The cruiser cab hummed all around WilDer, nearly electric with the energy of corralled students on holiday. Mal, a live wire on a normal day, was practically bouncing on tiptoe beside him.
“I can’t wait to hit the slopes! The professionals say Acronos is the best,” the rapture in his face dimmed when he looked back to WilDer. “I can’t believe you’re passing up those free vouchers.”
WilDer looked up from his holo-pad and shrugged, “I don’t know what else to say. I’m just not into it… you know that.”
“Right. But free passes. Thought at least you could get into that.” Mal stopped talking, but his eyes kept on. Pushing WilDer to the point of feeling guilty. Though he wasn’t sure why he was supposed to apologize.
“Sorry,” he said with a shrug.
Mal looked away, over WilDer’s head to watch the cruiser’s screens, though they were only running ads.
“Don’t know why you’d rather spend our break at that old folks’ home when we could be skiing Acronos together. Just ‘cause Gran is stuck in that place doesn’t mean we have to be.”
“Gran does not live in an old folks’ home. And I don’t know why you can’t just go and see her every once in a while. She misses you.”
Mal shook his head. “You know, when we lost Mom and Dad, she didn’t have to swoop in like she did. We’d have been fine on our own. We had the apartment.”
WilDer rubbed at a scuffed spot on his watch, “I was only fifteen.”
Mal took a step back and shoved his hands in his pockets. Just then, the cruiser cab buzzed with the announcement, “Approaching Acronos IV, please proceed to the exits, please proceed to the exits.”
Passengers streamed between them as Mal shouldered his bag. Then he leaned forward, his mouth a hard line. “Yeah, I can see why the extreme sport stuff isn’t for you. Never really liked risk.”
WilDer turned back to his holo-pad, mouthing asshole.
With a flick of his wrist, Mal swatted the brim of WilDer’s hat, nearly knocking it off. “Fine then, cowboy—give my regards to ol’ Gran,” he said, mimicking the woman’s Southern twang. “You look ridiculous in that hat.”
With that, he turned and took his place in line. The cruiser pulled into the docking station, the doors slid open without a sound, and the passengers streamed out onto the platform. Mal followed without looking back. In another moment he had disappeared into the crowd, the doors closed, and the cruiser departed. The windows all around were once again engulfed in the blackness of space.
WilDer laid his head back and closed his eyes. He should want to go. That’s what Mal would have said if he’d gotten the chance. According to Mal, he should have wanted a lot of things. That was Mal’s way—pure forward motion—and he’d always expected the same of WilDer. But WilDer had only ever wanted to go back, back home. He couldn’t help it that his brother took that as a betrayal.
He tried to picture himself beside Mal, racing down the glossy slopes, getting that adrenaline rush. Together. But the picture morphed and flickered. It wouldn’t stick. All he could see behind his eyes was the lace draped across Gran’s rickety dining table, feel the hot sun warming his back as he worked beside her in the garden, hear the quiet that pulsed louder than the rush of blood in his ears, and taste that pie. God, the pie, homemade buttermilk—
He jerked awake to the cruiser cab’s repeated announcement, “Approaching Mars, please proceed to the exits, please proceed to the exits.”
Those late nights in the virtual stacks must have taken more of a toll than he’d realized. Wiping his bleary eyes, he grabbed his single bag and headed for the line, much shorter this time, and was soon standing under the bright lights of the Mars station.
WilDer took the interquadrant trams in a haze, happy when his stop at the Southern Hemisphere seemed to have taken no time at all. Before he knew it, he was standing at the entrance to Gran’s development, which he refused to think of as an old folks’ home. He looked up at the ironwork gates of Homestead Tier, decidedly nostalgic against the cloudless pink of the Mars sky, and felt he could breathe properly for the first time in weeks.
His boots kicked up pale plumes of the red dust as he walked down the avenues between the neat rows of pods. They shone like pearlescent blue tiger beetles in the fading daylight. After his latest class in terrain mapping, WilDer saw the place with new eyes. The sector’s rocky outcroppings had natural switchbacks that made it a perfect development sight for Homestead’s tiered pod design. He remembered the look on Gran’s face when she’d shown him their simulation specs; the prospect of reconstructing any time and place in history for her retirement home was a dream come true. She thought she’d lost the old place forever to the out-of-Solars. But Homestead lived up to its promises—every time he visited, he was amazed at how real it all felt, and he was completed transported.
That’s what he loved most about this place. It was preservation work of the most important kind. The settlers had covered the Earth like a plague, wiping out all traces of the planet’s past, but it could be re-created here for the people who would treasure it most. It was like a museum of Earth’s history, windows into a hundred countries and moments in time. 1980s Okinawa. 2007 Galway… 2120 Oklahoma. True, most of the residents were elderly, but what did that matter?
The sun had slipped below the horizon by the time WilDer stood outside Gran’s pod and looked through the blue dome to the tinged world beyond. A perfect microcosm. The world of Gran’s stories, the farm of his childhood, now a distant memory for the rest of the universe, but perfectly preserved for them here.
Mal’s words intruded on his memories: Just ‘cause Gran is stuck in that old place doesn’t mean we have to be. He never came here; it was too quiet, and too far from the lights and the buzz. But not for WilDer. He pressed his palm to the scanner, waited for the beep, and slid through the flickering veil onto red soil of another kind. As the dry, lifeless dust of Mars vanished, his boots sank into the life-giving red Oklahoma dirt. The air was fragrant with summer, the tall grass moved around him in the persistent breeze.
The rose pink of the Mars dusk had disappeared, and all around him shone the glow of an Oklahoma sunset.
WilDer smiled as he looked up the drive to the ranch-style house of his boyhood, all thought of Mal and his free pass forgotten. Gran stood in the open doorway, wearing her apron and that smile, same as ever. Perfect, he thought, just in time for supper.
Originally published in This Land, Vol. 5, Issue 21, November 1, 2014.