© Aleksandr Korchagin | Dreamstime.com – Shooting star in the sky
By Chris Hutton
Talia spent the day pondering the message she had sent. She knew that it had been necessary, but the pain of letting go still left her unsettled. She skipped lunch. The “mid-day” meal took place in the common hall of Zhōngxīn, a decision made by the colonists in order to to encourage a unity among the group – to build that all too critical sense of community. Yet it was that very sense of community that compelled Talia to remain behind. After her goodbyes, she had no energy left to deal with people.
She stretched out on her bed, now littered with pillows pilfered from the empty quarters, and stared once more at the ceiling. As a child she had bedecked her bedroom with glow-in-the-dark stars, spending numerous evenings contemplating the great mysteries of space as she stared at them. Now she let herself drift back to those simpler times, when the expanse of the universe held such wonder and amazement, and she had not yet fathomed the sorrow of its conquering.
She had stared at those stars and dreamt of soaring among them. Interstellar travel still seemed fanciful then, but Mars had been colonized and the asteroids and the outer planets seemed within humanity’s grasp. She had contemplated then what it would be to see the sun from the edge of the solar system, as another distant star. There had even been public debate about pushing into the Oort cloud; she had witnessed some of the exploratory panels in the VR newsfeeds. Soon the Oort cloud had taken on a Holy Grail-like intensity in her passions, and she had set her sights on its exploration. That mission had propelled her into the top universities, where her focus had shifted with the evolution of the public debates, resettling on the closest stars now nearing civilization’s extended reach. Still the stars guided her, their siren call unabated until she met Milton. With a family, everything changed.
When she left for Anima twenty-four years prior, Talia thought that she could somehow cling to both the loves of her life, Milton & Bernard, and the stars. Only now had she accepted that such a thing might not be possible, and that realization soured her to the mission ahead, and to her own self worth. Still, Talia knew that she had not gone far enough. She had bid her family farewell, but she still clung to one remaining message, and as long as it went unseen, she would never truly say goodbye.
She knew what must be done. Talia rose, steeled herself, and pressed play on her terminal.
The screen sizzled to life popping with a frenetic energy unlike any message that Talia had previously viewed. Milton, older than before, but by at most a year, pressed at his eyes. His recent crow’s feet had grown deeper and his face had a foreign layer of stubble, but the most disconcerting change was his continued lack of glasses. As his eyes flickered about, his expression was devoid of the characteristic confusion that typically held sway when he didn’t wear his corrective lenses. He could see.
He straightened up, pressing down on the collar of a light gray, seeming seamless uniform. This too sparked Talia’s curiosity, being far from his typical tweed professor garb.
“I’m sorry, Talia. I’m sorry about my last message. We had to say goodbye. There was no way that I could know for certain that I would succeed, and the pain was becoming too much for Bernard. I didn’t want to continue to hurt him, no matter what hope I held.
“Some time back I realized that I had to shift focus. I started, oh, eight years ago. I knew after the first year that this wasn’t tenable. It’s strange spending the first half of your life dedicated to one century only to rededicate yourself to another, to multiple, as your middle years approach.
“Again, sorry, if I’m not making sense. We’re in a hurry here.”
In the background numerous men and women, all in the same smooth gray uniform, milled about each seemingly marching with purpose, though to what purpose Talia could not say. The throng of humanity crowded out any visual cues as to where Milton had recorded the message. One of those passersby bumped into Milton, shouting a rushed apology as he scurried away and accentuating Milton’s point. Everyone was in a hurry.
“I’m not sure we have the planning down as well on this one, but it was a narrow window and we had to move quickly. As I was saying, I shifted focus. I now have doctorates in British colonial history, ancient history, and in twenty-first century Martian colonial history. I figured that I would cover my bases, you understand.
“Of course you don’t. Maybe I should just show you.”
Milton reached forward and tilted the camera up. Soon a massive colony ship dominated the screen, hovering behind the milling masses of people seen through the viewing window of large space station.
“We couldn’t be sure to be accepted, but humanity couldn’t wait for Anima’s first settlers to arrive. I hedged my bets diversifying my studies and turns out with my expertise in the historical complications of ancient societies and colonization both terrestrial and otherwise, I actually have something to offer a mission like this. And since they sent over enough specialists on the first wave, they are actually allowing more slots for families this time around.
The camera tilted down revealing a young boy of no more than ten, with curly brown locks and an ear-to-ear grin. “Hi mom! Dad says we’ll be there soon. Just a dreamless sleep away and we’ll finally get to meet!”
“I wanted to tell you before,” Milton said, jumping back in. “But I didn’t want to get your hopes up. Or mine really. Any number of complications could have canceled this flight. I might not have been accepted, we might have failed training, administrative changes could have wiped it from the budget, delayed launch, or altered colonist requirements. You know how this goes. But now, now we are on the eve of departure, and our call to board is underway. We’re coming, honey. We are going to be a family again.
“Come here, Bernie.” Bernard squeezed in by his father.
“We love you,” they said together. “See you soon!”
The recording stopped.
Talia let out her breath in a deep gust. She hadn’t even realized that she was holding her breath until that moment. Her family was en route to Anima. At least they had launched for Anima. That message had come almost nine years after she had left, so they were, what, fifteen years into their voyage by now? It would be a quiet eight years, but then they would be reunited. Talia could feel the elation welling up inside of her, but she also felt something else – a deep sense of dread.
If they were on their way, if another colony ship was en route, why hadn’t she been told when she landed on Anima. The wake shift should have known. Gustavo should have known.
Talia tried for five hours before she finally tracked down Gustavo. After searching Tir Corridor, she made her way to Nabu’s homebase where she cornered Alexei Mikhailov, the resident geologist, and one of three remaining chemists. Alexei was the eldest colonist outside of the wake shift and had struck up a well-known friendship with Gustavo since the evacuation. Outside of that friendship, however, he tended to the reclusive side. When Talia found him he was all too eager to point her in Gustavo’s direction and to return to the solitude of his research. He hadn’t even noticed the tension in Talia’s shoulders and the anger knitted in her brow – or if he did, he valued his solitude more than his friendship.
Armed with directions from Alexei, Talia made her way through Ekata Hol and into Athena Corridor. The quarters were pressed against an outer hull, and though Talia knew the walls were too thick for sound to pierce, she swore she could hear the fiery winds raging outside reflecting the anger boiling within her with an odd synchronicity. The rage beating in her temples, she turned one final corner into the westernmost room in Enhet Basen. It jutted out from the rest of the base like a peninsula, windows opening on three-sides to the night of Anima. Gustavo stared out through the center window.
As she entered, he spoke.
“Sometimes I think that if I stare hard enough, I can see the faintest glimmer of the twilight. It’s never really there though – always just out of reach. Still, if I’m lucky I can make out a falling star or two.” He turned. “Care to join me,” he started, then cut off. One look at Talia and he surmised the truth of the situation.
“I guess you know. You’re one of the only remaining colonists with actual family in flight. Figures you’d be the first to find out.”
Talia stopped cold. She hadn’t expected Gustavo to just blurt it out. She’d expected a fight.
“There’s no use hiding it,” he said, as if reading her mind. “I knew that it would come out eventually.”
“Then why not tell us? We had a right to know. Hell, what about all of the colonists that left? Did they have family coming?”
“Some.” Gustavo sat, showing the first signs of weariness that Talia had ever seen in him. He motioned for her to join him.
“Well, I don’t. Everyone that left. How many would have stayed if they knew their families were coming?”
“There’s no way I can –”
“– No, don’t. Don’t answer that. Just tell me why? Why wouldn’t you tell us?”
“We decided it was for the best not to.”
“We? The wake shift? The whole wake shift knew didn’t it?”
“And you all unanimously gave a giant fuck you to everyone in cryo and agreed to keep your little secret – that there was a second colony ship en route?”
“There was some disagreement, but not enough.”
“You mind telling me who disagreed.”
“I can’t. The decision was made. Unanimous or not, we all agreed to abide by it.”
“And how many of you that stayed have family coming. Do you?”
“No, but some of us do.”
“And how many of you that left had family coming?”
“Hell, Gustavo. That’s exactly my point. No one with family coming would have left. You owed it to them to tell them.”
“Did we? What if I told you that the second vessel received orders to turn back two years ago?”
Talia eyed Gustavo, weighing whether to trust him.
“We received the message about a month before we landed. Six months after our sensors indicated Anima was tidally locked we received the first concrete data on the atmosphere. We had to report back to the Coalition that Anima was not the Earth-analog that we had hoped. Once they received that data, the Coalition sent out the order for Ravanna, the second ship, to return. They received that message almost two years ago. As of yet we have not received word as to whether the order was obeyed. No one knows what the crew decided.”
Talia knew immediately the crux of concern. If anyone had stayed waiting for family they might have stayed in vain. There was no way to know for certain if anyone was coming. Not yet.
“So?” Gustavo prompted.
“So I don’t know.” She began to break, her anger receding with her understanding. “I still feel you should have told us.”
“And if that vessel returned home? How many colonists would have stayed due to false hope?”
“I understand that. I’m not thick. But if it didn’t? If Ravanna arrives at Anima, what then for those that left hoping to see a family that won’t be waiting for them?”
“Those who chose to return had already committed to losing their families. Everyone they had ever known will be fifty years older than when they last saw them by the time Unity returns to Earth. For them, Earth’s call outweighed family bonds. If they had stayed and no one ever came, then they would not only have lost their family, but also their only chance of seeing Earth again.”
“That’s how you justified it?”
“I didn’t say it was my call, but that was the consensus.
Talia noticed how Gustavo glanced back to the door, as if looking for the other wake shifters. He had been the voice of dissent. He agreed with her, and yet still he championed the decision he had fought. Even now, a quarter of a century lost to mission, and he was a man of orders.
Dr. Ernst relaxed her arms onto the window ledge, easing the tension in her shoulders and looked out into the dark. Gustavo settled back in beside her.
“How many more have family?” she asked.
“Four of the primary crew, two of the wake shift.
“Hmm,” Talia grunted. There was no more to say. A decision had been made, and though she could be angry with Gustavo for accepting that decision in the end (and she longed for that anger), she also knew that there had been no good choice to be made. She had accepted her fate when she thought that she had lost her family, and now that this was uncertainty, she could do no more than the same: accept.
“There,” she said, pointing out a shooting star.
The meteorite streaked across the firmament, its debris melting and evaporating in its wake as it broke apart in Anima’s atmosphere – another victim to the inhospitable planet, breaking apart and crashing, until it too settled onto the surface, now a part of this world no matter from where it once originated.
“It’s beautiful,” Gustavo said.
“Yes, it is.”
Talia nodded, settling in as a small meteor shower began. Man had spread to the stars, and she had a role to play. More, she had hope once more, and whether Ravanna would one day hail them from orbit, or would return back to Earth, she knew that she had a family out there somewhere, fighting the friction and trying to remain whole. She would await word from them, a message that might never come, but also a message that might; and that was enough.
Back to Part 1