The trek to MacKenzie’s crater of interest took longer than I expected. The Sun was falling toward the horizon when we scrambled over the final rise and slid down into a great depression in the land.
“Here,” she said, standing straight and letting her pack fall. I nearly crawled toward her, exhausted and hardly able to move.
Nordon came just behind me, walking tall. It was as if he hadn’t noticed the hike. His fitness infuriated me.
He put his pack down and began taking things out of it. I saw poles and some kind of mesh material.
The twins were next. They walked backward slowly down the crater wall, carrying the digging machine behind them. It floated on a hover-sled, at the mercy of gravity and the hill’s incline. It must have weighed a ton, for the Forsyths were struggling not to let it fall down on top of the rest of us.
Hargrove was spotting them. She stood on the crater rim, telling them where to avoid rocks. Once the digger was safely down the hill she scrambled after it.
Mac went over to the twins and began to set up the machine. It had legs that anchored into the ground, a battery that was checked and re-checked on its belly, and an exhaust port pointed well away from the team. I sat several meters to the side, perched on a boulder, catching my breath. I watched as Nordon went over to help with the machine, but couldn’t bring myself to care.
Mac shooed everyone away once the digger was securely mounted. She played with some switches, checked the terminal readout, then set it to dig.
I cannot tell you how alarmed I felt watching that machine work. A grinding, choking hum emanated from the cloud of dust it produced. Light glowed from between its legs in an ominous, burnt-orange hue. The ground rumbled beneath me. Minutes later it stopped, and my ears felt empty.
Once the dust settled I saw a pit underneath the digger. Its walls were straight and it angled into the rock, wider at the base than at the entrance. Mac disconnected the machine and pushed it away with the help of one of the twins. Then she jumped into the freshly dug pit.
“Perfect!” I heard her yell from the bottom. One by one, the rest of the team jumped in. Even Nordon.
I got up from my rock and walked over to the hole. I peered inside, and was surprised to find a roomy compartment with smooth walls and a nicely compacted floor. If it weren’t bare rock I would’ve thought it a professional construct. Mac threw her bed roll down on one side of the room, and began assembling a small card table in the centre.
“Hargrove, lights up here,” she said, pointing above her head. “We’ll put samples here.” The table nearly made itself. These were practiced individuals, and I felt out of place.
“Nordon,” Mac said, “use those poles to make an entrance roof. It’ll keep the grit off while we work.”
“Will do,” he said, all smiles. He was in his element, somehow. I was not.
I went over to Mac and asked if there was anything I could do.
“Sure,” she said, eyes bright. She seemed very excited to be out in the wilderness. “Go up and check out the big rock. Give me dimensions of the crater: height and width, and give me dimensions of the rock too. That’s what we’re here to study.”
I nodded, and made to leave the pit, but Mac stopped me.
“Here,” she said, holding out a small device. “Use this.”
I took the device and left them to setting up the camp. I was happy I was given a real, technical task to accomplish, while Nordon was stuck with setting up the camp roof. I refrained from smirking at him on my way past, though I could feel his glare on the back of my neck.
The light outside was dimming, but I could still find my way around. I set to work. The device turned out to be a sort of range finder. On holding it up to my eye, I could see distances marked clearly beside a set of cross-hairs. I pressed a button on the side of the tool and a list of dimensions were recorded, as well as a picture of the charted region. I worked my way around the crater methodically, creating a scan of the walls.
I turned my attention to the rock in the middle. It was half submerged in the ground, dirt piled around it in heaps. It looked old. It was weather-beaten and pitted. Some parts were smooth to the touch, though the composition changed in places to a rougher material. The smooth sides were dark and hard, and scored with strange markings.
Data in hand, I went back to the pit.
It looked much more home-like than it did at first. The lights were up and cast a warm glow on the interior. Bed rolls were rolled out, and several stools clustered about the sample table. There was even a small stove in one corner.
“I have the measurements,” I said, handing the device to Mac.
“Perfect.” She looked through the eyepiece for a minute, then copied down the numbers onto a tablet. She’d memorized them all and did not stop to check them as she wrote.
“Tomorrow,” she said, “we’ll take some samples of the meteorite. I think it’s a secondary impact, but we’ll confirm that soon enough.”
Hargrove spoke up. “No storms on the radar yet,” she said, and I was glad. The mesh covering on the pit seemed a flimsy protection from the elements.
The twins looked at each other. “I hope she’s right,” they said together. They laughed.
Nordon pushed past me to MacKenzie. “Doctor,” he said, all charm. “Do you have a minute for a few questions?”
She nodded, and they took their stools to the side of the pit. I did not listen. I didn’t want my writing tainted with whatever angle Nordon took.
The evening wound down quickly. I took to my bed easily despite the hard rock beneath.
Hargrove woke me up by kicking at my boot. “Wake up, Fontanne,” she said. “We’re already started.”
I blinked the worst of my exhaustion away and accepted the coffee she gave me. I followed her out of the pit and into the pale morning light.
I shivered. The coffee was hot, but the Martian cold had seeped its way deep into my veins.
The geologists were busy at the meteorite. I looked into the sky and saw no clouds, indeed nothing other than the Sun. I hoped I would only see the Sun, for the Forsyths were not positive in our prospects for agreeable weather.
I saw Mac standing with a small hammer in her hand. Nordon was harassing one of the Forsyths, and I took my chance to speak to the Doctor.
“Sleep well?” she asked, chipping away at the boulder.
“Yes, surprisingly.” I stretched, and watched her collect rock chips in a small bag.
I took out my tablet and set it up for note taking. “May I ask you a few questions?”
“Of course,” she said, setting her tools down. She dusted off her hands and took a small angled device from her belt.
“What is life like living out at Argyre? Or near it, I mean. So many live in the cities, but I don’t think many are aware of the work you do out here.”
She pointed the tool at the ground and touched a setting. A small beam lit the air, and smoke curled where the laser touched the rock.
“It’s quiet,” she said, and turned the tool on the boulder. “We don’t have to worry as much about politics out here. The Institute pays our bills, and we give them research. No bullshit.”
She began to melt the smooth parts of the rock. I realized it was metal fused with the stony meteorite. Interesting, I thought, but did not interrupt.
Mac continued. “The cities just seem so complicated. Everyone has a motive, you know? Here, we’re all working for the same goal, be it mapping, researching, sampling, cataloguing. It feels like a community, not a bunch of individuals clamouring for success.”
I nodded, scribbling.
She squinted at the sky. “Weren’t you wanting to know about the weather?”
“Climate. What are the conditions out here? The cities are kept fairly constant, with the mitigation and buildings blocking the wind. How is life affected by the dust?”
“Well, you said it—it’s dusty. The wind pushes it around, but it never seems to leave. You find it in your skin for days after leaving.”
I groaned, and she laughed. “Don’t worry, it comes out. We just learn to live with it, I guess. City people don’t have the problem, so they can’t stand it.”
“I won’t take offense to that,” I said, smiling.
“None intended! Out here it’s cold and dry and dusty. There’s little in the way of physical comfort. So we all collectively agree to forgo being pretty. Instead we focus on the work.”
“And each other?”
“Yeah. It’s less of making ourselves up for each other, and more getting to know one another and what makes us tick.
“Hargrove!” Mac yelled. Hargrove poked her head up from a pile of rocks. “Looks like secondary impact. Pay attention to the dating.”
“Yes boss!” Hargrove bent back to her work.
“Take Hargrove, for example. I found her in Hesperia. She was shy, could hardly say a word to me. She was so concerned with her character and what she sounded like to others she was unable to be her own person. Out here,” she said, sweeping an arm across the crater, “she can be herself. We all can.”
“That’s great,” I said, happy to be getting some true conversation.
“Of course, when the storms hit, we have to be nice to each other.”