A Bead on God’s Abacus, by Neil Hudson

8 minutes 40 seconds

     Commander Ellerson finished her message, and started the countdown. On the screen the numbers shrank towards zero; when they got there, we’d hear our reply.

     “I didn’t expect you to be here,” someone said behind me. I turned and saw someone I knew slightly. I knew everyone in the colony slightly. She had a scar on her left cheek, which I understood was from an accident upon her arrival. Many people found the return of gravity difficult to work with. Her name, I remembered, was Lex.

     “I think the reply could be interesting,” I said.

     She nodded. “I was thinking the same.”

     Ellerson had given us alcohol – a beer brewed here on Mars which wasn’t very good but the best I’d ever drink again. We weren’t given much; no one needed a colony full of drunks.

     I sipped from my glass, and Earth hurtled towards us.

#

6 minutes

     When I was a child, I saw pictures of the solar system with the planets arranged around the sun and their orbits shown as white circles. I thought these lines were real, and that the planets were threaded on them through holes that passed from pole to pole. I imagined that God flicked them along their paths like beads on an abacus, measuring the years as their orbits took them away from each other and then came back together.

     Today Mars and Earth were at their closest, and communication was at its quickest. Ellerson’s greeting would be answered by the President of the United Nations, hopefully before I finished my drink, and we would all celebrate.

     I tried not to think of the planet that approached us so rapidly. I felt as if it was on a collision course and would smash into us. Perhaps it would be Garrett’s section of the Earth that would crash into my part of Mars. We would just have time to see each other speeding towards each other before the impact killed us both. I was always relieved when the moment of closest approach was over.

     “Not long now,” said Lexa. “Then the Earth will be shooting off again.”

     “Good riddance.”

     “You don’t like it?”

     “My husband’s on it.”

#

4 minutes 30 seconds

     I wasn’t friends with this woman, and hadn’t wanted to be. But a rare few sips of rough beer had made me feel different.

     “I went on ahead,” I said. “He had a place booked on the next ship; we’d be apart for two years, but we thought we could manage that.” I looked out of the viewing port, but the Earth was invisible in the daylight.

     “He didn’t come,” she said.

     “He developed bowel cancer. Treatable on Earth, but not on Mars. Earth didn’t want to stop treatment, and Mars didn’t want a colonist who’d die as soon as he got here.”

     “And you can’t go back.”

     I sipped at my beer. I felt a little lighter at having told her how I felt, as if I’d still been burdened by Earth gravity and had only now swapped it for Mars. Our message must have arrived by now. I wondered if Garrett had heard it.

#

1 minute 45 seconds

     “I always took the delay literally,” I said. If I told him I loved him at the closest point, it was nine minutes before he returned the compliment. If I blew him a kiss when the Earth was on the other side of the Sun, I could play the first half of the Jeff Wayne album before I got one back. I always thought it just took him that long to decide how to reply. And then one day, the response didn’t come in forty minutes, or an hour, or a day or a year, Martian or Terran. I’m still waiting.”

There was a silence between us, as if to illustrate the point.

     “What about you?” I said. “You don’t seem to be on tenterhooks.”

      “I just prefer to talk to people who take less than nine minutes to reply.”

     “There must be more to it than that.”

     She looked down at her drink, then back at me. “I was the one who didn’t answer,” she said.

#

10 seconds

     There were two hundred people in the observation lounge. They all joined in with the countdown, shouting out the numbers as they appeared on screen, as if they were counting in a new year, or a rocket launch.

     “I think we should go,” I said suddenly. We were at the back anyway.

     “I just want to hear what happens.”

     I already knew what would happen. I didn’t know why I was so sure it would be today; it just seemed to be time.

     The crowd reached zero.

#

Zero

     The countdown always ended in silence, not cheering. We needed to hear what Earth had said in reply; we would cheer afterwards.

     The sounds in the observation lounge were quiet ones. Breathing, a stifled giggle. The static and white noise from the radio. Audible fidgets as everyone waited for the message that did not arrive.

     Lexa and I took our leave before it got ugly.

     “I always said long-distance relationships don’t work,” she said.

     I made a decision. “I’ve got something stronger back at my room.”

     Her eyes widened. “What? How—”

     “Sshh. It was a present.” She didn’t ask me who it was from, and we crept away from the lounge, and from the other planet that had forgotten us.

#

Afterwards

     We didn’t talk about Earth. We talked about our lives here, and she told me how she got her scar (she’d tried to leave a glass in mid-air). I showed her some of my paintings. She refused to show me her poems, but told me about how she was inventing Martian astrology. Outside there was shouting and we heard patrols in the corridor. When we finished the whisky she asked if she could stay a bit longer. I took less than nine minutes to answer.

Reflection

People are very good at ignoring what’s going on above their heads. I once walked home at chucking-out time as everyone left the pubs, arguing, shouting, singing and messing around, all oblivious to the total lunar eclipse taking place in the sky.

One of the most striking exhibits at the Moving to Mars exhibition was a large-scale reproduction of photos of the Martian landscape, and its sky containing a tiny dot, on which seven and a half billion people got on with their lives, not looking up. It wasn’t a terribly impressive dot; it would be easy to ignore. How long would it take the colony to forget us? How long would take us to forget them?

Neil James Hudson has published over 40 science fiction and fantasy stories and has just been shortlisted for the WRITE Festival SF prize. He lives in a remote part of the North York Moors and is currently studying for an MA in Creative Writing at York St John.

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