Morning always seemed to come so quickly. Or maybe it was just that the nights never really ended. They’d been there forever—at least it felt like forever—yet he couldn’t get used to this place, to the way the air smelled after the all-too-infrequent rain, to the look of the wispy red clouds that rarely left the sky. The atmosphere was charged with electromagnetic particles that gave off an iridescent glow, even after the sun had long since set. Its luminosity never let the night get too dark and blocked any view he might have had of the stars above them.
Tom forced his legs to move, step after step over the dry, crusty ground. There was something surreal about this life, stuck on a barren rock in the middle of nowhere, charged with caring for so many people. He’d never asked for the burden of this particular responsibility. Yet they needed him, and he owed it to them to do what he could.
At least he wasn’t alone—really. Misery loved company, wasn’t that the saying? Except the rest of them didn’t seem so miserable. Not most of them, anyway. They’d come to terms with their fate, made peace with it. They’d dug in, created new lives. Even in his numb detachment, he envied them that.
So he put on a brave face and did what he could to carry his weight. He got up each morning and did his duty to the people he had come to think of as his family. But his heart wasn’t in it. His heart…he’d left his heart behind him among the stars he could no longer see.
Tom never liked sitting still. He needed to be in motion—always in motion. Now, though, there was nothing else to do but plant his withered roots in the colony’s dry soil. Nothing he could do to escape their grim existence…except run—as far and as fast as his legs would take him—even if it was only through the foothills that surrounded their improvised community.
He crested the highest peak then stopped to catch his breath. Leaning against a twisted excuse for a tree, he looked down at the ten square kilometers where he would probably spend the rest of his life—the place where his dreams had died.
His peripheral vision caught a glimpse of a wild rabbit darting away from him into the wilderness. For a fleeting moment, he considered following it, escaping from the responsibilities that lay in front of him. But he couldn’t. He owed these people. They needed him.
In that moment, a flash of memory came to him: a petite dark haired woman, with the deepest brown eyes, and a smile that could make him forget his name. A smile he still dreamed of whenever his mind allowed him to dream—which wasn’t often these days. Of a twinkle in those dark eyes he doubted he’d ever see again.
Then, as quickly as it had come, the image was gone.
He tipped his head back and stared up into the rose-pink sky. As it often did, his mind envisioned—just for a second—that he saw a ship breaking through those clouds. He tried to imagine what he would feel—fear? Relief? Hope? Not that it would ever really happen. He knew deep down that his second chance at happiness had come and gone. It was more than time to face the reality of his situation: he was trapped, an inmate in a totally new kind of jail. There was nothing to do but accept it.
‘Keep going,’ Tom said to himself, a silent ritual he had first begun while lying in a prison cell, determined not to be broken. ‘Keep going.’ Eventually his body complied, and he was running again, this time toward home.