The circumstances of my writing this are unfortunate, and somewhat painful. I will come to them in time, but first I must illuminate my journey thus far.
My narrative begins where my last letter ends:
I rode in the rover alongside Jim. It was empty, and the world outside was dark. The stars were pricks of white against the black, spread liberally across the sky. The rover’s headlights touched the ground lightly, thin shadows of rock and boulder thrown this way and that as we moved across the wasteland.
“Enjoy your trip?” Jim said, looking not at me but at the road.
“Yes, it was informative. We managed to get trapped in a storm.”
“Did you?” He glanced at me. “That’s exciting.”
“Boring, actually. We sat in a pit through most of it. Though I saw how dangerous they can be. The winds really do pick up.”
“They do,” he said, remembering some other storm. “They can change the whole world right in front of you.”
I told him about the people I met, the machinery they used, the notes I took for my article. “Nordon was there, too,” I said, and shook my head.
I sighed. “Philip Nordon. Writer for the Dwarf. He has a passion for stealing my work. Just wait—in a few days there’ll be a fresh piece in that so-called journal undermining my article. I haven’t even published it yet!”
Jim shook his head. “There’s always one of those,” he said. “Important part is to make sure your work is better.”
I changed the subject. “How long have you been driving this thing?”
He thought for a moment. “A couple years, I guess. I haven’t really kept track.”
“Do you like it?”
He paused. “The people are enjoyable. The passengers. Always with an interesting story to tell—like yourself.
“The job itself is boring. I drive the same route so often I could probably drive it in my sleep.”
He must’ve seen my expression, because he smiled: “If you catch me sleeping just give me a shove,” he said, and winked.
“Have you ever thought of working elsewhere? I’m sure pilots are needed all over the system.”
“Oh, sure. But none of the jobs will pay for your travel. And getting a place to live is a whole other battle. They only build for the people already there, so unless someone moves—or dies—you’ll have to bring your own box.
“No,” he said, “I’m good here. Beats my last job, anyway.”
His eyes narrowed. I saw a hand tighten on the rover controls. “Not worth talking about.”
He was silent for a time, and I worried I had offended him.
“So, you’re heading back to Argyre, then what?”
“Well,” I said, “I’m not sure. I’m trying to collect stories from all facets of Martian life. To really get a feel for conditions on the planet. Maybe the edges of Hesperia? It’s much different that the city centre. More like a cross with Argyre, actually.”
“Hm,” Jim grunted. “Never figured that. Interesting take.”
“I think so,” I said. “I just want a shower, to be quite honest.”
He laughed, and the world went white.
I felt the rover move beneath me, bucking into the air like some giant beast. My chest slammed into my harness; my head hit the terminal, cracking the glass. We came back to the ground with a crash. The rover’s suspension bottomed out and I felt my spine compress into itself.
Dust and rock clouded the air about us, and my vision quavered. Darkness edged in, and I blinked it back. I realized I could not hear anything, other than a whining in my ears. My head hurt when I moved it.
I swivelled to look at Jim, and the pain made me wince.
He was slouched over the rover controls. I thought I could see his back rising and falling with his breath, but the pain and the ringing made it hard to be sure. I could see blood trickling from a wound in his forehead, and I touched my own. My fingers came away red.
I looked outside and tried to see what happened. There were no large rocks, no deep craters. We were on the road, the blue pole lights dim against the night.
I touched Jim’s shoulder. “Jim,” I said, quietly. My voice sounded strange in my own ears. “Jim.”
He grunted, or at least some sound came out his mouth. He did not seem to be awake.
I turned and looked at the hatch. It was not broken, but it was very far away. Dazed, I undid the clasp on my safety belt and felt it slither over my shoulders and waist.
I planted one hand, and heaved. The world spun, clouded, then righted itself and I was standing. Or, rather, I stooped: the cabin was designed for sitting. I carefully stepped into the space behind the pilot’s chair and felt my way to the hatch.
It was not locked. Why would it be? Jim needed it easy for passengers to embark and disembark as needed. I grabbed the metal handle and pushed. It clicked and the door creaked open.
The air outside was cold and acrid. Its tendrils reached about my arms as I stepped down into the dirt, which was black. Strange, I thought. It was usually a brownish-red. Maybe the night’s darkness was just too deep for colour, other than the icy light leaking from the guidance poles.
I looked up at the horizon. I saw nothing but hills and crater walls, though I am not sure what I looked for.
The rover’s lights were off. I realized it made no noise; the engine had stopped running and the characteristic hum was absent from the night air. I shivered, not from cold, but from the thick silence gathered around me.
My head snapped up. I thought I saw a shape move on one of the hills. Not likely, I thought, and was right: this far out in the middle of nowhere, there was almost zero chance of anything moving. Other than the dust.
My boots made little craters as I walked around the rover. It looked to be in remarkable condition considering the destruction it had endured. One of the wheels looked dented, but the machine was likely still drivable.
I heard a strange sound then. Like a rock dislodging from a rise and tumbling down to flatter ground. Not an atypical sound, but at that time it alarmed me. Perhaps the silence, the loneliness, the disjointed sense of disaster made me wary.
I touched my forehead again. My fingers were warm and slippery, and another drop of blood fell into my eye. It stung, and I worried I had a concussion. I strode back to the rover hatch, thinking there might be a first aid kit I could make use of.
That sound, again, behind me this time. A rock moving. Dirt pressed down. I turned, too slowly, and felt something strike me across the head. I cried out, but no sound came, and I fell to the ground in a heavy heap.
If I didn’t have one already, I thought, but the words were scrambled. Lights sparkled in front of me, and I thought I must be seeing stars that were not attached to the sky. Voices sounded, but I could not make out what they said. A footstep fell near my face, and it hardly registered. I was dazed.
I saw Jim taken out of the rover. He was thrown in the dirt next to me. I was happy to see him still breathing, though his chest hardly moved. I tried to call to him, but again my voice was weak and ineffective.
I looked at the rover, and squinted at the wavering lights. “Looks okay,” one of our attackers said.
“Tough son of a bitch,” another said, and I heard a door slam.
I watched as the headlights flickered on, and under the cab I saw a drip of some liquid or another fall into the dust. Rough hands grabbed me and heaved me into the vehicle.