Solace in Stone
A lazy summer day. The air was cool, a grace of the hazy grey cloud cover over the Northern English countryside. Augustus’ mother was reclined on the lounge chair, eyes spent half the time on the words in her book, half keeping watch over her son, playing in the rocks of the messy retaining wall at the edge of the long yard. Behind her, the glass door had been left open, allowing the mild air to waft inside where the man of the house was watching football and drinking from a foggy pint of bitter.
The young boy watched the pill bugs scatter back into the nearby crevices as he displaced the uneven stones and yanked on the wrinkled weeds. The glint of a particular rock caught his interest, which he picked up and excitedly transported back to his mother.
“Mummy, take a look at what I’ve found!” He exclaimed, lifting the prize up to her.
She quickly placed her thumb at the end of the sentence she had finished reading before turning her eyes up. It glistened with a bright mineral that had formed into neat geometric shapes. “Well, well.” She admired, pushing her dark blond hair back behind her ear.
“It’s gold, isn’t it?” The boy determined, holding the crystals up to the light. “What if we get rich off it?”
“Err, well.” His mother pondered aloud. She sat up and allowed the boy to set it in her free hand. “Unfortunately, what we have here is called pyrite. Some people call it ‘fool’s gold’.”
“Fool’s?” The boy said, taken aback. He quickly snatched the rock out of his mother’s hand and examined it again. “I ain’t no fool! I knew it wasn’t real, I was just testin’.”
“It still looks pretty, though, don’t it, August?” The woman suggested.
The boy nodded up and down emphatically, the stone held in the light again. “I’m gonna see if I can fool daddy with it!” He decided, pattering off to the back door of the house.
Inside, the man had risen to his feet in reaction to the opposing team scoring a goal. The voice of the station’s announcer battled with the din of the crowd while Augustus approached.
“Look, daddy, it’s gold.” He said, presenting the rock.
The father quickly looked down to the side, passing over the stone and turning his gaze to his son’s bare feet on the tile floor. “Oi, What the hell’ye doin, boy?” He shouted, waiving his hand in the air dismissively. “You’re tracking in the mud.”
“But-” The boy tried to speak up again.
“Get that thing out my face.” The father sneered, pushing the boy’s hands down. “It’s right dirty too.”
With a frown, the boy turned back to the door as his father took his seat once again to stare at the screen. His mother had posed herself at the door, watching the interaction play out. “Come on, August.” She called out. “Let’s grab the hose. We can wash it off along with your feet so we can put it up somewhere in your room.”
“Yes, mum.” The boy sniffed as he trudged back to the patio.
The blast of the cold water from the hose in his memory was just enough to jolt the man out of his daydream. He blinked at the screen several times as the dark hues of geothermal readings from the satellite crept by.
“Falling asleep, Agrippa?” The woman at the desk opposite his called out.
The weathered man rubbed at the bridge of his nose as he began to scan back through the software’s time line to bring him back to the point in the readings he recognized. “Nah, just getting distracted after looking at this mind-numbing stuff for so long.” He said with a sigh.
“So if I went off to snatch some coffee, you wouldn’t mind if I returned without some for you, right?” The woman suggested, swinging around in her chair.
“Thank you, Tulia, if you could.” Agrippa said, his eyes glued to the monitor. The spindly woman stood with a stretch before hobbling stiffly out of the room.
The computer screen displayed a blurry, lumpy picture of the Martian surface, in various colors of heat picked up by the satellite’s infrared camera. The recent footage taken had moved farther up the side of the Altum Crater where the station was located. The land was steep and generally unstable compared to the lower sections of the region around the station, but none of the surrounding area had presented any relevant results.
The Altum Crater, geologically speaking, was young crater; about 5 thousand years old. At about fifty kilometers across, it was also relatively small. The rim left from the impact overlapped that of another crater; dubbed ‘Adventum’ after the first manned mission there many years previous. The station sat nestled close to this overlapping section, the view of the top of the ridge visible on the clearer Mars days.
Tulia stretched her arm over Agrippa’s shoulder, placing the short mug of steaming liquid down with a clack on the surface of the desk. “Thank you.” Agrippa said, looking up at her slightly.
“My pleasure.” Tulia mumbled back. She continued to peer at the screen as she ran the edge of her own cup against her lip to again test the temperature of the liquid inside.
Agrippa picked up the coffee and took a tentative sip of the cloudy brown liquid. It was bitter and stale, but served its purpose. He blinked slowly at the screen as the recording continued its methodical back and forth sweeps over the small strip of land. Tulia breathed loudly out her nose and eventually found the urge to creep away back to her desk.
Agrippa heard her return to typing between the jostling of her papers and the plastic organizer full of various rock samples. The blurry edge of the map crept into view upon the screen, signaling the recording coming to an end.
“Still nothing.” Agrippa said, taking a glug from the coffee cup. The hot liquid stung his throat as it traveled down into his empty stomach.
“There’s always more area to scan. Next time we get some readings compiled…” Tulia replied absentmindedly. The clacks of her fingertips on the keys slowed to a near stop as she scanned the report for typos.
“There could be many next times.” Agrippa said, loudly clacking the glass down on his desk. “I think I need some food in me proper, or I’m going to topple over.”
“Go on ahead.” Tulia waved him off. “I need to get this over to station command before I wrap up.”
“Is the intranet down again?” Agrippa asked, double checking the status bar obscured by the open windows on his screen.
“Nah, it would just take too long.” The spindly woman replied. “It’s got a fresh index of pictures for the samples I want sent back to Earth on that ship.” She retrieved a well-used USB drive from a drawer under her desk and inserted it into the computer’s port before clicking away at the screen.
“Hand it here.” Agrippa said, leaning back in his chair with his arm stretched out. “I should let Cassius know we need more time.”
“You sure?” Tulia tilted her head at him. She blinked at the screen before unplugging the device, playing with it in her hand while looking at Agrippa’s palm.
Tulia plopped the drive in Agrippa’s hand. It was wrapped in a few sticky layers of electrical tape, and the rectangular sheath of the plug was just one bump shy of not being able to fit in the port. Agrippa stood and stretched his arms up in the air, his fingers rubbing against the ceiling.
“Don’t wait up.” Agrippa said, pausing at the threshold of the room. “Can’t confirm I’ll end up at the dining hall with you if Cassius keeps me long.”
“Keep it up, Agrippa.” The woman said just before he passed out of range.
Agrippa passed by the botany lab, through the corridor behind the hangar, and into the A Block where the crew quarters, med bay, and station command were located. He fidgeted with the USB drive in his fingers as he presented himself in front of the door to the room where the Commander would be holed up.
Agrippa placed his palm to the sensor, opening the door for him. Inside, he met with the back of several chairs, each facing a different terminal. A few sidewards glances turned his way before the largest seat in the middle turned fully around.
“Ah, Agrippa. If you’ve come all this way, you must come bearing something good to tell us.” The Commander welcomed him gruffly, dragging his meaty fingers through his wiry, long beard.
Agrippa challenged the large man’s fixed, unblinking stare. “No, Cassius, sir, nothing new to report, unfortunately.” He announced, attempting to judge the Commander’s twitching lips. He gently presented the USB drive forward between his fingers. “Just passing off something from my area.”
Cassius stood up from his seat stiffly and snatched the drive from Agrippa’s hand. He studied it for a second before jutting it in the direction of one of the filled seats to his left. “Summer, can you upload this and have it sent to Mission Control?”
“Can do.” The technician replied.
“Thank you. I suppose I’m going to step out for dinner.” Cassius said, taking a step forward towards Agrippa. “Won’t you join me?”
Agrippa turned to follow Cassius who had begun to step out the door and across the cramped hall to the room opposite. The large man walked through the door and squeezed past the desk to take a seat on the far side. The door closed behind Agrippa, and he took a seat to face the Commander.
“I wonder what they’re having.” Cassius pondered out loud. He tapped away at the speaker beside the desk as Agrippa watched on. The terminal cracked on, producing a voice.
“Do you have any meatloaf left?” Cassius asked, grinning at Agrippa hopefully.
“Indeed we do.” The voice scratched back in an excessively cheerful manner. “We’ve been saving it for you.”
Cassius winked at Agrippa upon hearing the news. “Bring over two servings, please. Add whatever else you might have today that sounds good.”
“I’ll get right on that, sir.” The voice complied just as Cassius ended the transmission. “So, nothing, yet?” He said, turning his attention to Agrippa.
“No, sir.” Agrippa shrugged.
“You know I don’t need to hear that ‘sir’ business from you. I’ll have my team recalibrate the satellite’s sensor to scan the next sector, then.” Cassius said, rolling his eyes. “Let’s hope we find something soon, though. Hard drive space is becoming a commodity here.”
“I understand.” Agrippa nodded quietly. “It’s not up to me what Mars offers up, though.”
Cassius sat back in his chair to eye Agrippa. “Obviously not.” The large man sighed. “But it’s our job to take advantage of what little opportunities it does offer us, though.”
Agrippa looked down at the table. The hard, slick metal was covered with greasy finger prints and bits of what looked like food. Across from him, Cassius tapped his toe loudly. A knock came to the door which drew his attention back up.
“Get that for me.” Cassius ordered. Agrippa turned to tap on the door controls, letting the lone crew member, holding two trays of food, inside.
“Smells great.” Cassius announced loudly. The man deposited the trays in front of them before quietly exiting the room.
Agrippa studied the fork as he slipped it out of its cloth napkin scabbard. The meal steamed as if it were fresh out of the microwave, humidly sitting beside a pile of pale corn kernels. “Interesting.” Agrippa muttered. On the other side of the table, Cassius had already wolfed down a few bites.
Agrippa cut off a bite of the meatloaf with his fork before placing it in his mouth and chewing it with precise bites. “I’m sorry I got your hopes up today, Heath.”
“If its not my hopes, its my blood pressure.” Cassius commented. “Not your fault. But you know that they’ll keep sending us the bare minimum if we don’t produce anything significant.”
Cassius sucked down another bite before continuing. “We’re just a glorified public works project, you know.” He said, waving his fork in the air. “Just soaking up money for something that won’t see any real use for years to come. Do you know how much it cost to get that big crane arm up here to put on that already expensive truck sitting in the hangar?”
“No idea.” Agrippa said, attempting to spear some of the bits of corn on his fork.
“Twelve billion big fat American Dollars.”
“In the grand scheme of things…”
“In the grand scheme of things-” Cassius interrupted. “Everything has a purpose, but people at home are too addled by the naysayers to see more than just their tax money headed off to space. We got the second wing of hydroponics up in just two weeks thanks to that piece of machinery, but now we’re hard-pressed to make any more significant progress.”
“I understand.” Agrippa reiterated. “We just need more power, now.”
“We have a turbine just sitting in storage, but the means to power it are sitting somewhere deep under some slab of rock.”
“We know it’s out there.” Agrippa insisted. “We found countless bits obsidian out here from volcanic activity. Some of those samples are even supposed to head back on that ship, soon as gets here.”
“We have plenty of rocks at home, Augustus.” Cassius sneered. “We need to know where they come from now.”
Agrippa slowly finished the last few bits of his meatloaf in silence. Cassius scraped the film of meat juice and ketchup off the metal tray loudly with the back of his fork, wiping what he could across his lips and tongue. Agrippa sat his own utensil down on the empty tray and stood.
“I appreciate you treating me. Believe me, my eyes will stay peeled.” Agrippa stood, careful to keep the seat in the place he found it.
“Peeled suggests that you will only see what is right before your eyes.” Cassius said, plopping his fork down loudly as Agrippa pushed upon the door controls.
“Searching, seeking, keeping my head on a swivel. Whatever you want to call it.” Agrippa leaned upon the door jamb, his back facing the Commander.
“Better.” Cassius said. As Agrippa stepped out into the hall, a quick glance back revealed a silent smirk on the Commander’s face.
Agrippa continued down the cramped corridor several rooms to the heavy doorway that lead into his own chambers. He stepped inside and turned on the dull, orange ceiling light before securing the door latch behind him. As he sat down on his bed, he felt the heavy meal and coffee from before slosh back and forth, weighing down upon the lining of his stomach. An acidic burp climbed up his throat and stung his sinuses. The imprint from his head on the pillow was still present from when he had awoken that morning.
He stood up again to the displeasure of his stomach and moved to the upright-backed seat at his desk. The monitor attached to the surface lit up as he depressed the springy power button on the compact console tucked into the corner of the room. The first window that appeared shortly after prodded him for his credentials, which he managed to enter correctly on the second try.
A few stray messages popped up for him as the station’s intranet routed him to the frail signal heading back to Earth. Opening the window of the mail server revealed to him the collection of subject lines yet to be seen by him; a random test message, the notice for a fire drill that had happened two weeks previous, something from the medbay nurses reminding people that the regiment of supplements had changed slightly. The scroll bar at the side of the screen moved in tiny increments as he scrolled downward.
“Hard drive space is a commodity here.” Cassius’s words echoed in Agrippa’s mind. He began to check the boxes beside the subject lines to begin marking them for deletion. The dates began to stretch backwards until almost two months previous when a particular address stopped him mid-click: Julie Agrippa. Without thinking, he moved to open it, hesitating to begin reading the words as the message opened.
You probably know it’s my husband who’s better with the technology, but at least I got him to help me set up my account. Your agency doesn’t make things terribly user friendly. Anyways… just saying hi! Mom asks about you some times, and god forbid she try to connect up with you like this. I think I’m rambling. Just thought I’d reach out.
Actually, I wanted to give you the news that you’re going to be an uncle!… if that matters to you all the way out there. I don’t know if you remember, but Jamison and I were trying for a long time. Mom is pretty ecstatic too. It’s actually kinda nice that we’re in a place in our lives right now where we can truly raise a family comfortably.
I feel like should have thought of a few questions to ask you, but I can’t remember the last time we actually talked about what you would be doing up there. Nevertheless, I’d love to hear back from you.
Julie, Jamison, and the little one (still deciding on a name.)
Agrippa scanned the contents of the letter a second time before rubbing at the bridge of his nose and wiping the tears from the corners of his eyes. “An uncle, huh?” He mumbled to himself. With a tap of the reply button, he began to type out a response.
Dear Julie… and company.
It’s so strange hearing about things going on back on Earth. If you’ll excuse the double entendre, you must forgive me for being so distant. But… a baby! I’m so happy for you.
We stay busy up here, and we’re always working on something new. Our Commander has me working on a mission that may lead us to a big breakthrough. I don’t know what you hear down there on Earth about the station, but you might want to keep your eyes peeled.
It’s late here and I’m going to sleep soon, but I wanted to get this message out before I did so. I plan to write more often, I promise!
Pushing the send button, Agrippa leaned back in the chair and stretched his arms up as the loading bar rolled towards the end of the screen, finally jettisoning the message through space and back to Earth. He flicked at the button on the computer’s monitor and rolled out of the seat to the bed.
As his eyes grew heavier with sleep, the words of the letter replayed in his mind. Rolling back and forth, he began to focus on the low buzz of the electricity running in the conduits of the station overhead. Just as the darkness of sleep began to overtake him, a small chime from the computer caused his eyes to flicker back open.
Agrippa returned to the desk and flipped the screen back on. He blinked his eyes into the white brightness of the panel as the response of the notification flashed at him.
Wow, you must be really busy! :)
I mean, really, I’m glad to hear from you. You know that original message was from almost, like, two months ago, right? We’ve already come up with a name for the baby and everything.
Agrippa pursed his lips as he read through the abrupt message, his hand moving the cursor to the reply button. He immediately began tapping away at the response.
I’d love to hear all about it! Is it a boy or a girl? You’ve got to shove as much into these messages as possible. It’s hard to have a proper conversation when the communications take a 15 minute round trip.
After thinking for a few long seconds about whether the message sounded condescending or not, he returned to the send button. The message went off once again. Agrippa stared into the bright whiteness of the communications window, his eyes twitching in anticipation of something to update. After at least a minute, he leaned back in the chair and rested his eyes. Another five minutes passed, bringing Agrippa to his feet to keep himself from nodding off. He then returned to the seat to look at the computer’s clock, avoiding the time stamp for the message he had sent in order to keep himself guessing.
A second chime brought his eyes back from their path traveling around the bits of the room just outside the screen’s glow; Julie Agrippa:
Four sentences? Speak for yourself! Hah, just kidding, sorry!! I was getting dinner ready to put in the oven. Uh… lasagna, if you were wondering. Jamison likes my recipe, even if it’s just something I found on-line. I hope you’re eating well up there.
The baby is a boy. We just found out, actually. We were thinking of naming it after dad. Ulysses. We are kind of imagining a strong name like will give on to us strong, happy baby to take it on. I know you’re not sentimental, but I know there must be a way to bring a twinkle to your eye. Mom seems to like the name, and, well… you were never going to give her grandchildren. Like I said, don’t worry, I’ve got it covered, somehow!
Anyway, we’ll probably be eating by the time your message comes back around. Jamison says hi, by the way! He just came in. I don’t want to keep you up, so… goodnight, I guess. Get back when you can!
Agrippa rubbed at his brow, reading the name Ulysses, the syllables making his lips dance as he said them silently to himself. He began to write the final message for the night:
Seems as if you’re doing well for yourself. Don’t wait on me to finalize the name your baby. Likely, I won’t ever see him. All I can do is be happy for you and send you my best wishes. Goodnight, sis.
Agrippa turned the bright screen off after hitting ‘send’ and promptly slid to the bed and deposited himself on the covers. As soon as he flipped over, he could feel himself slip off into the blackness.