The distant wail of a steam whistle brought tears to her mother’s eyes.
“Ma, we’ll be okay.” Jen put one arm over her mother’s huddled shoulders. “Pa will change his mind.”
They sat on a rugged wooden bench, waiting with other townspeople. Tom sat silently next to Jen, holding her hand. Muffled sobs escaped Ma. She fiddled with her handkerchief and looked up at her daughter, but refused her eyes. She turned and gazed down the lonely track. Puffs of smoke rose behind the nearby hills.
“Your Pa ain’t opposed to the marriage, Jen, just don’t want you leave ’n. You’n Tom can stay with us.”
“You know we can’t. Everyone’s leaving except you and Pa.”
“That’s not true. Mr Stanley and his wife are keepin’ the store and…”
“Ma, the plan was always that everyone would leave for the new settlement when the time came. This town was a training ground, never the destination.”
“Our family put down roots here,” Ma said. “We built this town. Why leave an’ start over?”
Another shrill blast announced the train’s arrival as it came into view. The wooden platform creaked as passengers rose and shuffled forward. Tom stood, still holding Jen’s hand.
“It’s time, Jen.”
Jen looked at him, then back toward her mother. She pulled her hand from Tom and hugged Ma. Tears rolled down their cheeks.
“Ma, this town… it will fade away. It’ll take you with it. We can all have new lives at the settlement. Tom and I want you and Pa…”
A clanging bell drowned out her voice. Deep rhythmic pulses shook the platform. The iron beast blew clouds of dispersing steam into the crowd as it chugged past. Passenger cars dutifully followed behind. A biting squeal of brakes sent a shudder through the cars as the train slowed. The engine sighed a final mechanical exhale.
Tom picked up his suitcase and gently took Jen’s hand again. She rose still looking back at Ma on the bench.
“Ma, the town will be deserted. Talk sense into Pa. Take the last train, even if Pa won’t. Promise me.”
Ma stood and embraced her.
“You know I love ya, Jenny,” Ma said in soft tones. She inhaled and composed herself. “Maybe ya’ll come visitin’ once you’re settled.” Jen looked into her eyes, but Ma avoided and turned to Tom.
“Take care of my li’l girl, Tom. I know ya will.”
“Yes, ma’am. We hope you and Pa will come too.”
She turned, stifling a cry with her handkerchief. Tom tugged at Jen’s hand. She watched Ma for a moment more as she followed Tom to the train. Her eyes welled again.
They found a seat facing the platform. Jen peered through the dirty window. Ma stood alone, one hand raised, and the other held the handkerchief over her mouth.
A piercing whistle blast sounded, and the train jolted. The wooden building crawled past, leaving Ma behind. Jen caught a glimpse of Pa on his wagon in front of the station. He turned as the train left town. Jen jumped to her feet, waving madly. Pa didn’t see her.
Her vision faded to black.
Jen gasped for air.
A bright light glared off the glass canopy which lifted away from her stasis pod. Chilled air tingled on her wet skin. An attendant tossed a towel over her.
“Everything’s okay, Jennifer. Take your time. When you’re dry, there’s a flight suit for you. I’ll help with the helmet.” The attendant moved to the next pod which started opening.
The simulated town – gone.
Jen dried herself with the towel. Its texture felt somehow more real than anything she could ever remember touching. Looking around the huge room, she recognized passengers from the train emerging from their pods. She slid out and stood, wrapping the towel around herself. A familiar voice shouted from across the room.
Tom ran toward her. They embraced.
Opening her eyes she glanced over his shoulder, down at the two sealed pods adjacent to hers. Her mother and father lay sleeping, still plugged into the stasis simulation.
“Attention: Next shuttle departure to the surface settlement in 20 minutes. Please have your flight suits properly fitted before boarding.”