dallas gawlick

Letters from Abroad

A series of letters home, from an intrepid writer traveling the solar system.

Letter 1 Page 2

We landed at Argyre Base. The lady in front of me disembarked without making eye contact. I thought about trying to catch up to her, ask her about her opinions on travel and thoughts against me—but she moved too quickly, collecting her bag and disappearing into the haze.

Argyre. The geologists love the place: something about the basins. More on that later, but suffice to say I thought Argyre was where I would find my quarry. While that was true, more or less, I found it dismal. Simply dreadful. The domiciles are low and flat and resemble bunk houses more than living spaces. Water is scarce there, so they use cleaning beads, which always leave me feeling grimy. I despise it, and felt uncomfortable almost entirely through my time there.

And, of course, the dust.

The dust! You would not believe the dust on Mars. The cities avoid most of it; the buildings offer protection and the area around is scraped to bare rock to avoid the worst of the weather. Wandering storms occasionally strike, but are cleaned off quickly and mitigated. Camps like Argyre, however, are hit hard.

The dust scours, flows, and migrates, coating everything in sight. It is cleaned off frequently, but remnants always remain. It piles in corners, in alleys, on photovoltaics. It fills the wrinkles in your suit and sticks to the skin. It tastes like iron, making it feel like your mouth is always bleeding. And it is impossible to completely remove, as the beads roll over it rather than collect it. Simply existing in a place like Argyre is to be one with the dust. And, for me, to be one with misery.

I have developed a sneeze. It is neither virulent nor violent, but a polite eh-chu. I cannot get rid of it, and I am convinced the dust has made my nostrils its own permanent place of residence. It is a constant irritation, and others look at me as I sneeze. I cannot help it, and I know they think I sound ridiculous.

I digress. The rocket port is a ten minute walk from the base. Large walls protect the camp from exhaust fumes; these are funneled away with fans toward the wasteland. Argyre itself is a collection of low buildings crouched against one another, as if seeking shelter from the elements. They are a dull gray-silver colour, made of some alloy, the name of which I do not recall. They all look much the same to a newcomer, but I was loath to ask for directions. The denizens of Argyre doubtless thought I was strange; I did not want to further feed their ire.

Instead I found my way to a sort of head office. The building was like all the rest, if a bit more burdened by bureaucracy, and had an extremely weathered decal on the front. I think it read ADMIN, though it was difficult to make out more than colour contrast.

It was there I was finally able to ask after my aim. The administration building was dark and quiet, the front room occupied by a few chairs and a desk with a terminal screen. The chairs held two workers, both in dirty coveralls, both dozing. At the desk sat a clerk who took no notice of my entry.

The clerk was austere. His primness was out of place with the dusty workers inside and outside his office, but I thought he might be efficient. I was wrong.

In Hesperia there are simply too many people to look for a one. I was lucky to receive a tip that my particular geologist would be out Argyre way: my editor had given me a place to start my research, and it pointed me here. I glanced around again, wondering if any line protocol was in place, and strode up to the desk.

“Excuse me,” I said, because the man would not pay me any attention. He was focused on the figures on his screen, eyes darting across numbers and symbols. The glow illuminated sharp features through the glass.

Excuse me,” I said, and finally the clerk dragged his gaze from the terminal. He looked down his nose at me, which was difficult since I was standing and he was not, and rose an inquiring eyebrow.

“I’m looking for someone,” I said, trying my best to sound official and with little time to waste.

"Aren’t we all,” he answered drily.

I pursed my lips, patience growing thin. “I’m looking for a geologist,” I continued, giving no mind to his comment. “A Doctor MacKenzie. Working out of Argyre.”

“What for?”

“Does it matter?” I decided my tone was a little too hard; maybe he was just tired from a long day’s work. “I’m doing a story about the climate of Mars. Politically and physically. I was told MacKenzie could be used as a source.”

The clerk moved his eyes as if deciding whether to do his job for me. “I can take a look,” he said, eyes returning to his screen.

I waited, bags at my feet, trying not to look at him. Have you ever had a moment where you’re waiting on someone for something, and you’re waiting next to them, and you don’t want to look at their progress as it’d be rude, but you don’t know where else to look? I must have examined every surface in that room save the terminal screen. It was agonizing.

Finally, the man looked back up at me. “There’s no one in the system under that name.”

“What?”

“There’s no one—”

“Yes I heard you, that was rhetorical.” The man glared at me. “I was told Doctor MacKenzie was working from Argyre. Maybe she transferred?”

The man shook his head. I wasn’t about to give up, however disdainful his expression got. I hadn’t come all this way just to be told MacKenzie didn’t exist.

“Look, if you just try—”

“I assure you, there isn’t—”

“Please, just try one more time, it’s M-A-C—”

“Ah,” the clerk said, quietly. I stopped arguing.

“M-A-C-Kenzie?”

“Yes.” I wondered why he was clarifying what I’d only just said.

“I’d spelled it M-C.”

It was my turn to say “Ah.”

I left the administration tent somewhat irritated, but richer in that I knew where I could find MacKenzie. Trouble was, I didn’t know how to get there.

And my bags wouldn’t carry themselves. I hoisted one on my shoulders and one in my arms, and made my way back across the camp, hoping to get on with my journey within the hour. No such luck.

First, the rocket porter told me hops were not made into the basins. There wasn’t enough traffic to my specific destination. Argyre was the hub and all other trips were made either on foot or by rover.

Then, I was told the rovers were finished for the day. I was incredulous.

“But there’s at least three hours’ daylight left!”

“I’m sorry, the last one just left. There’s a bunkhouse just over that way, you can catch the first one in the morning.”

The porter was quite polite, though my feathers were ruffled at missing the last rover. I blamed the administration clerk, but there was nothing for it.

The bunkhouse was drab and musty, and when I threw my bags onto a bed a cloud came up from the mattress. I sighed heavily, and decided to stay up for a while yet. I had not resigned myself to the dust.

Stepping outside, I noticed the camp was nearly deserted. No one walked to and from the low buildings; everyone was either in the mess hall or minding their business elsewhere. I figured Argyre was more of a transitory stop than an actual place of work.

I walked to the edge of a hill, out past a last building, and looked at the lowering sun. It was small and pale, and crept closer to the horizon where it met the rim of some far off crater. The sky darkened, going from gray to teal to a strange, smoky blue. Then night came, and the sky became violet and black.

There are few words to describe the sheer weight of a sky devoid of light pollution. Argyre generates little light, other than to find one’s way in the nighttime, so the sky remains uncontaminated. Away from any large cities, my view wasn’t spoiled by horizon-glow either. The night was complete.

And so was the galaxy above me. It was deep and hypnotizing, the pin-pricks of light shimmering from impossibly far away. It was like a great black scarf had been lain across the sky, and small holes poked in it to reveal the light beyond. It was beautiful.

As I lay there I thought about my journey so far, and how long I must be away from you. These thoughts lingered until my eyes drifted shut.