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My ex hated the spaces between terraformed colonies on Mars. “There’s nothing there. It’s all dead.” She’d complain, as we glided through thin atmosphere, a meter over unforgiving land where bioengineered chaparral was taking root. When we still loved each other, I was never snarky enough to point out Anna’s contradiction: if there was nothing out there on either side of a road defined only by flashing white strobes every fifty meters or so, how could it all be dead? Instead, I used to try and point out strength in things thriving under a distant sun, in ground so cold and dry each footstep wisped up a ghost of dust that would dance in the air if the wind allowed. That was when we still loved each other.

(Illustration by Marie Ginga from an image by luetho from Pixabay)

I’d like to think when we stopped dancing together, we stopped loving, but that would be a daydream no different than the kind that drew homesteaders out of colonies and into the back country. Empty homesteader outposts littered the Tharsis Plain.

Outpost Hyacinth had long since emptied of people. Its storehouses were empty. Greenhouses were wind-battered. Towers that once wicked moisture from ember skies stood sentinel over decaying machinery and living quarters. In Hyacinth’s center, I found an assembly hall that had long since opened its roof to the sky. Inside, twisted aluminum spars whistled unnerving melodies ghosts that never stopped loving still danced to when outsiders like me weren’t there.

I’d never been there for Anna. That was why our hearts started emptying and never filled again. I crisscrossed the red planet, colony to colony, then caught rides to the nearest inhabited outpost. Thin atmosphere left me famished. In austere diners, I was dusting bowls of nutrient-rich medium with orange and lime flavor packets, and making small talk with young, pretty women. Sometimes, what happened later filled a different sort of space in my heart that wasn’t love or lust, but something in between. At daybreak I started out, backpack heavy with enough to keep me alive for a while.

The romance of prospecting stole me from Anna. I gave up a tech job to hike among the outposts and hunt for electronics, precious alloys, or anything else of value in places like Hyacinth, or the spaces in between. There were buyers in the colonies – recyclers, collectors, the occasional eccentric. Whenever I found something especially unique, I posted an image online to cue bidding even as I kept searching. Did it make sense?

What made sense? Regular freighter runs departing Mars left columns of rocket exhaust towering like ancient columns holding up the weight of the sky. Freighter work paid good. There were good paying mining jobs in the asteroid belt too. If anything made sense it was that I was one more dreamer in a long line that hitched their fortunes to uncertain tomorrows.

And don’t tomorrows begin with todays?

A small room off the assembly hall offered enough space to set up camp on scuffed linoleum. I set up my lantern, then heater, to ward off the chill, as I unfurled my sleeping bag. I was dreaming somewhere in Hyacinth I’d find the artifact every prospector dreamed of – something so rare or full of special the bids would soar.

It all left me empty though. No matter how hard I dreamed, it never filled the empty space in my heart Anna used to fill.

This award-winning story was originally published in 365 Tomorrows 2021.
Edited by Marie Ginga

Andrew writes science-fiction and fantasy from the state of Maryland, often drawing ideas from jogs through forest trails at sunrise. His work has previously appeared in AntipodeanSF, 365 Tomorrows, Daily Science Fiction, Penumbric Speculative Fiction, and in MetaStellar as reprints and MetaStellar Anthhology – his work has also short-listed in several writing contests. Andrew welcomes reader feedback at [email protected].