Marina’s world is a pale speck on Hub’s forward monitor. Having just unfolded at the edge of her system, he won’t arrive at Sonhar for two days, and the wait is killing him. When you travel halfway across the void to propose, you want to fold the void so thin you can hold your girl’s hand through it. Hub’s engine isn’t good enough for that, though. At best it can sort of wad up the void. So Hub turns on his automatic sky, which acclimates travelers to their destination worlds and makes Hub feel like he’s already with her.
A projection of Sonhar’s sky as viewed from her father’s estate fills the walls of the command dome: the binary suns, three of the five major moons, and a shining silver ring like a bridge to them all. The wonders complement Marina, with her bright eyes, broad pretty face, and exaggerated mouth, and they make Hub forget his own world, which is more like the speck.
He taps the ring in his breast pocket. It’s still there. To afford its red diamond, he had to fly all the way to Fantin’s Planet, fifty-two folds, and mine the stone himself. He has little to give, but he can give her effort.
The ansible bongs. The readout displays Marina’s transmission code. He picks up the receiver. He could run her voice through the aircom, but Hub likes feeling her mouth close to his ear.
“Ahoy,” he says.
“Hubbert, where are you?”
“Near Elsanna.” The frozen dwarf planet, slightly squashed, slides across his starboard monitor.
“I said I’d come back.”
“Don’t kid, Hub. Something’s wrong.”
“Are you alright? I could get there sooner if—”
“No, don’t. I don’t know what’s happening. Stay away till I—”
The ansible drops the call. Hub smacks it. It’s an older model, which he bought from this guy he met, and hitting it sometimes works. Not this time.
When Marina doesn’t call back after a minute, he tries her. No response. Worse, the ansible detects no receiver on her end. He runs a diagnostic, that is, he pries the ansible out of the console, flips it over and makes sure nothing burned out or broke inside. All looks well. He replaces the ansible.
There could be a problem with the local network. Hub has to confirm his landing reservation anyway, so he calls her district’s spaceport. No receiver detected.
He stares at the speck. He tries the district transmission centre to check on outages. No receiver. Not even a message saying they have better things to do than reassure him. He calls five numbers in five random districts. No receivers.
Hub calls another solar system entirely.
“Pick up or delivery?”
Hub hangs up. The ansible does work.
He glances at the suns topping the rotunda. The Betsys give off so much light, the sky is white: a perfect picnic noon, Marina would call it. Her skin refuses to tan, and on days like this it glows as if she were becoming light herself. When going to meet her at some out-of-the-way spot with a basket and blanket, he can see her from half a kilometer away. His beacon.
Hub drums his fingers on the navigator. Folding inside a solar system is foolish, given the multiple proximate gravities deforming space. The fuel and effort aren’t worth the time saved and risk of being sucked into a planet or moon. Sonhar is 44.4 hours away, though, and he could cut that in half at least.
The navigator takes five minutes to resolve a fold that will take him only 2% closer, but put him in a position to make a 7% fold. Hub punches it. The monitors blacken, flicker and change. Elsanna has shrunken to stern. Sonhar, now on the under monitor, remains a speck.
The navigator hums, the ship maintains its impetus of SoL .09, and Hub calls the transmission centre floating above Pemecks, the gas giant one orbit out from Sonhar. He worked there for a year, which is as long as he has ever worked anywhere, and someone might remember him. The ansible finds a receiver, but it’s engaged. Hub waits for a connection until the fold comes in, hangs up and punches it.
Sonhar’s pixels have divided like cells in a dish. Thirty minutes pass. The Pemecks line comes free, but no one engages him. Hub tries one of the gas plants circling the planet. They funnel their calls through Sonhar for security, but this plant is owned by Marina’s father. A year ago he hired Hub away from the transmission centre to maintain his transports and six months later he asked him to work on his estate. When Hub moved to Sonhar, he should have returned the plant’s list of private transmission codes. They’re all engaged, probably trying to reach Marina’s father. Hub folds again.
The fourth resolution will take forty-eight minutes. Hub has the ansible bong through the aircom like a heartbeat, but now that he knows Pemecks is still there, he doesn’t need the centre or the plant to answer until the fold is nearly in. He’s done a calculation himself. In forty-six minutes the light from Sonhar at the time Marina called will reach its neighbor, and Pemecks can tell him if Sonhar is also still there.
Hub spends the time floating through the Sonharn sky. On the estate he maintained the family’s hoppers. One morning, at her command, he took Marina up and gave her some lessons. She proved a fair hand with the stick. They started flying every day, and every day they talked, a hopper’s cramped cabin inspiring intimacies the hoppers’ hanger never could have. His stories took her beyond Sonhar, which she had never left. Her smile took him beyond the world, and often he came to, as if from a deep sleep, worrying about their fuel levels. Pushing himself around the dome, Hub wishes he could program an image of her floating with him.
The fold comes in. Before punching it, Hub lets the ansible bong a few more times. His father once told him: When you’re digging a well and you don’t hit water, dig another meter before you quit. You don’t want to go through life thinking you missed a chance by the length of your arm.
His father was right. Pemecks answers. Hub shouts, “What happened to Sonhar?” over their “Why are you on this line?” Then Hub parries their “Who is this? Stop trying us,” with “No, tell me. What’s going on?” Hub hears yelling in the background. Pemecks disconnects. Hub calls back. The ansible bongs unanswered for three more minutes before he folds.
The last resolution will take more than an hour. The fold will put him near Sonhar’s largest moon. He hopes he won’t need it. He hopes he can glide there at .09, chatting with Marina the whole way. In twenty-nine minutes he’ll know if he can. That’s when he’ll meet the light coming from Sonhar himself.
The suns are falling. A wisp of rich blue rises along the eastern horizon. After a day of flying, he and Marina would sit on the steps of a folly her father had built and watch it grow. “The promise of night,” he called it one day. “The promise of space,” she said. And after the stars emerged, she took his hand for the first time. Two weeks later the twilight saw her kiss him. In a month she was relieved that noon couldn’t talk and a pillar blocked her father’s view from the main house. Tomorrow those steps are where he’ll propose, and he doesn’t care who thinks it folly.
Hub propels himself to the forward monitors. Sonhar has become a dot no less dirty than the speck. He can’t bear to see the planet looking so cold. Hub applies some filters. The dot turns a vibrant blue set off by her ring and the scattered pearls of her moons. It seems to breathe.
That’s what Marina longs to see: the world and distance from it. As soon as he puts his ring on her finger, he’ll take her right here, then teach her how to fold. He’ll let her tune the sky to any world’s she wants because he won’t need Sonhar’s anymore.
With five minutes left Hub sits. With three he tries Marina. Hub hears muttering between the bongs. With one minute left he hangs up. The mutters were resolving into Marina’s voice.
A purple line angles from the top of the monitor and pokes through the planet. Hub initiates various sensor readings, then reinitiates those his fingers refused to key correctly. The planet glows red. The line extends to the bottom. The readings come in. The planet’s being drenched in gamma radiation. The ozone layer is disintegrating. The suns start washing Sonhar with UV. After nearly two minutes the line’s trailing end leaves the top of the monitor, slips through the planet like a finger from a ring and drains out the bottom.
Sonhar’s sky billows pink around the planet and chases the gamma ray jet. One by one the moons also turn red as if in sympathy. The rings look as sharp as a knife-edge.
Hub drifts into the sky. The suns feel hot on his back, although that’s not part of the program, and he shivers like dust. Is this simulation all that’s left of Sonhar? No. The suns will set. Tomorrow they’ll rise. No one is likely to see them.
Hub removes the monitor’s filters, and all the color goes out of the world. He turns off the sky, and all the color goes out of the dome. The walls are grey and tangled with pipes. Paint peels off the buttresses. The dome is spattered with drops of random fluids. Marina deserves a better ship than this to take her into space.
She’s in reach. She could be alive. She won’t survive for long, nor will he, but she will see the heavens and he will see her.
The fold comes in. Hub punches it.
Stephen S. Power’s novel, The Dragon Round, will be published by Simon & Schuster in July 2016. His work has appeared at “AE,” “Daily Science Fiction” and “Nature,” and it’s forthcoming in “Lightspeed” and “Amazing Stories.” He tweets at @stephenspower, his site is stephenspower.com, and he lives in Maplewood, NJ. This story was previously published in AE.