Part of 2100 CE.
It was difficult to see things now the way they used to be, the way they should have been—the way they would never be.
Everyone she knew told her that everything would be fine, that the concerns of the universe were not hers to shoulder—and yet whenever she presented to them the very real concerns of having a someone she loved far from home, beyond anyone’s reach, they called her silly. Silly girl, they seemed to say, smitten for a boy you met in school.
She took a long drag from her cigarette and let it out slowly.
Out across the water she could just make out the silhouette of a freighter entering the bay, the wind carrying the mournful call of its horn over the waves to where she sat on the boardwalk. And even that was no longer what it had been. The warm sandy beach that once lay far below was now awash with foaming seawater black with ash and disintegrated rock. The boardwalk had been concrete for as long as she had been alive, but it had only stood some five or six feet above the beach, which was then maybe a hundred yards to the water. Now it was not so much boardwalk as concrete seawall, rising some two stories above the original beachfront. It was the only thing keeping the city from being swallowed by the ocean.
The world changes, she heard him say into her thoughts, a ghostly, disarticulated voice. We have to change, too.
She frowned at the memory—rarely now could she hear his voice anymore. There had been a time when she had daily, maybe hourly, called his number just to hear his voicemail, the monotonous, You know the drill, leave me a message. But that had worn off, just as everyone told her it would—and it helped that his phone contract expired.
She stubbed out her cigarette and lit another, pulling the carton from a coat pocket. Staring down at it, she wondered just when she had first started smoking. The head nurse Tamara said it was Nikki’s doing—a bad influence, she called her. Maybe that was true. Nikki had definitely introduced her to it, but then maybe they both had their reasons. Maybe I have my own goddamn reasons, she thought. The thought brought a smile to her lips. Tamara was just being nice, even motherly—and like any mother, she could be a serious pain in the ass.
She lit another cigarette, her third.
In the distance thunder rumbled over the crashing of waves. The last time she had seen him, it was raining. They had met at a park near the train station and just sat together in stunned disbelief. The rain started a few minutes later, but for the sting of rock particulates, neither of them reacted, staring into each other’s eyes. If either of them were crying, it was impossible to tell—though she felt certain they both were.
“Why?” he had asked.
“Because you’re leaving. Because this doesn’t make sense. Because this doesn’t feel right.”
“I love you…”
She closed her eyes against the memory, willing it away in the darkness behind her eyelids. But even in this retreat, she could see his face, the look of pleading helplessness in his eyes, even borderline pathetic. He was young and impressionable—she liked him; he liked her a lot. They made each other laugh, they had good times together…
She had long since given up hope of hearing from him again. Regular communications from Titan—outside the official announcements—had stopped months ago. The last message anyone had received had been from a neighbor’s brother, who wrote, We’re on the move and we think it’s good news. Not sure what’s happening, but something is better than nothing. I’ll write again soon. But nothing else had ever come. There was nothing but silence. It was shortly after that that newsmedia reported what appeared to have been major battles on the surface of Titan in an area of plains and valleys, but never anything more specific—nothing about particular units or the names of individuals that a normal person would recognize. All that she ever saw was the generic coverage and meaningless speculation.
He must be dead, she concluded. He’s gone for good. She had already said bye to him once, why keep worrying now? And the more she tried to convince herself he was dead, the less she believed it. Every time she tried to forget, she remembered more, like some kind of sick joke. She would tell herself to forget him, and then he would visit her in a dream.
She cursed herself. She cursed the war, the government, the international community, the separatists. She cursed the conscription that had taken him—and she cursed the clause that made something as minor as flat feet a disqualification for service. It meant she was here, and he was gone. And there wasn’t a damn thing she could do about it. Instead of military service, she was a nurse for the civil service, appointed to the military hospital at Portsmouth while her friends were sent away—while he was sent away.
Every day she checked her messages—though she knew there would be nothing there—and every day she checked the casualty list, certain his name would be there. If nothing else, either or both would give her the relief she needed, the news that would set her free. And every day there was only silence. She was trapped in an emotional purgatory, desperate to let go but entirely unable to do so.
Days like those—perhaps every day—she would walk down to the shore and stare out at the sea. With the weather now so different, she rarely had a view of the sky or stars beyond. The shore, with its changing breezes and powerful gusts, was her only hope of seeing those pinpricks of light, and so she waited.
And sometimes she would see, or imagine, a twinkle. Maybe it was Jupiter. It most likely was not, but maybe it was. She would whisper a message to Emile, far from home, and hope he would feel it.
She squeezed her eyes shut until she saw bright flashes. Was he still that idealistic kid she met senior year of college, the one who wanted to be a lawyer for the International Anti-Poaching Foundation?
Slowly, cautiously, she opened her eyes.
Far in the distance, in tiny break among soot-black clouds, she saw the pinpricks of light—bright against the night’s sky. Was he out there now, looking out across at her?