© Aleksandr Korchagin | Dreamstime.com – Shooting star in the sky
By Chris Hutton
A week passed with the final message from home still unopened, then another, and another. A month after the majority of the colonists had launched back to Earth and a calm had finally settled over Enhet Basen. The remaining settlers, well, they settled. Life returned to daily routine, even if a new routine.
Talia began each day with a quick breakfast in the kitchen off Mímir Corridor, which she shared with Haruka, Mímir’s group leader, and Dr. Sam Keeling, the physician that she had seen parting ways with an elderly relative in the Departure Hall of Launch Pad 73C so many light years ago. She now knew that the woman had been his mother, and that she had died only two weeks after Dr. Keeling left. He hadn’t had the heart to return to Earth after hearing the news. Now the three of them were the sole inhabitants of Mímir Corridor, which had been built to house fifty original colonists, with padding for 25% more. That had been built in as a safety precaution incase the colonists were unable to build new housing before the population expanded. Now, the empty halls and quarters echoed with the slightest movement, the untouched housing a reminder of everyone that had left the colony and everyone that had been left behind on Earth.
All the remaining colonists had a sob story, not just Talia and Sam. Haruka had been one of the few to travel with his family, yet his wife and daughter had returned with the other colonists. This shared grief in the fresh loss of their families bonded the three final members of Group Mímir: a physician, a military commander, and an astrophysicist, and each orphaned in their own way. They were far from the oddest “family” to have formed within Enhet Basen – just one of many adopted families struggling to understand their new life in the twilight.
Talia settled in beside Haruka for a breakfast of eggs and artificial bacon. They didn’t have the livestock for real bacon and while some of the groups had cultured meat, Mímir’s bioengineer and her team had not stayed behind, leaving their lab in Yedinstvo Kholl sadly unstaffed. They could have easily attained the supplies, but it was early yet and Talia lacked the energy to shuffle her way down to Tenjin corridor where Ikeno grew the cultured pork. At least eggs were in bountiful supply, as plenty of hens had made the voyage and themselves outnumbered the remaining human colonists.
“Morning,” Talia said, before starting on her eggs.
Haruka merely nodded.
“Good morning ,” Sam said as he sat. “Any luck yet?”
Sam was referring to Talia’s current project, collaborating with an engineer from Ogma to set up the observatory. Dr. Ernst wanted to collect as much information as she could about the local solar system. She had the opportunity to gather the most accurate data yet on the Alpha Centauri system. That would be the legacy she left for humanity; and one day it might prove critical for the colony on Anima.
“Not much,” she said. “We found the files for the print, but we only have two functional print crews, and they’re still tied up on the start of Nabu’s electrolysis project and the construction of the first remote outpost with that architect, Lacroix out of Lao Zi. Bachir says it will be at least three weeks before one of the units frees up and two months before he has anyone trained for the third unit. Not that it matters. He’s already promised that one out.”
Talia stopped and chuckled. “You know, for a colony dependent on interstellar travel, we’re already short–changing the value of the stars.”
Haruka remained silent, but Sam nodded his agreement. “We always have. Just hang in there. You’re welcome to join me on my rounds. You know how awkward it can be when you’re the GP for half the people you know?”
“I thought so.”
“Thought what?” Gustavo turned the bend into the kitchen. “Mind if I join you?”
Haruka gestured for Gustavo to sit, maintaining his silence. The more time lapsed since his family’s departure, the less he spoke.
Gustavo took a seat. While not a full-fledged member of the Mímir family, he had earned at the very least a satellite membership. He floated between Tir, Nabu, and Mímir, though he and the three other wake shifters had discussed taking over Athena Corridor, as none of its delegates had remained.
“I come bearing gifts.” He slid a plate of cultured pork onto the table. “Ikena and the other growers set up a stall in Zhōngxīn.”
“And this is why you’re always welcome,” Talia said.
“I thought you would appreciate that. So where were we?”
Sam caught Gustavo up on the idle chitchat, Talia nodding along. As they talked, Gustavo smiled and laughed, an ease in his posture hinting at a peace of mind that had escaped the others of the crew. Sam played as if his loss had dulled, smiling and chatting, but the tension in his shoulders and the vacant look in his eyes gave away the truth of his pain. Yet Gustavo displayed no such tells, his peace seemingly genuine.
Perhaps that was truly the case. Gustavo had twenty-four years in flight to accept those that he had left behind. What’s more, he had stayed in communication. Rather than the over eight-year lag that the rest of the colonists would now experience with each message sent, he had been able to carry on communication from the start of the flight, the lag growing larger with each passing year, allowing him to acclimate to the temporal distance. He had watched as his family and friends aged, and he had aged with them.
“What was it like being awake?” Talia asked.
“Working on the wake shift for all those years, just you and a skeleton crew, pulling gradually further and further from Earth. What was it like?”
Haruka perked up a little at this. He didn’t move or join in the conversation, but the clicking of his fork against the plate ceased and his gaze had shifted to his three crewmates. Even Sam’s chatter ended.
Gustavo paused considering the question. “There’s no simple answer, I’m afraid. Lonely… and passionate. We were a small family, much like we have here, but larger. We had a lifetime together. You might as well ask a man to sum up his entire career, or an entire marriage.”
He paused again, waiting for more. Talia didn’t respond. She had long ago learned you often learned more with silence than with questions. Sam, unfortunately, never learned that lesson.
“Yeah, okay. Well, what about working comms? You and, what’s her name, Sofie?”
“Yeah, the Kenyan comm’s specialist.”
Talia watched closely, noticing the first signs of frustration – no, anger – from Gustavo. Sam’s line of questioning, and more importantly his callous references to Lt. Safaa Jebbour, struck a nerve. There was a story there, between the two of them; between Gustavo and Safaa. There was always a story.
“Yeah, that’s what I mean,” Sam continued. “She was in communication with Earth, in charge of the data relays and whatnot, right?”
“Word is you two were close. So I was thinking maybe you were there for some of… well let’s say, the critical communications.”
Gustavo eased. “Yes. I was there when we informed Earth that Anima was locked, and I was there when we received our new landing coordinates.”
“So you knew that we’d be settling in perpetual dark?”
“Not right, away,” Gustavo said. “No, at first we thought we’d be landing in the twilight zone. Lt. Perret discovered the miscalculation, but of course by then it was too late to course correct.”
“Jesus. So you knew coming in the shitshow that we were landing in.”
“I knew the challenges, yes.”
Sam only seemed to be digging himself deeper, and simultaneously turning the conversation further and further away from Talia’s point of interest.
“The distance,” Talia interjected, “did it have the same effect for you?”
“Did the time lag destroy my relationships back home? Is that what you mean?”
“Yes,” Talia said.
“Some. Most to be more precise. But the goodbyes came long ago and once I could accept them, well, life became more bearable. You just need time.”
Yes, time, Talia thought. Time and to finally let go.
The green light blinked letting her know that her recording had started. Talia sat before her terminal in her personal quarters dressed in jeans and a simple blouse. She had printed the clothes specifically for this message. It was important that she not be in the same uniform as in all of the messages that had already been sent. It was important that Milton and Bernard finally see some change. Her hair had also grown longer in the six weeks since the colonists had landed. The outfit and her hair would have to be enough. Age wise there would be little difference visible.
Part of Dr. Ernst wondered why she put this pressure on her appearance. She had decided during that breakfast with Gustavo that she had to say goodbye. Yet if that is what she truly wanted, she questioned why she had made such an effort to heighten the differences between this message and those that came before it. What did it matter if she had come to say farewell.
Yet it did. It mattered. Her family needed a change to the status quo, and this was the least that she could do for them.
“Hello Milton,” she started. “Hello Bernard. I wish that I could see you. Both of you. I wish that I could have been there to watch you grow up and grow old. I wish I could have shared those experiences with you. And I know I could have, that life could have been different – that I could have stayed – but… well would we have survived that decision? I don’t know. I’ve always been with the stars and to have turned down the opportunity to settle the first interstellar colony, I think that would have broken me all the same. Broken us all perhaps.
“I know that doesn’t make what you have been through any easier. And I know that you said your goodbyes and that you needed to let me go. I understand that.
“Where am I going? I should have scripted this. I considered it, but I thought you deserved better. You deserved to hear from me straight. No filter. Now I think I’m just rambling. Maybe I am. But…”
Talia sighed and settled back into her chair, casting her head back and staring up at the ceiling.
“Hell. I’ve made a mess of this already.”
Talia leaned forward ready to cancel the recording then stopped. Instead she settled back.
“When I started this, this recording, I told myself that I would give you what you needed. That I would let you go and that this would be my goodbye. I had even convinced myself that, well, that this closure is what I needed. I needed to let you go, too. There’s this man, Gustavo. It’s nothing like that.” Talia shook her head. “It has only been six weeks for me, but even if it had been six years or sixty I don’t think I could move on. But Gustavo, he stayed awake the whole way to Anima. He was the cryo-engineer if you remember. Anyway, I’ve seen him a lot since I decided to stay. Oh hell, I’m telling this all wrong.
“Obviously you’ve heard the news. We missed the twilight. The atmosphere has less oxygen than we thought. The pressure’s good. A little less than Earth, and the air is breathable for a time, but we have to get the oxygen percentage up if there is any chance at long term habitability. The winds are strong though, and that carries the hot air from the starward side of the planet back, so even in the dark the temperatures are bearable. Better if we had made it to the twilight, but that is what it is.
“Anyway, you’ve both known this for years, I’m sure. The point is, I had an option to come home. Most of the colonists took it. No one wanted another Mars fiasco, struggling to live in a hostile environment. We all wanted the Earth analogue that we had been promised, and that’s not what we got, although I think that we could make it work. I didn’t decide to stay for that opportunity though. I didn’t stay to be a part of the great mission that brought me here. I’ll be a part of it, and there will be some solace in that, but I stayed for you.
“I do not regret my decision, either to come or to stay, but only that you could not join me. There is important work to be done here, but most of all, I had to stay for you. If I had returned home Bernard would be in his 50s, nearly two decades older than his own mother, and Milton, you’d be in your 80s. I might not even see you again. Here, however, I thought we could have a relationship, no matter how distant. I could watch you both grow old. We could be a family.
“That’s what I told myself when I decided not to board the return shuttle. I wasn’t ready to let go. I’m still not.
“I’m not even sure how this message is going to end. I told myself that I would say goodbye. That I would grant you the peace that you requested, and that with that closure I would be able to let go of the pain of our loss. As I said, I’ve been spending some time with Gustavo from the wake shift. We were speaking this morning. Haruka and Dr. Keeling are, well, they aren’t great. We’re all still grieving family that we lost. It is fresh for each of us and we haven’t accepted the goodbyes, not completely. Gustavo, on the other hand, he’s had time to accept his losses, to let those who needed it go. Speaking with him, I thought perhaps it was time that I accept your decision. The more I talk, however, the more I know that I can’t let go of you. I need you, and that’s not fair. Not to me, but more not to either of you. There may be no happy ending here. So what to do…
“I still don’t know…”
Talia let herself cry, for a moment, then dabbed at her eyes.
“Well, hell. This really hurts. But you know that already, don’t you? I love you. Both of you. And I’ll always be here if you want me to be. But it’s not right. So I guess, this is goodbye. For good this time. I won’t message again, unless I hear from you. I wish you both the best. And I’m sorry.
Talia leaned forward and clicked off the screen.
Back to Part 1
On to Part 7