My neck broke with the dawn.
Or, at least, it felt like it did. I’d fallen asleep on the ground, and some rock had managed to lodge itself under my spine in a particularly uncomfortable manner. I sat up, and had to keep my head tilted sideways for some time before I could right it. It was very painful.
I’d been chilled during the night, though my travel-bruised mind failed to let the cold impede my sleep. I rubbed at my flesh, but it felt cool and clammy.
The first one in the morning.
I jumped to my feet, realizing I might just miss the rover again, and walked stiffly to the bunkhouse. I grabbed my bags, thankful for not having to sleep on the dirty mattress. The dust on the bed where I had lain my bags made me sneeze. Several times. Once I recovered, I ran outside to find the porter once again.
I did not end up missing the rover. It was still docked, and easy to find—it was huge.
Its wheels were taller than I am, the suspension holding them to the chassis massive, and the windows made of thick, clear glass-substitute, able to withstand any rocks thrown by the Martian winds. The porter took my bags, and I made sure she scanned them. I know she thought my baggage-anxiety strange, but to travel all the way out across the basin and arrive without luggage? I shudder at the thought.
I took a last look at Argyre before boarding. It was a dreary place, but even the most unappealing locales can offer some beauty. The sunset the night before was very peaceful, and I was happier for it. I would see many others like it, but none the same. Argyre will always hold a place in my heart because of that quiet experience.
The cabin was cramped. I bumped my head on the ceiling after climbing the stairs, and swore. I saw the pilot’s face lean out from his compartment, smiling, and I waved. I knew I looked dazed, and I hoped the wave would be acknowledgement enough.
“Watch your head,” he said, grinning.
“Thank you,” I replied, not rising to the bait.
I looked down the rows of seats and saw passengers already pushed together, squeezing into the chairs, and I recoiled. Being in such close proximity to others is not my favourite scenario, especially when those others are covered in grime. Geologists and engineers might be intelligent company, but they aren’t exactly tidy.
I looked back to the pilot, just as the porter put his head into the stairway and shouted up to us.
“Sorry Jim, no co-pilot today. Al’s out sick—think you can manage?”
“I’ll manage,” Jim said, “but tell Al to stop sticking his tongue places he shouldn’t.”
I grimaced at the crass comment, but an idea came to my mind as the porter left, chuckling. More passengers were climbing the stairs, wanting to shove me to the back near the latrine and so confine me to hours of horror.
“No co-pilot?” I asked.
“Nope,” Jim answered, checking readouts in preparation for the journey.
With a one last, quick glance to the rear of the craft, I jumped into the co-pilot’s seat and buckled my harness.
“What are you—”
“This is co-pilot Fontanne, signing on,” I said, industriously looking over the glowing terminal. I gripped the steering wheel and stared out at the red landscape.
Jim chuckled. “All right, Fontanne, let’s see what you can do.”
He turned back to his terminal, making some final notations before we left. I felt the controls in front of me, unsure if Jim actually expected me to use them. I was glad for the extra space in the co-pilot’s chair, having no one pressed against my shoulders, but I grew worried I would make a fool of myself.
The rest of the passengers seated themselves. I heard the cargo doors slam shut and the latches click into place. The latches are important: rover journeys are seldom smooth, and baggage has a tendency to jump out and frolic on the surface.
The porter waved to us and shut the stairway door. It folded flat against itself into the wall.
Jim pressed a button on the slim headset he wore, touching just near his ear. A soft bong alerted the passengers to the transmission.
“Good morning, ladies and gentlemen, this is your pilot speaking. We’ll be taking a short ride out to Galle, with a few quick stops on the way.
“Please note the lavatory in the rear of the craft, and the two emergency exits in the centre, to port and starboard. These exits are only to be used in the case of—you guessed it—emergency.”
The passengers chuckled, and after a measured pause, Jim continued.
“Please stay buckled in your seats throughout the ride, as otherwise you will likely be knocked about and I don’t want to be blamed. My boss doesn’t need to know I don’t have a license.”
More laughter. I smiled, but in the back of my mind I sincerely hoped Jim was joking.
“If you need to use the lavatory, please press the button over your heads.” Jim pointed above him. “Once we come to a full stop, you may leave your seat and proceed to the rear. Don’t take too long—we’re all waiting for you.” At his even I laughed.
“Otherwise, feel free to chat and read, or take a nap to pass the time. We’ll be here all day. If you need anything, just shout for Jim and I’ll come back and help you.”
“I hope you stop the rover first!” Someone yelled from the back. Laughter echoed through the cabin. “No hands!” someone else called to more amusement. Jim smiled.
Jim flipped the mains power, and the craft hummed to life. We were off.
The rover pulled out of its bay smoothly, and angled along a road demarked by tall poles on the left side. The poles were capped with red lights. When I turned around to look at them as they moved by, I saw the other sides of the poles had blue lights.
The road was smooth and very straight. It had no wheel-ruts; I assumed they would be scoured by the wind and removed whenever a gust blew. There was more than enough space for two rovers to pass each other. I wondered how long it had taken to create such a road.
“You see the lights?” Jim asked, nodding toward the poles.
“Yes—they’re to show direction, correct?”
“Yep. Helps when the grit is blowing. Sometimes you can’t even see the road in front of you.”
I suppressed a shudder, wondering at a dust storm so thick you couldn’t see.
We were silent for a time. The rover bumped on its suspension, riding over the few rocks that got tumbled onto the roadway. The reddish landscape stretched out away from us, melting into the pale gray sky. There were some boulders on the ground, and the shadows they cast were weak and pale.
Jim looked at me. “So, Fontanne—can I call you Fontanne?—so, where’d you get your pilot’s license?”
I smiled. “Don’t have one. I just wanted to sit up front.”
If Jim thought anything of it, I did not see. “Fair enough. It gets lonely sometimes on the drive, I’m glad for the company.”
“Me too,” I said, and I meant it. I would have been miserable crammed into the back among people with dissimilar interests and loud snores.
“Forgive me, but you don’t look like a geologist,” Jim said. The cabin rattled around us. I wondered how one could hold a shaking steering column for so long and stay alert.
“No, I suppose I do not. I’m a writer,” I responded. “I’m doing a story on the Martian climate.”
“Well, as you can see,” Jim swept an arm across in front of him, “clear skies from here to the horizon.”
“Yes, of course. But I’m looking for perspective on the climate both past and present. There’s a geologist who will help me with that, or so I’ve been told. They’re out just West of Galle. So here I am.”
“Interesting. Who’re you writing for?”
“The Star,” I said, with some pride. It is still a novelty to be able to say I write for the system’s most popular news source.
“Hm,” Jim said, with some appreciation. “Interesting.”
I became more animated, as I do when people ask me about my writing. “Not just the weather, though. I aim to explore the political climate, too. The Star wants all facets of Martian life, and I thought the word ‘climate’ was a broad enough umbrella.”
“I agree. Though I’ll tell you—tread carefully with the politics. Things aren’t too… Stable here.”
“No. We’ve got the Colonial government trying to enforce Earth laws, and we’ve got the Resistance—well—resisting. That’s why people are so uptight about Earthers. They feel threatened. A lot of them don’t want anything to do with the whole scenario; they just want to keep living life.” He paused for a moment, thinking. “Don’t always have that option.”
“Interesting,” I said, making notes on my pocket-tablet.
“I’m no politician,” Jim said, “but if it were up to me, we’d be allowed to make our own laws. Or at least vote on which are the best. But the Colonists don’t see it that way.”
“I see,” I said, careful not to take a side. I scribbled, jotting his words as fast as I could. I was almost glad he paused, focusing on his driving.
“Anyway,” Jim said, “not much of an issue all the way out here. Sometimes you hear about people complaining in the cities, but the arguments don’t reach us. Geologists don’t much care about politics.”
“True,” I said, and put away my tablet. I looked back out at the bleak landscape. It appeared as if we hadn’t moved at all.
Jim kept driving, quiet with his thoughts. The jouncing of the rover was slow and steady, and the brown and red boulders slid behind us at a sedate pace.