by Rachael Acks
illustration by Darryl Knickrehm © 2013
Dearest Chandra:

I was the first to wake, one month out from our new home to be and twenty-four hours before everyone else. The bulk of the deceleration is already done; we're at a bit less than normal Earth gravity now. Remember those little sleeper jaunts we used to do out to Io? It's nothing like that, Chandra. I feel like the inside of my head's been scrubbed with a wire brush, sinuses desiccated and tongue glued in place. I don't think any language has suitable words for how I feel.

But if you're viewing this message, you already know that, don't you. You'll have had your own unpleasant awakening from long-term cold sleep on the colony ship and be what... three weeks out from this planet? I know they weren't planning to wake you engineers in the first round. I have to remind myself of that; time has gone out of joint, with me awake in the future and you in the unreachable past. I can't wrap my mind around it. Discussion of general relativity was notably lacking from my medical school curriculum.

But a year and a half from now, I'll get to hear your own complaints in something close to real time instead of a recorded vid. And I'll be oh-so-sympathetic, I promise, down on the surface of HD 108874. Or what did you say the Chinese techs were calling it - Dragon's Horn? Less of a mouthful at least. Maybe I'll take the vid feed on a little stroll through a grassy meadow, so you know what you're waiting for.

Just a second, I've got to sit down. My quadriceps are cracking like freezer-burned meat.

Where was I... right. Before we left, I had no idea why they wanted to give me a full day by myself, doing nothing but wandering the halls. Now I understand. I could barely take care of myself the first twenty-four hours, let alone anyone else.

Six hours of cramping and crying. I feel like a wimp, complaining about it, when I was always the tough girl. All that got me through was the vid you made. That one of you reading from the newspaper. Listening to you laugh through the dry columns in the financial section helped. It really did. And I have so many more messages from you, just waiting to be opened like gifts.

See, I am a genius. You should listen to your wife more often.

Well, I have to get going. It's three hours until the rest of the crew starts to thaw, all at once. Wish me luck, I'm going to need it. I'll be glad to have the technical officers awake, and not just because it's eerie, just wandering through the smooth corridors alone and listening for echoes. There's an alert flag on the comm, but not one I recognize.




Dearest Chandra:

Time locks on your messages? Cruel, my love. But maybe you were right. Its given me something to look forward to at the end of the day. And I need that right now, more than you can imagine. I have so many worries right now.

The thaw is much worse than I expected. Forty-eight hours of grown men and women crying, screaming at hallucinations, and vomiting. I never would have guessed my head full of rusty nails was the easy version of waking. And I'm still not done yet... there are six left.

I'm sorry to report your brother was one of the vomiters. Which I think he'll ultimately find less humiliating than hallucinations. Param's always taken himself a little too seriously - you know it's true - and I don't think he'd be able to stand it if I saw him scrambling around barefoot on the decking, screaming about seven-eyed owls or Shiva dancing or being eaten by a paper lantern during Diwali.

Instead, I just held his head while he threw up into a recycler. His hair was still slimy with cryonic fluids, the cloying smell of them nothing short of choking.

He asked for you. He was so out of it, I had to remind him you were following behind. He grinned at me like a twelve-year-old. I think I've got a better understanding now about how he had your mother wrapped around his finger. He just said--can you believe this? Well, of course you can: "I thought if I felt this hung over, Chandra had to be somewhere nearby."

I think it's safe to say your brother sends his love. I thought about telling him, about the comm flag, but he didn't seem to be in any condition to deal with it.

I just hope everyone will be back up to spec or close to it soon. We have a month until planetfall but there's so much to do, and--

Sorry, I had to check on Germaine. He's one of the hallucinators, but he's finally come down. I think I'm in the home stretch, but I'm so tired Chandra. I caught myself singing in the hall, that love song you like. There's a strange echo that brought my voice back; for a moment I didn't sound alone.

Maybe you were here with me, in spirit. I know you don't believe in that, and I don't really either, but it's a nice thought.

That's the alarm for the next thaw, so I'll just say goodnight to you now. It's Xinfa's turn I think... yes. Good. She'll be able to deal with the alert on the comm.




Dearest Chandra:

The alert flag turned out to be something... big. I don't know how to say this.

No, I know how to say this. I just don't want to.

It was the outer marker for an occupied system.

And no, not what we've trained for. Not first contact. The voice that came from the beacon was human, pleasant and cheerful, speaking a Mandarin dialect with an accent none of us recognized.

"You have entered space of Colony AF-391, known as Guanyin. Please identify yourself. We welcome you in peace,"

The way we all went quiet, it might as well have been the delivery of a death sentence. The message repeated twice.

Param just said, over and over, that this couldn't be right. As if he could overrule the message somehow by volume alone. I wanted to shake him, like he was broken and that would somehow get him unstuck.

Xinfa was the one who finally did something about it. She just keyed open the channel and called the beacon, had it bounce our signal back to its master array. There was a fifteen second delay, just long enough to make me hope... I don't know. Make me hope that it was a mistake, somehow. But then another woman, though her voice was very different from the one on the beacon, answered. She asked us to identify ourselves again.

It made me so angry, hearing someone sound so pleasant as they shook the world upside-down.

I've seen expressions like that on Xinfa's face before, when I've called a husband or mother and said that I'm from the hospital and am the bearer of bad news. It's the look of a waking nightmare. Everyone just stared at her, even your brother. I've never seen him look so... so... blank. I couldn't stand it any more and just jammed my knuckle into his shoulder blade. Then all he said was, "Send them our registry code,"

The next pause was far longer than fifteen seconds. We just waited and waited. Then the woman said almost in a surprised tone: "Advanced Scout Sita, welcome to Guanyin. We thought you were lost."

Thought we were lost? What does that even mean?

Param was angry. He still is. He's the Captain; he was supposed to be briefed on everything. He started shouting questions at Xinfa to relay to this new voice in the night, demanding to know how we could be lost, how was this even possible? But she gave us no answers in return, just, "This is a conversation best had in person." What does that even mean? How can anyone be that cruel?

And that was that. We're still over three weeks out with deceleration to deal with, and her words are a stone in my stomach. A conversation best had in person?

I wish our conversation was in person.




Dearest Chandra:

I'm worried about your brother. He hasn't been sleeping during deceleration. Just walking up and down the hall. I tried to talk to him this morning, even brought him a little sip bag of spice tea since I remember you using that as a peace offering when you two were at odds.

He took the tea but didn't drink. He just ranted at me, paranoid, afraid. He thinks the exploration company sold us out. That they, "fed us bullshit stories about being pioneers and fucking heroes." That they sent us off on this one-way mission, and then just sent a faster ship at our back to overtake us.

None of that makes any sense. There aren't any faster ships than the Sita. Well... there weren't. Why would they have just sent another ship to beat us here? It makes no sense. They must have thought something had happened.

Param thinks the money they expect to make from the resources on Dragon's Horn has just become so great that they didn't care about losing the investment they made in us. Maybe there was another rare earth shortage.

I don't want to think like that. But the alternative... I don't want to think like that either.

That's not that point. It never was. We did this because we wanted a new home, we wanted open skies and fields and clear skies without domes. You and I, Chandra, we wanted a new kind of life together. I tried to remind Param of that, since I thought it would help, and...

He just shouted in my face,hands curled like he wanted to squeeze my words off at my throat. "Don't bring my sister into this!" and "She followed you into this black hell!" His face was so red and contorted. Like a stranger wearing a Param mask.

But it wasn't like that, it never was, right? It was you and him that came up with this grand idea of pushing out into the black and making a new home, and he damn well knows it. Everyone knows that I'm the follower. That I've been your satellite, caught in your orbit ever since I first spotted you in that park at the top of the university arcology in Mumbai. I suppose I could have pulled rank on him as the doctor. But I didn't think that would help, not in that state. And... to be honest, I was far too angry.

We'll arrive at Guanyin's orbital dock tomorrow. Maybe once Param's off the ship and has something else to do, he'll stop brooding. But he's making me nervous, and the crew too. Like there's a static buildup just waiting to pop.




Dearest Chandra:

The company didn't sell us out like your brother thought. Instead, it seems we had a comm malfunction and they lost track of us twenty years into the trip. It just makes me think about all those stupid 'lowest bidder' jokes--no. Never mind that. The point is that the company decided to dispatch another colonial mission, with faster ships. They pushed out to the Dragon's Horn at .2 Gs, compared to our .05. They've been here for well over a generation, fair and square.

Everyone took the news with grim grace. What else can you do? It is what it is, no amount of shouting will change that. Even Param was quiet through the explanation, the official greetings. I expected him to be angry about it again. But now his shoulders are slumped when he walks. He's gone from angry to broken. Because... no. I... don't want to think about that any more. Let me tell you about our arrival.

They had us put the ship down in the middle of a field. The vegetation was a yellow-green and dotted with pink, spherical flowers that I've been since told are actually exceedingly slow-moving animals. They smell peculiar, like nothing from Earth, sort of green and spicy and a bit sharp like lemon, all at once. When all our manifests were handed over and medical exams done, we were invited into the colony by the governor, Andre Clausson. They made quite the ceremony of it. Leena, his daughter and the woman who answered the comm channel, had a little garland of hothouse flowers for each of us. She couldn't get the flowers over my braids and just settled them in my hair, smiling and laughing all the while.

I did my best to laugh too, to smile. But I rolled the soft petals in my fingers and thought of a different time, a different meeting, and hated this place. I don't want to be grateful. I don't want to celebrate even as I stretch my hands out to touch the new sky. I'm so angry that these people have taken everything from us, even though I know it isn't true the moment the thought forms. It's not their fault. It's not anyone's fault and I feel terrible for thinking such things.

The rest of the colonists turned out to celebrate our arrival with music and dancing. Everyone looks different from us; taller and more beautiful, androgynous. Their hair's a bit strange, I'll admit. Like someone's gotten a bit happy with the clippers: it's all tactile patterns. I'd walk around rubbing everyone's heads if I wasn't pretty certain that's still considered rude, even in the future.

Leena came by the ship after we'd had a little time to settle. To check in on us. She gave me this shy smile, and apologized for giving us such a nasty shock. Param was hanging around like the walking dead... what a luxury he's allowed himself with that. I think he made her nervous; she kept giving him these uncertain, worried looks.

I did my best to play the gracious guest since Param was no help. But I felt so numb the whole time, cold. Like I was smiling with a face burned by frost. I thanked her for welcoming us, for checking on us, for making sure we're fed.

She offered to show me around, with one of those smiles. I guess they still flirt in the future too, huh? I rubbed my nose, making certain to use my left hand so she could see my wedding band. But sure, I said. Maybe she could help me find some housing. The ship's getting a little crowded. And... I hate to say it, but being around Param makes me feel like I'm drowning. Like I can't breathe.

She took my terribly subtle move well, even laughed about it. Just said marriage is "arcane" to them.

I went shopping without you,with Leena as my guide. Try not to be angry, I know shopping is your favorite hobby. But I think you'd like Leena. She has a twisted sense of humor that she hides in a pretty smile. Just like you. I smiled back at her, even as my throat went tight.

God, I miss you.




Dearest Chandra:

Leena called in the middle of the night to warn me Param had been thrown out of a bar again. At least she didn't sound angry, just worried. We all worry about Param.

I fished him out of the gutter like a piece of trash. Only they don't litter around here. Everything is ridiculously clean... except Param. I told him, "You can't keep doing this." They have rules, and this is the fifth time I've had to go clean him up off the street. The colony governor is not going to keep turning a blind eye.

Param smelled like he'd been marinating in alcohol. He couldn't even walk on his own, just leaned on my shoulder (somehow I always forget he's nearly a foot taller than me) and breathed in my ear. You know what he said? Of all the stupid, frustrating things? "You can't tell me what to do. I'm the Captain."

I was too angry to bother trying after that. I dropped him off in his bed and made sure there was a trashcan nearby for the inevitable vomiting. I left as soon as I could. He wouldn't stop glaring at me.

I hope you can forgive me, Chandra. I'm not a saint, but we already knew that. I'm also not your brother's keeper.

In happier news, Leena helped me find a little apartment toward the outer edge of the settlement. It seems palatial after being shipboard for so long. Especially with the view it has. A thick forest of trees! Trees of all things, can you believe it? She also helped me requisition some furniture, and was sympathetic about my request for a double bed, even if she did give me one of those looks of hers, like her soul is about to pour out of her eyes. She eventually agreed.

The bed's comfortable, better than the one we used to own, with that memory foam flattened like a pancake. I slept there last night, away from the ship for the first time since we arrived. The cacophony of insects came in the window I left open, as well as the sweet scent of flowers. I tried to fill my heart with that smell, those memories, but I feel so crushingly empty, I couldn't breathe through the pain. It smelled like you.




Chandra:

Param is dead.

I say the words but it doesn't make it feel any more real. Just three flat words to represent a mountain of grief. We didn't get along always, but he was my brother-in-law, he was my Captain.

He hung himself, Chandra. In the temporary housing they'd given him because he refused to look for anything else. He left no note.

I can guess well enough. It sounds horrible, but I'll say it anyway. I don't think he could handle no longer being special, no longer being the hero. Here, he was just another man, a stranger, a foreigner.

A selfish bastard.

I shouldn't have said that. I'm sorry. I'm angry, at him. And also at myself. I let him push me away. I went on without him. I should have paid more attention, should have done something. This is my fault.

I'm sorry, Chandra. A million times, I'm sorry. Maybe I shouldn't have told you like this, but I don't want you to feel like I've been hiding it when you arrive.

When you arrive... God, I can't wait. Only six more weeks. Godspeed. I can't keep this up much longer.




Chandra,

Param's funeral was two days ago. It was mostly just Sita's crew. Our last get together, I guess. Everyone else is moving on with their lives, adapting. Xinfa even brought a young man – I think – with her, who held her when she cried. I made certain the proper ceremony was followed, even if they weren't my traditions. I could tell the ceremony made the colonists even more uncomfortable. Maybe they don't do cremation any more. Leena stood by me all the while, and she held my hand. It helped, somehow. One more part of the future that's just the same as our past, right?

Because that's where I am now, in the future. And you're in the past. I'm still waiting.

Param left me to face this green purgatory alone. He was supposed to be the strong one. Where does that leave me?

Where does it leave you?




Chandra:

It's been over six months since your last message unlocked.

Six months. I've looked at it every day and I... I couldn't.

It's been--

I can't do this. I just can't do this any more.

I have to move on. I have to stop pretending. But I wanted to believe, Chandra. I had to. You have no idea how frightening it was, coming to a new place, finding it full of strangers, and then being told--

Being told that the love of your life is dead.

Well, you'll never know, will you. Maybe you're the lucky one. Isn't peacefully in your sleep the way everyone wants to go?

I've known it since we had our face to face meeting with Leena, but I just kept playing along because... because I needed to do it, for me. For my sanity, what's left of it. Our communications array failed, but the entire navdat on your ship failed. You... were struck by an extrasolar object. The ship was.

I had to pretend, Chandra. I needed to believe that you were still coming. Then Param...

We were so close, Chandra. So close. We were almost home.

I... have a confession. I thought of doing as Param did. Then I thought I was a coward because I could not. Not when I had another six messages waiting, of all excuses. Now, the only way to live is move on. And with Leena... forgive me, Chandra. Please.

But what am I doing? You can't answer. I'm explaining myself to a ghost.

You're gone. You're dust in the empty space between stars, not even stirred by the solar wind. All that's left of you is your voice. I know what you'd say - that no one is truly gone while they are still remembered by someone that loved them.

Well, I love you, Chandra. But you're still just a ghost at the edge of my vision. One quick smile in the mirror, and when I turn you're gone, ripped from my orbit, or maybe I've been torn from yours. Gravity, you always said. But like you always said, 'There are things greater than ourselves.' I guess it's time to think of that. Because to me, there was never anything greater than you.

I'm going to listen to your story, your song one more time, and I'm going to weep one more time for everything we were, and were going to be, and never can be. And then... I'm going to meet Leena for dinner. And maybe tonight, I'll have the strength to take off my wedding ring and leave it sitting on the windowsill. Because I also know you'd be shaking your head at me, lips pursed like you tasted something sour, and call me an idiot. 'Fresh air, Laraine. Sights to see. Go see them. Live, you silly woman.'

I will still dream of you. Every night. Maybe that's enough.




My Laraine,

I've only got a few minutes before my work crew goes into coldsleep. My previous message should have been enough. We'll only really be apart for a year, and goodbyes feel unnecessary and final, knowing that. Just another silly story and a song should hold you over the few weeks until we reach the system's heliopause. And yet.

And yet...

I try not to be superstitious but... but I find myself thinking, over and over, of all the important things I want to tell you. First is, don't blame yourself, Laraine, for anything that happens in these decades and light-years apart. We are not as in control of the course of our own lives as we would like. We are at the mercy of things greater than ourselves. I know you don't believe in fate, don't make that awful face. It is not fate, but gravity, the simple mechanics of a moving universe. It is this that brings us together and pulls us apart, lifts us up and crushes us, and there is nothing we can do but hold tight and hope sometimes. I am only glad that it has brought us together, and filled with sorrow it has kept us apart for so long.

But I know we will meet again soon. Our orbits, that perfect circle, will bring us back to where we started. To a park in Mumbai, to a field on this new world, to wherever and whenever we both may be. And you will spill your beer on me, and I will give you flowers for your hair and smile, because it's all right.

I love you, my Laraine, my heart.

I've got to go. I'll see you when I wake.

---TRANSMISSION FAILURE---



© 2013 Rachael Acks




Rachael Acks is a geologist and writer. In addition to her steampunk mystery series from Musa Publishing, she’s had short stories published in Strange Horizons, Penumbra, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. She’s a proud member of the Northern Colorado Writers Workshop. Rachael lives in Houston with her husband and their two furry little bastards. In her not-so-copious spare time she bikes and practices kung fu. 



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