Jonathan's taxi only ran four lights on the hour-long journey from the spaceport to his parents' house in the Lower New Tokyo. The gentle swaying of minor traffic violations would have been soothing, even nostalgic for Jonny, as he hadn't been planet-side in twelve months, but for the taxi driver's insistence on talking to him about the local sports team -- a topic to which Jonny, a devout sports atheist, had little to contribute.
He stepped out onto the driveway and looked around at his parents' home. Marguerittestown, their little suburb, remained pretty average: one story houses, long drives lined by transplanted Earth trees, the carefully tended faux-turf lawns that stayed green even though this was predominantly a desert planet.
'Hey, buddy!' the cabbie was calling. 'You call that a tip?'
Jonny turned and the man noticed the patch on his left shoulder. The red and grey logo of the International Air Force twisted in graceful loops, the old Apollo 11 chemical-fueled rocket picked out in gold thread.
Jonny passed him a ten-note bill. The man's eyes widened and he didn't bother to ask for more. A quick thank you and a quicker turn around, and Jonny was left standing alone in the driveway. The gentle lapping of the fabricated inland sea whispered, and a warmth began to spread through him. He was home.
His fingers had only brushed the handle to the neo-Victorian house with its tall skinny windows and decorative cockerel-imbued weather vane, when the green door flung open.
'Jonny!' his littlest sister cried, and threw herself at him. She was dressed in the latest in historical fashion, and her faux dirndl assaulted him in violent neon blue. A framed portrait of a spectacled twenty-something-year-old man curled in its frame on yellowing paper across from the entrance, behind her.
'Hey, Mindy,' Jonny said, from around her arm. 'Um, so I thought you were gonna pick me up?'
'Oh, man, I'm so sorry,' she said and pulled away. 'I completely forgot, and anyway, Ricky had a gig and I'd kind of promised--'
'Yeah, no it's fine,' Jonny said and made himself smile. 'Could you take one of these bags?'
Inside, the house was done up much like the outside -- a tasteful mixture of neo-Victorian furnishings and modern circuitry. The beehive chandelier made of a hundred tiny white LEDs still hung in its wild array, as wispy and beautiful as Jonny remembered, over the old patched sofa.
'Sweetheart!' his mother cried. A grin bloomed on Jonny’s face, and his mother mirrored him. 'Oh, you look exhausted, I have a bit for you to eat, you should lie down--'
'I'm ok, Mom, really,' Jonny said. 'Though I might just throw these upstairs--'
'Oh your aunts are in your old room this year, I hope that's alright,' she said and kissed his cheek. 'I've got a cot for you in the exercise room. Damian!' she shouted, not waiting for an answer. 'You touch that casserole one more time and I’ll take your hand--'
Landing Day celebrations had been a big thing since he was a kid. The government thought colonists needed something to remind them why they had fled their home planet (aside from that greenhouse gas that made penguins vastly oversexed and hungry) and connected them to the heroic, totally unproblematic colonizations of the past.
So, the day the first cruiser set down on Terra Two became known as Landing Day -- complete with the food processor's best approximation of original Earthen treats. Some homes printed their food directly, but his parents had always been hard-core: they retrieved only the ingredients, and cooked the dinner themselves.
The house was already filling up: aunts and uncles and cousins he hadn't seen in years, ready to stuff their faces with courses more decadent than the last.
'And those are just the appetizers!' Jonny's dad cried, slapping him on the shoulder and leading him to a laden-down side table. 'I recommend the roast pork-bug, in particular. How was your trip?'
'It was good, I mean, I slept for a lot of it--'
'Great, just hold that there, would you? I'm burning something.'
Between holding utensils for people, setting the table, and finding someplace to put the tenth kiwi tart, he suddenly found himself sandwiched between his grandfather (who he was pretty sure was asleep, or perhaps in need of medical attention) and his older sister.
'Oh, Carrie,' he said. 'God, I didn't even know you were here.'
'Yeah, I only got in about fifteen minutes ago,' she said with an elegant swoosh of her black hair. 'The university's only closed for today.' She smiled. 'How are things, baby b?'
'Uh, they're good,' he said and gave her a hug. 'I mean, the jet lag is real, and I’m starting to feel slightly overwhelmed, but I'm here, eh?'
'Everyone settle down!' his mother said, clapping her hands. The thirty-plus people at three different tables hushed themselves and faced the four-foot-two woman in the hot pick apron, aggressively wielding a ladle.
'Now, Marco and I want to thank everyone for coming to our little party this year,' she shouted, and everyone clapped. 'Most of you are old hats at how we do things, but just for anyone who's new--'
'Here it comes,' Carried sighed.
'My brother Jim,' her voice cracked, and as if by magic the portrait from the foyer was in her hands. 'My brother Jim was born forty-five years ago today,' his mother said. She huffed a little to catch her breath, and though Carrie rolled her eyes, Jonny felt sadness pick at his seams. He always hated to see his mother this way.
'Jim was a pioneer,' she said. 'Unafraid to step out into the unknown!'
'What are we, chopped liver?' Carrie muttered.
'He left us, too soon, when,' her voice cracked, 'on a Landing Day twenty years ago, news reached us that his ship had been attacked around Alpha Centuri by enormous, deep-space spaghetti squid, and all aboard were subjected to eighteen hours of vicious digestion.' She was shouting very loudly by this point. Everyone was dabbing their faces with festive napkins.
'As we have done each year on Landing Day since then, Marco and I offer a toast to dear Jim, and ask that anyone who has a story or fond memory, to please share it.' She raised her glass and the room shouted, and the photograph was passed around for everyone to kiss.
'Well, now that that's over,' Carrie said. 'Pass the peas, would you?'
They'd gotten through only the first round of bread rolls and mole sauce when Uncle Finn stood up.
'When Jim and I were young, we once stayed out past curfew, down at the docks,’ he began. ‘Honest-to-god, one of those burrowing spiders attacked us as we were heading home. But Jim used to watch so many of those old kung-fu movies, he did about twenty seven back-flips and karate chops, and left at least nine of the beast's limbs on the ground behind us! And that's why they're extinct.'
Everyone raised their glass. 'To Jim!'
'So how many deep-space monsters have you seen, Jonny?' his aunt Marian asked from across the table. She'd dyed her hair fire-truck green, just for the occasion.
'Oh, not many,' Jonny said. 'They're not really very common, except in one corner of the asteroid belt and we don't have much reason to go there.'
'Oh?' Carrie asked. 'Aren't we trying to colonize it all?'
'Well, yes, but the asteroid belt abuts the rose nebula. That's where the strange stuff comes from, usually.'
'What an exciting life!' Aunt Marian said, wistfully slicing a fin off a local green mossfish.
'Happy Christmas!' Grandpa shouted, and fell back asleep.
'Here's to cousin Jim,' Cousin Trish said. 'When I was eight, he took me to swimming one Saturday in the sea, just there,' she said, gesturing out the window. 'And when I fell off the diving cliff, he jumped into the water and swam out, and I still don't know how, but he caught me! No broken bones or nothing!'
'Do you get to swim much anymore?' Jonny asked Mindy. She had only mashed potatoes on her plate, and seemed very pleased.
'Nearly every day,' she said. 'Though I'd never be dumb enough to go up the diving cliff on my own.' She rolled her eyes.
Tink tink tink.
'When my nephew, little Jimmy,' Great-uncle Martin started, 'said he wanted to join the astronaut corps, I told him to follow his dreams--'
'He told Jim he'd get captured by space pirates,' Connie muttered, slathering seaweed butter on her salmon casserole.
'-and in only a year, Jim had won the International Spaceman Medal for outstanding service!' Everyone clapped. 'And because of him, this system hasn't seen a space pirate in twenty years!'
The night continued much the same, and by the second course, Uncle Jim's list of accolades included:
- Becoming an admiral at twenty-four
- Hot-wiring a warp engine to run on anti-matter
- Taming one of the fearful green lemurs of Absylon 7 and teaching it to fly his ship
- Helping at least six individuals give birth in zero G
- Fighting his way out of the event horizon of a black hole
- Inventing a new kind of hot sauce
- And, perhaps most impressively:
'--he always said thank you after I gave him a sweetie,' great-great grandma Denise said. She was mostly cyborg by this point and couldn't consume human food, but she held up her glass of liquid nitrogen and the room cried, 'Here, here!' and everyone drank.
'No one really thinks Uncle Jim did all that, do they?' Jonny asked quietly. 'I mean, that bit about him knowing "kung-fu" from watching movies was pretty indelicate, and the first thing they teach you in flight school is "don't fly into a black hole, you'll be fucked"--'
Aunt Marin was clutching her pearls and staring at Jonny with fishbowl eyes. 'I thought you, of all people, Jon, would support the memory of your uncle.'
'Well, I do, Auntie, it's just--'
'No, it’s alright, I know it was just a thoughtless mistake,' she shook her head and waggled her napkin at him. 'I forgive you. Now pass the pepper sauce, be a dear.'
The festivities continued. And the more everyone ate, the more they drank, and the more they drank, the more the stories of Uncle Jim grew, until everyone was openly weeping and Jonny’s father had taken out his sitar and the whole family was singing 'Remember Those We Lost', swaying, and holding up drumsticks as if they were candles.
'I think I'm gonna get a little air,' Jonny said, but nobody noticed.
He shut the door quietly and stepped out into the drive. The sun wouldn't set for another ten hours, but the 'night lights' would come on in another one or two and mimic the night and day cycle the human body still seemed attached to. He followed the path back to the front of the drive and began walking down the sand.
The beach was pretty bare at this time on a Landing Day, but a few people walked holding hands, or encouraged their toddlers to dip their toes in the rustling waves. Jonny breathed in a big sigh off the sea and began ambling down the coast.
He was lost in thought when the smell of molten chocolate hooked him. 'Willy's Whimsical Wafflecones' the sign read, and Jonny watched as a man handed an enormous ice cream dripping with chocolate sauce over to a child in a beach hat.
'Why not,' he muttered to himself, 'it is a holiday.'
The man in the cart seemed about his father's age with greying curly hair tied back in a ponytail under his hat. He wore big black coke-bottle glasses and smiled a lopsided grin.
'Out for a walk?' he asked.
'Yeah,' Jonny said.
The man nodded. 'Families are at their craziest on days like today,' the man said. 'What'll it be?'
Jonny ordered his childhood favorite -- just a simple, sea-salt scoop with a bit of dark chocolate drizzled over top of it. The man stuck a wedge of warm, crispy wafflecone in the corner and handed him a spoon.
Money was exchange and Jonny turned to walk away, when something itched the back of his head. He turned, spoon still poised in the air.
'Everything alright?' the man asked. 'I didn't scoop the wrong thing, did I?'
'No, no, it's perfect,' Jonny said and walked back up to the stall. He stared into the man's face, at the older features, and the practiced hands.
'You find what you’re looking for?’ the man asked after a minute. ‘Cuz I gotta clean up.’
''Oh man, sorry, I--,' Jonny said. 'Um, what's your name?'
It was the man's turn to look at him, then, and his eyebrows bunched up under his hat.
'God, you know,' the man said, 'there is something about you I can't place.
'I'm Jim,' he said.
Jonny shook the man's hand, and Jim noticed Jonny's sleeve.
'Ah, space cadet,' he said, nodding. 'Home on shore leave? I remember the days. How you likin' it so far?'
'I love it,' Jonny said. 'Today I'm up at the Naranjo house, around the corner.'
They shared a look, and then the ice cream man squinted.
'You're Sibyll's son, aren't you?' Jim asked. He was shaking his head. 'God, when I last saw you, you were just into diapers. How are you, kid?'
A strange cocktail of disbelief, anger, and stunned excitement began to storm inside Jonny’s chest. 'Do you know what they're doing back there?' he asked, flailing his ice cream. 'Do you know what they’ve done every year since you didn't come home?'
'I do, actually,' Jim said. He looked him square in the eye. 'Why do you think I never went back? You’re the first of ‘em to even notice me here on this beach, goddammit--'
Over a long walk and two chocolate sundaes with extra banana (Jonny's ice cream had long melted by the time he’d calmed down enough to eat it), Jim told Jonny the story: how his ship had been attacked in orbit over twenty years ago -- not by space squid, but by an unlicensed trawler.
'They were black market,' Jim said. 'Got in a couple of perfect shots, and our boat went down. A lot of good people died.'
'In a fire fight?' Jonny asked.
'No, from starvation, in the three months that we floated, dead in space. Our communicators were damaged and the engines were destroyed. If it hadn't been for a lucky pass, I'd still be there.'
'So, wait -- how did the others all get these crazy ideas about how you died? Half the stories were even from before you left! And why the hell haven't you--'
'I think you know the answer to that last one, so I'll start with the other two--'
'No, I want the answer to that last one.' Jonny looked him in the eye. 'Don't you think it's selfish to let them think you're dead--'
'It is a hundred and ten percent selfish,' Jim said, and frowned into his ice cream. 'But I couldn't face them. Could you?'
'What are you talking about!' Jonny shouted. 'They think you're the third coming! If you walked in their right now--'
'What?' Jim asked. 'They'd treat me like a hero? I did come home, kid, it took me almost two years, but I got honorably discharged and made it back. I'd tried to send letters, but couldn't figure out what to say, so I thought if I could just do it in person... I walked in on a story about how at twelve years old, I saved a dolphin from poachers, neither of which is a thing on this planet, and how I had become an admiral before I was eighteen--'
'Twenty-four, actually,' Jonny said.
'Oh, they've aged me up, have they?'
'Well, you haven't been around to set the record straight.' They sat in silence for a moment, looking at each other.
'Jonny, I can't face all that,' Jim finally said. 'I'm not this superhero, I'm human. I make mistakes. I've made huge ones and had to pay for them, but I try really hard to do the right thing, and I think I do ok, generally speaking... but I'm not the hero they think they remember.'
The silence rolled in with the tide, and the night-lights flickered on.
'I should be getting back,' Jonny said. But he didn't move.
'Give them a chance, Jim,' he said. 'Please. I know our family is crazy, but everyone's is -- don't you think they'd want you alive, and home, and loved, over their tall-tales?'
Jim moved the puddle of chocolate-mint-orange-chip around in the bowl.
'You're right,' he said. ‘Goddammit, you’re right. Alright.’ He ran a hand through his air and sighed. ‘Help me close this thing up, wouldya?'
Walking back down the long drive, the dome above darkened, and twinkle lights flickered on in the trees. It felt warm, but the breeze was cool.
'So,' Jonny said as they neared the house. A small smile had started at the edges of his mouth. 'I guess Uncle Martin was right about the space pirates, huh?'
Jim looked at him, eyes wide, and both of them burst out laughing.
Jonny pulled the door open just as his mother was hanging the picture back on the wall.
'Jonny!' she said. 'Where the heck have you been, we've already served the pies and there's hardly any of the kiwi left, and--'
'Mom,' he said. 'There's somebody I'd like you to meet.'
Sibyll stared at the stranger, picked out in shadows under the porch light.