Luna, by Ray Wood
I had tried, out of loyalty and without success, to masturbate to the hologram.
Avoiding Malton had been difficult at first, but his routine was fixed and could be worked around. Every day after combat training he would spend six minutes in the tank before heading to evening roll-call, then take an e-book to the canteen and stay there until he had finished his chapter or his dessert, whichever came first. If I skipped the tank, jumped to the front of the queue for roll-call, took my evening meal take-out and put my liquor ration on my tab, I could just about carve out fifteen minutes in the cabin by myself, although my muscles paid the day after for skipping tank.
I pushed the locking panel once inside – Malton had clearance anyway, but it meant I at least got the warning buzz of the electric lock – and I slid myself awkwardly into the bottom bunk. The top one would have given me more space to manoeuvre – you could get into it without sliding and almost sit up without bashing your head – but nothing was a bigger turn-off than the thought of Malton finding me trying to pleasure myself on his bed. I scrunched the plastic bag with my dinner in it into the personal drawer and took out the projector disk. I managed to balance it on my shins and switch it on.
‘... on now?’
I pulled the zip of my flight suit down, stopping just above my crotch and wincing as the cold air hit my chest. Maya’s face, wispy-blue and non-corporeal, ballooned from the disk and filled the space above my head, the back of her skull cut away where the hologram hit the bunk. I reached for the volume and clicked it down a few points – not that anyone would hear anything through the blast door.
‘...t again. Please don’t die.’
I muted it. I’d wanted to hear her voice a little, try to imagine her in the room, but the soundtrack wasn’t the most arousing. I settled my hand in place. There were dark hollows under her eyes – I remembered noticing them on the day – and her hair had been cut away to make room for the electrodes and the drills. I tugged and tried to think of how her face had been before, all lit up and wreathed with copper curls. My voice said something to her that the microphone didn’t quite pick up.
‘I don’t know how long you’ll be away for.’ Her blue lips moved and I tried to imagine kissing them. ‘I want to believe you’ll be there when I wake up. But a thousand years... it’s a long time.’
‘It’ll only be two to me. And no time at all to you.’
‘I know. But...’
The lock blared and I jumped my hand out my flight suit. The door hissed as I smacked the projector off and I saw Malton leaning in the doorway.
‘Briefing in five,’ he said, and left.
I’d barely got it up.
Briefing was another propaganda film. They’d made the Colonists bigger and red-eyed and more like aliens, and we sat through twenty minutes of them bombing cryo chambers and bending blue-eyed Earth women over the ruins, the implication being that this was what would happen if we didn’t seize this stupid ore planet on the other side of the universe. We’d all been conditioned in basic training to kill on command anyway, so I don’t know what the point was – maybe you pulled the trigger those vital four-tenths of a second faster if you hated your enemy as well as your commanding officers. After learning a bit about the ore planet’s geography we got paired up for maintenance. My thighs were already twanging their protests at having missed a tank session, but I swallowed the pain and went to the hanger to meet my partner.
‘Sorry I’m late,’ she said, and the perk of her breasts under her flight suit made me forgive her. She gave me a name to put to her face and I realised she was one of Malton’s squadron, the CFC attachment he’d mentioned on those rare occasions on which he talked. Subjective-time she was about a year younger than me, but her name – Luna – placed her date of birth at least five hundred years before mine. We talked about home as we checked our Wingframes’ computer systems.
‘Yeah, bit of an old name, isn’t it?’ She grinned as her fingers danced with the fuel injection console. ‘I didn’t know the moon was gone until I got into the army. Shining the same as ever when I left; I land at flight academy and it’s been two decades since the Colonists blew it up. Boy did I learn about the b-time/e-time discrepancy the hard way.’
She pressed the ‘enter’ button and the fuel arm moved across the hanger towards her Wingframe. The metal probe extended and slid into the machine’s stomach. I watched Luna’s face as she flicked up another console – her cheeks were still red from manoeuvres and her dark hair was as long and bouncy as regulations allowed. I attributed the hot little jump in my navel to skipping tank.
‘You leave anyone behind?’ I asked.
‘Oh, she’s dead a long time ago. I knew that when I left.’
She shrugged and pressed the button to extend the boarding gantry. ‘My story’s no worse than anyone else’s. Help me strap in?’
I left my console locked and stepped out to her Wingframe with her. The metal flower of the machine’s chest cavity peeled open as we approached.
‘How about you?’ she said. ‘Anyone left?’
I managed a smile. ‘My girlfriend,’ I said. ‘She’s in cryo.’
‘Oh wow. On Earth?’
‘Jeez. When’d you last see her?’
‘Yeah. Real time... about seven hundred years, I guess.’ I’d tried not to think about it. Her face had become a hologram, blue and fizzing at the edges – it was hard to remember that somewhere, millions of light years away, that body still lived in a cryogenic vat, a pressed flower in electric ice. Or maybe it didn’t – maybe Earth had been blown up a century ago, and all I had to go back to if I survived the war was a smear of ash in the middle of space.
‘Shit. That’s real love, right there. Help me?’
She was bent over the entrance to the cockpit, tugging at a binding strip that had got stuck to the controls. Her buttocks strained the seat of her flight suit.
‘Uh.’ My voice was tight. ‘Sure.’
I tugged the strip loose and she climbed in, pulling the zip of her flight suit down so she could attach the control pins to her neck. The open V let loose a scent of female flesh and sweat, and she smiled as I bent forwards to plug the Wingframe’s NerveNet in under her collarbone. The soft white slope of neck to shoulders was tight and warm beneath my gloves.
What four tries with the hologram hadn’t managed happened in four seconds.
It was pathetic. I’d cleaned my flight suit as best I could with the cleanser we were meant to use for our mattresses, although it hadn’t done much good – thankfully the things were watertight and the stain was only visible on the inside. My shame had gone unnoticed by Luna, who’d invited me to have a drink with her if I survived the next flight mission. I’d said I’d think about it. I felt too guilty to pay much attention to the dull snag in my hand muscles as I pulled the trigger.
The Colonists weren’t even trying. We’d messed up our s-time calculations big time – the ore planet was a dustcloud that probably hadn’t contained any resources for at least half a century, and there were three Colonial cruisers moving at slower-than-light speeds around its orbit – and still they weren’t putting up a fight. My Wingframe lanced its lasers through the biggest cruiser’s engine pods.
Three ships destroyed in four minutes.
My guilt was still warm as I depressurised afterwards. I’d written Maya a poem, I remembered, and kept it in my pocket all through our first date, too embarrassed to show her. She’d found it when I’d gone to the bathroom and had smiled and teased when I’d come back, although I couldn’t remember a line of it now, or even what her laugh had sounded like. I tried to think of our first kiss (had it been upstairs in her parents’ house? The victory parade? The garden after graduation?) but all I could remember was our last, the one she didn’t notice because they’d already stripped her nerves for the freeze. I tried to imagine her as warm and fresh as Luna was – what she might say if she were sitting on my knees whilst I frowned at a magazine, taking pictures of my reading face – but it was like trying to remember trees and wind and Earth. The pressureglass strip on the far wall showed only space.
I lay in the tank and let the green solution slosh around me, melting bodily aches away.
Ray likes to write science fiction, and over the course of his undergraduate degree has somehow found time to finish writing some of the novels he routinely starts. He is currently working on the second draft of a novel based on this short story, and is hoping that ‘The Real World’ is not so real that it provides no opportunities for writing about spaceships.