This is my contribution to #RaysDay 2022.
Feel free to comment here, or on Mastodon, or on Twitter!
This short story is published by me, Albert ARIBAUD,
under the Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0 International
license, with the express indication that reproduction MUST be made
in a form or on a medium which has NO access restriction or DRM.
The man was seated in a deck chair on the terrace.
Usually, this late in the afternoon he would watch the distant clouds of sparkling ice drifting beyond the horizon in pursuit of the soon dwindling daylight. But it wasn’t a usual day, and he’d turned the chair away from the sunset to face the nearby hills, where the ship had landed.
From time to time, he picked a few puffed kernels from a jasper bowl Maggie had put on the side table earlier. She was probably somewhere around in the buggy, although he would be hard-pressed to tell where exactly, or what for. Not that it mattered much; should he need her, all he had to do was call her name, and it would be as if she’d never left. It seemed as if she could come and go at a whim.
On the other hand, the astronaut had been following the long way, painstakingly walking from the hills, for over three hours. Apparently the ship did not contain a buggy. Maybe it was too much mass for its reactor? Or was room needed for something else? He wondered idly, even though he did not really care to know.
Eventually, the newcomer arrived at the multicolored sandstone stairs that led to the terrace and clumsily began to unlock the cumbersome suit helmet.
Hope could not tell whether the man was simply surprised by an unusual event, or dissatisfied with an abnormal one. She weighed her thoughts for a few seconds before she resumed taking the suit off and answered.
“Yes. Did you expect a man?”
“What? Oh, no. Well, I was assuming a man. The suit does make you bigger.”
“I’m five foot nine. Taller than you. Well, taller than you were back then.”
The man smiled, then frowned slightly.
“Oh, by the way: what year do you hail from?”
“Oh. I had definitely lost track of time.” He laughed. “So… What brings the nations of Earth back here after all this time? And, indeed, what took them so long?”
“Ask them. I wasn’t sent by these nations. Not even by one nation.”
“Are you saying that you built the ship by yourself? I am all for nice stories, but—”
“I only managed to find the way to this place and fly the ship, but I did not build it. A billionaire wanted a ship to land here, so they built the ship—well, they had it built, but to them that’s the same.”
The man looked at the mountains.
“Oh, so he stayed in the ship and sent you scouting?”
Again, Hope considered him in silence for a few seconds.
“He stayed on Earth.”
The man frowned.
“I don’t understand. Didn’t you say he wanted to fly to here?”
“He wanted a ship to fly to here. That’s our billionaires for you. They want things done, but they don’t want to do these things. They want someone to make it so. They can afford the inconsistency.”
The man stayed silent for a while, then frowned.
“Wait a second… Taller than I was back then? Do you know me?”
“Yes, I do—a little. In fact, one reason I did want to fly to here was because I thought that, against all odds, there was a chance I’d meet you.”
Hope’s legs were starting to feel stiff. She pointed to the couch close to the side table.
“Do make yourself comfortable. Maggie must’ve known you would arrive while she was out; that explains the second glass by the decanter of fresh light wine. Help yourself. I’m afraid I’ve eaten most of the puffed kernels, though.”
“Thank you, that’s alright.” She tilted her head. “So your wife is around?”
“Yes, although right now she’s out and about somewhere. She’ll like to meet you. Speaking of meetings… Would you mind telling me why you went to such lengths to meet me?”
“I grew up with your stories. And of others, of course, but yours made a strong impression on me.
“Of course I was young when I first read them, so… most of the messages got way over my head. But I could see the places, the people, the alien beauty.
“Then I grew up a bit, and I began to see the imperfections—or what I thought were imperfections. I could see why some people said your chronicles were not science fiction, and I agreed with them. It would take me more time to realize that you were right about them: they’re not science fiction indeed, because they’re fantasy.
“I grew up yet more, saw more and more of the messages in your books, the ones you sent knowingly, and the ones you didn’t know you were sending. Eventually, I set out to learn more about you.
“I learned about your strong support for books, and reading and public libraries, your enthusiasm for computers, your insistence that your sole science fiction book be as widely available as possible in electronic form, your eagerness for politics, your ideals on education.
The man idly picked on the side table a soft cloth which, most probably, Maggie had placed there, took out his thick glasses, and started cleaning them.
Hope felt his image was slightly jerky.
He looked up.
“That’s a lot of praise—for which I thank you. Now, let us move on to what else you learned.”
Hope smiled sadly.
“I learned about your dislike of the internet, your disdain for politics, and your stance against actively helping minorities access education…”
Again, Hope felt like there were ghost images when he put his glasses back on and answered.
“And I do stand by it. Did you expect me to be any different here from how I was back there? I still think the Internet did not live up to my expectations, I still think politicians and states are useless, and I still do not think much of affirmative action and political correctness.”
Hope looked at the few distant cities. She could discern delicate towers of colorful stone.
“Yet here and now you are a minority. Your house is allowed, but away from theirs. Their knowledge is not yours to learn. Did that not change you mind?”
“I understand why they do it. We are a nuisance to them. We did them a lot of harm.”
“What about the purity of education then?”
This time his answer was unintelligible, and this time Hope could clearly see the many expressions he sported all at once.
Hope looked at the crystal trees in the silicon garden down the terrace. They sported many bright dots, and you’d think it was a starry field, until you realized they were all images of the sun. There was a pragmatic explanation, of course, with prisms and light refraction and so on. And at the same time, each of these dots was a unique version of the sun.
She looked back at the man. When he didn’t move at all, it was almost imperceptible. But when he waved an arm, or shifted in his chair, she could see the phantoms of him, trailing behind, diverging.
He’s like this planet, she thought.
You can fly to this point in space, and if you don’t pay attention, you’ll land on a not-so-reddish ball of dust with only a couple of sad, powered down, robot rovers for company. But if you know how to go about it, then you will land here, and you’ll find the colors, the silvers, the people—and him.
And depending on how you go about finding him, you will find him different. The one with the ideals on education. the one with scorn for higher education. All the ones he’s been, all the ones he could have been.
There’s not a single him. There’s an infinity of variations, of reflections, of facets. Maybe even, if someone had come along with me, they and I would not see the same man here and now.
She looked at the distant city, its ornate houses and delicate colors visible despite the distance.
“So… They are right when they bar you from learning from them.”
“And you think learning should be accessible to all.”
Hope pondered the answers in silence.
The man picked a puffed kernel from the bowl. Apparently, there were some left after all.
Hope stood up.
“I’ll have to go now, back to the ship and then back to Earth.”
“Night is coming soon. Won’t you stay, sleep here, and leave tomorrow?”
“The time window for the flight back is rather tight, and I’ve got a headlight.”
“That’s a pity. You’ll miss Maggie.”
Hope considered the mountains where her ship had landed. Three to four hours of walking, assuming the distance was the same on the way back as it had been to get here.
“Maybe I’ll meet her on my way. Maybe even she’ll let me hitchhike on the buggy, who knows?”
Some of him shrugged, some smiled.
“Who knows, indeed? Will you excuse me for not getting up to wish you farewell? I’m afraid my condition is not any better than it was in twenty-twelve.”
He turned to look at the last ebbs of the day on the horizon, and spoke no more.
Hope had been walking for less than half an hour when she heard the steady sound of an engine behind her. A buggy was approaching, a woman at the wheel. Hope had never seen a picture of Maggie, but there was no doubt that it was her.
The buggy was obviously catching up with Hope, following the same path that she had. She stopped, turned, and waited. A few minutes later, the buggy halted a couple of meters from her, the engine noise died, and the driver got out and walked closer.
“Hello, Hope. I’m not Maggie.”
“I hadn’t told him my name. The only way you could learn it was from inside my head. That’s where you took him too, right? All these projections of him, they needed a source image, and you took that from my mind. Correct?”
The being who looked like Maggie stood silent for a few seconds.
“Almost correct. We created him—and the house—from your mind, but all his projections, they were not ours. These are your projections. We merely made him exist.”
“Does he still exist now?”
There was no answer.
“So, all that he said, that was me saying it?”
“Most of it was your idea of him saying that.”
“Alright. But why drop the mask now?”
“Because you had already seen through it.”
“But you still try to look human to me. I mean, terran.”
“I am not trying. That’s your mind coping with what your eyes really see. You’re lucky that it works this way for you. I see you as you are, and believe me, you are alien, and the suit does not help.”
“Are you planning on killing me? It happened a few times in his stories.”
“You’re leaving. And you’re not going to come back, because let’s face it, what will you bring back from your trip that’ll warrant another one? No one will ever believe you, especially not your sponsor. What would be the point in killing you? I came out of courtesy, to drive you back to your ship, as you hinted that I should. Shall we go?”
The one Hope saw as Maggie climbed back onto the driver’s seat. Hope lingered, then went and sat on the passenger seat. The buggy shuddered, then lurched forward. Hope remained silent for several minutes; then she could not resist any more.
“Those things he said that I did not like. Were these my idea of him saying them, or was it me saying them?”
“Sometimes either. Sometimes both.”
“I thought I would confront him. All I did was confront myself, then?”
“This is not all you did, but yes, that you did; isn’t that the purpose of this whole place? And it is more useful this way, because you could not have changed anything about him, but you can change at least some things about yourself.”
Hope mulled it over for the rest of the ride.
Then for the whole trip back to Earth.
And then for the rest of her life.