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SOJOURNER by C Kilpatrick
 

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  • Henry sets his foot against the flat of the shovel, drives it through the ground with a grunt of effort and the familiar crunch of permafrost. He hauls back, heaves another load of dry, dense dirt over his shoulder.

    “You ever wish,” he says, planting his shovel to stand handle-up in the ground, “that we could go back? You know, to when our parents were growing up?”

    Maria just shakes her head, jaw set with the air of someone bracing themselves for an unpleasant daily commute. Hauls another shovelful of iron-red dirt out of her own hole. “Can't say I have.”

    “You know,” Henry leans over onto his shovel, one hand hanging in the air to gesture, vaguely. “It was simpler then. A man only had to worry about his family, his office job- maybe his Facebook account, and a then a nice, long retirement after.”

    “Mm hmm,” Maria says, noncommittal, pausing briefly to wipe the sweat from her hands.

    “You know?” Henry says, a third time, both forearms now draped over the handle of his shovel. “None of this—Martian guff. Back when every man was born with his feet on the earth. Digging real dirt, you know? Breathing real air.”

    Maria laughs, short, panting a little with exertion. “Air feels plenty real to me.” Her words curl, foglike, around her ears, breath gone crystalline in the cold.

    “No-” Henry shakes his head, doglike. “They had to make this damn atmosphere, crashed some ice asteroid into the planet or something. That's just not natural.” He sighs. “You know, not like back on earth- like, the gravity's heavier there. Makes us stronger. Men are men back on earth.” He pauses, again, a moment. “Don't you think?”

    “Try not to,” Maria says, dry. “We're here now, anyhow.” She tightens her hands around the worn handle of her shovel, hole knee-deep now, the sides straight and tidy. “And there ain't no return flight.”

    “But if there was!” Henry rakes a hand back through his hair, fingers snarling in the styling gel. “Or, a time machine, or something—”

    “Well, there isn't.”

    “But if there was, don't you think—”

    “I think that all them folks with time travel'd be wishin’ for the simpler days, back when 'men was men,’ and time was linear.”

    “Naw,” Henry says. “Come on—this isn't like that.” He picks up his shovel. Seems to think better of it, plants it back to stand in the dirt. “Back when we were all on earth—come on, don't you think?”

    Maria stops digging for a moment to level a look at Henry, eyes flinty. "Fine Hank, you wanna know what I think?” She takes up working again, the vicious crunch of her shovel serving as punctuation. “I think that nostalgia is a damn liar. Dirtiest liar there ever was. It wasn't as good as you think it was. You weren't even there.”

    “But it's fucked,” Henry growls. “How things are now. All of us digging in the dirt like neanderthals."

    “Oh sure,” Maria grunts, tossing another load of dirt over her shoulder. “Things're hard here. They're hard there, too. Hard like different. Hard like folk thought it was bad enough to come here. Wasn't ever just a man n’ his computer. That's just the lucky ones.”

    “Well,” Henry says, stiff. Gives it a moment. “You think it's better now, then?”

    Maria shrugs. Drives her shovel again into the soil. “I think-” She shakes her head, hauls out another load of dirt. “I think we are where we are, and all we can do's work on makin' it better. No sense in pinin’ for a world you don't even really know.” She finishes with a sigh, glances down to see, at last, brackish brine-silty water seeping up into the bottom of her hole. Cracks a smile.

    Henry just grunts, noncommittal, and Maria shakes her head, turns back to the well. Drives her shovel deep into the red mud with the flat of her boot.

    Goes on digging.
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