“We’re never going home,” Al said.
Juan looked up from the hologram of his wife’s rosebushes. Al was floating in front of a full wall projection of Earth.
“We’ve made it this far,” Juan said, jerking his thumb at the projection.
“That’s not Earth.”
“Yeah, yeah, it’s an image, not the real thing. I’m laughing inside, really.” Juan went back to panning through the holo. Al could say what he liked, but Juan would be walking through that garden with his wife within the week. Priscilla loved her roses. Juan liked to joke that he could always smell her coming.
Al drifted over, bringing the scent of four years of rationed showers with him.
“We could rip out the bulkhead,” Al said, “stare at it through pure vacuum, and that still wouldn’t make it our Earth.”
“You know what?” Juan said. “This crazy philosopher act of yours got old before we even left the solar system.”
“Funny you say that. Just after the Neptune slingshot is when we turned on the fugue drive and left our home universe forever.”
Juan flicked the holo off. Screw it, might as well stay civil for the last few days. Even after the mission, they’d still have to make public appearances together. At least there’d be Priscilla to escape with.
“Not forever. That’s Earth, there. Right in front of you.”
“An Earth. We exceeded light speed. Leaving our home universe was the only way we could preserve causality and avoid time paradoxes.”
“Don’t remember killing my grandparents when we were collecting soil samples on Gee Echo.”
Al turned around to stare at the Earth. “Doesn’t matter what we did, we were there. Just the fact we flouted the rules damned us.”
“What is this, Little Red Riding Hood? Stray from the path, get eaten by a wolf?”
“No wolf. But a different Grandmother, one you could kill with impunity. We’re in another universe. We have to be.”
“Oh, come on. Years of testing went into that drive. We sent probes that came back. For that matter, we’ve come back. I think we’d notice if we were in another universe.”
“Doesn’t take much to be different. Would you notice a misplaced grain of sand on a single beach?”
Juan shook his head, fighting back irritation. “You’re just screwing with me. You wouldn’t have signed on if you believed any of this.”
Al shrugged. “It doesn’t matter, not to me. Even if we could return to where we left, it wouldn’t be when we left. It’s been years. The things we left behind, they’re all gone or changed. Even the people. What does it matter what universe we’re in? The last one is now just as different.”
Juan turned back to his holos. “Some things don’t change. Or there’d be no point in returning.”
The next week was thankfully busy enough to preclude socializing. After almost a decade away, the last thing anyone wanted to do was smash into the beanstalk during docking maneuvers. Then it would be onto a blur of testing, debriefings, and parades. But first, there was home.
Priscilla had gained a few lines around her eyes, but didn’t look any less beautiful, or for that matter, different. She might even have worn the same dress the last night they’d spent together. He wished he could remember.
Her embrace smelled of orange blossoms.
It was a long moment as they held each other, not saying anything. He asked after her roses, and she only raised an eyebrow.
It was a windy night. Juan watched the orange trees swaying outside their window, Priscilla’s sleeping form pressed against his back. As their bedside clock measured away the minutes, he wondered whether the man in bed with his wife was also unable to sleep.
David Parish-Whittaker pays for his dog’s kibble as a captain for a national airline. In previous incarnations, he has been a naval flight officer, traffic watch pilot, glider tow pilot and aerobatic instructor. He also plays medieval harp in a band that lets him get away with such things. He is a winner of the Writers of the Future contest for his short story “A Warbird in the Belly of the Mouse” and is currently shopping The Clockmaker’s Daughter, a YA fantasy set in early Victorian England.