Goodbye to Rock

by Richard Leis

A half inch of ash fell overnight. Masked neighbors collect it from cars and curbside in little glass vials and other containers. I was going to be a geologist. Now I label and store a vial in the basement on a shelf, next to a vial of Mount St. Helens.

NASA still plans to launch their crewed mission to Mars, and my boyfriend Declan and I decide to stick with our travel plans and drive diagonal across the continent to watch. His family and my family make it sound like we’re fleeing. Refugees. We might not even make it. We remind them that road trips and human exploration lead back, without adding “if all goes well.” Ride an explosion, walk on another rocky surface, collect some samples, more vials, return with the samples on top of another explosion. We can be there to cheer them on.

If all goes well.

Miles beneath our wheels there is life, microorganisms thriving deep within the Earth’s crust. If the world is ending, it will be extinction for many living things on the surface and, perhaps, the collapse of human civilization, and I don’t want to be around all these people I know in these unpredictable times. I only want to be around one person I know and a bunch of strangers wishing a Mars-bound crew a safe flight and a breathing planet to come home to.

Declan and I keep zapping each other when we touch.

When amber—a material produced by plant life and then fossilized into rock—is rubbed by fur it attracts other objects to it. The discoverers of this phenomenon used the Greek word for amber, further modified by Latin, to describe this attraction: electron.

“That’s neat,” Declan declares. Declan and I keep zapping each other while we ride in our electric car, ahead of the mass exodus that could follow us if more inactive volcanoes in the West fire up and that hot spot in central Canada turns out to be something major. Electron, electricity, electronics, computers, information, internet, metaverse, photonics. Zapping each other becomes a joke, but once we hit Nebraska, there’s no charge between us, only silence. Declan is difficult to deal with on long trips. I always make it worse. We’ll survive the lull, recalibrate when Florida finally doesn’t feel so far away.

We immerse ourselves in augmented reality to pass the time. While Declan drives through cities, I spy through my glasses Shakespeare’s bustling London. In between, the English countryside. Actors voice the playwright’s words until it’s my time to drive. We don’t trust that level of immersion while driving, though the technology companies assure everyone that overlays are perfectly safe and will automatically fall away at the first sign of serious trouble or by order of local authorities during local extreme conditions.

“How very pastoral,” Declan declaims before replacing my preferences with his exoplanetary science fiction. We trade off and avoid sleep lanes because we want to get to Florida as quickly as possible. At any moment, we could be interrupted by bad news about what we left behind. What we claim we are going back to.

Photons from the sun no longer hidden behind ominous red haze break the ice, and we’re in Florida, where soon afternoon thunderstorms pelt our car with hail and rain and interrupt Declan’s celestial immersion. A planned brain-machine interface threaded up through veins promises to replicate smell and taste in the metaverse. The crew readying to go to Mars says in an interview they prefer the tactile sensations of physical exploration, have more in common with we safe drivers and we collectors of ash than we escapees to virtual past or far future. Declan and I discuss how jargon doesn’t mean anything, it isn’t either-or, it’s related to the topic at hand, not the reality of our pending demise. Why shouldn’t people escape? Why shouldn’t crews launch to Mars? Why shouldn’t we leave everyone behind to go see? What is there to go back to?

Northwest, there are multiple vertical and lateral pyroclastic blasts assaulting and overwhelming all senses, while southeast we drive through Orlando. Our room is waiting at the hotel we booked, the launch is still on, and humanity succumbs in droves. Declan demands the launch, and I agree with him, but our eyes, ears, tongue, nose, and skin grieve. We keep touching and we keep grieving.

“Goodbye to rock,” I say, not exactly sure what I’m getting at. “At least for a little while.”

Declan doesn’t disagree.

Early the next morning, we leave the AR glasses in our room, and head out to the beach. Crowds stand with their backs to the north and west. We wait with strangers for the countdown, though there are rumors of an imminent scrub right up until fire and smoke, right up until rumble, right up until sky and journey and escape and vacuum.


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