Tag Archives: Ablation

Ablation: Part 7

© 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.


***


          0 Messages

          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.

          “No thanks.”

          “I understand.”

          “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?”

          “Yes.”

          “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?”

          “None.”

          “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

Ablation: Part 6

© 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’ll pass.”

          “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.

          “Come again?”

          “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?”

          “Safaa.”

          “Yeah, the Kenyan comm’s specialist.”

          “Moroccan.”

          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?”

          “That’s 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.

          “Stop recording.”

          Talia leaned forward and clicked off the screen.




Back to Part 1

On to Part 7

Ablation: Part 5

© Aleksandr Korchagin | Dreamstime.com – Shooting star in the sky

By Chris Hutton

          Talia sat before the terminal, her fingers hovering before the ‘enter’ key. One click and twenty-four years of messages would begin to unspool. She glanced at the black & white photo of her family before Launch Pad 73C, their fake smiles beaming out in false reassurances. Though she looked barely a day older than when that photo had been snapped, her husband and son would now bare little resemblance to their images, the smiling faces of the photo no more than ghosts of their past.

          She stopped and waved her hand before the screen. The play window slid away and Talia tapped open another app. Her image popped up, consuming the full screen, and a record button blinked transparent in the middle of the monitor. She air-tapped the button and a red light lit up the corner as she began her message.

          “Well, we’re here boys. We’ve landed and… it’s… let’s say Anima is not everything that we expected. I assume newscasts went out years ago, but we landed in the dark maybe ten kilometers from the twilight zone. Who knew Anima was tidally-locked, right? Our projections predict another six years of dark before Alpha Centauri B casts its light on our side of Anima, and that the light of a dim evening at best.”

          Talia froze up.

          “Recording stop.” The red light blinked out of existence. She gestured with her hand and a delete window popped up. Yes or No? She tapped yes.

          Her family deserved better than a rote ‘we landed and ‘they’ fucked up message.’ She had so much more to say than the flight went smooth, but the accommodations are subpar. She needed to tell them something of significance – something that mattered – anything that would make the lost years tolerable. Nothing came to mind.

          Instead she swiped over to the backlog of messages, and tapped the first one.

***


          “Hi, Talia.” Milton smiled into camera, the green of a park stretching out behind him and trees swaying in the distance. Milton reached off camera then hoisted Bernard into view. He beamed at her, no older than the day Talia had left, and dripping wet.

          “Say hi to mommy, buddy.”

          “Hi” he squeaked, then began to squirm until at last he pulled free from his dad’s grasp and ran offscreen.

          “As you can tell, he’s enjoying the fountain. We went to Riverside, after all. The weather’s good and he’s having fun. We miss you already.” Milton cast his eyes away in his usual I’m not saying everything diversion, then looked back to camera. “Thanks for the message this morning. It was a… lovely way to start the day.”

          His eyes began to water. “We love you, Talia. And we’re so proud of you. I just can’t tell you how much –”

          “– Daddy!” Bernard shouted from off camera.

          Milton rubbed at his eyes. “What buddy?” he screamed back.

          “Water! Water!”

          “Sorry, honey. Gotta go. We’ll talk soon!”

***


          The verdant greens cut to black, with bold white text at the center of the screen declaring: ‘237 Messages Remaining.’

          Why so few, Talia thought. Even at an even distribution that would be no more than ten messages a year. Of course, why should she have expected more? She left them behind to carry on without her. How painful were those messages to record? Were they all as hard for Milton as the first? What would it be for Bernard sending messages to a mother he couldn’t remember? In the end, Talia decided she had been lucky to receive as many messages as she had.

          Thinking to the years ahead, she knew any message that she sent now wouldn’t be returned for at least eight years. Logically she might as well pace out the messages from her family, giving something to which to look forward in the slow but brutal days ahead. Even so, she knew that wouldn’t happen. She’d binge the 237 remaining messages in two Earth days or less.

          The colonists had been using Earth as a metric as best as they could. With Anima tidally-locked days did not really exist. One planetary rotation took nearly one and a half Earth years, the same as one revolution around Alpha Centauri A, or one Anima year. And in that entire time, no true day would come to Enhet Basen. Alpha Centauri B would eventually create a twilight period, but for now that star’s orbit placed it in conjunction with Anima’s main star, leaving night impenetrable. The colonists would have to last six more years for a chance at twilight.

          Talia could not yet bring herself to tackle the problems that this existence created, so instead she plunged further into her messages. Locking her quarters she settled in, shutting out her fellow colonists until she had done what needed doing.


***


          By lunchtime the following “day,” Talia had noticed a disturbing trend. The messages began abundantly, with nearly fifty in the first year. They ranged from short clips like the first, to long monologues from Milton expounding on the minutiae of everyday life, to desperate rages as anger at their abandonment boiled over. Those last messages were usually followed by softer, somber apologies muddied by grief. The emotional turbulence tearing her family apart wracked Talia in guilt, but it was a different trend that threatened to snap Talia’s last, delicate sliver of hope. The messages were dwindling year over year. By two years in ninety-two of the two hundred and thirty-eight messages were done. After two more years worth of mail, only eighty-two messages remained. Her family sent fewer and fewer messages with each passing year.

          Talia forced herself to watch straight through, her anxiety mounting as each message finished, signaling one less contact with Milton and Bernard. With each communication she watched her son age, from the toddler that she remembered to a young child at his first day of school, to a boy of nearly nine. At that point, only eighteen messages remained; eighteen messages for over seventeen years of travel.

          Talia had stayed behind when the other colonists had left for one reason: a chance to still have a family, and yet, as best she could tell that family had given up on her long before she reached Anima.

          At the end of the second day of her binge, Talia had two messages remaining. With a sense of dread, she opened the penultimate recording from home. It had been sent not quite eight years after she left.


***


          Milton’s haggard eyes darted back and forth, unwilling to settle on any one point, set deep in sockets more hollow than Talia remembered. Those were accompanied by a new pair of crow’s feet clawing at their corners, but more disturbingly, Milton’s eyes lacked the typical shield of his glasses. As he glanced about, Talia could imagine his confusion, unable to rely on the crutch of cleaning those lenses in order to avoid direct confrontation.

          “Um…I don’t know,” he started, then stopped. He swallowed, and rubbed at the bags of his eyes. “Where do I start?”

          As he asked this last part, he glanced offscreen and paused. Talia could read his hesitance, but even more his deliberation. Talia had seen that look many times as Milton mulled over his words.

          Finally, he turned and looked directly into the camera. “I can’t do this anymore. We can’t do this, Talia.”

          His eyes shifted downward, and he bit at his lip. Almost instantly he shut his eyes, ashamed at his lapse. Talia understood. Milton didn’t want to face this truth any more than Talia did.

          His eyes back to camera, Milton plowed on.

          “We receive your messages almost twice a month – your ageless messages. Do you know how weird it is to hear from you over and over again in endless variations of the same theme, and you never aging, and always in that same uniform? Message to message only minutes have lapsed for you, while weeks and months leave us in the dust. For Bernard, he might as well be sending fan mail to a favorite television show, only it’s less than that. Your messages are like a familiar commercial, you the recurring spokesman. What connection…. No, still more… how do you think he can hold a connection with a mother that he knows so little?”

          Talia winced. She had seen this coming as the messages dwindled. The dread had been building over the past day, but she had hoped it would prove unfounded, no matter how little she had believed in that hope.

          “I understand this will be… beyond hard on you, but you can at least,” he said, then hesitated once more. “You can at least hear it all at once, rip it off like the proverbial bandage. For us, this dissolution has been dragged through years – years of carrying on the pretense that a relationship could survive this distance. I love you. Don’t get me wrong, but I can’t do this to our son.”

          Milton’s voice shook now, overcome. His eyes watered, but he would not let the tears flow. Not this time.

          “It’s not fair for either of us, for any of us, to live like this – to carry on increasingly separated through time. This isn’t an attack on you or me railing against your decision to leave once more. We’ve had those discussions, if you can call these messages that. My piece has been said time and again when it comes to that decision and there is no need to rehash that here. At this point, I’ve accepted that you had to leave. I’ve even managed to accept your departure for what it was for you, not as an abandonment of us.

          “But that being said, even acceptance does little to mend the rift created by your travel to your new home. Over sixteen years to go before you even hear from us, and in that time, we’ll receive some pleasantries, but not one shred of real conversation. Nothing shared. Hell, it will be twenty years before I can even hear from you in response to this so-called conversation. No, It’s just not tenable. That’s all there is to it. We have to stop pretending. We have to say goodbye.

          “There. I’ve done it. I’ve said my piece.”

          Milton paused one last time, again biting at his lip. Talia guessed that lacking lenses he had resorted to a new diversion. Still, where were his glasses?

          “Anyway,” he said, “that’s it. There’s only one thing left to say. We love you, Talia. Both of us in our own ways. Bernard didn’t know what to say, and I didn’t want to force it. So this it. Goodbye.”


***


          The screen cut to black, white text dominating the center of the screen.

          1 Message Remaining.

          Talia couldn’t do it. She pushed back from the monitor, unwilling to open the final message.




Back to Part 1

On to Part 6

Ablation: Part 4

© 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?”

          “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.”

          “As always.”

          “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?”

          “Good enough.”

          “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.

          “Ma’am.”

          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.”

          “Have fun.”

          “Okay. Fly safe.” Milton’s voice wavered and Talia could see the tears forming. Yet before the flood began the screen went black.

          Communication Ended.

          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.

          “Dr. Ernst?”

          “Yes, Gustavo, I’m coming.”

          She flicked a switch, shutting down power to the terminal, and rose for her final voyage.


***


          “Dr. Ernst?”

          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.”

          “You’re one-of-kind.”

          “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

Ablation: Part 3

© 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.

          “What’s that?”

          “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.

          “Mommy, hume!”

          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.

          “Again! Again!”

          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.”

          “No. Daddy.”

          “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.

          “Bernard –”

          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.”

          “Milton –”

          “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.”

          “Exactly.”

          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.”

          “Luv you.”

          “Okay.” Talia stood, brushing off her knees and cracking her back. “I think it’s time.”

          Milton nodded, rising with her.

          “Mommy?”

          “Yes, Bernard?”

          “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.

          “Go playground?”

          “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.”

          “Darshan?”

          “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

Ablation: Part 2

© 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.”

          “4.37.”

          “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

Ablation: Part 1

© Aleksandr Korchagin | Dreamstime.com – Shooting star in the sky

By Chris Hutton

          They had made a mistake – a monumental, astronomical mistake.

          Dr. Talia Ernst stretched out across the window seat of her hab unit, collecting her sole pillow beneath her head for some modicum of comfort, and stared out into the night. The stars stared back, both familiar and foreign. Her whole life the stippling beauty of the night sky had provided her great comfort, but now she found no solace in its infinite expanse. That feeling of relief had been supplanted by a jumble of disparate emotions, the two most prominent of which were excitement and grief; and both battled for dominance. For only the second time in her life Talia found herself at a loss.

          Above her a meteor streaked across the firmament, a “shooting star” disintegrating from the heat of atmospheric entry. There had been a time in the history of humankind when the term meteor had been defined in specific relation to its entry into, and subsequent ablation within, Earth’s atmosphere, and as Talia watched in a mix of childlike wonderment and detached observation, she pondered the ego of that etymology. The definition existed as a remnant of both a geocentric ideology and a pre-cosmic explanation of the universe, finding its root in the Greek metéōron. In that earliest form the word included a host of atmospheric phenomena from wind and rain to rainbows and, of course, meteors. Then came an understanding of the cosmos and the word meteor’s expulsion from that family tree, but the geo-centrism of the definition remained. And then at last humankind reached beyond the confines of Earth, spreading across the solar system and even out into the icy hell of the Oort Cloud, and wherever humans spread as a species, if an atmosphere existed, then meteors followed and with them came the magic of the shooting star.

          Talia closed her eyes and made a wish.


***


          “Do you see it?” she asked.

          “Umm… are you going to judge me if I say no?”

          “Of course not,” she said, casting a definitively judgey glance at her date, Milton Barnes. Handsome, if delicate, he wore an old-fashioned tweed jacket and a pair of thick-rimmed glasses, both of which gave testimony to his status as a relic – especially the glasses. Tweed jackets had come in and out of fashion over the centuries, but after corrective surgery became the norm glasses had gone the way of the top hat and the parasol. The eccentricity of his dress made Talia want to roll her eyes, but it also intrigued her. Milton existed a man out of time, a historian immersed within the culture of his study. There was something endearing in his devotion.

          “Just look there at Pisces, just a little down and to the left from the bottom star of the western fish’s head,” Talia continued, pointing up into the sky. “You can’t miss it.”

          “Okay, so now you’re just making stuff up. I mean fish heads?”

          Disgusted, Talia cut her eyes at Milton. What an ignorant fool, she thought. How can he not know the constellations? The conquering of the stars was the driving mission of the current generation, the pinnacle of academia, and yet he knew nothing of them.

          “One question. Do you ever lift your head from the page and just look at the universe above? Have you even ever seen the night sky?”

          “In all fairness,” he started, “that’s two questions. And first off, no. Kind of need my nose in the books when that’s where the history is. Plus we have people like you for the stars.”

          “People like me?”

          “Yes. Dreamers, explorers, adventurers: the people who drive the expansion of the frontier. People like you.”

          Talia blushed. “That’s the first thing you’ve said right all night.”

          “Didn’t know I was being tested. I would’ve read up.”

          “That’s okay. We’ll call tonight a study session instead. Come here.” Talia motioned Milton over.

          “Yes, ma’am.”

          He walked closer and, as Talia pointed up at the sky, Milton bent low to her eye level and pressed in close to get the best angle of view. Talia could feel the heat radiating off of him as his face pressed within an inch of hers. She lowered her voice, taking on an intimate tone, and reached one arm around his shoulders guiding him as she pointed out the stars with the other.

          “You see,” she said, “that there, those six bright stars forming a circle, that’s the circlet. And just off from the lowest star of the circlet, you should see it, brighter than the others. Do you see it?”

          “Yes,” he said, his breath warm against her skin. A tingling pimpled across her flesh and Talia felt an unfamiliar flutter of attraction. She stumbled, at a loss for words.

          “Yes,” Milton said again, this time inflecting a question.

          “Yes,” Talia said, finding her voice at last. “Well that’s, that’s Venus. With the naked eye it looks no more than a bright star, the Evening Star, but now we have stations in its orbit, scientists up close studying the atmosphere and the history of its runaway greenhouse effect in which its oceans boiled away. In fact, some say it was Venus and that very same greenhouse effect that inspired James Hansen to some of our earliest computer climate models.”

          “You don’t say.” Milton turned towards Talia his face almost pressing against hers.

          “I do. This part’s history, you know. Kind of your area.” Their faces were intimately close, and Talia could feel the imminence of their first kiss, and yet Milton moved no closer.

          “Uh huh,” he said. “Not my era, though.”

          “Oh.” He’s dragging it out, she thought, and decided that was unacceptable. She grabbed the back of his head and pulled him close into a deep kiss. The act was passionate and new and, much as she would have liked to remember it as magical, it was also awkward at best.

          They unlocked from each other.

          “Wow,” Milton said and fell back pulling her down to the grass.

          “Yeah, wow.” Talia lied falling down beside him.

          “I never knew the stars could be so spell-binding, so amorous.”

          “It pays to study.” Talia laid her head back against Milton’s chest and stared up into the sky. Despite the awkwardness of the kiss, she still felt elated, her head swimming in the ecstasy of the moment, yet also tangled in a web of meanings. Stars had been used to describe passions before, in the time of Shakespeare with the star-crossed love of Romeo and Juliet. Contextually the term had come to mean ill-fated. She laid there beside Milton staring up at the cosmos and pondered this meaning both new and old, hoping that it offered no true portent beyond her propensity to drown out her own joys through overthinking.


***


          The alarm sounded over the intercom, and the emergency lights flickered to life.

          “One hour until launch,” came the computerized voice. “All personnel should now be at their rally points. Repeat. One hour until launch. All personnel should be at their rally points.”

          Talia sighed, then, with great effort, heaved herself from the window seat and stepped over to her bed. Two small cases set open on the mattress, each half-packed with an assortment of clothes and personal effects. She reached in slipping out a printed photo, a curiosity, the fascination with which had been imparted upon her by Milton – one of his few anachronisms that she had adopted. The photo was black & white, neither having learned to develop color film, and showed Milton, Talia, and a small child posing on the side of the road, a behemoth structure towering into what she remembered as the cerulean blue of the sky, but which showed here as a dim gray. The structure was the largest launch pad ever built, its service tower piercing upwards in a twisted skein of trusses and bridgeways: Launch Pad 73C. Despite the grandiosity of its purpose the government had avoided any flight of fancy in its naming. In the photo, Talia, aged 35 years, smiled from ear to ear showing more teeth than in any picture for which she had ever before posed. The glow of pride enveloped her.

          She turned towards a nearby mirror. Her face still displayed the same youthful appearance, yet the glow had faded. She hadn’t aged more than a year, and yet she had aged decades.

          A knock sounded from the entryway to her hab unit, alerting her to the presence of Dr. Darshan Vaidyar, one of many resident geologists and also one of the maybe one hundred colonists that Talia had met pre-launch. That had been during initial team training. In the end, however, Dr. Vaidyar had been assigned to Group Ogma, while Talia had been placed with Group Mímir. Their paths had not crossed again until disembarking from Unity’s landers. Since then they had struck up a casual acquaintanceship, each finding in the other a comfort in their mutual ability to focus on the details of their studies instead of dwelling on the mistake that had sent them to an in inhospitable planet.

          “Yes, Darshan?”

          “Haruka was looking for you at rally point Mímir.”

          “And he sent you?”

          “Not exactly. I swung by on my way to Ogma. Thought I’d wish you well on the return. When Haruka reported you unaccounted for, I volunteered myself. We need to hurry. Boarding is underway.”

          “Thank you for your concern, Darshan.” Still clutching the photo, Talia turned and cast a quick look through the window and into the great dark and the mysteries that it hid. What discoveries awaited beyond and soon to be abandoned?

          “Of course.” Darshan cast furtive glances down the hall, anxious to be on his way.

          Talia turned back to the elderly geologist. “Enhet Basen was our home for so short a time. What has it been? Four weeks? Five? How quickly we decided to pack our bags and move on.”

          “The atmosphere is not tenable, Talia. What would you have us do, create a second Mars? To what end?”

          “The same?”

          “Not good enough. Most of us came here with a promise of a second Earth. Habitable. Breathable. That’s not what we found.”

          “The Great Mistake. I wonder sometimes if when the message of our failure finally reaches Earth, will anyone from that administration still be in a place of power to be held accountable for the error? Will they even be alive?”

          “Some. We can discuss this on our way. Really, Talia, we must hurry.” Darshan nodded down the hall. “Come.”

          “To where?” She glanced about her disheveled room, so much still to pack and yet so little of it of any actual importance.

          “Home,” Darshan said.


***


          “No, really?”

          “Yes.” Milton swept his tweed clad arms in a wide arc showcasing the small cottage before them. “All that you see, our grand new adventure.”

          “You bought it?”

          “No. I murdered the tenants and buried them out back. They were hermits. No one will ever suspect a thing. I’ve forged the deeds and the transfer is complete. We’ll live on the lam. A modern day Bonnie & Clyde.”

          “That would mean we were nomadic, Milton. And murderers. Who get caught.”

          “Ah, the best laid plans. Very well, then. Forget the lam. We’ll live here. No one will suspect a thing. But we’ll know our misdeeds.”

          “You’re an idiot.”

          “Yes, very true. Now come here.” Not waiting for Talia to comply Milton rushed to her side and swept her off her feet, hefting her like a sack of potatoes over his shoulders.

          “What are you doing?” Talia beat on his back with her fists.

          “It was once tradition for the groom to carry his bride over the threshold of their new home.”

          “Not like this.”

          “No, I’m pretty sure this is the way. I am a historian, remember. We know things.”

          “Put me down.”

          “No can do. Tradition is very clear. If you step over that threshold you will be beset upon by demons. History does not lie.”

          “Perhaps,” she laughed, “if you hadn’t slaughtered the occupants there wouldn’t be any demons to descend upon me.”

          “Ah yes. Well, live and learn my dear.”

          With that he charged through the door with great flourish, pivoted from the foyer into the living room and flung his wife down upon a mattress discarded in the middle of the floor among a towering labyrinth of moving boxes. Mid fling he shouted, “Veni, vidi, Vi — shit!”

          Milton collapsed to the mattress clutching at his back.

          “Oh hell, I think I threw a disc.”

          “Serves you right.” Talia sat up taking in their new home. A part of her felt anger that Milton had taken it upon himself to make such a momentous decision. Another part of her loved him for that same eccentricity. It wasn’t until she saw the skylight with a perfect view of the stars that she realized which part of her held dominance.

          “You better be faking that back injury,” she said.

          “No, it is really most excruciating. I will likely never recover,” he moaned. “You ought call an ambulance. Of course, if you do that, our number may be up. Any prolonged investigation is bound to discover the former resi–”

          She placed a finger to his lips. “Shh.”

          “As you wish.”

          At that she fell against him and they embraced. They had never been happier. She had never been happier…


***


          …not until that day, outside of Launch Pad 73 C. Yet now, looking at the photo in her hand, she realized that she had been the only one happy that day. Milton smiled beside her, as did her infant son, Bernard, yet neither of those smiles carried up into the eyes. They had feigned that joy for her benefit.

          “Home, Darshan?” she asked. “Do you really think we have a home to which to return?”

          “Not the one we left, perhaps, but a home nonetheless, yes.”

          “Then you’re more the fool than my Milton ever was.”

          Darshan regarded her with a puzzled expression.

          “Tell Haruka that Mímir can board without me.”

          “You can’t be serious.” He stepped forward as if entering that room could somehow sway Talia. Of course, even his meager knowledge of her told him that Talia would not be swayed.

          “Completely,” she said and began to unpack her bags.

          “You’re certain? Nothing I say can convince you?”

          Talia embraced him in a light farewell hug.

          “Yes. Now get moving. Otherwise you’ll be forced to join me for an extended stay.”

          Darshan nodded, unable to mouth goodbye, then ran down the hall. Talia listened as his footfalls retreated, perhaps the last sounds of another person that she would ever hear within the halls of Enhet Basen. There would be no second launch, no rescue vessel, and no return to Earth. This decision marked the claiming of her new citizenship, a citizen of the Alpha Centauri system in a nation of one.




On to Part 2