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The Return

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The Return

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Author: Ben Bova
Publisher: Tor, 2009
Series: Voyagers: Book 4

1. Voyagers
2. Voyagers II
3. Voyagers III
4. The Return

Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
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In the 1980s, an alien starship visited Earth. While investigating what appeared to be a sarcophagus bearing the preserved body of its builder, astronaut Keith Stoner was trapped and cryogenically frozen. After his body was eventually returned to Earth and revived, Stoner discovered that he had acquired alien powers. Using these new powers, he built a new starship and left Earth.

Now, after more than a century of exploring the stars, Keith Stoner returns to find that the world he has come back to does not match the one he left. The planet is suffering the consequences of disastrous greenhouse flooding. Most nations have been taken over by ultraconservative religion-based governments, such as the New Morality in the United States. With population ballooning and resources running out, Earth is heading for nuclear war.

Stoner, the star voyager, wants to save Earth’s people. But first he must save himself from the frightened and ambitious zealots who want to destroy this stranger-and the terrifying message he brings from the stars.



"You've changed."

"I've changed?" Raoul Tavalera cast a surprised look at Evelyn Delmore, sitting on the sofa next to him.

The party had pretty much drifted away from the living room. The old-fashioned, overfurnished room was almost empty, except for a few of his mother's white-haired friends and Evelyn, who'd been at Tavalera's side since the instant the party started, just about.

His former neighbors and old schoolmates had gathered in his mother's house to celebrate his returning home after nearly six years in space. But it was a strangely quiet, subdued sort of party. Hardly any alcohol, for one thing. When Tavalera had asked for a drink his mother had handed him fruit punch. He had to get one of his old college buddies to spike his glass with a dollop of tequila. The guy poured the booze surreptitiously out of a pocket flask, eyeing the tiny red light of the security camera up in the corner of the ceiling.

And not all of his classmates and former buddies had shown up. When he asked where Vince Tiorlini was, Tavalera got shifty looks and embarrassed mumbles about work camps in the flooded Pacific Northwest. Zeke Berkowitz, too: re-education center for him. They said he'd be out in another few months, maybe. Even Ellen O'Reilly. Her flaming temper had gotten her sent away somewhere, nobody seemed to know where.

Six years, Tavalera thought. A lot had changed in six years. Or maybe, he thought, it's just that I'm looking at everything through different eyes, after being away for so long.

There had been dancing, of sorts. Very subdued shuffling around the floor of the dining room, which had been emptied of furniture for the eve ning. Dull, old-fashioned music from individual phones that each dancer clipped to his or her ear. So that the noise won't disturb any of the older people, Tavalera's mother had explained. He had tried to tune the phone to something livelier but got only a godawful shriek in his ear; the phones were restricted to one single channel, bland and boring. Finally Tavalera had given up in numbed disgust and returned to the living room. That wasn't dancing, he told himself. He'd had more fun in kindergarten when the teachers made them all march in time to patriotic songs.

Looking around the hushed living room, Tavalera found that most of the partygoers his own age had crowded into the kitchen, but even there they were a pretty quiet crowd, he thought. He remembered impromptu parties aboard the Goddard habitat, all the way out by the planet Saturn, where'd he'd spent a couple of involuntary years and fallen in love. They were noisy, cheerful bashes, fueled by homebrewed booze everybody called rocket juice. People danced to music that made the walls vibrate, for crying out loud. This homecoming gig was more like a wake than a party.

I've known these people since I was a little kid, he mused. We all went to school together, right through college. But they're different now. Strangers. Maybe it is me, he repeated to himself. They haven't changed. I guess I have.

Tavalera was a compactly built middleweight, exactly one hundred and eighty-two centimeters tall. He had a long-jawed, melancholy face with a set of teeth that made him look, he knew, like a caricature of a horse. Not handsome, but not entirely unattractive, either. Somber brown eyes, dark hair that he kept cropped short after years of living and working aboard spacecraft.

"Yes, you've changed," said Evelyn Delmore, peering nearsightedly at him as she sat beside him on the sofa. The crumbs of his homecoming cake were scattered over the big tray on the coffee table, the table itself, much of the floor, and Tavalera's travel-weary slacks. He realized how old-f ashioned the living room was, with its fake fireplace, overstuffed furniture, and the wall-sized TV screen that was never off. There were only a few of the older neighbors in the living room now, all of them placidly watching the TV news.

The big wall screen over the mantlepiece was showing bulky, ungainly robotic soldiers clanking through some village in a jungle. Might's well be the same newscasts they were running before I left, Tavalera thought. The info bar running along the top of the screen read: Medellín, Colombia.

That red unblinking eye of the security camera bothered him, up there in the corner of the ceiling, by the old-fashioned crown molding that his mother loved so well. It seemed to be staring at him. Why does Ma need a security camera? Tavalera wondered as he sat on the sofa. She's got one in every room, for chrissake, even the kitchen.

He heard somebody yowl with laughter, back in the kitchen, where almost everyone had moved to. Except for Evelyn, all the people of his own age had squeezed in there. That's where the food is, he thought. The laughter quickly cut off, as if some teacher or librarian had hissed out a warning shush.

He got up and headed toward the back of the house, Evelyn half a step behind him. Tavalera felt almost annoyed. I don't need her hanging on me! He thought of Holly, back at the Goddard habitat. I wonder what Holly's doing right now.

The kitchen was jammed: people were sitting on the counters, crowding into the mudroom, couples sitting on the back steps that led up to the bedrooms. But their talk was subdued, low-key. They were almost whispering, as if they were in church, or afraid to let anyone hear what they were saying. It unnerved Tavalera.

His brother, Andy, was entertaining them all with an impromptu display of juggling. Impromptu and inept, Tavalera thought. Andy had a big grin on his face as he tossed pieces of fruit in the air. The floor around his feet was littered with oranges, apples, and something that had splattered and made a pulpy mess.

It didn't bother his mother at all, Raoul saw. She seemed dazedly pleased at all the friendly faces crammed in around her. She was standing by the stove, looking kind of dumpy and round and as white as bread dough, smiling vacantly, hardly changed at all in the years Tavalera had been away. Except that now her white hair was dyed ash-blond.

Why in hell did she dye her hair? he wondered.

He realized that Evelyn was staring intently at him, as if trying to read his thoughts.

Embarrassed at her attention, he asked, "I've changed, huh?"

"Yes. Definitely." She kept her voice low, just like all the others.

"How? For the better?"

"I don't know yet." She was about Tavalera's age, pretty in a pale blond way, even though she was decidedly on the bony side. Holly was lean, too, but vivacious, always full of energy, full of color and fun.

"You're . . . quieter, I guess," Evelyn continued. "More reserved."

He shrugged. He'd been off-Earth for nearly six whole years. He'd seen massive Jupiter, giant of the solar system, up close; he'd repaired scoopships that dove into that planet's swirling, multihued clouds. He'd nearly been killed out there. He'd lived in a huge space habitat that carried him unwillingly to Saturn, with its bright gleaming rings. He'd left Holly in that habitat that was now orbiting Saturn. He'd promised her he'd return. But the government had refused to allow him to leave Earth again, wouldn't even let him send messages to her.

He'd received no messages from her, either. Was the government blocking them, or had Holly already forgotten about him?

Messages. He'd expected the local news media to make at least a little fuss over him. Back home after traveling halfway across the solar system. None of his old buddies had ever gone into space. But nothing, not a peep in the news nets, even though his brother worked for the local TV center. Just like I've never been away. Nothing. Everything here's the same, even the friggin' never-ending war against terrorists and drug cartels. Except for Mom. She's a blonde now, for chrissake.

But it's not the same, he told himself. Or I'm not the same. Evvie's right. I've changed. Six years off-Earth changes you. Has to. What I took for granted before I left looks . . . strange now. Stifling. It's like coming back to kindergarten after six years of being on my own.

"Before you left," Evelyn was saying, "you were sort of a wise mouth. Now you're . . . well, quieter. Guarded, sort of."

"I'm older," he said with a cheerless smile.

"Aren't we all?" she replied.

Tavalera gestured toward his brother, still juggling, with a silly grin pasted on his face. "Andy's exactly the same as he was the last time I saw him."

"Oh, Andy!" said Evelyn. "He'll never grow up."

Somehow the quiet buzz and restrained laughter seemed almost desperate. It's like everybody's afraid of making any noise. Like we're all back in Sunday school. It became too much for Tavalera. He pushed his way toward the back door.

"Where're you going?" Evelyn asked, right beside him.

"Outside. I need some fresh air." I need to get away from these zombies, he added silently. And I don't need a clinging vine smothering me. He wanted to tell Evelyn to go away and leave him alone, but he didn't have the nerve, didn't want to hurt her feelings.

She came with him as he shouldered his way through the well-wishers who pretty much ignored him in their determination to have a well-behaved good time. Except for his mother, whose eyes followed him every step of the way, looking—not worried, exactly. Concerned. Maybe she's hurt 'cause I'm not enjoying the party, he thought.

Outside it was twilight. The sun had just set; the sky was deepening into violet. Not a cloud in sight, Tavalera saw. The sky fascinated him, after years in spacecraft and artificial habitats. Everybody here took it for granted...

Copyright © 2009 by Ben Bova


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