Author’s note: this short story appears in my anthology The Tree at World’s End, also on Inkitt.
Jedro stepped from the train and looked around.
Traces of snow could be seen still clinging to the station walls and the roots of trees; all that remained of a hard winter, that and the brooding sky and the touch of frigid air against exposed skin. Beyond the station a few cars zipped by, but otherwise, nothing. No people waiting, no one running to catch the train before it trundled away. And no one had disembarked except him.
Jedro shouldered his bag and walked down to the road; from there he made his way towards where the tram stop should be. His toes were already feeling the cold.
He knew that he could have chosen a better route. He could, for instance, have gone on to dismount at the Central Station and then caught a cab from there, but that’s not how he wanted to return to this place. Such a direct approach did not appeal to him at all; for the same reason he had let no one know that he was coming back.
When he booked the ticket he had spontaneously decided to re-enter the old world by descending into town via the old funicular, the cable-car tram … if indeed it still existed. He felt like a spy, a one-man invasion, not like he was coming back after an absence of ten years. More like he had just gone up into the hills for a walk just as he used to when he was a boy. He remembered walking back down pretending that he was an alien who had just landed in this god-awful, beautiful and hard place, seeing everything with fresh alien eyes – with no history and no lies to misguide him.
He had been off-world for a whole ten years and what did he have to show for it? Nothing. Only scars and even they were not physical, not visible … so, again, nothing. Nothing to show at all.
The tram stop was still where he remembered.
There was an old man sitting on a bench, worn dark blue coat and a Russian looking hat, the kind with lined flaps to protect the ears from winter’s bite.
He glanced up at Jedro, giving him a tired nod.
Jedro rubbed his hands together.
“Is it going to be a long wait?” he asked.
The other looked up and down the tram line as if the answer lay somewhere in either direction.
“Ten or twelve minutes,” came the reply.
Jedro nodded and pulled the coat tighter around himself.
They spoke no more and time slowed to a waiting pace.
A cold wind whistled through the boughs of a nearby pine and Jedro was beginning to have doubts about being here, about coming back.
It was less than ten minutes later – yet the world seemed several degrees colder – when the tram appeared around the bend, chugging and rattling towards them. It came to a stop with an assortment of metallic noises and the doors sighed open right in front of them.
Jedro let the old man climb in first and then took one of the charming but hard wooden seats a little way closer to the front. He did not want to miss the view, the moment he had been anticipating for so long.
The tram careened along its track for a time, stopping intermittently at predetermined stops to allow non-existent passengers a chance to board. Jedro caught occasional glimpses of the city as the vegetation and the lay of the hills allowed, of the harbour and the distant band of sea, all so far below.
He marvelled at his reaction, at the emptiness that had opened up inside him. He had expected some kind of emotion, maybe a feeling of elation, not this sucking void of numbness.
The city and its surrounds seemed completely impervious and indifferent to this clandestine reunion.
The tram had gone as far as it could. Having reached the edge of a steep descent it eased itself into a snug coupling with the cable-tractor that would lower it slowly but safely down into the plains where the city sprawled.
Jedro peered out the window as the incline steepened alarmingly: it was even more pronounced than he remembered it.
It would soon be dusk. Already a few lights glimmered here and there in the distance, along the waterfront. The terracotta roofs of the apartment buildings that still crowded the old side of town gleamed wetly when the sun emerged for a brief spell to lance a shimmering trail across the waters of the gulf.
“How long have you been away?”
He turned and looked at the old man more closely.
Unshaven, sunken and rheumy eyes, coat covered in lint.
“Ten years,” he replied. “How did you know?”
The other shrugged fractionally and turned to look at the view.
“I’ve seen plenty leave and a fair few who’ve come back.” Another shrug. “You all have the same look, you know? Those of you who make it back. Besides, you still speak well, but you’ve picked up an accent; that more than anything else gave you away.”
“Off world?” pressed the other.
He nodded again, without turning this time.
“Yeah, the Galilean Moons,” he said, and then elaborated, “Callisto mostly, and a short stint on Ganymede.”
Jedro thought that he could feel the other nodding.
But it was his own mind that filled the silence that followed.
Was it worth it? Did you find what you were looking for? Did you bring back any money?
He would not have answered these questions even if they had been asked out loud.
“So now what?”
Now that he hadn’t seen coming.
He turned around slowly and looked at the old man. The question angered him. He had been asking himself exactly that for the last three months, since embarking on the Moon shuttle, before the short, intense leap back down to Earth.
He shook his head and remained silent.
The city grew closer and Jedro felt as if a trap of steel was closing in around him. An icy feeling cramped his legs in a vice-like grip. A momentary panic seized him.
“I … I have a friend,” he offered as if he was casting out a life-line for himself.
“Ah, a friend?” the old man repeated. “Where does this friend live?”
“I’m not sure anymore, but he owns a bar in Olden Street, near the corner of the square. That’s where I’m headed now.”
The silence that rose between them was filled by the strident noise of the cable-tractor slowing down until it came to a complete halt alongside a busy urban street. He had missed most of the descent. They were already in the city.
Cars, headlights already on, whizzed past them as the tram uncoupled and reversed away from the cable-tractor. Rails were switched and the journey continued through the city streets until they reached the terminal.
Doors hissed open. The old man took a few steps down but then stopped and turned slowly, blocking the doorway.
“Don’t worry about things too much, son,” he counselled in a soft tone. “There is no return, not really. There is only forward, even for those who think they have made it back…”
He nodded once and turning, hobbled off into the deepening twilight.
Jedro lifted his jacket’s collar against the cold seeping past his coat and the hostility gnawing at his heart.
He walked off in the opposite direction.
This was what he had wanted, was it not? This humble, anonymous return to a crossroad where he had once taken that wrong turn. Perhaps the past could be unravelled and rightness restored to the universe once more. Well, to his universe at least.
He allowed memory to lead the way through the maze of streets, awed at how things came back to him, detail by detail, as he walked.
He tried not to think of what he would do when he reached his destination, for beyond that he couldn’t see anything at all.
Instead he filled his apprehension with the details of all the changes he marked, all the things that were or at least appeared to be utterly new. Modern structures rose majestically alien right alongside the old familiar ones, shop fronts gleamed, bright and enticing, and the traffic was so dense that it left him breathless. People rushed past without a glance and he, stared back at them hungry for connection, for any sign that he was where he was meant to be.
He reached the main avenue and walked its tree-lined length.
Here the mood of the people he passed was markedly more relaxed, the pace slower and more contemplative. Those who had made it here had shaken off the shackles of busyness and their preoccupation with work and survival. They had come to stroll, to sip coffee and dine at the cafés crowding the length of the avenue.
Before the end of the street was even visible, Jedro took a turn that delivered him to the very doorstep of the bar he was seeking. It was already growing dark outside and the bar’s windows beckoned with light and warmth and the promise of sustenance. Outside the cold was becoming rather more intense than he expected.
Peering through the window pane he searched for his friend but saw no sign of him. He pushed the door open and entered.
He was immediately welcomed by the murmur of conversation and the warm ambiance. He walked to the bar and approached the stranger standing behind it.
“Is Daniel around?” he asked, his outward countenance calm, his internal composure scattered.
“No,” came the reply and Jedro felt a jolt of disappointment. “But he shouldn’t be too long. He’s on tonight, so he’ll be here before seven.”
He could live with that.
Although he recognised Daniel immediately, his friend’s gaze swept past him. Hardly surprising, most people do not see what they do not expect to see.
He watched as Daniel greeted patrons on his way towards the bar and then stopped to talk with the youth working there. Jedro waited a little while longer before approaching.
“How are you Daniel?”
Daniel turned towards him distractedly. Jedro allowed himself a smile.
His friend stared at him blankly for a few moments and then his eyes grew wide with shock.
“Jedro! You son of a … you made it!”
And with those words still echoing in the air, Daniel stormed around the bar and hugged him like a long lost brother.
Jedro was tall but Daniel was a good three inches taller. He loomed over him, hands on his shoulders, grinning like an idiot.
For the next ten minutes Jedro smiled so hard that his cheeks ached. Bombarded each other with questions that could not be easily answered, constantly interrupted by the customers’ needs, they soon agreed that they would have to meet at a better time.
“I’ve got tomorrow afternoon off,” Daniel said. “I was going to meet with my book keeper, but to hell with that. Come around tomorrow at one and we’ll talk properly then.”
Their meeting arranged and sealed, Jedro left the bar and made his way back towards the city centre.
He stopped at a modest hotel and booked a room for the night.
He climbed the stairs, locked the door and allowed himself to fall fully clothed upon the bed.
It was a bad night for Jedro. He woke up parched, disoriented and cold; it took him a while to figure out where he was. Nevertheless he showered, went outside and walked the morning away. He had lunch in a tavern and then made his way to his meeting with Daniel.
“So you’re back, I still can’t believe it. Are you staying here for good?”
Jedro shook his head.
“To be honest, I’m really not sure, Daniel.”
His friend looked at him curiously.
“God it’s so good to see you! But … you’ve just travelled half a million miles and you don’t know if you’re even staying?! What’s the matter with you? What else would you do if you didn’t stay?”
Jedro didn’t have a real answer so he just smiled.
“Ah, what the hell, tell me everything that’s happened to you…”
Jedro answered his friend’s questions as best he could. He did not mention everything, of course. There were some things that he would never talk about, not to anyone. Like the abject soul-devouring empty loneliness of Callisto’s mines, or the over-crammed living quarters where the scum of the Earth seemed to have congregated, or that in this latest frontier of human-kind the hardest thing to find was any trace of humanity. He also omitted to mention the plethora of synthetic drugs that circulated amongst the miners and the many sinkholes for the working men’s wages: the brothels, the betting pits and the slavery that saw most succumb to those who controlled all of the rot and profited from it, far from the watchful eye of any law.
He became aware that Daniel was looking at him fondly.
“You’re not really here, are you?”
That jolted him. He had drifted far indeed…
“What?” he asked, startled by his friend’s tone.
Daniel shook his head sadly.
“Come on!” his friend said, standing up on impulse. “I want to show you something.”
Jedro complied and as he stood another wave of cold suddenly seized him.
“I would have thought the worst of winter would have been over by now…”
Daniel just laughed.
“It’s you, Jedro! You’ve brought the cold of space down here with you.”
He followed his friend out of the café and into the street.
Jedro stared at the street in shock.
It was night again and everything was white. The whole street, all the cars and all the trees were covered with freshly fallen snow.
I am not dressed for this, he thought lamely.
Nevertheless he followed Daniel down an alleyway and into the dark portico of an old house where his friend turned and winked at him before opening the door.
Light flooded out onto the street, bathing him with blinding brightness.
People gathered inside the doorway were haloed by the light, they began to move forward to pour out into the street. All of them friends he had not seen for so long he dared not even try to remember how much time had passed. Hands reached for him and touched him. People whispered greetings and blessings. And the faces of people he had met and loved paraded by and…
One face he had not expected to see.
She whom he had left behind when he had left for the stars with dreams of riches and glory and the promise of a return with a bright future and the resources to pave a way out of the plight of the earth-bound, out of abject poverty … a way for them to be together in comfort and to live the life that they had dreamed and whispered that they would share and shape together…
Jedro’s eyes filled with tears and he looked for Daniel. The cold was almost beyond bearing now. Daniel still smiled but it was a small, sad smile.
“You’re not really here, are you Jedro?” he said again but even his voice sounded fainter now.
“What?” Jedro asked again, shaking his head and looking between him and Xenia, his girl.
She laid a hand against his cheek.
“You’re not really here, are you, my love?
And the tears froze his eyelids shut, but Jedro no longer cared.
He no longer worried about the explosion that ruptured through the outer bulkheads, and he never felt the entire base shudder as the frozen atmosphere reached into the deeper compartments, snuffing out each and every pocket of warmth that it found.
Instead, he brought a hand up to his cheek to cover hers and held her until Callisto’s long cold night embraced them both.
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