Go Home, Anton
Earth’s gravity pulled at Anton’s bones like an insult.
He went to the doctor on base about it on the last day the clinic would be open before the base closed down for good. The doctor’s office was operating on a skeletal staff, just like everywhere else on the base. The receptionist was hollow-eyed and distracted; only half of the lights in the waiting room were illuminated. There were no nurses on staff to take Anton’s blood pressure, no one to run a thermographic scanner across his throat and chest. Unescorted, he walked into the only exam room that still had lights on. He peeked in the cabinets and found them empty save for five loose latex gloves tucked into a drawer. He tucked them into the pocket of his coat: preserving found things was, it seemed, a habit he hadn’t shaken yet. He closed the drawer as quietly as he could, just a few seconds before the door behind him opened.
“What’s the problem?” The doctor asked it without looking at Anton’s chart. He glanced at the clock on the wall once every thirty seconds or so.
“It’s too heavy here,” Anton replied, sinking onto the exam table. “I think my skeletal structure was compromised by the duration of my mission.” He glanced at the doctor’s nametag. “Matheson? Is that a Terran name?”
“My wife’s name. She was born here,” Doctor Matheson said. He pursed his lips and looked at the clock again. “What was your mission?”
“I was on the station for nine years,” Anton said, his voice dropping to a whisper at the number. He swallowed hard, willed the swelling in his chest to deflate so he wouldn’t go glassy-eyed in front of the doctor. He was certain that the day would come when referring to the station in the past-tense wouldn’t bring him to the verge of tears. Someday soon, maybe.
“Nine months, you said?”
“No,” Anton said, then cleared his throat, forcing himself to speak at a reasonable volume. “No, it was nine years.”
Matheson performed a double-take that would have been comedic in any other circumstance. “Oh,” he said, his face dropping into the careful neutrality which most of the few people remaining on base assumed when they were looking at Anton. “You’re Antonin Belaris.”
“Yes,” Anton said. He decided to be kind to Matheson. Sometimes, he wasn’t kind to the people who belatedly realized who he was; sometimes, he sat silently and waited, letting them feel uncomfortable as they tried to figure out what exactly to say to him. But the doctor was clearly exhausted, and the work of evacuating the base was hard on everyone, and Anton decided to do Matheson the mercy of moving the conversation along. “Nine years at a half-G. And now that I’m back, the full-G, it’s just too much. My bones hurt all the time. I can barely get out of bed in the morning. I was wondering… I heard a rumor, something about a final ship back to the station? By recommendation only? I wondered if you could…?”
Matheson shook his head. “Just a rumor, I’m afraid. The program is dead. No one is going back to that thing.” He sank onto the folding chair next to the exam table and leaned toward Anton, his elbows on his knees. Anton was used to people looking at him with curiosity, horror, even envy. But the doctor looked at him with a kind of pity that sank knifelike into Anton’s belly. “Tell me more about your symptoms?”
The balloon behind Anton’s ribcage swelled again. He clenched a fist, tight enough that his knuckles creaked. He promised himself that later, he could feel the crushing weight of disappointment. Later. Not now. Not here. He waited for the space of one shuddering breath, until his control came back to him.
Then, he told Matheson everything. About how he couldn’t seem to sleep for more than an hour at a time, and about the exhaustion that followed him like the half-starved dogs that wandered the base begging for trash. About the way his vision was always a little blurry, unless he was looking up at the sky. About the constant low rumble in his ears, like the hum of the engines that had kept the station rotating at half-g speed.
“There’s nothing wrong with your skeleton,” Matheson said softly once Anton had finished.
“But it hurts,” Anton said. “You don’t understand, it started as soon as I got out of quarantine. The gravity here is just too much. I can barely breathe. I was up there for nine years —”
“Exactly,” Matheson interrupted. “You were up there for nine years. That’s eight more years than anyone was ever supposed to be up there.”
Anton pursed his lips. He was tired of people telling him things he already knew. “It’s not like I wanted to be up there for that long,” he snapped.
“I’m not blaming you,” Matheson said, his voice infuriatingly tender. “No one is blaming you.”
That wasn’t true. Anton had heard more than a few whispers as the base commenced shutdown. There were people who thought the evacuation was his doing. People who thought he’d uploaded the virus that had rendered the return ships on the station unusable; people who thought he was the reason the station had gone inert. The problem, of course, had been too expensive to fix, and the whole purpose of the base was to support the station, and so — it was over. By the time command had managed to divert a different station’s supply ship to pick him up, the opinions of those who thought he had ruined everything had solidified. It didn’t matter how many canteen fistfights he got into; they’d keep on hating him. They’d keep on blaming him.
“I just want help, I just want you to help me,” he said, hating the note of pleading in his voice. “It hurts so much. Maybe I picked up a virus on the trip home, or — cancer, it could be cancer in my bones, there’s so much radiation up there. Cancer, maybe.”
Matheson just shook his head. “I’ve seen the scans they took when you were released from quarantine. It’s been, what, a month?”
“Twenty-five days,” Anton said.
“You didn’t have cancer twenty-five days ago, and you don’t have cancer now,” Matheson said. “Anton. You’re grieving.”
A loud siren split the air. They both listened to the long single tone, the indicator that the last day before final evacuation was officially over. By the time the same siren sounded tomorrow, the base would be a dead thing.
“I’m not sad,” Anton said. “I’m sick.”
“There’s a reason you weren’t supposed to be up there for more than a year,” Matheson said, rubbing the knuckles of one hand with his opposite palm. He wasn’t looking at the clock anymore. He wasn’t looking at Anton, either. He stared at the movement of his hands as though the friction between them would send answers sloughing to the linoleum.
“I know,” Anton said, letting frustration hone an edge onto his voice. “That’s why I’m here, the risks were —”
“A story,” Matheson interrupted. “The risks were a story. The injections we gave you before you went up were more than enough to compensate twenty years’ worth of radiation and bone loss and mild malnutrition and all of it, all of the things that we warned you could happen. Do you really think we didn’t have that figured out by the time we sent you?”
Anton waited for the punchline.
“The risk was that you would acclimate,” Matheson continued. “That you would habituate. That you would start to like it up there.’
“I don’t understand,” Anton said. “I didn’t like it up there. I didn’t want —”
“No?” Matheson stood abruptly. “Then why are you still here, Antonin? Why haven’t you left? You aren’t necessary staff on base. You could have left weeks ago. Why haven’t you gone home?”
Anton stared at Matheson. His breath came fast and shallow. He clenched his toes inside his shoes. “Home?”
“Yes. Home. The base isn’t home, is it? You were discharged when you landed. I’d wager that you don’t even have a bunk here, not officially. So why haven’t you gone home?”
Anton slid from the edge of the exam table, feeling the extra moment of bend in his knees as the fullness of Earth’s gravity attempted to pull him to the ground. Sometimes it felt as though the only thing keeping him from collapsing under the force of a full-G was the same willpower that had kept him alive for nine years on a dying space station. “I think we’re done here,” he said, his voice strange in his ears.
“Go home, Antonin,” Matheson said again, his tone achingly gentle.
Anton did not wait to see the unbearable compassion on the doctor’s face. He could not have borne it. He let the door close behind him, only half so quietly as he’d closed the drawer of gloves after he’d emptied it.
Matheson did not pursue him as he walked through the now-dark waiting room. The receptionist was already gone. He eased the door to the outside open, scanning for dogs, but there were none within the circle of light cast by the bulb above the clinic door. The rest of the base was dark; it was the kind of quiet that came with abandonment. Matheson inhaled the silence. It didn’t taste the same as it had on the station, but still. It cooled the growing heat in his lungs a little. He looked up at the sky, which had been full of more and more stars every night since the lights on the base had started going out.
Go home, Antonin, Matheson had said. He had said it so easily, as though home was a place one could just go.
Anton put one foot in front of another, staggering under the weight of the gravity he knew he would never again be allowed to escape. He began the long walk across the base to the empty barracks, where he would have his pick of the empty beds. He turned up his collar against the cold, wondered when he would get used to the way the temperature of the air changed. It was cold enough for him to tuck his hands into his pockets; when he did, he felt the strange stretch of latex there. The gloves. Why had he taken them? He didn’t need latex gloves.
He didn’t need them.
He stared at the vague shadow of the gloves in his fist. The starlight turned the bright blue of the latex to deep grey. He opened his hand and let the gloves fall. They dropped so fast, faster than he could have caught them. They were on the ground before he knew it.
They were litter. Trash. And he knew the right thing to do. He should pick them up. If he didn’t, a desperate dog would probably smell human-scent on them, would eat them out of desperation. Anton told himself to do it. He told himself to bend and grab the gloves.
But his bones hurt so much, and the world was so heavy. And he knew that if he bent down to get the gloves, he would never be able to stand straight again.
So he took one step toward the barracks, and then another. He left the gloves where they lay. He knew that they would stay put until something came along to move them. Gravity, he was certain, would hold them there.
None of them would be able to escape.