The Longest Distance

They say the family is cursed.

They say the family is cursed, and that it started with Kathleen Kearney, who transitioned from powering cities to powering individual houses. Houses that could propel themselves lightyears into space and return their tenants safely to Earth, or more specifically, to her. To her, because her own daughter was living in one of those houses, and she would never have let it take her kid away if she wasn’t a hundred percent confident in its homing ability.

They say the family is cursed, because although Erin Carellos made it home, she found that she could not stay.

They say the curse may end with Avery Carsons, who was so captivated by the work of his aunt that he would go on to head Ilion International, and would let himself be consumed by the controversy surrounding a discovery made by Odyssey III. They say he may be the last, because he has no children. But his brother, Zach, does…

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Here I was, back on Earth, in my country of birth, in a house I owned. And yet, as the months came and went, it dawned on me that home would always be out of reach.

Nobody ever used the word containment, of course. It was always quarantine, because that implied that it was temporary. They’d pushed that fiction past its tipping point long, long ago.

This will be the one, I told myself as the man in yellow drew up a vial of my blood and deposited it in a tube labeled Exobiological Hazard.

Negative.

“This will be it,” I told the tree swallow as I dropped today’s fecal sample into the mailbox.

Negative.

“This one will be positive,” I told the neighbor’s mastiff, who I wasn’t allowed to pet, as I vaulted two bags of sterilized trash over the lip of a bear-proof dumpster. I had changed tack. I wanted this limbo to be over and at this point I didn’t give a shit about the outcome.

Okay, not really.

The dog was friendly enough, but the couple who lived next door wanted little to do with me. Maybe they found the frequent fumigations disruptive, or maybe they were unnerved by the N95 I wore on every outing. Maybe they were old enough to remember the phage outbreak.

Winter was easier. If I wrapped a scarf around my face, I could pass as a cold-intolerant American, as long as you didn’t notice the sweat running down my brow. With the mask hidden, I could slip away anonymous and invisible and go about my errands like a normal Earthling.

Sometimes I would get visitors – real visitors – like family, and the few friends who knew where I lived and were willing to put up with the protocol for visiting the house of an astronaut exposed to life on another world.

One time my sister-in-law came to me looking uneasy.

“I just thought you should know that I found Avery…he was in the toy room with his mask off. I put it back on right away but what should I do? Should I be worried?”

“Not the least bit,” I said. “Just don’t, you know, tell anyone or they’ll lock him up too. And maybe the rest of the family, if you’re lucky.”

She raised an eyebrow.

“He won’t catch anything,” I continued, answering her unspoken question. “There’s nothing to catch. Every test has been negative, every single one, and they won’t give me a straight answer, not even a f-” I looked over my shoulder.

“The boys are in the back,” she reassured me. This was not the first time I had let my frustrations loose in her presence, nor would it be the last. I lowered my voice anyway.

Fuck this horse shit. I’ve been so cut-off that I’ve got to be the cleanest person on the planet. I haven’t had so much as a head cold in years. And you know what’s the worst part? After spending five years cooped up with men, I can’t even get a girlfriend.”

***

“You have a lot of nerve,” I told today’s visitor. Over a crisp flannel shirt, tie, and slacks, she was covered head to toe in clear vinyl coveralls. She looked like a walking, talking delivery from the dry cleaner. Her name eluded me, just like the rest of the scientists, doctors, and security officers who’d been in and out of my house since my transfer from the Dane County Research Clinic, but this one was different from the others.

This one had an agenda.

“We’re doing our best to accommodate you, Erin. We even set you up with a home in Cold Lake as you requested.”

Mug in hand, I pointed with both arms at the zipper over the front door, trying not to spill coffee on my living room floor. It was way too early for visitors. “This isn’t home. This is house arrest.”

“Well, I understand you’re frustrated. We’re working as fast as we can. We’ll release you from all restrictions as soon as the tests come back conclusive.”

“Conclusive,” I echoed. I could tell she was making an effort to be conciliatory but she wasn’t doing a very good job of it. It didn’t help that her face was partially hidden behind not one, but two masks. I kept telling myself, she’s just the messenger, no need to pull that trigger, but my patience wore out.

“And when is that, exactly? Can you give me a date? How about April. I wouldn’t want to miss the thaw. Or how about next year? Because that’s how long it will take to find the alien microbe metropolis growing out of my humerus. No, wait, it’ll take forever because there’s NOTHING THERE.”

She didn’t flinch. Refused to, even. She only shrugged as if to say not my problem and proceeded to pull the subject out of my grasp. “The commander thinks your experience would make you a valuable asset to the next mission, more so than any career astronaut.”

She was clearly prepared for this, but I wasn’t giving up so easily. “Aren’t there rules about how long people can spend in space? Because of the radiation?”

“Your EM shields held up beautifully during the expedition, as did your own enhancements. And we’ve improved on the design. We project you would have to fly to Ilion and back to Earth, and then fly again to the Barnard system to reach your limit.”

I doubted that. The shielding was strongest at the crewed end and weakened as you descended to the engine room. Once you reached the fuel cylinders, accessible by ladder down an impossibly deep and narrow well, your protection diminished to nothing. Rarely did the engine’s depths need to be serviced by hand, but when they did, it was almost always me in the tunnels. And let’s not forget the week I spent convalescing in the engine room, not because it was particularly conducive to healing, but because I couldn’t physically leave it.

I was shocked to find that I missed crawling the dungeons of Castle Odyssey. But I wasn’t about to tell her that. “You’re saying that like I’ve already decided to go.”

“And you would be joined by an old friend. Alex O’Hearn.”

I almost spit my coffee. “He can’t!”

“It wasn’t an easy decision,” she admitted.

“Yes it was!” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. “Say no. How hard is it?”

Alex had not handled the events of the last few days on Ilion well. While he never wavered in his duties, he barely spoke, and if my fevered eyes didn’t lie, he’d downed an entire bottle of ethanol disinfectant while Luo and I were out practicing for liftoff. The new commander presumably knew all of this, and still came to the conclusion that allowing Alex to board Odyssey one more time was a Good Idea. Because he was the leading expert in exobiology, they would say, because his name had clout in the scientific community like no other. Because he asked to go.

The thought of Alex revisiting his ghosts with only strangers to accompany him made my stomach drop.

I sipped my coffee in silence for a few minutes. It was lukewarm, but it gave me something to do while the visitor looked on. She seemed to know instictively not to interrupt my deliberations. “Tell you what,” I said at last, refilling my mug. “I’ll think about it. But first, no more working from home. No more escorts, cameras, hazard suits, needles, permission to leave the house, or any of that horse shit. I want to visit my family, wear plain clothes, and cook for Brian and Heather and the boys when they visit. I want to smell the snow on the trees when I hike Graves Trail. You get the idea. I won’t begin training until those conditions are met.”

“Great!” she said, a little too quickly. “Welcome aboard.”

Despite myself, I took her hand. Was that a touch of smugness in her voice? I wouldn’t let that slide.

“That wasn’t a full commitment. Just so you know.”

“I’m aware of that.” She turned to leave.

“And also, just so you know, you’re supposed to take the wrapping off after getting your clothes from the dry cleaner’s.”

I would later learn, in a carefully worded email from my lawyer, that I had been visited by the president of Ilion International. Whoops.

***

Odyssey took five years of my life from me. But it took more than that from those I left behind, because of relativity. And it would continue to take, from me and from the few on Earth who would await my return. So I made a rule: no new friends. It should come as no surprise, then, that I would fall in love not two years before my departure, because life has a wicked sense of humor.

***

With my newfound freedom, one of the first things I did was invite my dad to dinner at his place. My mom was at a conference, so it was just the two of us. It felt strange to cook for another. I had to fight against the spartan appetite I had developed on the ship, that “food is fuel” mentality that comes to those who have not tasted real food in years. Tonight I made breadcrumb chicken, which I thought was pretty tasty. What my dad thought of it would forever remain a mystery. He never had the heart to be honest about my cooking, not since my first six-year-old attempt to bake, when I made chocolate cookies that looked like turds.

In the week leading up to the dinner, a crew of workers tore down the modifications that had turned my house into an isolation chamber. So I spent as much time outdoors as possible, free to breathe the crisp spring air and spend time with the family and chat with other hikers and….

“Remember that hiker who helped us find the trail at Narrow Hills? Jo Beringer?” I said through a mouthful of squash. “I ran into her again, and apparently she lives near me. So we started talking about our favorite places. I’m taking her to Graves Trail next Saturday. Remember that one?”

“How could I not,” he said. He was scratching at his ankle with his other foot, where he’d brushed against a clump of poison ivy while skirting a fallen tree.

And then, against my better judgement – “I think she’s into me.”

My dad knew of my self imposed rule. “Hmm, you might have to wait until she makes a move before you tell her you’re not interested, or stay away entirely.”

“No, but that’s the scary part. I think it’s mutual.”

He threw up his arms in mock defeat. “Then go for it!”

Clearly he didn’t understand the meaning of “leaving Earth in two years” so I washed down my last bite of dry chicken with a half glass of wine and didn’t bring up the subject for the rest of the night. Later, when my car pulled up to take me home, he hugged and kissed me and said, “Don’t be afraid to live your life. Odyssey doesn’t own you.”

I looked at my car, at him, and back at the car. A thought welled up in my throat. I swallowed it. No, I’m still going. But he’s right.

***

The trout weren’t biting. With a grumble I reeled in a naked hook and laid the rig next to the fly box on the floor of my girlfriend’s motorboat.

Jo put her book down; she had given up long before. She looked me up and down, saw me sweating in my windbreaker, which I wore in spite of the summer heat. I had my reasons.

“Erin, aren’t you hot in that?”

“A little.” I should have said not at all, I realized too late.

“Then why don’t you take it off?” We’d had discussions of this sort so many times before it was like reciting lines in a play. Except this time, I was ready to break character.

“Because I don’t…all right. I don’t actually have an excuse this time.” I pulled the sleeves off, first my right…

“Now that I think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever seen you take that coat off. I mean, it’s August. I don’t know how you –”

…then my left.

“Jesus Christ, what happened to your arm?”

There it was, the point of no return, yet I still evaded the question of who I was and why my upper arm looked like it had turned itself inside out. “I had an accident at work, okay? But it’s a long story.” I angled my left side away from her, as if to shelter it from her probing questions.

For all the good that would do. “You know when you say ‘it’s a long story,’ you’re pretty much obligated to tell it, right? And besides, I thought you were a software engineer. Did your code fail catastrophically or something?”

“I’m an analytical engineer. Not the same thing.”

“So you had an analyzing accident.”

Unlike the trout in Cold Lake, I took the bait. “Ugh, fine. I couldn’t put it off forever.”

I knew what to do. I’d done this before, many times. I dug my phone out of my pocket and pulled up a photo. It was our first crew portrait taken on alien soil, the four of us standing in the newly erected habitat, exhausted and giddy. “You’ve seen this before, right?”

“Of course. It’s famous.”

“The one on the far right? That’s me.”

She grabbed my phone, took a closer look, and almost dropped it into the water. “Holy crap. That is you.”

I waited.

“And you never told me, why?”

“Because,” I began, ready to throw in any of a dozen excuses. Then I caught myself. If I was going to tell her anything, I might as well tell her everything. “Because when I’m with you, I can forget that I ever left home.”

***

I messaged my brother first. “I did it. I told her.”

“Well? How’d it go?”

“It felt like coming out.”

“Haha,” he replied. “Did you tell her the other part?”

The other part. The part where I was leaving Earth again. “One thing at a time, Brian.”

As it turned out, I never drummed up the courage to tell Jo the other part. She found out on her own.

***

There was no need to knock. The dogs had heard me pull up and were barking up a storm. It’s Erin! Did she bring Rush? Open the door, Jo. Open it! Poor bastards. If only they knew.

The barking stopped. The door swung wide and Jo stood barefoot on the icy tile floor without so much as shifting her weight. Only when a gust of wind blasted her face did she break eye contact with me. Her teeth were clenched; whether from cold or fury it didn’t matter. It hurt to see her like that.

“I understand if you’re angry,” I began, then stopped. I didn’t know how to proceed from there.

“Come in. I’m getting cold,” she said. “And take your boots off.”

I knew this was a no-shoe household. She knew I knew, and she told me anyway. Like I’d never been to her house before.

“Sit.” Jo gestured to a pair of wooden folding chairs tucked under the kitchen table. I hated those chairs. They were old, rickety things that I never trusted with my full weight. Whenever I stayed the night, we ate on the couch or in bed. Never at the table.

I picked the less wobbly of the two and sat. Jo took the other. For a few silent minutes I massaged the numb fingers of my left hand, a nervous habit of mine, while Jo waited for me to speak. I was going to tell her about all the sleep I’d lost agonizing over the kindest way to break the news. How I’d still be trapped behind an air shower if I hadn’t made that bargain with the Ilion International president. Instead, I said quietly, “I should have told you a long time ago.”

“I thought we had something,” she said, her voice cracking. “Was I just there to fill the gaps?”

That stung. “If that was all I wanted, I would’ve carried the lie to launch day and not regretted a thing. But you mean more than that to me. And, if I’m not mistaken, vice versa.”

She didn’t confirm or deny it, only blinked a tear loose.

“I’ve had friends,” I went on, “who claimed they could make long distance relationships work. Some of them were even right. But this is not going to be a long distance relationship. There’s no word for what this is.”

“I’ll still be here when you get back.” She was bargaining now. That wasn’t good. “It’s not like you’ll be gone forever, unless…you know.”

“For god’s sake, no,” I cried. “I could be the incarnation of sunshine and mountains and wildflowers and I still wouldn’t be worth waiting fifteen years for. Nobody’s worth that.”

“Not true.”

“You’ll get over me real fast, I promise. You’ll get married, have kids. Get a passport, a promotion. Sell your house and move to the Yukon like you always wanted. There’s a lot more you can do in fifteen years than sit in a folding chair writing love letters to the sky.”

“Okay, I see your point,” she said, sounding like herself again. “I have a life to live. But the house, I’m keeping.”

“Why?”

“So you’ll know where to find me when your shuttle lands.”

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