Clive swept his hand through the dried delta bed, rubbing a few specks of rusting rock between his gloved fingers. He looked out at the Mighty Dust Mites—as he liked to call the solar-powered robots—which speckled the planet for miles.
When, in an effort to save their dying program, NASA’s engineers discovered they could duplicate water molecules by adding Earth water to the ice crystals his flock of machines now mined on Mars, Clive had pulled in every favor he had to get a job on the project. He hadn’t worried about ending up alone on a rusting planet or leaving his wife Cathy behind. He’d seen the mission as his one chance to prove he could operate outside the world of academia.
The night he’d made the breakthrough with the suit, the one that now kept him and the other overseers alive, he’d taken Cathy out to dinner. His skin tingled with the velocity of the project as he explained that lining the suit with a thin layer of water would absorb microscopic Martian dust and reflect the UV radiation that bombarded the atmosphere-less planet.
When he’d finished, he beamed at Cathy, awaiting her praise, but the other diners’ vibrant conversations and clanging utensils created a sound bubble around their silent table. Cathy took the pause in their conversation to bring up the unpublished papers and students he’d already abandoned at Boston University as well as everything else he would leave behind, including her.
He’d tried to steer the conversation back to his accomplishment and the now impending seven-year stay on Mars—made possible by his discovery—but she’d silenced his celebration of self: “In case you forgot, Clive, I’m a scientist, too. And I’m working on feasible sustainably solutions here, on Earth, not trying to take a bunch of dog robots to Mars.”
She’d spent the next hour lecturing him about her award-winning energy generation theory. He’d been tempted to remind her that her accolades had been for ideas, not actions, but he let her rattle off her data, instead dreaming about being alone in Mars’s silent abyss.
But on these lonely days in the delta, enveloped in the ochre horizon, Clive missed his wife. He still had another 1,095 days to remember all the ways he’d loved and hated her.
The last time he’d seen Cathy, she’d stroked his arm, saying, “You make sure this suit does what it’s supposed to and bring yourself home.” She shook her head, stoic as ever, commanding the tear that swelled in the corner of her eye not to fall.
At first, the energy in their bi-monthly video calls seemed proof that the distance and new developments were just the stimulation their relationship needed. Eager to break the two-week silences, Clive would regale Cathy with the marvels of trekking the red planet, telling her he blew her kisses every time Earth rose and set over the horizon.
The smile she gave him in return for becoming a husband she could brag about to her peers was the same one she’d greeted him with countless times in the MIT quad. Back in their undergrad years, she’d practically knock over the other students as she ran up to him so she could rhapsodize about the details of her latest experiment or spend a few moments walking arm in arm before his next class.
Though the pull of Earth’s gravity seemed to grow stronger with their relationship recharged, the novelty of his adventures soon wore off, and after four years of distance, their conversations were increasingly tense and stagnant.
In the last few months, Cathy had started mentioning her coworker, Steve, and all the wonderful ideas he had about current events Clive knew nothing about. Clive had met Steve once at a BioEnviron fundraiser he’d attended with Cathy. He didn’t like the way the guy’s arm had lingered around his wife then, and he didn’t like the way her voice revved when she spoke about him now.
And there was something in their last call, in the way Cathy had signed off, finally letting the tear finally roll down her cheek, as if in reaction to some unspoken release, that made Clive realize that surviving another three years on the hostile planet was no longer the most pressing of his worries.
Brianna J.L. Smyk earned a Master of Professional Writing (MPW/MFA) from University of Southern California in 2015. She is a former culture journalist for Nola.com and her fiction work is published or forthcoming in The Human Touch Journal and Drunk Monkeys. Brianna is Editor-in-Chief of Exposition Review and the former Nonfiction Editor and Associate Editor of Southern California Review. She holds a master’s in art history, works at the Pasadena Museum of California Art, and teaches yoga. Find out more about Brianna on Twitter: @briannasmyk