© Aleksandr Korchagin | Dreamstime.com – Shooting star in the sky
By Chris Hutton
“It’s more than disconcertment, Talia.” Milton’s bespectacled image froze in momentary lag, pixelating, buffering, then jumping into motion again. “Can you hear me?”
“Yes. It’s a little better.”
“How many economies did we pour into this ship, and it has crappier reception than our cabin?”
“Well, it wasn’t really built for video conferencing, dear, as I’ve already said.”
Milton nodded, and looked away, returning to his usual distraction – cleaning his glasses. “I know. Not much use for that feature after today.”
“No, not much,” Talia nodded. She paused watching her husband clean his glasses for the last time. There was something familiar and comforting in it, yet deeply disheartening. Soon they would lose each other to time, and yet he couldn’t even look at her. “Keep that up and you’re going to scratch your lenses, Milton.”
Milton stopped and turned a hesitant gaze to the camera. He bit at his lip, then cast his eyes about distractedly. They had talked nearly every day that Talia had been on Unity, and he knew every detail of the voyage ahead already. The final crew had boarded a week prior, necessary introductions had been made between the heads of each colonist group, and all systems had been prepped, checked, and rechecked. The final return capsules had departed and the ship’s engines had started, a slow, steady acceleration building that would one day carry his wife to a distant star: her new home.
Talia drummed her fingers against the console, at the same loss as her husband. Everything to be said had been said; the same sentiments shared on a daily basis and even even recorded nearly 450 times in a litany of pre-recorded messages. There reached a point when all the tears had already flowed and all that remained was to move forward, no matter the pain that waited on that path.
“All our years and it comes to this,” Talia started, breaking from her thoughts and vanquishing the silence. “This loss of words,” she continued. “I don’t even know what to say.”
“I know.” Milton leaned back letting out a deep sigh. “I don’t think I can take another goodbye right now.” He signaled air quotes as he said goodbye. “Not one more of those conversations.”
“Then let’s not. It’s just another day. Okay?”
“So Bernard’s doing well?”
“So, so. He misses you of course.” They both paused, hitting a road bump before the illusion even had a chance to take hold.
“Yeah. I miss him, too.” Talia swallowed back the lump in her throat. The last capsule had returned she reminded herself. There could be no turning back. “Otherwise?”
“We played hide-and-seek this morning. He keeps hiding behind the coat rack. Every time.”
“Yeah. I don’t think he quite grasps the finer points of the game, yet.”
“Of course he does. You just don’t understand his rules.”
“Well, there is that.” Milton plowed forward, picking up steam. “Then we read some books. I started him on Where the Sidewalk Ends. I think he likes the rhythm of it, but he’s –”
“–Don’t say missing the finer points,” Talia interrupted.
Milton stopped, breaking stride, then pulled off a weak recovery.
“… not fully into that humor yet?”
“So I finished off with Where the Wild Things Are. He seemed content with that. Then some chase, some lunch, and bubbles in the yard. Now he’s napping.”
“Oh.” Talia couldn’t hide her disappointment.
“I tried to keep him up, I did, but he just couldn’t keep his eyes open. Do you want me to wake him?”
“No. Yes, of course, but no. It feels like it would be too hurtful. We’ve had a pleasant goodbye. I’d rather remember our last call than wake him for a cranky and groggy farewell. What about tomorrow?”
“I think I’ll take him to the park.”
“Oh. Which one?”
“I’m not sure,” Milton started, then stopped.
A black-haired young man, no older than his mid thirties, intruded on the video conference nodding to Talia. He wore a finely pressed uniform, and everything about him, down to his short-cropped hair, was in its place. This was a man of order and orders.
Talia nodded back, then returned to the screen. “I’m sorry, Milton. You remember Gustavo from the Brazilian delegation? Our cryo-engineer?”
“Yes.” Milton raised an awkward wave in acknowledgement.
“It appears all the preparations are set and I’m up. I have to go.” Talia hesitated, looking for the right words.
“No more goodbyes, sweetheart.” Milton cast his eyes anywhere but at the camera.
“Of course.” Talia swallowed and wet her lips. They cracked, and as she wiped at them her hand came back with a small streak of blood. She had nothing left in her, yet how did you end your final goodbye with the love of your life?
“Try Riverside, tomorrow. They have a fountain for the kids if the weather’s nice. Bernard loves it.”
“That’s good. I will.”
“Okay. Fly safe.” Milton’s voice wavered and Talia could see the tears forming. Yet before the flood began the screen went black.
Talia froze staring at those words, consumed by their finality. She had spoken directly with her husband for the last time, and yet the end came with such banal chatter, everything of consequence unuttered.
“Yes, Gustavo, I’m coming.”
She flicked a switch, shutting down power to the terminal, and rose for her final voyage.
Talia stopped mid-stride, half in and half out of her quarters, and glanced at the owner of the gravel-laden voice. Small wrinkles webbed out from his eyes, and others creased from his nostrils to his lips. HIs jowls hung lower than before, and the jet black of his hair had turned a salt and pepper mix of gray and white, yet it remained short as ever, with everything in its place. At first she seemed to be staring at a stranger, then burned a flicker of recognition.
“Gustavo? You stayed?”
“Appears so. A quarter of a century manning the ship while you slept, ensuring you all woke, I just couldn’t accept it being for nothing – turning tail and running home. No, when I chose Amina I committed to it.”
“And the rest of the wake shift?”
“A mix. Many felt cheated and are looking to retire without struggle, but what is life but struggle? Personally I want to see the world my years bought.”
“It’s a kind sentiment, if a little unearned. You stayed as well, and plenty others. A good three dozen or more from what I hear.”
“Well, three dozen of a thousand. What’s that?”
Gustavo glanced up to one corner, biting at his lip, then answered. “One of twenty-eight. Roughly.”
“Doesn’t quite have the same ring, does it?”
“No, ma’am. Not quite.”
“Well, I’m glad to have you, nonetheless. And, there’s no need for ma’am anymore. You’re my senior now.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Gustavo smiled. “It’s good to see you as well.” With that he nodded and began once more down the corridor. His leisurely pace and the fondness of his gaze spoke to a volume of experience so far beyond the young man Talia had known only a relative week prior. She barely recognized him. To what degree would that same passage of time have changed her own family? Would they be as equally unrecognizable?
Talia had only one way to find out. When the morning had begun twenty-four years of messages had been downloading to her terminal. They had been downloading from the main drives since the moment she’d been assigned a station on Anima Day One. As she entered her quarters she could see the green light flashing. The download had completed.
Back to Part 1
On to Part 5