I woke as the rover came to a stop. Its brakes creaked with the strain of slowing several tons of metal. I rubbed at my eyes and sat up.
“Your stop, Fontanne,” Jim said, nodding at the door behind him.
It took me a minute to gather my wits. I peeked back into the cabin and saw it mostly empty. I stood, thanked Jim for the ride, and shook his hand. I opened the rover’s door myself; there was no one outside to greet me.
Faced with the empty landscape, I turned back to the pilot.
“Will I—will someone… Be here?”
“Nope,” Jim said cheerfully. “See the flags?”
I looked, and saw a row of poles, just my height, with triangular flags on their tops.
“Yes,” I said, fearing his next words.
"They’re just like the light-poles. Follow them until you hit your camp. MacKenzie should be there.”
My shoulders slumped. Instantly, all my fears of the harsh Martian world came to haunt me. I tried to swallow the trepidation. “Thanks,” I mumbled, and stepped off the rover.
Once I had my bags I slammed the compartment door closed and banged on the side of the cabin. The rover started up and drove off. I was surprised at how quiet it was. The electric hum was almost undetectable, even as the machine picked up speed.
I turned to the poles and saw the flags flutter in a small breeze. I took a deep breath, and started walking.
The trail proved uneventful. It was clearly marked, though it did meander around boulders and over crater walls. I wasn’t sure which way I was going; the Sun appeared to hover motionless in the sky. I worked up a sweat, tasting salt in my mouth rather than iron, for once. Then I realized I would not enjoy a proper shower until I made it back to Hesperia, and despaired.
I found myself atop a rise, and far beneath me, at the bottom of a crater, I saw a camp. I nearly collapsed with exhaustion, but knew if I did I might not make it up again.
Instead, I found what remained of my energy, and took a step toward the camp.
I was too eager. I had almost gotten used to the third-gravity, but forgot it in my haste, and nearly sailed through the air. I clutched my bag to my chest and stuck my legs out, watching the dirt fly up to meet me. I wanted to turn my face away from the impact, try to ignore it, but I knew if I did I would doubtless break something.
No, I approached my impending doom with bravery, knees bent and face a-grimace. I touched down roughly, stumbling, but managed to keep my feet by running a few paces. I felt quite proud for not falling flat on my face.
The rest of the walk toward the camp was easy. The Sun, I now saw, was low in the sky, suffusing the camp huts with an eerie blue light. They were of a similar construction to those at Argyre, but looked thinner. I assumed they were easier to transport, to pull down or set up in an hour rather than a day.
As I drew closer, I saw several people milling about. Some were returning from the wastes, some were talking together in small groups, others were simply watching the shadows lengthen on the ground. There were probably about a dozen I could see, maybe more inside the small buildings.
The evening became cool, and I shivered. Unsure of which tent might hold my source, I walked toward the largest. I felt eyes follow me, but no one came to ask why I was there. They were scientists, mainly, and kept to themselves and their own.
The biggest tent turned out to be a mess hall. I stepped inside and found not only light, but heat. Lamps cast a warm glow on the benches and tables, and floor-mounted heaters spewed hot air up into my face. I stood for a moment, relishing the feeling. I dropped a bag and rubbed my hands above the heater.
The mess hall was almost empty, though three people stood at the far end. They watched me. After I warmed myself sufficiently I took up my bag and strode over, looking for a familiar face. There were none. Instead, I asked after MacKenzie.
“I was told she’d be out at Galle West,” I said, hoping my tone proved sure.
“MacKenzie,” one man said, staring off into space as if he’d forgotten the name. Doubt began to grow in my mind.
“Hmm,” the other man said, bringing a hand to his chin and rubbing at stubble. The doubt turned to fear, and I worried I’d somehow gotten the wrong camp. Had I told Jim the wrong stop? Had my luggage tags been marked wrong?
The woman, standing between the men, elbowed one in the ribs. “Oh, come on,” she said, rolling her eyes. “Don’t be asses.”
She smiled at me, and I felt reassured. “Yes, we know MacKenzie,” she said, shaking my hand.
“I’m Hargrove,” she said, “and these two idiots are Forsyth and Forsyth.”
I looked from one face to the other, and realized they looked shockingly alike. Both had sandy hair, both had dark eyes, both had the same stubble on their chins.
Hargrove noticed my expression. “Twins,” she chuckled, “both with the same bad sense of humour.”
The twins laughed, and each shook my hand. “Just pulling your leg,” Forsyth said.
“We could tell you were from out of town—” the other said.
“—and we couldn’t resist,” the first finished.
I sighed. “No worries. You nearly had me,” I tried to keep a straight face. My heart still wasn’t finished thudding against my ribs, and I wondered whether they could hear it.
“Nearly,” the second Forsyth said, grinning wide.
Hargrove elbowed him. “Mac’s hut is on the Western side of the camp. She’s got an orange door, for some reason. Easy to see.”
I thanked Hargrove, and waved to the twins. They might be irritating, but they meant well.
Out in the cold, I looked for an orange door. Unfortunately, the setting sun made everything look dark brown. I peered closely at several doors before finding the correct one.
I knocked firmly, not wanting to surprise anyone inside but wanting to be heard.
“Just a minute,” I heard through the door. I stamped my feet on the ground to try to coax the blood through the veins.
The door opened wide, and I found myself staring at someone’s chest.
Abashed, I looked up, and saw MacKenzie—more than a head taller than me, with a smile wider than either Forsyth’s.
“Hi,” she said, taking my hand in a hard grip. Hers was calloused and dirty, and mine felt dusty when I got it back.
“Doctor MacKenzie?” I asked.
“You can call me Mac—everyone else seems to.” She stood back and waved me into her hut.
I walked in, and immediately gravitated toward the heater in the centre. “You’re a hard one to find,” I said, rubbing my hands again. The farther out you get in the wasteland, the colder it seems to be.
“I guess I was very good at hide-and-seek as a kid,” she said, strolling over to the heater.
Belatedly, I realized my rudeness. “I’m Fontanne,” I said, and we shook hands again. “You can call me Kelly.”
Mac smiled. “So, Kelly,” she said, “what brings you all the way out to Galle West?”
Down to business. I appreciated that, after all the run-arounds in trying to find her. “Well, I write for the Star—”
Mac interrupted. “The Star? Amazing! We all read it together out here—something of a team bonding exercise. The shorts are quite entertaining. We even act them out sometimes.”
I smiled. I rarely have time to read them, but I do get a chuckle out of the shorts when I have a chance. “They are. I’m actually writing on the climate of Mars—or, rather, I’m planning to. I was told you’d be a good source.”
“Ah, so Benny’s got you on my trail, then,” she said, nodding.
“Yes—do you know him?”
And so she did. They’d gone to school together, somehow, and Benedict Ridgelow had pointed me to his old classmate.
“First year was a wild time,” she said.
“So—how long are you staying?”
“Um—well—” I stammered, realizing I hadn’t thought that far ahead.
“You can sleep here, of course,” she said, and showed me to a spare cot in the main room. There were two more doors in the rear of the hut.
“Lavatory’s yours,” she said, “but my room’s off limits. Don’t want anyone seeing me in my nightie.” She winked, then posed girlishly in her dirty jumpsuit. I rolled my eyes.
“You came at a good time,” she said, moving to a drafting table set against the hut wall. “I’m heading out tomorrow morning on a short expedition. You’ll be able to see what Mars is really like.”
My mouth opened slightly. I was just thinking I was glad to have a clean place to sleep after seeing so much dust. “Ah,” was all I managed to say.
“We’re going North, here,” she said, and pointed to a place on a map before her. I looked and saw a tablet screen glowing with a topographical map of the area. I was dismayed at the rapid changes in elevation. Her finger set a flag on the spot we’d be visiting.
“I’ll be looking at some of the old basin landscape and how it’s mixed with secondary impacts from Galle.”
“Interesting,” I said, not quite sure what she was talking about.
“You can ask me about the weather there, too,” she said.
“I know, I know, weather is not climate, et cetera et cetera,” she punched me lightly in the shoulder. “But off to bed with you! You’ve had a long day’s travelling, and I’ve got several samples to code before I hit the sack.” She threw a thumb over her shoulder at her room’s door. “Got a mini spectrometer back there,” she whispered, as if it were some great secret.
I tried to look impressed. It was hard since I did not know what a spectrometer was.
“You go to sleep! I’ll have you up at oh-six-hundred sharp.”
I groaned, and passed out on my cot.