The Distant Earth

by Lore Graham

Earth hangs low in the sky over the bubble habitats, a solitary hemisphere of incomparable blue. White wisps of cloud drift across it, but Wendo will never see them from the ground, only here from zir vantage point hundreds of thousands of kilometers away.

Zir heart aches as ze gazes out at the planet through the double layers of zir apartment window and the town bubble. It’s a familiar yearning, but one that has tempered with age. The greedy, grasping inferno that once burned has died down to a wistful, smoldering appreciation.

Wendo will never come any closer than this to Earth, no matter how much ze desires. Ze will never see its snow-capped mountains and vast oceans. Ze will never feel its familiar tug anchoring zir feet to the ground, the standard for gravity tech across the solar system. Ze will never witness plant and animal life flourishing on the planet where it all evolved.

Ze has finally made zir peace with that.

*

When Wendo was five, ze wanted to be an explorer.

Zir class was learning the professions that week. Later, there would be presentations and field trips, but today was the first day, the exploratory phase. Ms. Roobis pushed her wheelchair through the classroom to check on the children as they flipped through slideshows and doodled on their tablets. Wendo was bored at first by the images and cheerful descriptions of the jobs, most modern and unexciting: renovators in yellow coveralls, artists with colorful canvases, engineer-priests in billowing robes.

The antiquated professions were only slightly more interesting. Ze remembered thinking what a strange time the past must have been, back when people had to be janitors and bakers instead of trusting such menial work to robots. Among such dreary physical occupations, ze zeroed in on the last entry: a proud explorer in a bulky astrosuit, standing beside a spaceship.

In practice, exploration was an unusual, difficult, and resource-demanding career, in addition to being a largely obsolete one. The inhabited worlds were linked by the Gates, and the asteroid belt had been mined to exhaustion millennia ago. Wendo didn’t realize that at the time, but wouldn’t have cared if ze had. The slide mentioned which worlds still had potential for explorationdwarf planets past Pluto, long-abandoned settlements on asteroids, the gas giants’ ruined moonsbut none of those were half as appealing as Wendo’s fixation.

“I’m going to explore Earth!” ze said when Ms. Roobis stopped beside zir.

“Being an explorer is a bold profession!” said the teacher. “But we don’t go to Earth any more. Can you think of some other places you’d like to visit?”

“No, I want to go to Earth!” Wendo insisted.

“We don’t go to Earth,” she said patiently. “The Gates to Earth are all closed, even the one here on Luna. What about Ceres? Do you remember our story last week about the big house on the little world?”

“I don’t care about Ceres,” grumbled Wendo. “I’ll take a ship to Earth instead!”

“Earth doesn’t have a spacedock any longer, even if they were accepting visitors,” replied Ms. Roobis. “Let’s look at some other places. How about Eris? It could use some brave explorers.”

Wendo was frustrated by Ms. Roobis’s insistence that ze consider other worlds. Wendo wanted to go through the Gate to Earth, to walk through that grand doorway into Earth’s waiting atrium that ze only knew from pictures. The other Gates were open and active; Wendo’s cousins had come back from Venus just last week. When every other world welcomed visitors, why couldn’t Earth too?

*

On zir special twelfth-year trip, Wendo visited Mars. It was phenomenally different from zir bubble habitat life on Luna. For the first time, ze breathed air under an open sky. There were trees growing in the dirt beyond the outskirts of the city, free and sprawling, nothing like the narrow, pruned rows in avenues on Luna. Ze even stood at the edge of a lake and threw a stone into the water. The local kids tossed theirs at a practiced angle that made the stones skip, but Wendo couldn’t manage it.

Despite the similarities, Mars was not Earth. The Martian sky was a paler, weaker blue and the dirt had a distinctive rusty scent. More than that, there was some deeper, primal sense of uncanniness that haunted Wendo, something like—but not quite—homesickness. Throughout the trip, ze carried some innate and unsatisfied urge for belonging that ze was sure must date back to the Old Earth, when the planet was their species’ entire and only world.

*

It was not entirely true that no one went to Earth. If Wendo had known that young enough, maybe ze would’ve tried to join the ranks of those elite few, the mere dozens of esteemed researchers and world diplomats whose missions were considered vital enough to merit passage.

Ze never would have succeeded. Zir temperament wasn’t steady enough, even if ze’d been willing to put in the tireless work and had had the right connections.

Reflecting on it decades later, Wendo was glad that ze hadn’t tried. The failure might have solidified zir anger at not being allowed to visit, might have stained zir with a grudge that wouldn’t wash out with age.

Wendo was fifteen when ze finally learned why Earth was forbidden. The planet had suffered under humanity many times, from the legendary Ancient Apocalypse to the broken pacts and eco-theft at the end of the Terracentric Era.

“After the Kidnapping of the Lemurs in 618, the Terran Trustees Panel on Visitation took on a more active role in monitoring scientific as well as recreational tourism,” zir historical wisdom teacher said, pacing in front of the screenwall. “It became much more difficult for researchers to gain visas. Then, in 621, a coalition of Martian hydrologists and geohistorians applied for access to Earth to study its polar ice caps. Their request was denied. Instead of accepting the decision, made on behalf of the people of Earth, the coalition decided to go anyway. They were forcibly stopped at the Gate after they attempted to run and then fight their way through, injuring multiple Gate staff in the process. Their pre-meditated defiance was denounced by Earth and branded the Act of Aggression.

“Opinions on the matter varied across other worlds and their churches, but the people of Earth were unanimous in their anger. Within a week, they banned any and all use of the Earth Gates. After years of negotiations, Earth announced the Vital Use Policy in 627. Only a handful of extensively-screened researchers and diplomats would be allowed through the Gates to Earth from each world every year. Since then, Earth has remained voluntarily isolated, and essentially closed to the rest of us.”

Wendo was mildly sympathetic to Earth, but primarily ze was frustrated.

“I don’t get why the ban still holds,” Wendo said to zir teacher after class. “We’re so many generations removed from the people who did that. And besides, the Lunar people never betrayed Earth, not like the Martians, or the Venusians, or the Jovians.”

“You don’t get a pass just because you’re from Luna, or because you didn’t happen to be born in one of the most directly offending generations,” he said, shaking his head. “We can’t ignore the violation of another world, and the consequences that come with it, simply because it’s inconvenient for us, or because we didn’t personally commit that violation.”

“It was a violation, but it wasn’t that bad,” Wendo argued. “For Earth to keep us all out after centuries–

“Who are you to tell Earth how they should feel about such a violation?” The teacher’s voice was sharp now, any hint of sympathy gone. “Who are you to tell them it wasn’t that bad, just because you’re annoyed that you can’t visit Earth? Throughout history, people always want to distance themselves from the terrible things their ancestors have done. But in doing so, we’re recreating that same sense of entitlement that led to the atrocities in the first place. Our desires are not more important than the well-being of other worlds.

“Earth’s policy is not about you. Unless you make it about you, in which case you’re only proving why such a policy exists.”

Wendo was livid. In the moment, ze could have punched him. In the hours and days that passed, ze considered reporting him for being too condescending and verbally hostile toward his student’s independent thinking.

Ze did neither.

Instead, Wendo wasted most of the next three years sulking. Zir teacher’s words ate zir up from the inside out because ze could not formulate an adequate reply no matter how long ze digested the conversation. Any argument that occurred to Wendo was either petulant, entitled, or outright aggressive. Ze didn’t want to be any of those things. So ze sullenly struggled with zir still-strong desire to see Earth firsthand while realizing that ze couldn’t formulate a single unselfish reason for an open Earth.

* 

In Wendo’s early twenties, ze spent six months doing an externship on Venus. It felt strange to see Earth so small, a mere pinprick like a distant star in the months-long night sky.

Wendo met Allys in an open-air tea shop a few weeks before zir assignment ended. Allys had bright blue eyes and warm skin, and brushed xyr hand against Wendo’s when ze stopped to compliment xyr earrings. They ended up talking for hours.

At Allys’s suggestion, they met again the next day in a lush park filled with flowering trees and vine-covered trellises. They walked and flirted for a short while before stopping beneath a dogwood, where Wendo kissed Allys on a blanket of fallen white petals.

Ze thought that Allys was enjoying xymself. Xe sighed into zir mouth, purred as ze caressed xyr neck. Venusians were famously hedonistic and neither of them worried about interruption; the dense plant life ensured more privacy than any public place on Luna would offer. But when Wendo placed a hand on xyr knee and started to pull up the edge of xyr skirts, xe stopped zir.

“The kissing’s nice, but…” Allys let xyr voice trail off. That should have been all xe needed to say.

“Why?” Wendo blurted.

Allys’ brow furrowed. “’Why?’ The ‘why’ isn’t for you either.” Xyr eyes were cold, and the laughter was gone from the crinkles in the corners of xyr mouth. “Didn’t the tourism office tell you? Take what is freely given, and don’t presume when your requests for more are politely denied.”

Wendo, surprised by xyr derision and embarrassed by zir own presumption, muttered apologies. Allys’s anger melted quickly even as ze fumbled for the right words, and soon xe was kissing Wendo again. They stayed intertwined for a little longer, but it wasn’t the same as before.

*

Out of the thirty billion people in the solar system, barely one in forty resides on Luna. Even on this moon, held in Earth’s close and loving orbit, eighty-two percent of the population lives on the dark side. Only from here on the Terran side can one watch the phases of Earth, see it glowing orb-full or crescent-thin in the black sky.

Pilgrims and tourists come from across the solar system to see Earth as a bulbous gibbous, as a clipped thumbnail, as a perfect blue and white disk. They spend many days of travel and all their precious vacation credits just to watch Earth live with their very own eyes. Wendo gets to see it every day.

Any old resentment that ze cannot touch it, will never step foot on its soil or smell its ozone, is tempered now. Earth is not zirs to grasp, only zirs to behold and admire. And that is enough.

***

Lore Graham is a nonbinary author of speculative fiction and poetry. When Lore isn’t writing, ze’s usually reading, cooking, or hosting parties. Ze lives in Massachusetts with zir partners and zir cat. You can find more of zir work at grahamlore.com.