A warning buzz wakes her. She’d been dreaming. She struggles to remember. Clouds? Falling? Whatever it was, her heart still races.
The buzz means that some sort of craft has locked onto the docking platform. The platform’s a perk she gets for serving as stations commander. In the dock are two berths, one for the transport she uses to go between the five stations orbiting Venus and one for visitors.
She wonders: could this be him?
With a bump, the craft’s nose reaches the lock. She hears a thunk as the clamps, well, clamp. The cradle in the visitor berth creaks as the craft settles.
Her son’s racing skiff? She listens harder.
What she wants to hear is this: the scrape of his hatch. It’s never been quite right since…well, since the accident several months ago. Minor in the end. It could have been worse. So much worse. What’s important is that the seal is still good. The seal held. And the safety protocols, well. They did what they were supposed to do.
Protocols over the brain and reaction time of a young man. He always wanted to be a pilot despite his recklessness. Maybe because of it? What combination of attention to detail and recklessness makes a good pilot?
His father was too reckless. But their boy…Did the accident teach him a lesson? Is he more cautious now? Does he think two, no three steps ahead? Five? Eighteen?
The hatch scrapes.
Good. Her boy.
“Drop three degrees,” she says out loud. “No, five. Drop five degrees.” Her son likes it a little frosty.
The thermostat responds with a tickle of cold air. Her bedroom flashes briefly with the green light confirming an arrival. The system recognizes the craft and authorizes airlock entry.
She doesn’t turn on the reading light. She doesn’t get up.
A thrum of footfalls approaches the airlock. He’s so like his father. A heavy walker and graceless off the basketball court and out of the cockpit. Yet with a ball in his hands, a throttle, he’s liquid, like quicksilver. He can leap a solid two feet into the air, do a 180, a 360, and arc the ball into the net. He can spin his racing skiff and blast it out at a 90-degree angle.
Sometimes, she thinks her boy is all arcs and angles. Hard to hold on to, always has been.
So she listens.
What would it be like to play ball on Terra now, he mused the last time he visited. His ball-handling skills are awesome, he self-reports, but he’d have to work hard to counter the toll of artificial gravity: build better muscle tone, more stamina. Reasonably, he told her he’d have to work hard on bone density, the bane of off-worlders.
Her boy: a planner. His shoes would feel like lead, not neoprene, he’d remarked. He’d palm that ball intending to launch it into a spinning arc, then see it sink heavy and unyielding as a tank of air.
He’d get there, she told him. He’s a hard worker. He’d rise.
With a whoosh, the airlock opens. A spritz of decontaminant—measures still in place even though the last recorded infection was months ago—is like the slip of a blanket off the bed. The inner door slides open, then closes and seals with a soft thwack.
But does he go to the guest room? Of course not. He’s like his racing skiff, always in need of fuel. The refrigerator door opens. A plate and a knife slap against the countertop. She thinks she hears the splurge of mayo though it’s probably her imagination. He’s always been one for intense flavors: stone-ground mustard, wasabi, bhut jolokia sauce, gochujang.
She’d tucked bottles of beer on the lower shelf just in case he stopped by, like gold coin to be discovered in one of his online quests. Does he see them? Still, she doesn’t get up. There’s something sacred about these unannounced visits, these kitchen raids. It’s like he’s reaching out to her through space: close but not too close. He still needs her. She doesn’t want to ruin it with her presence, her questions, her concern.
She savors the sounds like he must savor what he’s eating.
She hears the decisive tap of a beer bottle against the counter, the ting of a dislodged cap. A Martian Pilsener, expensive, but worth it. The beer, the food: they draw him if only for a night.
He’s tuned the jabber of his com low. As always, he doesn’t sit – she hears no scrape of the stool, no settling of his body. His hunger is everything and must be quelled. Then the plate goes into the sink, a knife clattering. In 18 years, never once has a plate ever made it all the way into the dishwasher. The dishwasher might as well be in another galaxy.
She doesn’t mind. In the morning, while he’s still asleep, she’ll test what she heard against the evidence: what’s still on the plate, what’s missing from the refrigerator, the empty bottle of Pilsener.
She hears his heavy tread again, to the toilet for a decisive piss: door open, luxurious, prolonged. A swipe of the toothbrush off the rack, a sizzle of water from the faucet. He’s a man now, she reminds herself, not a child who needs to be reminded to be thorough.
Yet. He still comes.
Worry is an itch she can’t satisfy. Be careful when you shuttle between stations. Be careful when you make that turn in your race. Make sure, above all, that you don’t spiral into the acid clouds that still wreath the planet, that you don’t come to grief on the super-heated plains.
That she doesn’t come to grief on those plains. Again.
Still, she hears the com humming with voices. The broadcast could be Terra or Mars or one of her stations, pinned above the planet like miniature stars. The mattress crinkles as he sits. His now-empty boots thump to the floor. He groans softly as he lays back. She listens for the grumble as he shifts, asleep.
Her boy. Home.