I. 1435: 11 YEARS LATER.
However magnificent the seas and forests of other worlds,
However dazzling their sunlit skies,
However wide their beaches,
There is no view from any place in God’s vast cosmos
That matches the moonlight falling on one’s own front porch.
—WALFORD CANDLES, “HOME AT LAST,” 1199
I can’t remember a happier time than the day Gabe came back. Alex and I had assumed he was dead, along with the other twenty-six hundred passengers and crew on the Capella. It simply disappeared more than a decade ago and nobody had any idea what had happened. Funerals and farewells were conducted, and eventually families and friends went on with their lives. But a few months ago it surfaced. It had gotten tangled with a time warp. On board only about three weeks had passed, so the passengers and crew were shocked to discover that the outside world was eleven years older. Gabe and the others had returned though, and that was all that mattered.
We were coming back from Earth when we got the news. We joined the group of vehicles retrieving passengers from the drifting ship. Alex tried to raise Gabe when we got close enough to the Capella, but we got no answer. “He may be gone already,” I said. We picked up ten people, delivered them to Skydeck, took the shuttle down to the spaceport, grabbed a taxi, and returned to the country house. As we approached, I saw lights shining in Gabe’s office. A minute later he appeared on the porch and waved as we descended.
Alex breathed a sigh of relief. He was out of his belt and opening the door while we were still coming in. “Premature,” said the taxi in a stern voice. “A penalty will be assigned.”
“Whatever,” said Alex. We touched down and climbed out. Gabe broke into a huge smile, came off the porch and hurried across the cobblestones. They both stopped when they got close, stared briefly at each other, and without a word fell into each other’s arms.
“I can’t believe this happened,” Gabe said. “Thank God it’s over.” He looked back at Alex. “Are you still living on Rambuckle?”
Alex shook his head. “No. After the Capella disappeared, I decided it was time to go home.”
Gabe let us see he was amused. “So one good thing, at least, has come out of this. You’re living there now, right? In the country house?”
“Yes, we’ve set up a business here.”
“It’ll be good to have you home, Alex.”
“I’ve been here a long time. Thanks for turning the property over to me. Anyhow, we’ll clear everything out. Soon as I can decide where I’m headed. It should only take a few days.”
“No, no, no. You’re not listening to me. You can’t do that. You’ve been living here too, right? Not just running a business?”
“I have been, yes.”
Gabe looked my way. “And you, Chase?”
“I have a cottage near the river,” I said.
“I don’t see any rings. You guys aren’t a couple, are you?”
I’m not sure my cheeks didn’t redden a bit. There’d been a time when Alex and I had made a connection. But it had been brief, and it was long ago.
“No,” I said. “I just work for Alex. For Rainbow.” I’d been Gabe’s pilot before the Capella took him away. It was a flight he’d invited me onto, a combination of business and vacation, but fortunately I’d declined. Although it occurred to me that if I’d gone along I’d have been more than a decade younger.
“Well, anyhow,” said Gabe, “there should be plenty of room at the country house. There’s no reason you should leave, Alex. Stay, please.”
Alex hesitated. “Sure, Uncle Gabe. If it’s really okay with you.”
“Of course it is.” He was suddenly staring at the river. “I’ve never seen the Melony look so good.”
“That’s because you’re home,” I said.
“So what kind of business does Rainbow do?”
“Nothing’s changed. I still deal in antiquities.” Alex showed a touch of discomfort. “I hope that’s not a problem.”
“It’s okay. Do what you have to. Don’t worry about it.” Gabe had never approved of selling artifacts to private collectors. They should be available to everyone. Not stored away in the homes of the wealthy. But fortunately, on this occasion, he showed a flexibility that allowed him to confront his new situation with a let’s-not-get-excited attitude.
We went inside. “What’ve you been up to?” I asked Jacob, our AI, as the door closed behind us.
“Watching Bellarian plays.” Jacob loved the theater and spent a lot of his time in virtual box seats.
“Bellarian?” I said. “Where are they from?”
“Fourth millennium. Bellarius was the first world to produce its own shows.”
“Maybe we could attend some together,” said Gabe.
“I can arrange that. I’m planning on watching Graveyard Shift tonight, if you’re interested. It’s a comedy.”
“I’ll need a couple of nights to settle in, Jacob. But sure, let’s set something up.”
We carried everything to his quarters in the rear. Gabe was looking around the apartment, shaking his head, commenting that it was hard to believe he’d been gone over a decade. “By the way,” he added, “did we ever find out what happened to Octavia?”
“That happened,” I said, “just before you left. Am I right?”
“That’s correct. Just a few weeks earlier.”
“No,” said Alex. “They never got any answers. It had to have gone into the black hole, but the people who were running the program claimed that just wasn’t possible. There was a major commotion at the time when you guys disappeared too. The media were full of rumors about a connection.”
“So they never came up with anything at all?”
“Not anything definitive. Mostly all they had was speculation.”
“You think it could have also gotten tangled up in a time warp?”
“I’ve no idea, Gabe. According to the experts, you need a star drive unit to make that happen. The station had thrusters but that was all. The search parties found nothing. They put together a commission that decided the only reasonable solution was that one of the four crew sabotaged the place. That caused a lot of anger. Members of the commission took considerable heat. Eventually the media suggested they were trying to conceal a defect in the station. But they went over other stations of the same model and found nothing.”
“Now that I’ve had some experience being stranded myself,” said Gabe, “I can tell you it’s seriously unsettling. We knew for about a week that something had gone wrong and it was scary. We thought we were going to be there forever. I’d hate to think something like that happened to the people on Octavia.” He settled into the sofa. “I knew one of them.”
“Really? Which one?”
“Del Housman. We grew up together. Both members of the Explorers back in grade-school days. We never really lost touch. Until Octavia happened. You met him. We had him over to the house a couple of times when you were there.”
“I have no recollection of him. But you had a lot of visitors.”
“What was he like?” I asked.
“He was a good guy. A lot of the other kids treated him like a nerd. But he shrugged it off. They got especially annoyed with him because he refused to believe that AIs were actually alive. I think he’s the reason I figured out that the house didn’t really care what happened to me. That the voices were all automatic.” He paused for a smile. “He was always popular with the girls though.”
“He looks pretty ordinary,” I said.
“I guess. But that didn’t matter. He was a charmer. They loved him.”
• • •
Gabe had provided a home for Alex, who’d lost his parents in a hurricane when he was two years old. He was tall, with black hair parted on the left in a style we didn’t see much anymore. He had intelligent blue eyes that reflected the patience derived from so many years digging into dozens of archeological sites around and beyond the Confederacy. There was an intensity in his manner that tended to draw attention whenever he entered a room. Alex was just coming in off the porch when Gabe came through the door carrying
a captain’s cap. “It’s Deirdre Schultz’s,” he said. She had been the Capella’s commanding officer.
“Beautiful,” said Alex. I understood. It was already valuable and would become, in time, priceless. “How did you persuade her to give it to you?”
“I just offered to replace it. She laughed and turned it over. Wouldn’t accept any money.”
“That was generous of her.”
Gabe couldn’t avoid shrugging, as if she’d have done it for anyone. “She told me I was her public relations guy.” She’d signed an authentication. “I think she suspected that if she let me have it, it would eventually wind up in a museum.”
“She read you pretty well,” said Alex.
The laughter continued, and neither said anything about what must have been on both their minds: that Alex, left to his own inclinations, would have eventually sold it to the highest bidder.
“You know,” Alex said, “leaving Rimway was probably the dumbest thing I’ve ever done.” They shook hands, both looking as if they had finally put the old quarrel behind them. “And thanks for this.” He looked up at the house. “I’m going to call Joyce Bartlett and have her take care of whatever legal formalities are necessary to return everything.”
“Who’s Joyce Bartlett?”
Gabe looked puzzled. “Oh. I get it. You’re talking about my will.”
“Holy cats, Alex. I hadn’t thought about that. I mean, from my perspective, I’ve only been gone a couple of weeks. And by the way, call me Gabe, okay? We’re both adults now.”
“Gabe.” Alex was testing it. “Sounds strange.”
“This whole business has been pretty strange.”
“I know. You were officially declared dead three years ago.”
“So this place is now yours?”
Alex nodded. “Yes. It is. But you’ll have it back pretty quickly.”
Gabe stared out at the trees, the carefully trimmed bushes and the sculpted lawn. “You took good care of it,” he said.
“Of course, Gabe.”
“I won’t have you leave it. It’s your home. Has been for years.”
• • •
A worldwide celebration was staged two nights later. Passengers, families, and crew arrived at thirty-six sites around the planet, and one at the space station, to share drinks and memories and to say thanks to those who’d been part of the rescue effort, as well as to President Davis.
Telemotion technology enabled them to embrace and shake hands. The Andiquar group met at the Miranda Hotel. The event broke every Rimway record for total number of viewers and participants. And for at least those few hours, we became a global family.
An army of Gabe’s old friends and relatives descended on the country house during the next few days. They took him out to luncheons and dinners, and spent time with him just sitting around talking about what, for them, were the good old days. Since for Gabe the good old days had been only three weeks earlier, there was a fair amount of disorientation on both sides. “We held a funeral service for you,” Alex told him.
“Did anybody come?” Gabe asked.
Alex got an uncertain look in his eyes. “I can show you some pictures.”
“Let’s let it go.”
Veronica Walker was standing beside Alex. She was an elementary-school teacher with chestnut hair, brown eyes, and a killer smile. I watched her squeeze his hand as he spoke to his uncle. They’d met at an auction when she’d
outbid Alex for a lamp that had belonged to Wally Candles, the poet who’d become famous during the Ashiyyurean War. “Gabe,” she said, “I’m glad to meet you. I’ve heard so much about you. I wonder if I could have you come by the school and talk to my kids?”
“Sure. Would that be about archeology?”
“Whatever you like. But especially about why history matters.”
• • •
Alex and I had no problem adjusting to Gabe’s return. We’d both missed him, and getting him back became a gift of immeasurable substance. I was happy to note that whatever resistance Gabe had mounted against his nephew’s habitual salvaging of historical artifacts and putting them up for sale to private collectors did not show itself during the weeks that passed after he came back. If he was still embarrassed by Alex’s profession, he refused to show any indication of it.
But there were some difficult moments.
Alex updated him on a few family deaths, including two great-grandparents on his mother’s side. And there was his cousin Tom Benedict, an MD who’d died on the primitive world Lyseria, where a plague had broken out and killed almost the entire colony. Tom had gone to help in spite of dire warnings by friends and relatives. After a long struggle, he became one of the casualties. Eventually the plague was neutralized, but not in time to save him.
Gabe and Tom had been close, had spent a lot of time together, and had taken the young Alex on camping trips and boat rides back in the early days. They’d also taken him along on a couple of interstellar tours, which Alex told me had changed him forever. “They gave me a passion for history. For artifacts, especially. I loved touching them, touching history. I especially liked an artifact when I had a name to go with it.”
• • •
I got a surprise the next day when Gabe informed me that April Rafferty would be arriving at about noon. A shadow had crept into his eyes. “Except,” he said, “that her name isn’t Rafferty anymore. She’s April Dutton now.”
April Rafferty had been his fiancé eleven years earlier, when he climbed aboard the Capella and disappeared into the night. They hadn’t set a wedding date when it happened, but it had been obvious they weren’t going to delay it much longer. April had been heartbroken when the ship was lost. She’d waited, praying that someone would figure out what had happened and provide a reason to keep up hope. But after a few weeks without contact, everything turned negative. Whatever had occurred, the experts said, we may never know, but it’s obvious we’ll not see them again.
The Confederacy went into shock. It was easily the worst interstellar disaster ever. The Capella had disappeared and taken everyone with her. April had come to me because I was a pilot and she thought I might be able to offer a ray of hope. Interstellars had been occasionally disappearing over the centuries. A few came back after having suffered minor engine damage of some sort, combined with a communication blackout. But that sort of thing was extremely rare. So when she showed up at my cottage one evening a few days after the incident and asked whether I thought there was any chance that Gabe was alive somewhere and whether there was any possibility he’d be found, I said nothing to give her hope. I thought a claim in which I had no confidence would do nothing except extend the pain.
April arrived exactly at noon. I told her how good it was to see her again. She responded by saying much the same thing. She hadn’t changed, except that maybe some of the vibrancy that I remembered was gone. But that was natural after so many years. I let Gabe know and led her into my office. His office door opened in back, he came forward, and I tried to figure out how to get out of the way. I recall saying
something about how I hoped she was happy with whomever it was she’d married.
Then Gabe arrived. They exchanged warm smiles. “April,” he said, “you won’t believe this but it’s only been about three weeks since I saw you.”
“That’s what I’ve been hearing,” she said. “Gabe, I missed you.”
They moved into a cautious embrace while I excused myself and left the room. The last thing I heard was Gabe asking whether she was okay.