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"I’ve changed?" Raoul Tavalera cast a surprised look at Evelyn Delmore, sitting on the sofa next to him.
The party had pretty much drifted away from the living room. The old-fashioned, overfurnished room was almost empty, except for a few of his mother’s white-haired friends and Evelyn, who’d been at Tavalera’s side since the instant the party started, just about.
His former neighbors and old schoolmates had gathered in his mother’s house to celebrate his returning home after nearly six years in space. But it was a strangely quiet, subdued sort of party. Hardly any alcohol, for one thing. When Tavalera had asked for a drink his mother had handed him fruit punch. He had to get one of his old college buddies to spike his glass with a dollop of tequila. The guy poured the booze surreptitiously out of a pocket flask, eyeing the tiny red light of the security camera up in the corner of the ceiling.
And not all of his classmates and former buddies had shown up. When he asked where Vince Tiorlini was, Tavalera got shifty looks and embarrassed mumbles about work camps in the flooded Pacific Northwest. Zeke Berkowitz, too: re-education center for him. They said he’d be out in another few months, maybe. Even Ellen O’Reilly. Her flaming temper had gotten her sent away somewhere, nobody seemed to know where.
Six years, Tavalera thought. A lot had changed in six years. Or maybe, he thought, it’s just that I’m looking at everything through different eyes, after being away for so long.
There had been dancing, of sorts. Very subdued shuffling around the floor of the dining room, which had been emptied of furniture for the eve ning. Dull, old-fashioned music from individual phones that each dancer clipped to his or her ear. So that the noise won’t disturb any of the older people, Tavalera’s mother had explained. He had tried to tune the phone to something livelier but got only a godawful shriek in his ear; the phones were restricted to one single channel, bland and boring. Finally Tavalera had given up in numbed disgust and returned to the living room. That wasn’t dancing, he told himself. He’d had more fun in kindergarten when the teachers made them all march in time to patriotic songs.
Looking around the hushed living room, Tavalera found that most of the partygoers his own age had crowded into the kitchen, but even there they were a pretty quiet crowd, he thought. He remembered impromptu parties aboard the Goddard habitat, all the way out by the planet Saturn, where’d he’d spent a couple of involuntary years and fallen in love. They were noisy, cheerful bashes, fueled by homebrewed booze everybody called rocket juice. People danced to music that made the walls vibrate, for crying out loud. This homecoming gig was more like a wake than a party.
I’ve known these people since I was a little kid, he mused. We all went to school together, right through college. But they’re different now. Strangers. Maybe it is me, he repeated to himself. They haven’t changed. I guess I have.
Tavalera was a compactly built middleweight, exactly one hundred and eighty-two centimeters tall. He had a long-jawed, melancholy face with a set of teeth that made him look, he knew, like a caricature of a horse. Not handsome, but not entirely unattractive, either. Somber brown eyes, dark hair that he kept cropped short after years of living and working aboard spacecraft.
"Yes, you’ve changed," said Evelyn Delmore, peering nearsightedly at him as she sat beside him on the sofa. The crumbs of his homecoming cake were scattered over the big tray on the coffee table, the table itself, much of the floor, and Tavalera’s travel-weary slacks. He realized how old-f ashioned the living room was, with its fake fireplace, overstuffed furniture, and the wall-sized TV screen that was never off. There were only a few of the older neighbors in the living room now, all of them placidly watching the TV news.
The big wall screen over the mantlepiece was showing bulky, ungainly robotic soldiers clanking through some village in a jungle. Might’s well be the same newscasts they were running before I left, Tavalera thought. The info bar running along the top of the screen read: Medelli;n, Colombia.
That red unblinking eye of the security camera bothered him, up there in the corner of the ceiling, by the old-fashioned crown molding that his mother loved so well. It seemed to be staring at him. Why does Ma need a security camera? Tavalera wondered as he sat on the sofa. She’s got one in every room, for chrissake, even the kitchen.
He heard somebody yowl with laughter, back in the kitchen, where almost everyone had moved to. Except for Evelyn, all the people of his own age had squeezed in there. That’s where the food is, he thought. The laughter quickly cut off, as if some teacher or librarian had hissed out a warning shush.
He got up and headed toward the back of the house, Evelyn half a step behind him. Tavalera felt almost annoyed. I don’t need her hanging on me! He thought of Holly, back at the Goddard habitat. I wonder what Holly’s doing right now.
The kitchen was jammed: people were sitting on the counters, crowding into the mudroom, couples sitting on the back steps that led up to the bedrooms. But their talk was subdued, low-key. They were almost whispering, as if they were in church, or afraid to let anyone hear what they were saying. It unnerved Tavalera.
His brother, Andy, was entertaining them all with an impromptu display of juggling. Impromptu and inept, Tavalera thought. Andy had a big grin on his face as he tossed pieces of fruit in the air. The floor around his feet was littered with oranges, apples, and something that had splattered and made a pulpy mess.
It didn’t bother his mother at all, Raoul saw. She seemed dazedly pleased at all the friendly faces crammed in around her. She was standing by the stove, looking kind of dumpy and round and as white as bread dough, smiling vacantly, hardly changed at all in the years Tavalera had been away. Except that now her white hair was dyed ash-blond.
Why in hell did she dye her hair? he wondered.
He realized that Evelyn was staring intently at him, as if trying to read his thoughts.
Embarrassed at her attention, he asked, "I’ve changed, huh?"
"Yes. Definitely." She kept her voice low, just like all the others.
"How? For the better?"
"I don’t know yet." She was about Tavalera’s age, pretty in a pale blond way, even though she was decidedly on the bony side. Holly was lean, too, but vivacious, always full of energy, full of color and fun.
"You’re . . . quieter, I guess," Evelyn continued. "More reserved."
He shrugged. He’d been off-Earth for nearly six whole years. He’d seen massive Jupiter, giant of the solar system, up close; he’d repaired scoopships that dove into that planet’s swirling, multihued clouds. He’d nearly been killed out there. He’d lived in a huge space habitat that carried him unwillingly to Saturn, with its bright gleaming rings. He’d left Holly in that habitat that was now orbiting Saturn. He’d promised her he’d return. But the government had refused to allow him to leave Earth again, wouldn’t even let him send messages to her.
He’d received no messages from her, either. Was the government blocking them, or had Holly already forgotten about him?
Messages. He’d expected the local news media to make at least a little fuss over him. Back home after traveling halfway across the solar system. None of his old buddies had ever gone into space. But nothing, not a peep in the news nets, even though his brother worked for the local TV center. Just like I’ve never been away. Nothing. Everything here’s the same, even the friggin’ never-ending war against terrorists and drug cartels. Except for Mom. She’s a blonde now, for chrissake.
But it’s not the same, he told himself. Or I’m not the same. Evvie’s right. I’ve changed. Six years off-Earth changes you. Has to. What I took for granted before I left looks . . . strange now. Stifling. It’s like coming back to kindergarten after six years of being on my own.
"Before you left," Evelyn was saying, "you were sort of a wise mouth. Now you’re . . . well, quieter. Guarded, sort of."
"I’m older," he said with a cheerless smile.
"Aren’t we all?" she replied.
Tavalera gestured toward his brother, still juggling, with a silly grin pasted on his face. "Andy’s exactly the same as he was the last time I saw him."
"Oh, Andy!" said Evelyn. "He’ll never grow up."
Somehow the quiet buzz and restrained laughter seemed almost desperate. It’s like everybody’s afraid of making any noise. Like we’re all back in Sunday school. It became too much for Tavalera. He pushed his way toward the back door.
"Where’re you going?" Evelyn asked, right beside him.
"Outside. I need some fresh air." I need to get away from these zombies, he added silently. And I don’t need a clinging vine smothering me. He wanted to tell Evelyn to go away and leave him alone, but he didn’t have the nerve, didn’t want to hurt her feelings.
She came with him as he shouldered his way through the well-wishers who pretty much ignored him in their determination to have a well-behaved good time. Except for his mother, whose eyes followed him every step of the way, looking—not worried, exactly. Concerned. Maybe she’s hurt ’cause I’m not enjoying the party, he thought.
Outside it was twilight. The sun had just set; the sky was deepening into violet. Not a cloud in sight, Tavalera saw. The sky fascinated him, after years in spacecraft and artificial habitats. Everybody here took it for granted, that big blue bowl that turned red and gold and deepened gradually into black, dotted with stars that twinkled at you. It isn’t that way aboard spacecraft. Even the Goddard habitat, big enough to house ten thousand people, didn’t have a sky or even a horizon.
It was warm enough outdoors to be comfortable in just his shirtsleeves, even though spring didn’t officially start for another month or so.
The neighborhood looked subtly different from the last time he’d seen it. The backyard seemed smaller than he remembered it, the stubbly grass worn down in spots where Tavalera recalled playing ball with his buddies. But now there was a tall aluminum pole in the far corner of the yard, anodized olive green, with another one of those red-eyed security cameras atop it. That was new. The camera turned slowly, slowly, then stopped for a moment when it aimed at Tavalera and Evelyn. He grimaced; then the camera resumed its slow sweep of the area.
Rows of houses stood along the wide, slightly curving street, equally spaced. Just like before I left, Tavalera thought. Maybe a little more crowded, new houses where there’d been open lots and playgrounds before. Or maybe they’ve shortened the backyards so they could squeeze in some extra houses. Otherwise nothing seemed changed. Except for the poles and the cameras every third house. Who are they watching? he wondered. Who’s doing the watching?
Most of the lawns looked half dead, a sickly brown caused by the warming. The new high-rises poked above the screening line of struggling young trees out behind the houses, where the park used to be. Tavalera had played baseball in that park and pedaled his old bicycle until it fell apart. Now the area was a refugee center, housing for people driven from their cities by the green house floods. Hispanics, mostly. And some Arabs or Armenians or something like that. They didn’t like to be called refugees, he’d been told: they preferred to be known as flood fugitives.
I guess the world has changed in six years, Tavalera thought, even though most people are doing their best to ignore the changes.
He walked around the house and down the driveway in silence, Evelyn step-by-step beside him. She made him feel nervous, edgy. No cars in the driveway. All the partygoers had either walked to his house or taken public transportation. Driving individual autos wasn’t forbidden, exactly, he had learned since his return. But the city frowned on unnecessary driving. And the fuel rationing kept people afoot, as well. Rationing hydrogen, Tavalera thought. They get the stuff from water, for chrissake. Why should they have to ration it?
Something flickered in the corner of his eye. He looked up, and his breath caught in his throat.
"Jesus H. Christ! Look at that!"
Evelyn looked shocked. "You shouldn’t take the Lord’s name in vain! They might hear you."
"But look!" Tavalera lifted her chin to the heavens.
Long ribbons of shimmering light danced across the sky: soft green, pale blue, white, and coral pink. Like trembling curtains they moved and shifted while Tavalera stared, goggle-eyed.
"What is it?" Evelyn asked in an awed whisper.
"The Northern Lights, I think."
She broke into a nervous laughter. "Not the end of the world, then?"
Shaking his head, his eyes still turned skyward, Tavalera mur-mured, "Aurora Borealis."
"But why’s it showing this far south?" Evelyn asked. "We never get the Northern Lights in Little Rock."
"Must be a really big flare on the Sun," he replied. "Or something."
Excerpted from The Return: Book IV of Voyagers by Ben Bova.
Copyright 2009 by Ben Bova.
Published in August 2009 by Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.