At the time I did not think Mac’s words were ill-omened.
Several days ticked by as the geologists took samples, analyzed them, studied their compositions and ages, and catalogued their findings. They would take the samples back to base later, and finish their research. The tools in the pit were insufficient to do complete work.
I bided my time watching and learning from the scientists. I asked questions and interviewed members of the team, but I quickly found I had more than enough for this facet of the article. There was only so much to learn about the wasteland, its storms, and its politics. Thankfully, there was little arguing, as politics did not seem to factor in to day-to-day life out there.
We did, of course, encounter a storm. One day, while aboveground and poking and prodding at the meteorite, the wind began to howl and the dust to push at our bodies. We abandoned the work and brought what we could into our shelter. It was cramped with so many people, but there was nothing for it. The digger could only be used in clement weather, so we were stuck with what we had.
I had not mentioned the food before because I did not think it important. But the next couple days were spent eating the same bland, lukewarm, rehydrated nutri-bars. They had everything a body needed for a day’s intake, but nothing in the way of flavour.
I mentioned this to the Forsyths. They laughed at me.
“You get used to it,” one said.
“After a while,” the other finished.
They ate happily, able to choke down the dusty-tasting bars without so much as a wrinkle in their expressions.
At least I was not alone. Nordon hated his food. He barely touched it. I took a perverse pleasure in watching him grimace at the taste. Not everything was perfect for the man after all.
“What causes the storms?” I asked Mac. Hargrove answered. She was bored and looking for a way to assuage it.
“Pressure differentials,” she said, “it’s really quite simple. Hot air goes up, cold air comes down, and where they mix the wind gets weird. Then, if you have a high pressure zone next to a low pressure zone, the air flows appropriately.”
“Simple science,” I said. “Doesn’t the dust degrade everything after a while?”
“Sure, but there’s special alloys for that. Too smooth to be degraded. And if it does wear we can replace it. The grant money provisions for repairs.”
I nodded, taking notes. I saw Nordon doing the same out of the corner of my eye. “So you really do just get used to it?” I asked, horrified.
“Facts of life,” Mac said, shrugging. “I just wish it wasn’t so inconvenient.
She donned some goggles and left the pit to look at the rock.
“She does that sometimes,” Hargrove said, watching the entrance. “She likes to feel the storm, I think. Like standing in a rainstorm back on Earth.”
“You’re an Earther?”
“Yep,” she said, still looking at the pit entrance. “Mac found me in Hesperia looking for work, took me here. I always wanted to see the big city, then when I did…” She gestured vaguely. “It was just another big city. I enjoy it more out here. Closer company. Feels more… Real, you know?”
I nodded. It would have been rude to note the conversation, so I jotted it down mentally and saved it for later.
The twins brought out cards, and that amused us for a few hours. Nordon kept winning our bets of pebbles, however, and we lost interest. He looked pleased with himself.
I did my best to ignore him. I kept my notes close to my chest, but I saw him watching, looking at my work. He inserted himself into my conversations with alacrity.
“Do you take vacations to the city?” he would ask. “Do you miss the towers?
“What about the rover, do you know how to pilot it?
“Ever gotten lost in a storm?
“How dangerous is the work? Have there been any mishaps?”
His questions grew dark, and the scientists had trouble answering them. Eventually I decided to save them from his pushing.
“Oh, give it a rest, Nordon. People don’t just wander off into the wasteland.”
“Of course they do. Have you seen some of the geologists at that camp?” He looked around. “None of you, of course, you’re all quite normal. But some of them—the stares they have. It’s strange. They need to get back to civilization.”
There was silence after this. Mac opened her mouth to argue, maybe even to shout at him, but she said nothing. We were tired, and conflict drained what reserve energy we had left.
I was angry. Nordon appeared to have singlehandedly ruined what friendships I’d made out here, what conversation I could participate in, what happiness I could glean from the trip. I wanted to tumble Nordon into a deep crater and see if he’d scramble out. That would make an entertaining read. But it would also most certainly culminate in a strongly worded and defamatory letter, a fate I was loath to tempt.
The crew avoided speaking to me, probably due to association with Nordon rather than my character. I was unhappy, and could not focus on anything other than the wind whistling above. I in turn avoided Nordon. He was not pleased with the solitude.
Time passed slowly. I watched the geologists go over their sample collection, cataloguing, resampling, taking measurements. It was all very well over my head but I tried to appear interested.
When the storm finally stopped, we emerged to find the digger half covered with dust and the meteorite submerged in it. I was alarmed, worried we might not find our way back. The landscape had changed with the storm.
One of the twins saw me looking at the bleak, transformed world. “Don’t worry,” he said. “The flags are tall enough to avoid the dust. Next time the wind blows it’ll all be uncovered.”
“Sure,” I said, and I tried to sound positive.
“Well,” Mac said, hands on hips and looking at the digger, “I think we’d best get back to camp. Who knows how long the weather will hold?”
Hargrove agreed, and they set to clearing the worst of the dust from the machine. They floated it, checked it, and seemed satisfied with its condition. It really was made of stern stuff.
I helped pack up the camp. I was tasked with putting the rocks and shavings and fragments in containers. They had to be kept separate from each other and well-labeled. I took this job seriously, as I deeply appreciate the importance of good filing.
When everything was loaded into the packs we set off back to Galle West. It was a silent journey; even the twins had little to say, and only to each other. I knew Nordon’s words were hurtful, yet it seemed to impact the group far more than I expected. I kept my mouth shut, not wanting to incur any further antipathy.
At the camp Nordon left quickly enough. He didn’t say goodbye; he just dropped his pack and made for the rover stop.
I spent some time helping Hargrove unload the samples. We made small talk, but didn’t say anything of consequence. Eventually we parted ways, and as I watched her go I felt a heaviness in my heart, as if I’d lost a good friend, even though we’d only just met.
I went with Mac to her hut and we stopped inside, next to the heater.
“I’m sorry we all went quiet,” she said, looking away.
“Nordon was a jerk. It was fair enough.”
“It’s just that—people not from here, people who don’t live here, they don’t know what it’s like. We all know each other, we all understand each other. What he said—he made it obvious he doesn’t really know or care.
“It’s just hurtful when someone willfully ignores the people around them. I guess it felt like we were a lesser people. At least in his eyes.”
I felt reasonably sure that was exactly what Nordon thought. I didn’t know what to say to Mac, so I said nothing.
"Anyway,” Mac continued, “it was neat having you around. I’ve got some sampling to do, have to see what’s inside these rocks. If you wanted to stick around you could—”
“No, no, that’s all right. I can find my way back. I should be getting on, anyway.”
We shook, and I parted ways with Doctor MacKenzie and Galle West. It was an interesting expedition, though I wish it hadn’t ended on a sour note.
I did find my way back to the rover stop. It took longer than I thought; the Sun had already sunk below the horizon by the time I made it, and the sky was blackening at an alarming rate. The stars seemed dimmer then.
The rover headlights woke me up. I waved, and the vehicle came to a stop. I was pleasantly surprised to see Jim in the pilot’s seat once again. He invited me to share the vacant co-pilot seat, and there I began this letter to pass the time.
I will write again as soon as I have a long moment. I think next I will make my way back to Hesperia and wash off this grime. The geologists are respectable people, but their trappings are not for me.