From a great distance, a phone
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.
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?
"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,"
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
"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
"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.