battled within her. “Yes, but you know what this means to me. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity, Milton. Hell, it’s more than that. Most lifetimes don’t even see an opportunity like this one on the horizon.”
“I get it, I do,” Milton said, rising to his feet. “But Bernard just now has acclimated to his nanny. You’ve barely been back at work and I’m on track for tenure. We’d what have to up and move to Florida for training?”
“No. Final launch to Unity is in Florida. I was selected for training at the Kagoshima facility. Part of the international effort and all.”
“Japan? We’d have to move to Japan? I don’t know anything about Japanese history.”
“You don’t have to, Milton. The Global Coalition has agreed to cover all of our living expenses for duration of training. This is the biggest endeavor in human history, Milton. All of human history.”
“Well, way to cut to the core.” Milton traced his hand across his shelves of books, collecting dust on his fingers as he did. “Fine. I get it. I’m in. We’ll go to Kagoshira –”
“Kagoshima,” Talia interrupted.
“There, too,” Milton continued. “We can do both. It will give Bernard culture. Plus I’ve always wondered what it would be to be a stay-at-home dad. Might as well give it a whirl.”
Talia leaned in and kissed Milton. This time as they embraced, Talia felt all of the passion and all of the magic that she had imagined but found lacking in their first kiss, as if falling in love with Milton for the first time all over again. At last she broke away.
“You’ll love, Japan. We all will.”
“Of course. I’d follow you anywhere. I guess I just never saw anywhere including a distant star.”
Talia stopped, her excitement crashing to a halt. This had been the moment that she had dreaded. Milton had never paid attention to the stars or to the minutia of the news around humankind’s ambitions there. He always missed the important details.
“Milton,” she said, “you don’t understand. I made it. I was selected for Unity. Not us.”
Talia leaned against the window ledge looking out from Rally Point Mímir. She had made it. From this vantage, she could watch the rocket on its ascent and witness the final departure of her fellow colonists back to Earth. Of course at the moment she could see very little – only the constant dark of the tidally locked planet. How the scientists in charge had missed that feature she could only guess, but in the end Milton had been right, much as it frustrated her. The planet selection had been hastened to justify the expenditures already spent on the ship. The data had not been properly vetted.
As Unity had approached the Alpha Centauri system it had surely sent new data back to Earth, and somewhere in that twenty-four year voyage, specifically somewhere within the first sixteen years of that voyage, the ship had sent back data on the planet’s orbital and rotational synchronicity, because the administrators in the Global Coalition had been able to reprogram the Unity landers to descend into the twilight zone on the eastern terminator, a data package that could have taken up to 4.37 years to reach the ship. Talia guessed that the error was caught near the end of that limited range, because that program too had been rushed, and the code hadn’t sent the landers into the twilight zone at all. Instead, Unity’s landers had descended ten kilometers into the dark.
Beyond the glass of the rally point’s window numerous lights flickered as the ascent vehicle’s engines flared to life. Talia could hear the roar and see the smoke billowing as the flames poured out from the thrusters. In that sudden burst of light she could make out a distant range of mountains, a lake, and even a small river – features that had yet to be explored by the colonists; explorations that they had abandoned.
As the rocket arced across the sky and vanished among the stars, Talia relaxed against the ledge and took in her surroundings. Another colonist leaned against a far window, watching as she had been. For a moment she held out hope that it would be Darshan, but she had no such luck. She squinted for a clearer view and realized it was Haruka waiting at that far window, unwilling to leave a member of his team behind.
She felt some regret at that, if her absence from boarding had in fact played a part in his decision to stay, but she also felt a sense of hope. If she was still here, and Haruka was still here, perhaps other colonists were watching at other rally points as well. Maybe, just maybe, Enhet Basen still had the start of a colony after all.
Even so, they weren’t family. Not yet. She only had one family and she had left them behind. Would they ever know that her decision to stay had been made on their behalf? Had she boarded that ship, any hope of hearing from Milton or her son again would have died upon launch. That was not a mistake that she planned to make twice.
Back to Part 1
On to Part 3