TimePaths

The Books and Writings of
Kurt R.A. Giambastiani

  "Long Distance"
by Kurt R.A. Giambastiani

From a great distance, a phone trilled. 

Jen swam up from the depths of pre-dawn slumber, sensing the light above her and the sound at her side.  She broke through into blue light sifted through white linen.  The phone warbled again, a sharp sound in a cold room.

"What," she said.  "Wait."  She rubbed her face with the back of her hand; pulled long hair out of her face.  The clock said something earlier than she wanted it to say.  "Wait," she said again.  She reached for the light cotton gown at the foot of the bed.  The phone insisted.

"Yes, yes, yes," she said as she pulled the thin fabric over her chilled shoulders.  She slapped at the phone.  The flat screen lit up.  She rubbed her eyes again.  She pulled her gown closer about her bosom. 

"Hello, Jen," said the man who had, for her, died twenty years before.

Mark.  The name was a whisper on her lips, a ghost of a word as insubstantial as the man on the screen should be.  Mark Ryan. 

She stared at him.  She compared the image on the screen with the image in her head.  He was every bit as youthful as he had been two decades before, when he walked out of her house and toward his dreams.  He was unchanged, completely unchanged.  No, that was wrong.  The same mouth, same smile.  The same nose and chin.  Something about the eyes, perhaps.  A bit of sadness, she thought. 

"Jen?"

She realized she had not spoken.  She was not sure she would.  To speak might break the spell.  She might awaken from the dream, and she wanted to see where the dream would lead.

"Jen?  It's Mark."  Concern wrinkled an unwrinkled brow.  "Can you hear me?  Jen?"

"Yes," she said, still unable to say his name.  "I can hear you."

There was a slight delay before he heard her.  "Jen.  We made it, Jen.  We're here."

The surreality began to fade.  "Mark?" she asked.  "Is that you?"

Again the few seconds time lag.  "Yes, Jen."  He laughed and she felt it catch in her breast; an old familiar sound she thought she had buried under years and years.  "We made it.  We're here, in orbit around Altair-4.  Been here a couple of weeks.  The bridge is working like a charm.  There's a five second delay, but that's mostly on your end, what with the signal bouncing between the commsats.  Otherwise, it's practically instantaneous.  The signal just zips into the bridge at our end and pops out at yours."

"Mark," she said, stepping into the tide of his enthusiasm.  "You're calling from Altair?  The star, Altair?"

"Yeah.  The news will break in a few hours.  Ain't it cool?"

She stared at him.  It was like looking down a long tunnel toward her past.  She shook her head, to clear it, to shake it loose, to negate the world around her.  The world remained.  Her past remained.  So did Mark.  She felt suddenly very old.

"What do you want, Mark?  It's been twenty years."

"But you look great, Jen.  You really do."  And there was that sadness, again, at the corner of his eyes, hunting, prowling.  "Listen," he said.  "They've gave us a chance to make a call before the story breaks, 'cause after that this channel is gonna be completely snatched.  Anyway, I just wanted to talk to you.  To say hey."

A core of old anger grew sharp within her.  She pressed him.  "You called from sixteen light years just to say 'hey'?"

The sadness pounced.

Mark looked down.  He swallowed.  He looked up again.  He spoke, and gone was all the brashness and exuberance.  "It doesn't sound like a long time to you, I know, but even with deep-sleep and time dilation I still had about three years, shipboard.  I did a lot of thinking during those years, Jen.  I called...to apologize.  I'm sorry."

She did not respond, and he continued on into the steely void.

"I'm sorry.  I ruined your chances for the flight.  I told them about us, before I left.  The Commission.  I told them we were lovers.  They trashed you because of that.  I didn't think they'd do that.  I thought it would strengthen the team, better your chances.  They thought otherwise, just like you said they would.  If I'd kept it secret, we'd be here together."

The old core relented, unable to make a fight after so long a time.  "I know all about it, Mark.  Do you think I just sat here for twenty years without asking why they passed me over?"

"They told you?"

"Of course they did.  I knew before you even left."  Chagrin colored the face of her long-ago lover—still the young man she knew a score of years before—and she saw his flush of discomfiture across ninety trillion miles.  "I forgave you fifteen years ago," she said.

He was silent then, with only the hum of his ship and the ticking of her bedside clock bridging the distance between them.  Then he gave a small laugh, and this time it did not wrench her heart.

"I should have guessed," he said.

Someone on Mark's side spoke.  Mark glanced at his watch.

"I gotta go, Jen.  Hell's gonna be riding in on a broomstick in about an hour and we've got to be ready.  Before I go, though, I've got something for you."

"What?" she said.  "What do you mean?"

The image of Mark trembled and tilted to the left.  Then the view swung to the right and wobbled into darkness.  "A present," he said.  "Something I think I owe you."  She saw bulkheads and a corridor.  She recognized the entrance to the Z-Gee section of the ship.  The darkness got grainy and then flared into a field of white.  The view stabilized as the camera's sensors adjusted the aperture. 

Mark's face came back into her field of view.  He was on the command deck, sitting in a command couch.  Behind him were the atmospheric and terrain pinger readouts.  His arm reached out toward the lens, holding the camera, but it seemed to her that he held his hand out for her to take, as if she could step through the flat screen on her nighttable vidiphone and be transported across space and time.  

"You deserve to be one of the first," he said.  The view panned to the left.

The forward ports were open.  Outside the ship there was the darkness of space.  A volley of stars filled the deep.  Then the view shifted again, and she saw the blue and white horns of a planetary crescent—a planet full of liquid water and clouds—and behind it the brightness of an alien sun.

"Wish you were here," Mark said wryly.

She laughed through her tears.  "I do, too," she said.  "I do, too."

"Call you sometime?"

"Sure," she said.  "Anytime."

   

All contents ©2001-2010 Kurt R.A. Giambastiani