© Aleksandr Korchagin | Dreamstime.com – Shooting star in the sky
By Chris Hutton
Talia’s back arched and she could feel the air crushed from her lungs but she could say nothing. Her feet dangled lifelessly and she resigned, helpless to resist her assault as those arms pressed in squeezing her tight. They were stronger than they had any right to be, imbued with the strength of a decade of love, passion, and commitment.
At last, Milton set her down, Talia’s only shock in that he hadn’t twirled her helpless through the air like a soldier embracing his love on the return from a tour of duty. Her husband dabbed at his eyes, attempted to speak, then choked back the words.
“I understand, Milton. I do.” Talia dabbed her thumb against his tears. They locked eyes, both choked, but Talia fighting back the emotion as best as possible. She couldn’t cry in front of Milton. If she did, she didn’t know that she’d be able to go through with the mission.
“My turn!” Bernard tugged at Milton’s pants.
“My turn! Hume!”
“Hume? Okay, Bernard.” Milton bent down, embraced their two-year-old son, and lifted him up, hugging him tight. Talia turned away.
Hume was Bernard’s word for hug me. Watching Milton with Bernard she could feel the emotional wall she had spent the better part of the past year building begin to crack. She had to focus on something else – anything else.
A few feet away she saw the same scene playing out with another family. Beyond that an elderly woman embraced Sam Keeling, Mímir Group’s physician, surgeon, and linguist. From the look of it, obviously they were mother and son exchanging their final goodbyes. By the time Dr. Keeling and the other colonists arrived, his mother would likely be dead or senile. By the time a message could reach her, chances of the former would be far greater.
Talia turned back to her family as Milton held out Bernard. She lifted her son from her husband and hugged the boy close.
“Tank you,” he said, giggling the whole time.
“You’re welcome, sweetie.”
Milton broke into a wracking, full-chested sob.
“Oh no.” Bernard twisted in his mother’s arms. “Why’s daddy sad?”
“We have to say bye-bye, sweetie. Saying bye-bye can be sad.”
“Don’t say bye-bye.”
Milton and Talia exchanged a pained glance. Talia had known from the beginning how difficult this day would be, yet she had been unable to turn down the opportunity. It was historic, but more it was critically important. Humankind had talked for centuries of the need for a backup in case of an extinction level event. Since then they had colonized Mars and the rest of the solar system, yet those colonies still held a deep dependence on Earth and on luck. Man could survive unaided in those colonies, but a mechanical malfunction could easily destroy their fragile self-sufficiency. Anima, as the Global Coalition had named the target planet, offered real hope: a world on which humankind could survive even in the failure of technology – a breathable, habitable, Earth analog. To colonize it, to create that backup, required sacrifice.
“We have to,” Milton said, hugging Talia again and squeezing Bernard between them. He laughed.
Milton pressed close once more sending Bernard into another spasm of laughter. He squirmed and kicked as he squealed, then stretched out towards his father, pressing off from Talia with his feet. She knelt down, doing her best not to drop him, and minimizing the fall if she failed.
“No, no, Bernard. This is mommy time.”
“Bernard,” Milton started now kneeling himself, “we spoke about today, remember?”
“Mommy go work.”
“That’s right. Mommy has to go to work.” Milton pried off his glasses and rubbed at them with his shirt. The lenses were already pristine and the act held no hope of fooling Talia.
Bernard arched and kicked and finally Talia set him down. He ran straight to his father.
Talia interrupted. “It’s okay. He doesn’t understand.”
Bernard lept around his daddy’s neck, strangling him with the desperation of his embrace. Milton pried his hands loose just enough that he could breathe and talk with some modicum of ease.
“I can’t say I understand, either.”
“I know, we’re not going to focus on that today. That’s not the last conversation I want to have.”
“It won’t be the last. I’ll have a month docked on Unity while the various crews arrive and ample call time. Even after we depart you’ll both hear from me. I’ll be recording messages to be delivered in flight. Every birthday, holiday, anniversary, even some at random. You’ll be hearing from me.”
“I know,” Milton said, still cleaning his glasses. “It’s just…” His voice wavered.
“You’ll be hearing from me?”
“Right. One way. Any messages we send…”
“Won’t be answered for over twenty-eight years from now.”
Talia felt the crack. She wanted to stay. She had signed the contracts. She had accepted the salary and the training, and she had committed, yet she didn’t want to leave. For the first time in her life, she felt torn – ripped between her family and her life’s ambition.
Still kneeling on the floor, she hugged her husband. There were no words to ease this situation.
“I love you, Milton.”
“I love you, too.”
“And I love you, Bernard.”
“Okay.” Talia stood, brushing off her knees and cracking her back. “I think it’s time.”
Milton nodded, rising with her.
“Go home now?”
Oh hell, she thought. He still doesn’t understand. And of course he didn’t. Bernard wouldn’t even remember her. As an adult his only recollection of his mother would be pre-recorded messages delivered while she slept through a twenty-four year flight.
“Not yet,” she said, her voice cracking, and on the edge of tears herself.
“Sure, Bernard. Daddy can take you to the playground.”
She looked to her husband, both saying their final farewells through their longing in their eyes. So much could be said without a single word.
Haruka tapped her on the shoulder. “It’s time to go.”
She left the rally point, Haruka at her side.
“What now?” he asked. “Set up outposts in the twilight and start seeding?”
“Well,” Talia said, “our oxygen reserves will last longer now, and with some conditioning we could acclimate to the atmosphere. We’ll need respirators for any outdoor work initially. Darshan and I had discussed ecopoiesis.”
“Dr. Vaidyar of Ogma group.”
“Oh. Yes. I’d heard the two of you were close.”
Close? she thought. That description seemed too easily attributed. They had been acquaintances, but only two people had ever penetrated her defenses, and they were light years away.
“Yes, we were. Anyway, it would take generations for it to work.” She eyed Haruka. “I don’t think we have that.”
In the distance, behind Haruka, she caught sight of two figures approaching from Group Nabu, although she could not make out who specifically was approaching.
“Fall seven times, stand up eight.”
“I appreciate the positive-thinking, Haruka, really I do,” Talia said as she exited the Terminus and re-entered Zhōngxīn, “but for now, I need to focus on the present. Let’s put seeding aside. The whole atmosphere is critically short on oxygen and our stores, even with the recyclers, are not infinite. We’ll have to focus on electrolysis in the short term. Do you know much about the printers?”
“No,” he said. “Not my specialty, but I have a feeling we can find someone.” Haruka gestured forward encouraging Talia to look about the Hub.
All around her pockets of colonists milled about the abandoned stalls, gathering in small groups. Talia estimated thirty colonists in the hub, and likely there were a scattering of other milling about in other portions of Enhet Basen.
“Okay, so we have some colonists remaining. We still have to consider genetic diversity. Without rigid controls, we’re a dead colony in a few generations – long before seeding will have a significant impact on the atmosphere.”
“Perhaps, but we need to plan for a future, Dr. Ernst.”
“I understand, Haruka. I do. But right now I have more pressing matters. We can discuss later. I promise.”
With that, Talia parted ways with her group leader and headed for Yedinstvo. She had downloaded her messages from Milton and Bernard before descending in the Unity landers, but she still had twenty years worth of messages left to which to listen and reply.
Behind her the goat bleated its strange human-like cry, and Talia felt herself building an odd affinity towards the animal. She shared his pain. Did he leave a kid behind? A caretaker? What was it for a goat to be boarded on a colony vessel, placed into cryo-sleep, and awoke on a strange, foreign planet? Talia wondered how it compared with her own disconcertment. Of course, she’d never know; no more than she would ever truly know her own son.
Back to Part 1
On to Part 4