Tara started her final shift when Exodus landed on the new world. On the surface the thin atmosphere tried to cough up enough wind to move her light grey dreadlocks as she marched over the flat terrain. She led her team to their habitat, glancing back occasionally to see if their contingent of colonists were still following. She had no sympathy for the ones that had fallen behind, leaning against each other to catch their breath, or laying down to cry in the pathetic red ferns that covered the ground. They had been bought out of cryosleep two weeks ago and been nursed back to health. Every time she’d been awoken, she’d been expected to start work the next day with just a couple of pills for the hangover.
How many times had she awoken over the centuries? How many shifts? She bit her lip as she tried to count. There was that first traumatic awakening, where she had ‘won’ the lottery that all 18 – 20-year-olds travelling without family were entered into. Then other shifts in quick succession where she was transformed from ‘emergency trainee replacement crew’ into ‘replacement engineer’. She lost count after she got to the awakening where she married Amit. By then she had grown into her new life as an Exodus crew member and her awakenings had become snippets of life rather than work shifts.
She had spent her entire second chance at life maintaining the ship. She’d grown old in the dark between the stars as these soft little colonists slept peacefully. Now they got to enjoy the shiny new world her daughter had died building on this barren rock, while her world was stripped for parts.
“Gran?” Parvati said, tapping her on the shoulder. “We’re nearly at the dome. Please don’t look so angry when we get there. The colonists – “
“The colonists need to toughen up” Tara said. “If seeing an old bitch with one hand get grumpy can traumatise them then we saved the wrong people. They should have stayed on Earth.”
“Gran you’re being unfair” Parvati said. “The Apocalypse only just happened for them. Can you imagine…”
Parvati trailed off, probably remembering that her Grandmother could imagine it, since she had lived through the Apocalypse too. Tara didn’t remind her granddaughter. Instead she looked down and grabbed the leather strap tied around her stump. There was a piece of rusted, melted metal sewn into the strap that she always found herself stroking when reminded of her life before the Apocalypse. She had never told any of her family about that pre-Exodus life, but she had touched the pendant so much that the words once engraved on it had been eroded away.
“I know” Tara said. “I should be able to emphasise with them. But after all the disasters the crew has gone through since then, and all we’ve sacrificed to keep them alive, I just don’t have it in me to care about these soft, pampered little… little…”
“Pigs” said one of the other guides with a laugh. She saw it was Renaldo. He’d trained her during her first shifts, but he hadn’t done as many voluntary shifts as her. At some point she’d become older than him. He’d never liked the colonists. Most of the crew had issues with these sleepers who had either bought their way on or been randomly selected by a rigged lottery. Tara understood that; she had lost all her pre-Apocalypse family too. It had taken dozens of shifts before Renaldo and the rest of the crew saw her as family.
Renaldo’s comment started heated discussion amongst the guides about the worth and the culpability of the colonists. Tara rubbed her rusted charm. She saw Parvati looking back at the large crowd of colonists following them, falling too far behind to hear the taunts.
“We’re going to start life on this new world divided, aren’t we Gran?” Parvati asked. “Do you think crew and colonists will end up going to war?”
“Of course not” Tara said. “We’re not that different.” But then again, the Captain had formed these guide groups and told them to ‘get chummy’ with the colonists for a reason, hadn’t she?
They reached the entryway of the dome and split up into groups around three of the airlocks. Whilst they had been mocking the colonists for falling behind, the thin air wasn’t any easier on them. Tara wished they could rush inside, take some deep, relaxing breaths, then sit down and relax. First though, they had to get all these useless colonists into their new homes.
She could feel herself growing more frustrated as they herded the colonists along. Despite Parvati’s chiding, she knew she was morphing into the scary old woman her granddaughter thought the colonists couldn’t handle.
There was a slight lull in the colonist’s babbling after they finished sending one group through, and in that lull Tara heard one voice raise above the crowd. She couldn’t make out the words, but it was a familiar voice that pulled on heartstrings she’d thought long broken and turned to dust. She heard the voice shouting now, and found herself touching her charm, her scowl softened by a warmth she could almost remember.
She heard the voice again, and realised it was shouting her name.
Her head whipped around to the next group and she saw him. A handsome white boy with golden blonde hair screaming her name as he pushed through the crowd. His face was red – whether from the walk or from seeing her she didn’t know – and his eyes watering.
“Tara?” He screamed as he fought his way through the crowd. “Tara!”
“Elliott” Tara whispered, her shortness of breath not related to the thin atmosphere.
Her high school sweetheart looked just as he did over a thousand years ago. Elliott’s father had known a guy, and the whole family had ‘won’ berths on the ship. They’d arranged another ‘win’ for her when Elliott threatened to stay on Earth so she could go. He’d always put her needs above his own. He’d lost childhood friends because she upset the popular girls, he’d stayed up way too late to help her study, or to cheer her up after she’d been crying over some trivial pre-Apocalypse teenage shit.
It had been so very, very long since she’d last seen him. She'd thought it was long enough for their love to burn away, but in a second it had flared back to life.
The last time she laid eyes on him was when she visited his cryo-bed to look at him through the glass and tell his sleeping form that she had fallen in love with Amit. She’d cried then. She hadn’t hardened herself so much at that point, but she was still surprised how much it hurt to move on.
The last time they had actually spoken was on the ship, when they had to part ways. Their cryo-beds were on different floors. They hugged for a minute, neither wanting to let go. As if they both knew that it would be the last time. When they did, he pulled one of those silly two-piece ‘best friends’ pendants out of his pocket. He placed one of the broken hearts in her palm.
“This was so sudden” He had said. “I didn’t have time to find a ring or, or anything. But, I found this. I figured if we each took half now, then if there are any delays in the awakening, we have something to hold onto.”
“We’re not going to actually experience the whole thousand years you know” She had said.
“I know. But I’d like, I’d like to take something with me that will remind me of you as soon as we wake up.”
She had taken her necklace, with her half of the broken heart. She had fully expected the two halves to be reunited in a day, or maybe two at the most. At least as far as she would be aware. But now she pulled the leather bracelet off her stump and held the rusted, eroded, misshaped broken heart in her calloused hand. She gripped it to her heart as Elliott ran towards her, the shiny pendant in his hands as he reached out, saying her name, to hand it over…
Tara turned away, not wanting to see Elliott’s heartbreak written across his face as he realised he had the wrong person.
Renaldo opened his mouth but stopped as Tara held up her hand and shook her head.
“Just start getting this group through” She said, fighting back the tears. “I’ll sort this out.”
She looked at the group and saw Elliott’s parents had moved to the front, hugging each other as they watched their heartbroken son awkwardly explain to Parvati how much she looked like his missing girlfriend.
“Oh, is this your rich family?” Renaldo whispered. “The one you were a maid for?”
Tara looked away, tears harder to control. She’d been so desperate to fit in with the crew. So desperate to not be one of the selfish, privileged colonists. She looked at Elliott, blushing as Parvati comforted him. If she hadn’t decided to reinvent herself, would he have recognised her? If she had sped through her training, awoken only for mandatory shifts, hadn’t had a family and the need for extended times awake that necessitated, then would she be young enough for him? What if she’d just put up with her crewmate’s ribbing and asked to wake Elliott up from time to time? Could their relationship have survived the journey between stars?
All these what ifs, that she’d played out so much she’d exhausted the tape, all played again, still without a clear answer.
Could this be a second chance for them?
“Oh” Renaldo said, placing a hand on her shoulder. “Damn Newbie. That’s… I am so sorry. I didn’t ever think...”
“It’s fine” Tara growled. “Can you take over?”
“Sure. Take as long as you need.”
The line stirred again, and Tara focused on Parvati and Elliott, who had moved on to some polite small talk.
“Elliott is my Mum’s name” Parvati said. “I’ve never met anyone else called that.”
“That’s interesting” Elliott said. “Is that her?”
He was pointing at Tara. He didn’t seem to recognise her, but his eyes widened and fixated on the strap in her hand.
“No, this is Gran Newbie. My Mum is dead. Don’t be sorry; it was old age. She stayed awake to build this habitat while we were still in orbit. It was… Gran? Are you alright?”
She knew in that moment that there wouldn’t be any second chances for their relationship. Even if they weren’t uncomfortable with the age difference. Even if she could go back into cryo-sleep until he was an old man. The gulf between them had become too great. It stretched from here to Earth. It contained her family, her daughter dead fifty years from old age. It contained her crazy life and work where it was possible to be older than her mentor, younger than her daughter, and lucky to be alive. It contained his youthful awe at the unknown planet they were on and the pain of an Apocalypse raw and new. It contained his fresh memories of Earth. She would never go back to the girl she was with him, and he would never grow into the type of man she would respect.
“Tara?” Elliott asked. Looking at her now. Seeing her with her wrinkles, her blown off hand, and her young granddaughter. Seeing her and gazing into that same insurmountable gulf. “Tara, what happened?”
Now she was crying. Silent tears running down the lines on her face as she stepped closer to him. She looked up to him. She could have sworn they were the same height.
“Hello Elliott” she said. “I’ve missed you so much.” She held out her hand. Her fist was next to his, and they compared their broken heart pendants.
“I’m sorry I let my necklace get like that. I was wearing it as a bracelet when I lost my hand. After that it spent three hundred years in the lost and found. Not in the preservation room. But I made sure I found it. And that I kept it.”
“Three hundred years?” Elliott gasped.
She saw Renaldo try to usher Elliott’s parents along. Now that she had decided there were no second chances for their romance, her first instinct was to shoo him along. She’d dry her eyes, let the old flame in her heart smoulder down to embers, then maybe have a laugh with Renaldo about how young and in love she’d been. Maybe she’d give the broken heart pendant to Parvati. She’d been intending to pass it on to one of her grandchildren, and now that Parvati knew what it meant, she’d know to treasure it.
On the other hand, the entire human race was looking for a second chance. Maybe she could turn this painful meeting into the type of healing moment their new world needed. They had after all been told to ‘get chummy’ with the colonists.
“Call your parents over Elliott” Tara said. “I’d like to introduce them to the rest of my family. We have so much to catch up on.”
“Shouldn’t we be trying to get them into their new home?” Parvati asked.
“That can wait” Tara said. “I’ll tell Renaldo we have some catching up to do. You two talk; I bet you’ll get along so well.”