Temporal Decay


He tried to seek shelter in his fortress of books and maps and telescopes. But every word, and every course, and every distant star only seemed to spell Maria.


The last time he'd been on Earth, $50,000,000 could get you a one-way ticket to Europa. That had been twelve years ago.

Now, you were lucky if it could get you past five blinds at a poker table in New Vegas. Of course, he would have to share the bounty money with his crew members: a fourth for him, a fourth for Niel (who would no doubt squander it all betting on vintage Roomba races), and a fourth for Cal (who would use his share on liquor and sweets, and nothing else). The rest of the money would be earmarked for ship repairs, though maybe this time it wouldn't be so bad. This hadn't been a particularly difficult job.

"Edward?" He'd just been about to leave the bar, and didn't place the voice until: "Oh my God! It is you!"

He turned, and when they locked eyes, suddenly he was seventeen again, a lanky boy with a double-strapped backpack who'd just fallen in love.


Memory was fragile. Two schools of thought argued whether this was due to every new memory making it harder to access old ones, or simply erosion over time. All information had to be stored somewhere, somehow, and this was the problem: the physical fades, degrades, and whatever is real is not forever.

So it surprised him how much he still remembered: her laugh, her voice, her dimpled smile. Of course, twelve years was twelve years: she'd lost all of the baby fat from her face, and sometime ago she'd learned to tame those curls on steroids that used to frame her face and remind him of Einstein.

There were other things, too (things a gentleman wouldn't fixate on).

"So you go by Eddie now? Like our old English professor, the one with the skull in his study?"

"No. Eddy like the current."

When he elaborated, Maria hid a giggle behind her hand. "You're still such a dork. How long are you staying in town?"

"Two days."

"Wow. Where to next? Across the ocean?"

"...Bit further than that." How many miles away was Io? Had he been at the helm of the Eastwood he would've had this answer at his fingertips, but he struggled to conjure up an estimate now. 'Far,' his mind supplied helpfully. 'Way too far.' "So, ah... do you still dance?"

Maria raised an eyebrow. "What a question. Do you still make robots in your bedroom?"

Eddy laughed. "Point."

But he'd loved watching her back then: the elegant lines of her limbs, the swaying of her hips, the way her face would show so much emotion as she'd danced. She'd been damn good at it too. It seemed a shame she'd abandoned it.

Muted applause filled the restaurant then. Eddy looked up to a small, raised platform where a man in a tuxedo took a seat at a piano.

"Hey," Maria quipped, "remember that song you played for me before you left?"

"Hard not to. I slaved over learning that for two months."

"I loved it." Her voice danced. "Do you think you could play it again? For old times' sake?"

"Uh..." He wasn't sure why he had to chase down the rest of his sentence with wine. "That was the only piece I ever learned, and it's been twelve years..."

"Hmmm." She had her elbow on the table, and was resting her chin in her palm. She watched the pianist perform, but there was a faraway look in her eyes. "Yeah. I guess it has."

Eddy wanted to say something, but the longer he waited, the harder it became.


He insisted on walking her home that night. They took the last functional subway, with its glory of clanking cars, squeaking wheels, and graffiti on the seats. Their car reeked, with only two night students and a sleeping homeless man for company.

It was convenient, she said. The train stopped right outside her door, so it was fine.

He asked, half-jokingly, if he could come up. But she just kissed him on the cheek and wished him good night.


Twelve years ago, he'd been sitting at an old piano, with his bags at his feet and Maria standing near him, with promises to keep.

Back then, he wasn't sure whether it made things easier or harder, but she kept talking to him the whole time. "Wow. You're like a natural!"

No. He really wasn't. It was a miracle he was able to do the accompaniment at all, counting 'one-two-three' in his head and trying desperately not to fumble under her stare.

"Although," she chuckled, "you don't look like you're having any fun. I guess this really isn't your thing. But hey," she brightened, "look at you, going to college in The Belt. Your parents must be thrilled!"

He hesitated a bit before that high note; it was a big jump, and if he messed it up, the rest of the song may as well go to hell.

"I wonder if there are pianos at the Academy..."

But he got it right, somehow.

The second part wasn't technically much harder: the melody was the same, with just a few more embellishments here and there. He didn't miss any notes, but he suddenly felt very clumsy.

"We can still write to each other, right? I know the Academy's really strict, and the 15 light-minute lag will be God-awful. But, I wouldn't mind, you know?"

He had to stall over several notes, rapid and repeated. He thought his right hand might be shaking.


"Yeah?" He barely had the presence of mind to answer.

He wasn't looking, but he could sense the sad smile on Maria's face when she said: "I'm going to miss you when you're gone."

His hands froze.

("Dear Edward: Congratulations! We are pleased to inform you that you have been accepted into the Palladian Academy of Science and Engineering, and will be among the 1,618 incoming freshmen comprising the class of 3141. Attached you will find...")

He was at that note again, the one that required a ridiculous leap (of faith?) across the keys, the one that could make or break this piece.

A beat. Another.

And then Maria leaned over, found the right key, and pressed it.

He finished the measure in less than three seconds.

"Sorry. I don't know the rest," he said quietly. "I didn't have enough time..."

But his hands felt like lead over the keys, and he didn't take them off just yet.

"Here." Suddenly, Maria was sitting on the bench next to him. He forced himself to keep still when she slid her hands underneath, coaxed his wrists up and gently pushed each of her fingers between his and the corresponding keys. "All right. Here we go."

She eased into the next part of the song by lifting his hands and fingers along with hers.

This was the part he'd never gotten to learn (because those few measures sounded too much like 'goodbye'; it hurt), and continued with too many accidentals before reverting back to the core melody. There were even more embellishments now, ones that he knew he couldn't perform – at least, not on his own. The arts had always been Maria's domain, after all.

As he watched their fingers move over the piano, in tandem, it came to a point where he could barely hear the music anymore.

But then she brought their hands down hard – 'con forza', he dimly recalled was the term – at the same time his phone buzzed violently atop the nearby table, and Edward tore himself away from the piano.

He didn't need the alert on his phone's screen; he could hear the craft approaching the dock from here. "That's my ride."

Maria stood up, and he followed suit. Edward couldn't tell if he wanted to say something, or walk away, or something else entirely.

But the second he leaned in was precisely when she looked down, and he ended up kissing her on the eyelid.

"Oh God…"

"It's okay." She laughed, because of course she did. "Really. It's okay."

It was only when he was already on the ship that he realized he'd never apologized.


Eddy got the check for the bounty money the next night, just eight hours before they would have to leave the planet. He was already making his way back to the dock, when he passed by a subway entrance.

He hesitated.

(He really ought to say goodbye this time.)


Just when he was about to knock on her door, he heard a sound.

There was no mistaking it, and he should have left the moment he'd realized what it was. But he waited outside, holding on to the hope that this was a boyfriend or husband, even though she'd never mentioned having either.

On the way out, though, the repulsive man emerging from the tiny townhouse said something about 'same time next week'.

And: "Have change ready for ten grand next time, bitch."

For the first time in his life, Eddy found himself throwing the first punch.

The man hit back, harder, and the two of them came to blows in the foyer of the house.

By the time Maria rushed into the foyer, screaming, he'd taken several hits to the torso, and a slightly serious blow to the head from being smashed against the wall. He'd never been very good at this; senseless brawls were Niel's specialty, not his.

The man pulled back, wiping some blood from the corner of his mouth. Eddy's glasses had fallen to the floor in the scuffle, and the man crushed them under his boot as he left in a rage.


Maria took Eddy into the bedroom to tend to his injuries. The minutes ticked by in silence, until she pressed a hot, wet cloth against the side of his face, and he hissed at the pain.

"Sorry." She looked down, and smiled sadly. "You know, you just cost me $8,000 a week."

He didn't say anything to that. There was a question hovering in the air above them, but he got his answer when the robe she'd thrown on slipped, and he saw the old scars on her right leg.

He didn't dare break the silence.

"Six years ago," she finally supplied for him, "I was running late for practice. It was raining hard… I didn't notice that the lights had changed."

Eddy felt as though he'd been punched again. "I'm so sorry."

She forced a smile. "It's fine, you know? A job's a job, and this… it pays the bills."

"It shouldn't." He swallowed. "You shouldn't have to."

Maria sighed.

As she cleaned up, bit by bit, the story came out: six years ago, she'd been banking on a lucrative position as prima ballerina for a company that had just been about to start an interplanetary tour. She'd invested so much in her training, but one accident shattered her leg, and everything else with it.

"Don't feel sorry for me, Eddy," she whispered as she walked him to the door. "You have a ship to fly, right? Go on. You have," she smiled, "greater things waiting for you."

She placed her hands on his shoulders, and pressed a soft kiss against his lips.


He tried to seek shelter in his fortress of books and maps and telescopes. But every word, and every course, and every distant star only seemed to spell Maria.

And now all he would remember of that spunky, beautiful dancer he'd held fondly in his heart was her sad eyes, a scarred leg, and a hurriedly-endorsed check for $50,000,000 he'd stuffed at the very last minute into her mailbox.


Notes: for the April 2014 Writing Challenge Contest, "those who play for ghosts"; the piece featured is Chopin's Nocturne Op. 9 No. 2.