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Let’s be honest. When you propose, and you’re waiting for an answer, there are only two possibilities: yes or no. “Maybe” might as well be “no.” Same with “I’ll think about it.” Once the question is out there, in the air—or in this case, flying from Mars to Earth—it can either explode into delight or collapse into blackness. Those were the possibilities. Only two of them.

The message had been sent, a cheerful video encoded into binary and shot through emptiness. Mars currently was relatively close to Earth, so it would be six minutes out, six minutes back. Assuming he responded instantaneously. Would he? If he did, would that be good or bad? The point was, for twelve minutes, there would be no answers, only more questions.

It was probably the wrong way to do this, but she had no pattern to follow. Should she have waited until he was back here? She would still need to pick a specific time. Doing it right after he landed would seem awkward—who wanted to make major life decisions right after planetfall? Did that mean she should wait a day? A week? A week according to which planet?
She didn’t want to wait at all. She wanted to feel resolved and situated before he arrived, so that when he landed, she would know. She would understand what they were.

There had to be a universe where this was a good idea. The best idea, even. A universe where this became a story that was remembered and poeticized and memorialized for centuries. A universe where the story lasted because it was happy. But there would also be a universe where it endured because it was tragic. A story of caution, or warning.

Then there would be countless universes where the vast majority of the inhabitants knew nothing of the story. And didn’t care to. Stars shone, planets flew, electrons whizzed around protons and neutrons, and so on, and what she was doing mattered not at all to any of it, or the things they formed. But she was doing it—had done it—and her heart was racing and she couldn’t sit still and the speed of light never seemed so slow.

Had MaDRAM looked at the video as it left? Interplanetary authorities always swore up and down that communications between Earth and Mars were not monitored, but everyone assumed they were lying. Why wouldn’t it look? If someone put up a red flag—any kind of red flag—why not have a machine that was designed to find needles in haystacks see if it could uncover a threat? Life on the red planet was precarious every single day, without humans going all human on everything and introducing more-than-normal unpredictability to the system. So MaDRAM might already know what she had done (it wouldn’t have even needed to watch the video—it could read the encode and instantly know what it carried). It would know the state she was in now. It probably wouldn’t care, because it worried only about the physical well-being of the people on planet. Their emotional well-being was their own problem.

She wasn’t even six minutes in. It felt longer. This had to be a breech of all sorts of forms of etiquette, constructs she didn’t know because she had never lived inside them. It was a first, that much was certain. To date, only forty-five children had been born on Mars. Less than a dozen had reached the age where dating became interesting. She knew them all, and she knew none of them were married—either to an Earthling or another Martian. She was attempting to bridge a gulf they were still trying to understand.

She was not just a foreigner. She was an alien, in all senses of the word. She had never seen naturally flowing water. She had never inhaled outdoor air. She had never set foot on the planet he called home. She knew nothing of his everything. But she had sent the message anyway.

Air whooshed. The ever-present hum of her surroundings deepened. MaDRAM had detected something, probably an approaching dust storm. The solar cells’ collections would drop, so the settlement would be on battery for a while. MaDRAM was busily calculating how long the storm might last, how much power would be used, whether the biofuel generators should be employed, and other variables. At this point it had likely run through thousands of possible scenarios. Different storm tracks. Possible battery problems. Varying efficiency in biofuel consumption. And so on. Thousands of new dimensions spiraling out of just this one storm. And here she was, staring at her terminal and waiting on a simple binary.

MaDRAM worried about what it could affect, what could affect it, and what it could control. If an item did not fall into those categories, it didn’t worry about it. Was that wisdom or a lack of imagination?

Sometimes she pitied its lack of imagination. Sometimes she envied it.

Maybe that was the key, though. Imagination had put her in her predicament. Imagination would get her out.

There were only two answers. There were universes where his refusal arrived as silence, universes where he went his own way and the two of them refused to cohere into an us, universes where disasters prevented the answer from arriving, universes where the memory of this day left her with different kinds of sadness that she carried with her for the rest of her life. But she would not imagine them now. She would not will them to life. This universe, here, where she spooled out time, was the only one that concerned her. The one where a thousand reasons— moments, glances, smiles, reassurances, and more—led her to ask the question. Too many reasons to allow for fear. In this dimension, her dimension, she asked the question because she knew what answer would come.

It would just take time.

About the Author: 
Jason M. Hardy is the line developer for the Shadowrun role-playing game and author of nine novels and dozens of short stories. He lives in Chicago.