Some of Them Closer
Coming back to Earth was not the immediate shock they expected it to be for me. It was something, certainly, but I’d been catching up on the highlights of the news as it cascaded back to the ship on our relativistic return trip, and I never knew the island where we landed, when we left home twenty of our years ago and a hundred of theirs, so I expected it to look foreign to me, and it did. The sun was a little yellower than on New Landing, the plants friendlier.
But I never thought of myself as an Earther. Even with the new system, hardly any of us do. I thought of myself as from Montreal. Quebecoise. Canadian, even. But Earther? No. I am far more provincial than the colonists whose home I built will ever be.
I flew into the new place instead of Dorval. It looked like Dorval used to. It looked nearly exactly like Dorval used to, and I had a twinge of discomfort. The floors were curiously springy, though, which made me feel like something was different, and that was reassuring. There isn’t an Old Spacers’ Legion or anything like that to meet people like me coming in from off-planet–they did that on the little Brazilian island where we landed–but there was a department for Cultural Integration, meant for people traveling from elsewhere on Earth. They assigned me to a representative of the government, who greeted me in a French whose accent was nearly my own. To my ear it sounded more English, with the round vowels, but even with the new system I thought it might be rude to say that to a Quebecoise.
The English-sounding French-speaker gave me a key to the four-room apartment they’d gotten me, not far from the Guy-Concordia Metro station. I told her I could take the Metro to it, but she smiled and said no, they’d have to get my things out of storage for me anyway. So we did that. There were only three boxes. Once you do the math on what will keep for a hundred years, it’s a lot easier to give away the things you can’t take with you. I gave them to my sister, who died, and whatever was left, she probably gave to her son, who had also died, or her daughter, who was retired and living comfortably in Senegal last I heard. So what I had left myself fit in three small plastic boxes, all labeled “Mireille Ayotte NL000014.”
We terraformers all got two-digit numbers for our colonies, NL for New Landing, 14 because there were thirteen team members signed up before they took me.
There was never any doubt they were going to take me. It was just a matter of where I wanted to go, and I wanted New Landing because the survey probes made the plants look promising, which I think they were. When I wasn’t catching up on Earth culture for the last hundred years, I was looking at reports from the other colonies, and I thought ours did the best with plant adaptation so far.
I had to start thinking of New Landing as “theirs,” not “ours.” I could go back, of course, but by the time I got there they’d have gone on without me as well, and I’d just have the same thing as Montreal all over again: a city full of things that seem like they should look familiar, but they don’t.
They had furnished my apartment with stylish clothes and furniture, and everything felt squishy and slightly damp. There was also entertainment in my handheld, and there were more tutorials in case I hadn’t had enough of them. The cupboards were stocked with food. They thought of everything. There was nothing for me to do but hang a very old photograph on the wall and go to bed. The bed, at least, was not squishy or damp. It felt like a ship’s bunk or a colony housing bed. They could do that properly still, and so I could sleep.
My great-niece came to show me around the next day–dutifully, because of course we’d never met before to have any personal relationship. Her name was Claire-Nathalie, and her clothes looked like they’d been crumpled and left in a damp corner for a month, so I knew she was very stylish. She was absolutely correct in her manner, friendly without presuming closeness, curious without being unduly inquisitive. She offered that I could stay with her. I saw my long-dead sister in her serene features. I declined, and she seemed to expect that I would, so no hard feelings there. I told her I liked the little apartment. I almost did; certainly I liked it better than staying with a stranger.
She looked around at my things. “They’ve given you new handhelds, thank God,” she said. “I can’t think what you’d do with a hundred-year-old computer, truly I don’t.”
“Nor I,” I said. “They’ve been catching us up on the advances on the return trip. Not much else to do on the return trip but catch up.”
She relaxed a bit. “Oh, good. Much easier that way.”
“Yes.” I did not say that catching up on that much of human culture and history made me realize how very bad the agencies were at picking out which of the hundreds of novels I would actually want to read, which of the hundreds of comics would make me laugh. They could tell me the recognized classics, but hardly anybody wants those and only those.
It had also made me realize how many of the events that are news when you live somewhere are pointless when you don’t.
I did not say these things to my great-niece.
Claire-Nathalie said, “I suppose you’ll have the others, then?”
“The others who have returned, they’ll be…like a peer group for you. A community.”
I looked at her carefully. She seemed earnest. “Very few others return, dear–niece.” I almost called her dear child, but as she was perhaps three experiential years younger than me I thought that might go badly. “The colonists want to go to stay, unless things go very badly. It’s the ship crews and the terraformers who come back, and not all of those.”
“Oh.” She fidgeted, and I thought she was contemplating Sunday dinners with Old Auntie Mireille, who was not even decently old, if she couldn’t find me a buddy or two.
I had pity on her and said, “Of course there are lots of people who are interested in finding out whether they’d want to go. I expect I’ll speak to the training groups as well as possibly to some gengineering garden hobbyists.”
“Gengineering? Oh, you mean modders.”
“Modders.” I accepted the correction as gracefully as I could. “And of course there’s so much to catch up on, I expect I’ll spend the first few months just taking in restaurants and shows.”
Claire-Nathalie brightened and began to chatter away about what she’d seen and done and had done to her for entertainment, and I dutifully agreed to wander around having her favorite restaurants, theaters, and what she called “venues” pointed out to me. By the time we were taking the Metro back, I was barely answering her monolog, merely interjecting monosyllables when she seemed to want them. I could not stop noticing how much squashier the floors were in the Metro, both on the trains and on the platforms.
They had also changed the decoration to include a great deal more wood, of which I approved, and gotten rid of the glazed tile installations, of which I did not. When Claire-Nathalie paused for breath, I said something about the tiles, which she ignored, and then something about the floors.
“Oh you poor darling!” she said. “I had just no idea that you lived in the times when your footing was so unnatural. It must have been terribly bad for the feet. Did you have to have a special, what do you call them, podiatrist? I expect everybody in the past did.”
It was a moment before I could bring myself to answer. “No, in fact I didn’t know anyone who did.”
“Really? Well, that’s extraordinarily lucky, isn’t it?”
I said I supposed it was and then turned my energies to convincing Claire-Nathalie to get off at her own Metro stop and let me find my way home. They had added three lines and who knew how many stops since I’d last lived in Montreal, but it didn’t matter–any fool could listen for the stop name or poke their handheld to alert them.
Once I’d told Claire-Nathalie that, I was afraid I would be the fool who couldn’t. But I made it off the train and onto the squashy platform stairs myself. I resolved to never, ever contact her again, and possibly to ignore any attempts at contact she attempted to make. Possibly everyone on Earth would feel the same about my feet and the advisability of finding my own kind. Still, it was worth finding out.
After a few days of handheld exploration in my apartment, I ventured out in hopes of finding something, anything that looked familiar. Not far from home, I did: the Hungarian restaurant was in the same place, the striped awnings the same. Of course they had probably been replaced a dozen times since I had last seen them, and I wasn’t sure whether the name was the same or not.
I went in, and I would have sworn it was the same woman seating me, and the same cakes in the display case, although of course they had probably both been replaced with the awnings. The cucumber salad was the same, but most of the things that had had beef in them before were made with fowl or lamb. I asked the waiter.
“You are not from here, I can hear it, though your French is of course lovely,” he said in outrageously Hungarian-accented French. “Beef is almost entirely African and South Asian now. You are perhaps from Africa?”
“I have most recently come from a Brazilian island,” I said truthfully.
“Ah, Brazil!” he said. “Well, they can afford whatever they like, can’t they? And on islands one supposes it’s easier to keep the cattle isolated. But here it is all birds and sheep. They stay healthier for cheaper. It is very traditional. We have always eaten this way.”
“I see,” I said. “Thank you.”
“And would you perhaps like some cake? We have very fine cake here.”
“I see that you have,” I said, but I ordered palacsinta anyway, wondering if the farmer cheese inside was made from sheep milk. It was divine anyway. If I closed my eyes it was just the same. If I opened them, it was not that much different. Just little bits.
This began to bother me more and more.
I spoke at the garden enthusiasts’ club meeting, and I called them “modders” just as Claire-Nathalie had. They received me with mild hobbyist enthusiasm. They served me sweets that all seemed to have bits of pear in them. I was not changing their lives. It certainly did not change mine.
I looked on the net for former terraformer classmates who had gone off to the colonies. Only one of them had come back to Montreal: Stephane D’Abbadie, three years older than me to begin with. I had no idea how many years older he would be now. He had left while I was still in classes and come back while I was still in transit back from New Landing. I didn’t know much about his colony, Outpost. It was older than New Landing, but not by much. I had thought to catch up on Earth, but not on the handful of other colonies, and my news feeds were set to Earth, New Landing, and “general interest,” whatever that meant these days.
I thought briefly about reading up on Outpost before going to see Stephane, but I decided not to. I don’t know why I didn’t think of messaging him like a polite person, to let him know I was on my way or find out if he wanted to see me. We had been friends, but not good friends. And that was two decades and three planets ago.
When he answered the door, he looked just the same, but his dark skin was an ashier brown than I remembered, and he had started tinting his hair red over the black, so it looked like a mass of curled cherry wood shavings. I didn’t even remember what my own hair was like when he left for Outpost. I opened my mouth and found it dry and stuck.
“Hello,” he said. He didn’t move to invite me in, or even to indicate that he knew who I was.
“It’s me, Mireille, I’m back,” I said.
“I see that,” said Stephane.
“I can deal with them putting pears in everything now,” I said, “but I can’t get my head around the squashy floors in the Metro.”
He peered at me, and then a smile broke over his face. “All right, Mireille, come in.” As he made us tea and set out some grapes, he said, “You should feel grateful you’ve come home to a place where there’s snow. In all the cities where they don’t have to clear snow, the squashy floors are everywhere. They’ve decided they’re more natural.”
I tried to smile. “Natural. Everyone wants to call their pet theories natural but us, Stephane.”
He raised an eyebrow. “How do you know I don’t, after twenty-eight years?”
“Twenty-three for me,” I said. “No, but I know. Because terraformers don’t do that. We know how easily it could go one way or another. We know that we’re not in the business of natural.”
He said, “I haven’t been in the business of much of anything since I came home.”
“I haven’t figured out what I’d like to do, either,” I said. “I have my savings.”
“That doesn’t fill the days.”
I huffed a sigh of frustration. “Well, then, what are you doing?”
“Drugs and meaningless sex, mostly,” he said.
I blinked. He didn’t.
“You’re joking,” I said tentatively.
“I am, actually,” he said, and the grin returned. “No, I’ll show you what I’ve been doing, if you like. It’s not the least bit scandalous. Or at least it shouldn’t be. I’m afraid I don’t have the hang of what’s a scandal and what isn’t yet.”
“On New Landing, the amount of loafing I’ve been doing would be a scandal.”
“Outpost, too,” he said. “Come on.”
He had the keys to a shed in the back garden of his apartment building, and it was fully powered, not the toolshed I would have assumed. When he took me outside, I thought gardening, but the shed smelled of wood shavings and varnish, and sawdust scuffed under our feet.
“No squashy floors here, either,” he said, smiling. He opened a cabinet and handed me a small wooden toy, dark and light together. It had wheels and hooks.
“A train car?”
“I make wooden toys. Mostly trains. Some trucks and things. I did it on Outpost from time to time–the children loved it, but my time was mostly taken–well, you know.”
“Your children?” I asked, though I knew it was the wrong question.
“No. I never….”
“Neither did I.”
“Ah well,” he said gravely.
I fiddled with the train car, running it back and forth along my hand. “The wheels are really lovely.”
“Thank you. Do you want to see how I made them?”
I thought about it. “Why not?”
So he showed me the lathe on which he shaped the wheels, and their evenness seemed inevitable. Before I knew it, it was late afternoon, and I had carved out the rough shape of a caboose while watching Stephane do the detailing on an engine with far more in the way of scrolls and curlicues than the plain little train car he’d handed me.
“I would say let’s get takeout,” I said, “but they put lamb on their pizzas now, I expect.”
“Mutton pepperoni is surprisingly edible once you’re used to it,” he said. “The spices cover a multitude of sins. I know a place.”
We didn’t have pepperoni at all in New Landing. I don’t know how I could have forgotten it. It was worth the mutton, every bite.
“Do you sell the trains?” I asked when we’d finished the pizza.
“I haven’t tried, not here. I don’t know where I’d start. On Outpost there was always someone who wanted what I’d made and happened to have a bushel of gengineered–er, modified, sorry–plums or a new tea mug or something.”
“I still say gengineered, too,” I said. “We never stopped on New Landing. Well. Maybe they have now.”
I tried to make other friends, but the only person I could really talk to was Stephane. He didn’t seem to have other friends, either; at least there was no evidence of them. While I thought of him as the only person I could really talk to, quite often we didn’t talk about ourselves at all. He taught me to sand and carve and shape the wood, and we talked about projects, things we’d done, things we’d like to do. It was easier to come up with things I’d like to do while he was there, and I think the same was true for him.
Elsewhere it was hopeless. The clerks in shops spoke to me in English. They would break off their conversations with each other in French and ask in English if they could help me. When I answered in French they always switched back, but that had never happened to me before, not above once or twice, and now it was all the time. I think they could tell that there was something slightly different about me, and even after a hundred years, “foreign” still means “English” in Quebec.
I think that might have been comforting if they hadn’t meant me, and if their French hadn’t sounded so much more English than mine.
My only fear with Stephane was that he might think I wanted more of our relationship than I did. I have never been any good at romance–perhaps if I had, I’d have formed roots and stayed on New Landing–but we were young enough yet–well, some people were young enough yet until the day they died. But we were strong, healthy, middle-aged people. We could go back to the colonies if we liked; they’d still take us. And if that wasn’t out of the question, surely I couldn’t count on him thinking romance was.
I have always hated it when people fall in love with me. I hate having to give the speeches.
One day we were working together in the shed. It was a glorious day, the kind of bright green things turn after a hard rain. “Come on, we can’t stay in here all day,” Stephane said to me. “Come and get an ice cream.”
“Is it pear ice cream?”
“You like pear ice cream. And it doesn’t have any mutton in it. Come on.”
It was not the same ice cream shop that had been down by the river when I’d left, but it was just as good. I ordered chocolate, which came without pear, and Stephane ordered banana, which was exotic, newly revived just before our return. We sat on a bench and looked out at the St. Lawrence, and the ice cream was good, and the river was lovely. A man was making balloon animals for a passel of children, and the children looked just right, because children had always looked rumpled. One of them dropped a giraffe by the bench as she dashed past in hot pursuit of her brother.
I picked up the balloon giraffe the child had left behind. It felt like it had been dipped in syrup, but my fingers came away clean.
“It’s not nitrile,” said Stephane.
“What is it?”
“Some other flexible polymer. I don’t know. But people started getting nitrile allergies, so they replaced it the way they replaced latex before we were born. Colony kids have a lot more environmental stimulus. Not so many allergies.”
I put the balloon giraffe down again, carefully. It looked just like a balloon animal ought, lumpy and lopsided. But it was sticky.
“If everything was different, I don’t think I would have minded as much,” I said.
“You would have,” said Stephane.
“Do you think so?”
“You are perpetually minding just a little,” he said. “If it was more you’d be a malcontent.”
“Oh, thank you very much!”
“And if it was less you’d never have gone to New Landing in the first place.”
I thought about it. Perhaps he was right. I tried to remember how I’d felt when I lived in Montreal before, but I was so young then. It was mostly the feeling of being a teenager that stuck with me, and that was not the difference. So I thought about my time on New Landing. I hadn’t stayed. The others had. But Stephane hadn’t stayed on Outpost, either.
“The stars actually were closer then,” I said out loud. “It’s not that I’m saying I think they were or it felt like they were. We’re in an expansionary universe. The stars were actually closer then.”
“On the average,” said Stephane. “Galactic spirals are, by definition, not linear places. Some of the stars are closer now.”
“I suppose that’s something.”
“I think it is.”
We looked out at the canal together. It felt like a date, except that I had no desire to be on a date with Stephane. I was relieved when he grinned sidelong at me and said, “Well. Want to have another go with the lathe?”
I was getting better at it. My whorls and curlicues were not nearly as good as Stephane’s for decorating the fancy trains, but I could make every piece of the plain ones myself now, wheels and axles and the lot, and do it just as well as he did. I also roughed out the carving on the fancier work so that he had less to do, although he never minded.
It was lovely, but it wasn’t a life. Not a whole one. Not enough of one.
“Mireille, I have to talk to you,” said Stephane one day, and I set down the chisel and thought, oh, here it comes.
“All right,” I said.
“I can’t stay here.”
“What do…where are you going? Back to Outpost?”
“It’ll be just the same on Outpost. I’ll have been gone so long.”
I had thought of that, too. Whenever I tried to fantasize about going home to New Landing, I knew that relativity had beaten me, and it wouldn’t be home any more at all.
“One of the new ones. I had hoped you’d come with me.”
“You’re my friend.”
I let out a long breath. It was the right thing to say. “I want to be your friend.”
“I know it, Mireille.”
“I don’t know what else I want, though. I don’t think I want to terraform full-time any more.” I chewed on my lip and thought about it.
“No, we did that. We could have a little farm each,” he said.
“You could have a farm,” I said firmly. “I want an orchard.”
“Orchards are nice.”
“And we would be the crazy toymakers out on the edge of town, and when the terraformers really truly needed us we could help out.”
“But only when they really truly needed us.”
“Yes,” I said.
“I think so.”
“I think so too.”
“What is the name of this new colony?” I asked. “If you’d meant to go back to Outpost or take me back to New Landing, you’d have said. So what’s this one?”
He grimaced. “Mesoasperia.”
“I’m sorry. It’s the one that’ll take us; I checked. Otherwise we’d have to wait another eight months.”
“That’s too long.”
“I know it.”
“Well, we can start poking the children to nickname it. Children are good at nicknames.”
“Children are awful at nicknames,” said Stephane. “We’ll find ourselves living on Boogerbreath Five.”
“The toymakers of Boogerbreath Five,” I said. “We’ll make them remember pepperoni.”
“And forget squashy floors and pears.”
“No, that won’t do,” I said. “The floors yes, but I can’t do completely without pears. A few pears only. Pears in moderation.”
“The pear-moderate pepperoni toymakers of Boogerbreath Five,” he said. “I think it’ll do.”
It would. I was nearly satisfied it would.
Marissa Lingen is a freelance writer who lives in Minnesota with two large men and one small dog. This is true but not perhaps optimally illuminating.