BY SIMINA LUNGU
Copyright is held by the author.
December 20th 2121 (Earth Year)/Month 7 Settlement year 2 (Mars Settlement Time Measurement)
I have been sitting for three hours in front of this piece of paper, as the storm rages outside. Our base commander suggested this. Write a message to your loved ones, he said. That is what they did in olden times, the colonists. They wrote letters to those left back home as they waited for the storm to pass. He told us of the tablets discovered at the Roman fortress of Vindolanda. Glimpses into the everyday life of people so remote, you could not consider them real. But those tablets made them real again. He said: those letters you write, they will show people a thousand years from now that you have lived. He said: isn’t it amazing?
And so I write — to you. Although, you are technically not my loved one, and I am sure your reaction to getting a letter from me will be to tear it into little pieces and bury them at the foot of an ancient tree, just to make sure I am truly gone. Just to make sure I will not come back to haunt you in the night, a ghostly hand reaching from beyond the stars. Such a dramatic image. I think I have been here too long. Mars still feels primordial. And I have started to think in myths and legends.
I sit here and I write to you as the storm rages on, although I might never send this letter, although you might never want to read it — and I dream. I dream you are already holding the letter in your hands, your eyes roaming over the words. I dream that you look up at the sky and smile. But that is wishful thinking, isn’t it? My going to Mars has taken the sky from you. You will never look up at the sky and smile now.
Two hours later
One of our air filtering systems broke down and I was called to replace it. I would like to tell you it’s because I am the only one here skilled enough to do it – I am irreplaceable, they could not survive without me. The truth is, we drew lots — and I think my colleagues cheated.
When I left, you looked me in the eye and said: You’re not as noble as you think you are. Those were your last words to me. They overturned my world. Until then I had seen myself as propaganda had painted me: one of the pioneers; one of the brave ones. The mother and father of a new world. The builder of a new home.
All it took was one single sentence from the person who mattered most. One sentence spoken in grief and anger. Maybe you did not even mean it. Perhaps your only intention was to make me hurt. You were wounded yourself and needed to lash out. It does not matter. Your words turned me from a hero into a fool. I have never been able to see myself as noble from then on.
I do not remember the last words I said to you before leaving. I think it must have been something scathing. You’re not that noble yourself for staying. Or maybe I said: You were always so self-righteous. But I know what I meant to say: I’m actually so scared, I wanted to tell you. I don’t want to leave you behind. No world is worth building if you’re not there to share it with me.
The next day
The storm still rages on. My bunkmates are playing cards as they wait for the weather to clear, so they can continue setting up the dome. Two of them are talking about greenhouses and making food grow and I look into their eyes and see their pride. Here they are, miniature gods, their sharp minds leading them down winding paths of enlightenment to the birth of a new world. I was supposed to be one of them. I can’t feel like a god, though. After all, you’ve told me in no uncertain terms that I was not. I think that was why you refused to come with me. I don’t blame you.
I think I saw you as a god, too. The god of a fallen, exhausted world. The god of smoke and rubble and war wounds. Too proud, too sentimental, to give up on a home that had given up on its inhabitants long before we were born. I am sorry. It sounds hurtful when I say it this way. I don’t mean to hurt you, though. I just need to tell you the truth. I owe you the truth. As I look up at the night sky and spot your world, so distant, so unreal, so cold, I feel that the only thing I can give you now is the truth. It is the only thing you’d accept from me, I’m sure.
So that’s it then, isn’t it? I’ve chosen one domain and you’ve chosen another, and we’ll never meet again in this lifetime. And this is what I am trying to forget. This is what, no doubt, you are always trying to remember.
One week later
I have been so focused on writing this message to you that I forgot who you were to me. I woke up this morning and realized that, even though I know your name and can picture your face clearly, I am no longer sure of who you are. Maybe because I know it does not matter. You will never again be what you were to me when I left you. Or maybe . . . maybe this goes deeper.
You are a symbol now. You’re the mother and the father sending their offspring away to fulfil dreams you yourself have never dared to dream. The childhood friend watching a former playmate disappear beyond your reach, cancelling out all the memories of your former life. The lover faced with a sudden stranger, watching your future crumbled, discovering all this time you had been in love with a ghost. You are the one left behind.
And I? What am I to you now? I am the unruly child you’ve encouraged to grow wings and fly, forgetting you do not have wings yourself and cannot follow me. I am that fair-weather friend who took everything you had to give, knowing I would be gone soon. I am your beloved and your betrayer, unfaithful and ungrateful, who abandoned you for a glimmering red point in the night sky. I am the one who left.
We are a photograph torn in two, destined to drift away in opposite directions, never to meet again. We live on different worlds now. Perhaps, in many ways, we always have.
Ten years later
I never sent you this letter. I wanted to. When the supply ship came, all those years ago, I wanted to give them this, even though they would have found it strange, even though we have faster, more reliable means of communication at our disposal. I held myself back at the last moment. I could not give it to them. I told myself: I’ll do it next time. Next time. I’ve lost count of the next times.
Ten years. I have been on Mars for 10 years and I have already changed the place. We all have. There are domes with gardens (you must have heard of them, it was surely breaking news on Earth when we started to grow our own food). Our settlements look less like ramshackle frontier forts and more like infant towns, slowly coming into their own. We have street names and restaurants and even a church. There is even talk of building an opera house. That’s how much we’ve changed Mars.
At the same time, Mars has changed us — changed me. I hardly recognize myself and I am sure I would never recognize you now. In all those ten years, there were times I was no longer sure you had ever existed. I doubted you had ever been real.
I have heard about a growing anti-technology movement back on Earth. Your world is also getting reborn, changing itself and changing you. I am sure you no longer believe I’m real, either.
Ten years is time enough for both of us to become different people. Ten years is time enough to find the right way to say good-bye – to come up with the words we could not bring ourselves to say on our last meeting. Time enough to realize that what is done is done. The past should stay in the past- for both our sakes. We cannot cling to it. We can only leave it behind. Just as we left each other behind.
I will never send this letter to you. you will never see it. I will put on my spacesuit for the first time in ten years and will go out beyond our Habitable Zone — and I will leave the letter there. My own ritual purging. My letting go of the past.
Tomorrow, you will look up at the stars. Mars is bright on the skies of Earth this time of year. You will see my letter there. My words will write themselves with golden stardust in front of your eyes. And you will know that I have let you go. You will know my farewell. Please do not reply. Some things are better left unsaid.
In years to come, we will extend the Habitable Zone. Someone will find this letter. Perhaps one of my children. Perhaps one of yours. Perhaps this will become a ballad of the space age, a song sung by colonists on lonely planets, as they give birth to new worlds and try not to think of the ones left behind. We will live on as symbols, you and I, who loved and lost and abandoned. And, one day, in the future, when we are nothing more than unreliable memories passed on through word of mouth, our story will get a happy ending. Then we will meet once more — and never part again.
Simina Lungu is currently residing in Timisoara, Romania and works as an English literature editor for a website that provides educational materials for students all around the world. She is the author of a children’s fantasy novel The Last Survivors (though adults have been also known to enjoy it), and has published speculative short stories in places such as Night Picnic Journal, Scarlet Leaf Review, or Schlock! Magazine. When she is not writing, she likes to take long walks with her nine-year-old rescue dog. Those curious can also find her on facebook and on her personal website.