I Can See the Earth
Shana sang to the skies, the real skies, with a voice that would not let the distance between them harm her. She sang old words, strung together like beads on a string of love and hope, and her voice rose in haunting melodies of praise. Her eyes glistened with the vision of a world far away and she lifted her pale hands to the blue planet above her.
She spun slowly, allowing the hem of her nightgown to flow outward, the cloth descending from her breast like a tall narrow bell. All around her there was darkness, broken only by the tiniest pinpoints of light. But the world, the glowing world with its real skies...
A visitor silently watched her, watched how the blue light of the world fell on a face bright and childlike. Shana moved like a ghost, free of the confines of a physical body. The visitor felt a twinge of emotion and stifled it. Oblivious, Shana's face lifted, surrounded by the blue glow of the world, but it was a face of a young woman, not the child whose innocence she possessed. Perhaps she truly was a ghost; something in Shana had died. The visitor shook her head and lifted a hand to dispel the darkness.
Click. The single floor lamp bathed the small room of plastic and metal with its brilliance. Gone was the infinite darkness. Gone was the blue world. The harsh light reflected off the expansive window Shana faced opposite the visitor. Only the bare walls, a bed, and a small chest of drawers surrounded the two people in the room.
Shana choked her song in midbreath and reached futilely out to the window, but only the room's reflection greeted her. She trembled and her shoulders sagged. As she lowered her gaze she allowed her hands to fall to her sides.
"The stars," she whispered.
"They'll still be there when I leave," said her visitor, not entirely unkindly. "Tomorrow's an important day you know. You can't keep hiding in here waiting for the world to go away. It doesn't do that."
Shana turned around slowly, wraithlike, to face her visitor with large, vacant blue eyes. "The world is there," she said.
"Yes, it is." The visitor, her younger sister Michelle, crossed her arms impatiently over her chest. "And it's going to get you the longer you keep this up. Do you really think you can live the rest of your life like this?" Shana's expression did not change and Michelle sighed with frustration. "You know the results of the last test are coming in tomorrow. If these turn out negative like all the others then everyone will know there's nothing wrong with you."
Shana said nothing and looked back to the window with a stiff motion more becoming of an old wooden puppet than a woman in her twenties.
Michelle continued, shaking her head. "Shana, I know you can hear me and I know you understand me. You might be pretending to be insane, but you can't be. People just don't snap without reason. You know that. You used to study biology. If there is the slightest chemical imbalance in your brain the doctors can find it, but you don't have anything unexplainable! I don't think this last test is going to help you."
"The world is there," said Shana vaguely, "but I have left it."
Michelle clenched a hand tightly and looked down. "At least think of what you've been doing to Mom and Dad. What do you hope to gain by doing this? All these tests haven't been cheap, you know." Michelle raised her other hand to the broad button for the lamp. "And in case you forgot, my first day of college is next week. You snapped in your third year there, didn't you."
Shana lowered her head like a scolded child.
With a huff, Michelle turned off the lamp and the room was again in darkness. But she could not see the blue world, and the darkness was not nearly so infinite as before. It seemed smaller for the exchange and Shana did not sing.
Michelle stepped back into the darkened hallway and palmed the button for the door to shut behind her.
Shana's voice floated eerily after her sister. "I'm sorry," she said.
The following day was bright and sunny, as decided by the dome's weather simulation people. The great plastic hemisphere that encased the lunar city changed colors with the time of day and turned transparent at night so that the city's inhabitants could look upon the planet of their origin. The dome provided all the comforts of the home its inhabitants had left--temperature, gravity, even the occasional freak blizzard to keep the feeling of living up north. Other domes on the moon possessed different weather sets to accommodate those who had moved there.
Michelle felt the heat of the artificial sun on her back as she marched down the crowded streets. She remembered how on Earth there used to be vehicles that would race through the maze of sky scraping buildings. The moon was too small though. Space for cars could be used for people. Everyone walked, save the invalid and elderly.
She did not mind, though she knew of a few people who had complained shortly after arriving. Michelle was nine and her sister sixteen when they had moved here, and she had not fully understood the implications of the change on those older and less adaptive than her. Shana especially had not wanted to leave the planet, but there was no choice. Everyone had to go. The Earth appeared serenely above their new home on the moon--they could not forget it--but it was now a forbidden world.
Michelle wheeled around a densely packed corner and pushed her way through the throng of people into a large, tall building with an exterior composed almost entirely of windows. Inside a fountain frothed and a separate air conditioning system stirred the circulation in the entryhall. Large potted trees lined the walls like patronizing sentries.
Their appearance disturbed her a little, though she was not entirely certain why. She dismissed her feelings and brushed her hair back from her forehead, simply relieved to be out from under the so-called sky. She glanced about her and spotted the reception console far to her left. Few people used it during the morning, but a small line had already formed. One by one the computer processed their requests, be it the announcement of an arrival for an appointment or to visit one of the ill who lived in the upper floors.
Michelle chafed at the feel of this place and only hesitantly stepped behind the last person in line. The building stank of pity and despairing acceptance. Shana did not belong in a place like this, nor would her parents ever think of sending her here. Michelle almost scoffed. The institute would never accept Shana anyway. She was not sick; not unless this last test said otherwise.
As she drew nearer to the console, Michelle pulled out her family's medical ID card. Both her parents worked today, but they were anxious to learn the results of Shana's test. They wanted Michelle to pick them up and bring them home for them to see that evening--so they can weep because there is no reason why their daughter no longer resides among the living.
Gloomily Michelle took her turn with the reception computer. She slid the card through the magnetic reader and the console flashed a series of lights to show the processing of her order. A slot opened and thrust out a thin, opaque plastic envelope. Michelle pocketed the card and retrieved the envelope, holding it close to her chest as she walked out of the building.
She felt her heart thumping, and she could not understand why. If Shana was not sick, then Michelle was right. But if Shana was sick... What then? Shana had always been something of a shy person, but nothing out of the ordinary. She earned high marks at the university, and though she did not know what she wanted to do with her life, she probably could have done just about anything in the field of biology. Instead Michelle remembered how one day when she was thirteen she overheard her parents saying how Shana was found sick in her dorm. Shana had not spoken directly to anyone for five days--indeed, spoke hardly at all--and she displayed an utter lack of interest in anything around her. It was as though Shana had gone to sleep one day and emerged a zombie the next.
But Shana was not a zombie, Michelle told herself as she hurried down the streets. Sometimes her words made uncanny sense. She did respond, at least to Michelle, at least a little bit. But after five years of putting up with this eccentric behavior Michelle could feel how thin her patience had worn.
She reached the steps to her house and paused at the front door. She looked up at the large window above her and into Shana's room. This new Shana never used the shades. She always wanted to see outside. Even now her sister stood by the window, hands clasped serenely before her. Shana stared vacantly ahead of her, unmoving.
Michelle had long stopped wondering what it was her sister saw.
The envelope crinkled slightly as she shifted it in her arms to dig out her house keycard. She paused, then looked again above her at Shana. Her sister remained still and oblivious. If it was an act, she played it regardless of the audience.
Michelle lowered her head, needing to find an answer, then walked away.
The public observatory was the only building not under the dome, though it was connected to the city beneath it. It was a small square room of windows, free of the artificial coloring-changing sky so people could see the stars whenever they wanted. But the attraction had not turned out as popular as its designers had hoped. Few people ever came, and most that did were students using the dark sky to complete homework projects before the dome's regulated night fell.
Finding no one around, Michelle dropped herself on a bench and shakily dug out her family's medical ID card. Two thin plates of hard plastic held the mouth of the envelope shut via a locking mechanism, but the lock could be opened with the proper identification. She slid the card through the long thin slot designated for the purpose and the plates popped apart.
Michelle set aside the lock and peeked inside, using her fingers to separate the printed sheets without removing them so that she could skim the results. Finding the sheet she wanted, she pulled it out just far enough for her to see the doctors' conclusion.
Science could not lie. Surely Shana had known that. She had imparted that knowledge to Michelle so long ago. Michelle planned to study biology herself, and she believed the results, but she could not help feeling sorry for her sister. What had she felt to make her isolate herself so much?
Michelle pushed the paper back inside and replaced the lock. She sullenly looked through the window at the stars and pulled her knees up to her chest. Shana had once spoken of being scared of the "real world" all children eventually emerge into. It was a common saying among university students, from the impression Michelle had gotten from Shana's friends.
But perhaps Shana had truly been terrified of leaving the comforts of schooling. Even with science against her, her parents could never throw her out as long as she was the helpless, vacant doll she was now. No one could refuse her help as long as she remained unable or unwilling to help herself, as long as there was some doubt that science could not cure. Michelle knew bitterly that Shana's supporters included herself. Shana could conceivably be taken care of for the rest of her life, if she would make the sacrifice of never speaking or holding another person again.
Apparently Shana would, or believed herself willing. Either that or there was something that science and reasoning could not explain.
Michelle realized what it was she had felt when she walked into Shana's room the night before. Shana had made a choice, and no matter the outcome it must have taken an incredible amount of determination and resolve to stay with it for five lonely years. Michelle envied that strength and the care she knew Shana would continue to receive in the years to come regardless of anything a test may say. But she did not begrudge her sister her isolation. Michelle's needs were different from hers.
Shana would not come back. Michelle reconciled herself to that, and she hoped that the coming days of living away at the college campus would remove the many memories of large, vacant blue eyes.
Michelle raised her head, sighting the bright blue world in the infinite darkness above her. She wanted to cry, to know the pain of feeling her sister no longer showed. Michelle opened her mouth, voice hoarse with loss as she sang softly to the skies, the real skies, praying that the distance between them would not harm her.
Laurie Tom graduated from the University of California, San Diego with a degree in biology and currently lives near the city of Los Angeles. Her fiction has appeared in Parageography, Kinships, Foxfire, and Millennium Science Fiction & Fantasy.
Visit Laurie's web site.
Published by permission of the author.