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Her name was Jane.
She told this to all nine people aboard the spaceship Return, her own people first. Her father, reading in a corner of a big room that ten people could not fill, looked at her calmly. “Yes, Jeg^faan, if you prefer. ‘Jane.’” He did not ask why the change. He knew. When you go to live on another planet, you must adapt. Worlders had always, of necessity, been good at adaptation. It was in their genes. And now adaptation was Jane’s mission: she would be the translator, the bridge between worlds.
Glamet^vor¡, with whom Jane once thought she might sign a mating contract, frowned. “I will keep my identity on Terra, and that includes my name. I am Glamet^vor¡,” he said, emphasizing the rising inflection in the middle and the click at the end, the way children did. In many ways, Jane thought, he was a child, although the most brilliant biologist on World, after her father.
“As you wish,” she said mildly. It was good that she had changed her mind about the mating contract. “Changed her mind”—that was a Terran expression, as if a mind was something that could be removed and replaced like a body wrap. English words came more easily to her now, after constant study for so long, but the meanings revealed by the words still astonished her.
She found Glamet^vor¡’s sister with their brother in a sleeping cabin. La^vor, the same age as Jane, was devoted to the boy, who could not speak more than a few words. Something had gone wrong at Belok^’s birth; his mother had died and Belok^’s brain had been damaged. Not, of course, that that made any difference to his siblings’ decision to bring him to Terra. They were lahk.
“La^vor,” Jane said, “I will be called ‘Jane’ now.”
“It’s a Terran name.”
La^vor, nowhere near as intelligent as her older brother, frowned. “You are not Terran.”
“No. But here, I will be called Jane.”
“All right,” La^vor said. She was never argumentative.
Belok^ laughed, but not because he understood. He often laughed or cried inappropriately, following vague ideas in his vague brain. Jane smiled and touched his arm. Like all Worlders, Belok^ had coppery skin, plus the huge dark eyes that had evolved on World to better gather Skihlla’s orangey light. As tall as most Worlders even though he hadn’t finished growing, Belok^ was much wider. If he had been as prickly as Glamet^vor¡, his baby mind in an almost-man’s body might have been difficult to lead, but Belok^ had the same sweet, accommodating disposition as his sister.
None of the Terrans, Jane suspected, fully understood why Belok^ had been brought with them. Terrans did not understand the unbreakable bonds of a lahk. Not even Marianne Jenner, whom Jane sought out next. Marianne sat on the bridge with Dr. Patel and Branch Carter.
Jane said in English, “My name here will be Jane, please. And I will call you Dr. Jenner now, not Marianne-kal, if that is all right.”
“Just call me Marianne,” the older woman said. Jane looked at her more closely. Marianne-kal … no, Dr. Jenner … no, Marianne looked sad. That was to be expected, perhaps. She had left behind her son Noah, married to a Worlder, and her granddaughter. She had two more children on Terra, but when she arrived there, twenty-eight years would have passed since her departure. Marianne’s daughter would be a Terran-year older than Marianne. Jane could not imagine how that would be.
“I feel your sadness,” she said, and Marianne looked at her sharply, started to say something, and then did not.
Dr. Patel said quickly, “‘Jane’—pretty name. Call me Claire.”
“I will,” Jane said, hoping she would remember. Branch Carter ignored her, but since he hadn’t ever called her by her Worlder name in the first place, it hardly mattered what he called her now. He was thin, intense, a young Terran who preferred machinery to people. He said to a wall screen, “Come in, Terra, come in. This is the spaceship Return, coming from World … I mean, Kindred. Come in, Terra.”
No one answered. The Return had jumped—another strange expression, as if bypassing a hundred light-years of space was no more than a dance step—shortly after liftoff, three days ago. Since then the ship had been flying toward Terra and Branch had been trying to make contact.
“I don’t understand why no one is answering,” he said for perhaps the hundredth time. But, then, there was so much they didn’t understand about the ship, which operated on forces none of them, neither Worlders nor Terrans, understood. Jane less than the others. The Return was not Terran technology, nor World’s. Jane regarded this gift, made eons ago by an unknown race, as a sort of illathil, but there was no explaining that to any of the Terrans aboard. Jane didn’t try. It was going to be her job to learn their ways, not theirs to learn hers.
She left the bridge. Just outside the door, Private Kandiss was “on duty.” The soldier scared Jane a little—there had been no army on World until the Terrans came with their four soldiers. She had grown used to them, but they had always made her uneasy. Only Lieutenant Brodie had tried to learn World language or customs, and he had stayed behind. Kandiss-kal didn’t smile. His weapons were terrifying and distasteful, in equal measure. But there would be soldiers on Terra, many more soldiers than just this one returning home, and Jane must accept them. Acceptance of the new was the price of what World could learn from Terra.
And the Terrans knew so much more than World! Without their intervention, Jane’s society would have perished. A debt was owed, to the soldiers no less than to the scientists.
She said, “I will be called Jane now, please.” Kandiss nodded and turned away. Like Branch Carter, although for different reasons, Kandiss seldom looked directly at her, or at any of her people.
She found the fifth Terran, Kayla Rhinehart, on the observation deck, watching unmoving stars in the black sky. Jane didn’t like Kayla, who was one day too weepy and the next too excited, both without reason. However, Jane tried to be compassionate because Dr. Patel-kal—Claire!—said that Kayla had a “mental condition.” So did Belok^, but Belok^ was never mean.
“You’re going to love Earth,” Kayla said.
“Tell me about Earth,” Jane said, careful of her tenses. Although that was far easier than in World, since there were fewer tenses: just past, present, and future. Nothing to distinguish tentative, absolute, rotational, or in flux states of being. A simple language, English. Jane had learned it quickly.
Kayla said, “Earth is beautiful. Not dark and drab like World. Blue sky, green grass, cities with buildings that touch the sky!”
World was also beautiful. Jane did not say this. She was here to learn, not argue. “Did you have lived in a city?”
“Yes.” For a moment, Kayla’s face darkened; she was remembering something unpleasant, although Jane knew that Kayla would never say anything unpleasant about Earth. Her face brightened. “New York is the most exciting city in the world! It has Central Park, full of trees—green trees, Jane, not those ugly purple things on World—and flower beds and paths full of humans going exciting places: movies and VR palaces and boxing matches at the Garden. I know you don’t have those on World, being so backward and all.”
“Where did you go in New York City?”
“Oh, everywhere! But you’re missing the point. Earth is beautiful.” She stuck out her lip and glared.
“It sounds wonderful,” Jane said.
“It is! And people there don’t all look alike, because they come from all different countries. Not just one dinky continent, like on World, with everybody the same coppery color you are and with the same black hair. On Earth you can tell people apart.”
Jane said calmly, “Please tell me about the different countries.”
“No point. Everything you could want is in America.”
“Okay.” Jane had discovered that “okay” was a very useful word. It could mean almost anything, even polite disagreement. “Tell me about your favorite of things to do in New York City. You have said there was a place called McDooned?”
“McDonald’s,” Kayla laughed. “But you don’t eat meat, do you?”
“Another reason to leave World! You don’t know what you’re missing!”
“All those primitive beliefs will change once you’ve been here a while. You’ll be astonished at how much you’ll learn.”
“Okay,” Jane said.
* * *
Marianne needed a real lab.
The Return was huge. It had been a colony ship, had killed everyone on it, and had returned empty to World, contaminated and overgrown with flora. But, scoured and disinfected, it was the only ship available for the journey back to Earth, incomprehensible ships from long-departed aliens being in short supply. The star-farers had room for ten labs, and adequate equipment for none. Marianne’s “lab” consisted of a microscope, fifty years behind Earth tech, that Ka^graa had brought with him; fifteen smelly leelees in their cages; and a collection of cultures growing the virophage that had neutralized R. sporii on World. Which, on Terra, was now called Kindred. Or had been twenty-eight years ago.
“Hold that animal tighter,” Marianne said irritably to Branch, whom she’d all but dragged from the bridge to assist. “I can’t get the knife in the right spot when it wiggles so much.”
“I’m no longer a lab tech,” Branch said. “I’m the captain of the Return.”
“Only because you’re the only one who can make sense of the ship’s hardware.”
“I can’t make sense of it. I can only use it—a little bit, anyway. God, this thing reeks.” But he held the chittering creature closer while Marianne slid in the knife to sacrifice it.
“Marianne,” Branch said quietly as she laid the leelee out for dissection, “you should wait to do that. We don’t have an unlimited supply of leelees. And you’ll have better equipment on Terra.”
“I need to be doing something. And who knows what we’ll find on Terra?”
Branch said nothing. They had gone over and over this already, with Claire. The other two Terrans aboard, Mason Kandiss and Kayla Rhinehart, had refused to participate in the discussions. Marianne knew that Private Kandiss was too fearful of what might have changed, and Kayla refused to admit the possibility that anything had.
Twenty-eight years. No one had known that taking the alien ship to Kindred would involve time dilation. If she had known, Marianne would not have gone, not even to see Noah one last time.
For Claire, Branch, and Marianne, the discussions had evolved into a morbid game about how much things would have changed while they had been gone. “In the twenty-eight years from 1950 to 1978,” said Marianne, the geneticist, “we decoded the shape of DNA and sequenced an entire microorganism.”
“In the twenty-eight years between 1940 and 1968,” said Claire, the physician, “we got antibiotics, organ transplants, and vaccines for polio, influenza, mumps, and measles.”
“In the twenty-eight years between 1990 and 2018,” said Branch, the hardware wonk, “we got the Web, cell phones, and drones.”
“From 1770 to 1798, the United States was formed and royalist France fell, completely changing the political realities.”
Copyright © 2018 by Nancy Kress