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At Twenty-Two Hundred Hours

By Sylvia Anne Hivén

I whisper the same summons into the microphone every night. It's a silly thing, that whisper, but Tinder won’t show without it. She's too fond of the ritual—to old fashioned, too romantic.

“Girl in the moon, come on down.”

I imagine the words transmitting into the blackness of space outside Exterra, slicing through the icy dark, bouncing against starlight, embraced by the black hole where they'll tumble and twist through time and space before bursting out into another solar system and find its way to Tinder.

The summons always works. In my dim quarters, fractured only by razor-thin shards of moonlight that cuts through the triple-paned window, the girl from the other side of space flickers to life.

“Hi, Tinder,” I say.

“Hi back,” Tinder says.

Even though Tinder's holographic self is just an illusion of light and the real her is as far away as some of the stars twinkling outside the space station, I feel like it's actually she who looks straight at me. There's a sharpness to her blue eyes, a magnetic draw in her gaze.

“How’s your side of the universe?” I ask.

“Rainy. I cross-bred a few new seeds, but it was too wet to plant anything. How about you?”

“Good. I checked EmiSix’s course. It's ahead of schedule and will be here in just twenty-eight days. So, I'll see you in four weeks.”

“Four weeks to you. Four years to me.” Tinder pouts, tiny crinkles lining her forehead. “It's not fair that I have to wait and you don't.”

She looks so child-like: she keeps her hair in twisty pony tails and beneath her bright dresses she always sports dirt smudges on her bare knees. Because on Luna they still have dirt, flowers, grass. Her beauty is earthen: rounded, warm features, tanned skin, Caribbean-blue eyes. She looks like a poster child for Earth, but she hasn't even seen the place.

Me, I'm the one twirling inside a steel city above the broken planet, and I'm the one still referring to myself as an earthling. Not so much because it fits me—I'm a pasty, skinny twig of a guy, and I've never seen anything sprout out of the ground—but because I have no other home to claim.

“Be glad we're close enough to reach each other at all,” I say. “Or perhaps you wanna revisit the plan and find the love of your life over there, in Alpha Centauri?”

“Never on your life, Cory! You're stuck with your moon girl.”

“I can think of worse things to be stuck with.”

It's been a year since our voices tangled into each other. I came across the trails of Tinder's transmission crackling out of a wormhole. She had found it by accident. She hadn't known where it would lead—if it lead anywhere at all—but when I answered her and she realized I was on Exterra, the questions tumbled out of her. After all, it wasn't every night you came across a voice from another solar system that distance didn't make into a mere echo.

Nights turned to weeks; weeks have turned to months. Now tangled voices have become tangled lives.

“I wish I could come to you,” Tinder says. “To see Earth, the place my ancestors came from. That would be something special.”

“Trust me, there’s nothing to see.”

“There’s you."

The holographic image stretches its hand out. I return the gesture, and my fingertips graze the surface of her projection. It shimmers and brightens, but there's no sensation of touch. There never is. Which always maddens me.

“I can't wait to touch you,” I say.

“I made you something you can touch. It's coming through the printer now.”

I turn to my printer. I gave Tinder the password a long time ago, and she's been sending me small gifts ever since. I scanned my face for her once, but Tinder's printer is so old, I apparently came across as a wrinkled mess. So I'm the one who gets all the gifts—scanned crystals, shiny green jungle leaves, copies of her favorite fruits. Not real enough to break open and eat, of course, but they still make me ache for that wonderful world she lives on, where things are alive and green rather than steel-gray and cold.

This time she sends a flower. When I pick it up from the printer box, it spreads open to reveal a luscious orange center. It reminds me of Tinder—thin and frail, the petals spotted blue like her eyes.

“Oh, the scent of Luna plastic,” I say, taking the flower to my nose. “You're such a romantic.”

“Don't be a jerk. It took me two hours to scan that thing.”

I mean to tell her I would much rather have a scan of her lips, or face, or any other body part, but then the door chimes.

“That's Artie,” I sigh. “I'm late for class.”

“Go on, go learn. And don't cheat off your sister.”

“Will you come back when class is over? At twenty-two hundred hours my time?”

“On the dot.”

“Promise?”

“Promise.”

She smiles and flickers out, leaving my quarters dark again, her light sucked through the darkness outside, passing scatterings of stars, yanked back to her home, twenty-nine days removed and trillions of miles away.

~

Artie is the only one who knows I intend to take the shuttle to Alpha Centauri. On the way to class I break the news to her that I finally have a departure date.

“Wow,” my sister says as we hurry down the hallways, our steps clacking against the steel grates. “Dad's going to be so angry. I can hear his speech now, how you're abandoning the Marbella family legacy.”

“Please. I'm sure he'll not have a problem with giving it all to you, Artie. You're the smart one.”

“I'm a botanist, not a space station commander.”

“So build some hydroponic gardens, make this place beautiful. The station will be better for it. You can send me pictures to make me kick myself for leaving, even.”

Artie's ghost-white face looks pitiful. “So I guess you're not gonna come back.”

“One way ticket, sis.”

“Luna II is supposed to be pretty dull. Nothing like the first Luna colony.”

“Tinder loves it. And I'm sure that a live planet like Luna II is better than one that was pulverized by an asteroid, like the first Luna. And better than living inside a steel box like we are, too.”

“You're positive this girl is worth moving out of the solar system for?”

“She's amazing. You met her.”

“Once. For five minutes. She dresses funny.”

Artie tries to sound aggressive but she only sounds sad. I grasp her arm and stop her. Her eyes shimmer wetly in the fluorescenthallway light.

“Artie, don't think I won't miss you or that it won't be hard to leave. It will. I will miss you a lot. But funny dresses or not, Tinder is worth it.”

Artie manages a crooked, defeated smile. “Guess we can talk through your wormhole. You can be my man in the moon.”

“Every day, if that's what you want.”

“Every day?” She grimaces and walks toward the classroom doors. “Let's not get out of hand, brother.”

The door to class swooshes open, revealing rows of seats, each occupied by pale-faced earthlings just like myself and my sister. We take our places. I always sit in the back.

Class has always seemed useless to me. I might dedicate myself more if my path wasn't already marked out thanks to my father. It never matters if I pass math or history or astrophysics—all that matters is whose last name I have. With the future being so set, not in stone but confined in steel and chrome and cold bulkheads, I don't pay much attention to the instructors. But today my ears perk up as the topic turns to the first emigrants: those who became the Venusians, the Martians, and the Lunarians when Earth became uninhabitable. When Luna II comes up in the lecture, I pay attention to the images that the instructor projects on the holo-dais.

It's Tinder's home, and what will become mine, too. She has told me about the rice fields that stretch for miles, the springs that lick down the craggy mountain-sides, the cool jungle mud that seeps between your toes. She has told me of colors that don't exist here—umbria and martruse and darinette—and how all the flowers that take those unknown hues cling to the facade of her house.

But the planet surface that’s projected in front of me doesn't look like what Tinder has described. The holographic city looks clinical: the habi-modules are round and white, one identical to the next. The buildings are huddled together in a grainy desert. There are no places to grow flowers or plants, skin knees and elbows, get grass stains on your clothes.

I raise my hand, frowning. “Is this right?” I ask. “I hear Luna is a beautiful place.”

“Beauty's in the eye of the beholder, I guess, Mr Marbella,” the instructor says. “I'm sure it's beautiful to those who enjoy deserts.”

I hold up Tinder's flower. “So how could this flower grow on Luna if it's mostly desert?”

The instructor steps closer, his mouth a thin, impatient line. He looks at my flower and his mouth softens. He even licks his lips. “That's Lillium Lunarum, the Luna lily.”

“So if it can grow on Luna, it can't be a desert planet.”

“That flower doesn't exist on Luna II. It existed on Luna I, before the first colony planet was destroyed eighty years ago. Beautiful replica, Marbella. Did you design it?”

I look at the flower, numb. “I didn't design it. The girl in the moon did.”

The instructor stares at me. "Any artist from Luna would be long since dead, Marbella. But it's a beautiful echo of a lost colony. You keep that flower safe."

He walks back to the front of the classroom. The ghost faces of the other students turn away, too, leaving me un-observed to clutch the flower in my hand.

How arrogant of us to not be suspicious of the miracle of communication through space, but through time. Her ancient printer. Her weird dresses.

For the remainder of class, I don't pay attention. I just sit at my desk, the plastic flower cutting into my palm, me clutching it harder, and it cutting me more in turn. Tears threaten, hot and angry, and I want to cry for myself and for my lost future—my girl, my new planet, my life in jungles, beneath rain. But this isn't just about me. So I blink my grief into submission and swallow the thick dread in my throat, and begin to wonder what I should tell a ghost at twenty-two hundred hours.

About the Author

Sylvia Anna Hivén lives and writes in Atlanta, Georgia. Her fiction has appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Daily Science Fiction, EscapePod and others.

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