Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 18
Stories
Trinity County, CA
by Peter S. Beagle
The Mystery of Miranda
by David Simons
Forcing Coin
by William T. Vandemark
The Quanta of Art
by Adam Colston
How About It, Roomie?
by Chase Guyman
Bonus OSC Story Serialization
Eye for Eye Part Two
by Orson Scott Card
IGMS Audio
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews

The Mystery of Miranda
    by David A. Simons

The Mystery of Miranda
Artwork by Scott Altmann

I learned about the canyon from Shelley, an ex I hadn't seen or thought about for fifteen years.

I almost deleted the message unread when I saw who it was from. But Shelley being Shelley, she'd known just what to say to get my attention.

"I've found something," she began, "which might interest you."

She sent the message from the surface of Miranda, one of Uranus' inner moons, where she was trailing a team of miners on a geological survey. Deep inside Miranda's Chevron Valley, they'd stumbled upon the rim of a previously uncharted canyon. It was narrow, crescent-shaped, mostly obscured by shadow, missed by both the Voyager and Bard probes. The miners scanned a few rock samples at the lip, found nothing which interested them, and moved on.

But Shelley had lingered. She'd dropped in a stream of radar balls, constructing a crude map of the canyon's interior. When she saw the results, she didn't share them with the miners. She sent the map directly to me.

It was the deepest canyon in the solar system. Twenty-three kilometers, straight down, from surface to floor. Three times deeper than the Hebes Chasma on Mars, twice as deep as the Herschel crater on Mimas, deeper even than the ice rifts of Tethys. A dark void in the ground, like an open mouth, plunging to depths never encountered by man.

The moment I received Shelley's message, I began making plans. I would be the first to reach the canyon's floor.

"Ready whenever you are, boss," said Wil. He and Katherine stood ten meters back from the canyon's rim, decked out in the latest UltraThins, kicking at the dusty ground impatiently.

It was morning, if there is such a thing in the outer solar system. Uranus hung low in the sky behind me, casting a green glow over the jagged peaks of Chevron Valley. To my right sat our lander, its feet braced against the icy ground, the climbing rope extruding from its belly, drawn taut over the white-gray surface rock. And directly in front of me, the canyon beckoned -- a thin black ribbon, snaking across Miranda's ragged landscape.

I was ready, too. I'd tossed the rope's weighted free end over the rim fifteen minutes ago, double-checking the connections as they slid by; it should now be settled at the bottom. But Wil's announcement wasn't meant for me, it was meant for the fourth member of our party.

Shelley.

As a quid pro quo for telling me -- and only me -- about the canyon, I'd agreed to bring her on the climb and let her collect rock samples for her lab. As I'd feared, she was already slowing us down.

Shelley's pressure suit was one of the old, clunky beasts I'd given her on Mars fifteen years ago. She'd loaded it up with a belt full of terrestrial geology tools -- chisels, sonic scanners, and portable mass specs -- and now she strapped two enormous sample bins to her air tanks, tripling her width.

"I wouldn't carry all that mass," I said mildly.

"The gravity here is less than one percent g," she retorted. "I weigh one pound. I think I can handle it."

True, but if she filled those bins with rocks, her lateral momentum would be unwieldy. I shrugged. I had my diamond knife. If she slowed us down, I'd just cut the sample bins free.

I switched to the group frequency. "Shelley's radar map shows nine ledges on the north wall. We'll rappel down the rope, single file, ledge to ledge. Stay above me, and don't let your speed exceed three meters per second. Clear?"

Katherine smiled politely and nodded. Wil smirked and saluted. Shelley finished adjusting her gear and balanced on her knees, watching me.

I clipped the rope to a pair of carabiners on my hip, then shuffled my feet backwards to the precipice. Holding the rope loosely in both hands, I raised my chin, surveying the surface one last time.

It is this moment that I cherish the most. Not the climb itself, or even the moment of triumph, but this moment, the moment just before. The canyon was still a mystery -- unexplored, unseen, unknown. When I do reach a destination, even when I'm the first, I'm always a little saddened. There would be one less new thing to see.

"Remember," I said, "stay behind me on the rope. I touch the bottom first."

I turned away from the others, looked down into the black abyss, and stepped over the rim.

For the first several hundred meters, the rising sun illuminated the canyon's wall. From above, it appeared to be a sheer cliff, but inside, it blossomed into three dimensions. Bulges, ledges, sharp angles impossible in higher g. Mottled mixtures of white and gray, ice and rock, just like the surface.

Ten minutes in, the light faded to reflections, then disappeared. The canyon was now pitch black. I turned up my headlamp and lightly squeezed the rope, slowing my descent to a steady two meters per second.

Wil and Katherine were descending smoothly, thirty meters up rope. Skillfully, I had to admit.

They were a husband and wife team, "Firsters," like me, but for all the wrong reasons. They'd been the first to summit Olympus Mons on foot, the first to surf a comet's tail, the first to ride a geyser on Enceladus. Stunts, not exploration. For Wil and Katherine, it wasn't about seeing new things, it was about being seen.

They were the last people I wanted to climb with, but I couldn't afford a trip to Uranus alone. So we made a deal. I let them in on the expedition, and they agreed to let me explore the canyon floor first, alone. I had little doubt they would try to break that agreement.

It wasn't Wil and Katherine who worried me now, though, it was Shelley. She lagged hundreds of meters up rope, her headlamp swinging wildly each time she adjusted speed. Every few hundred meters, she'd pause to inspect the wall and take mass spec data. Every kilometer, she'd stop her descent entirely to chisel a rock sample.

I reached the top ledge on schedule, followed by Wil and Katherine. I stayed on the line, blocking their path, until they'd unclipped from the rope. They moved to the far side of the ledge where they sat, feet suspended over the edge, talking on their private frequency.

Finally, fifteen minutes later, Shelley arrived. She unclipped, walked directly to the canyon wall, knelt down, and began chipping away at a rock.

I walked up behind her and activated a private channel.

"You can hammer during breaks," I said, "but don't stop your descent. We're already twenty minutes behind schedule."

Shelley stopped chiseling. Her shoulders rose and fell with a heavy sigh. "Lance, do you even know why I'm here? Why I'm risking my life in some uncharted canyon, with you of all people? Have you even thought about that?"

There were several ways to answer that, so I just stayed silent.

"Take a look at these two rocks. Tell me what you see."

She'd laid out two samples. One white, the other gray.

I said, "One is mostly ice. The other some kind of basalt. Just like every other rock on this moon."

"Exactly! That's what's so remarkable."

I knew what she was getting at, of course, why geologists were so obsessed with Miranda. I just didn't care. I was interested in the canyon's present, not its past.

"Do you remember that time we hiked up Ophir Peak? When I spotted Uranus in my scope and told you all about the mystery of Miranda?"

I remembered Ophir Peak. A small mountain overlooking Mars' Candor Chasma. Spectacular views. I'd spent months exploring the hidden nooks and caves of that canyon, before the mining bots moved in.

"Well," Shelley said, "nothing's changed. It's still a mystery. We've now imaged every moon in the solar system, and they all show some kind of recognizable geology -- young rocks on top of old, or at least patterns. But Miranda is different. It's a jumbled, jagged mish-mash of ice and rock, as though someone broke it apart with a hammer and glued the pieces back together."

Wil and Katherine had finished their break and were now heading back toward the descent rope. I'd locked a splicer to the line so they couldn't leave without me, but still.

"Time to go," I said. Shelley scooped up her samples and stood. I gripped her arm, not to help her up, but to keep her from flying off her feet, then steered her to the rope.

"This canyon is important, Lance. It's not just another of your trophy climbs. It descends ten percent of the way to the core. If I can collect samples from the bottom, we might finally learn what happened to this moon."

I cut in front of Wil, beating him back to the rope. He gestured grandly toward the canyon floor, grinning. You first.

I stayed on Shelley's private frequency. "This isn't Mars, Shelley. If you want to reach those depths without running out of air, then keep my pace. Sample all you want from the ledges, but don't stop your descent. Understood?"

"Fair enough," she said.

I unlocked the splicer, hooked in my carabiner, and stepped off the ledge. The others followed.

For the next several legs, we made better time. Shelley slowed to take mass spec data but didn't chisel any samples, except during breaks. She was also getting more proficient at using friction to control speed, rather than squeezing the rope and jerking to a stop. We settled into a steady, quiet rhythm.

I'd positioned Shelley between me and Wil on the line so I could keep a closer eye on her. As I watched her slide through the inky darkness, I found myself doing something I rarely do: thinking about the past.

I met Shelley sixteen years ago, back when I worked for MME, the Martian Mining Enterprise, testing new pressure suits for extended external operations. The job was an excuse, really, to explore Mars' untouched equatorial chasmas before they were inevitably mapped and defiled. Shelley was a young geologist stationed at the colony, part of MME's science outreach. A week after she arrived, she loped into my lab, a pressure suit draped over her arm.

"They call you the Martian Magellan," she said.

I had both arms deep inside the polymer press, stretching out my latest prototype. I turned off the machine and glanced up. She looked young -- younger than her years, even -- with a pleasant shape and an eager smile. She gripped an edge of the plastic wall, still unsteady in the Martian gravity.

"They tell me you've been up the Tharsis volcanoes, down Melas and Cando Chasmas, only you never tell anyone where you're going or where you've been."

"I'm testing prototypes."

She smiled, knowingly. "When do you head out next?"

"Day after tomorrow." I pointed at the suit taking shape in the press. "As soon as this congeals."

"Take me with you. I'm fully certified for exterior. On your suits, in fact."

I took her on a three day jaunt across Juventae Chasma, a deep lake bed below the Ophir Planum. I'd traversed it once before, but the colored canyon walls and hidden caves were worth a second look. After the trip, we began sharing quarters.

For awhile, the relationship was satisfying. We were compatible physically, and she seemed to understand my need to see new things first. She only accompanied me on short range outings, and when we'd discover a hidden cave, she'd let me venture inside first, alone, and only follow if I called for her.

Over time, though, her demands changed. She began requesting that I bring back rock samples from my excursions, something she knew I wouldn't do. When I refused, she stuck geology texts in my inbox, with pithy notes about the "rush" she gets from a scientific discovery. She dropped hints about degree programs back home, near her family's compound in Colorado.

Eventually it ended, like they all end. MME began experimenting with exploration bots, tiny crawlers set loose in the canyons, scurrying, imaging, sampling every square inch. I raced to stay ahead of them, my excursions taking me farther and farther from the colony. Shelley chafed at my extended absences, the long periods of silence. Her demeanor grew bitter, demanding.

Through my contacts at MME, I learned they were building a new base on Ganymede, in the Jovian system. They needed a scout, someone comfortable in the lunar gravities of the Galilean moons. They promised there would be no exploration bots, at least for a few years. I signed on. I sent Shelley a short note from the transport craft, after we'd cleared the orbit of Mars.

By the time we left the canyon's fifth ledge, halfway down, we were back on schedule. Shelley had taken dozens of samples from the first five ledges, muttering that the rocks were still uniform, that she needed more data, but she kept her promise not to stop. Wil and Katherine had stayed dutifully up rope, behind Shelley, remaining silent.

Somewhere between the fifth and sixth ledges, my radio clicked on. It was Shelley, on the private frequency. "You know, Lance, I've tracked your career all these years, since that night you left Mars. Penetrating those caves on Ganymede, the ice cliffs on Europa, that Io volcano thing."

I can't say I'd followed Shelley's career, but I did look her up after getting her message about the canyon. After Mars, she'd returned to Earth, where she'd become a professor. She'd published dozens of papers about the geology of the Martian chasmas, then a few about the Galilean moons of Jupiter and Saturn's Enceladus. Recently, she'd entered the Great Debate about Miranda. Married once, briefly, no children.

"I heard," she went on, "that MME fired you for hiding deposits from them."

That was true. Even now, their bots had only found a fraction of the caves I discovered on Ganymede and Amalthea.

"Are you still in the Saturn system?" she asked. "Living with those crazy homesteaders in Herschel crater?"

"They give me space," I said. "And Saturn has dozens of moons to explore."

"So what will you do when the miners settle Saturn? Move out here? To the Kuiper belt? Sail off to interstellar space?"

I pointed my helmet light straight down and narrowed the beam. I could see only the rope, undulating from side to side like a dancing snake. At the limit of my headlamp, it disappeared into inky abyss. The canyon's floor was still too distant to see. I increased speed to three meters per second.

Shelley's laugh broke the silence. "Don't you get it, Lance? You're not exploring, you never have been. You're running. You've always been running."

After I'd left Mars, Shelley had sent me a series of letters. The first were pleas to join her, back on Earth. When I didn't respond, the letters turned angry, analytical. I was a junky, she said, hooked on exploration, too selfish to care about anything or anyone else. There were more choice words, but I stopped reading the letters, and after a few months, she stopped sending them. But now, to my annoyance, she was at it again.

"You know how this ends, don't you? This running of yours? It ends with you dead, alone, buried in some hidden cave, or on the bottom of some frozen canyon."

I clicked on my radio, to tell her that I could think of worse fates, but Wil cut in on the common frequency.

"Uh, boss, your girlfriend has stopped again. She's got her chisel out. We don't have unlimited air, you know."

I clicked back to Shelley's private frequency. "Dammit, Shelley, we had an agreement."

"Climb back up here, Lance. You have to see this." She sounded out of breath.

I squeezed the rope until my downward progress stopped, then pulled gently, floating back up toward the others.

She had her headlamp trained on a small rock in the wall. It was smooth and black, about the size of her hand. And reflective, which seemed impossible on this cold, dusty world. It was beautiful, I realized. Like a gem.

"What is it?" I asked.

"No idea. It's got carbon in it. And some silica, maybe, but my sensors don't recognize the structures. I've never seen anything like it. Might be from the moon's core."

She beat at the wall with her chisel, trying to pry the gem free.

"Leave it," I said.

"Maybe you could retrieve it on the way up," offered Katherine, using her silky voice. "If we have time."

Shelley continued hammering. "If I do nothing else today, I'm taking this sample."

There was a jostling of bodies, then Wil was next to Shelley, trying to pass her on the line. "We'll wait for you at the next ledge," he said.

I blocked him. "No! I go down first, remember? If you pass me, I swear I'll cut the line." Wil stopped. Katherine stopped behind him, her arm around his waist.

"Shelley, how long will it take you to get this sample?"

"Ten more minutes."

"You've got eight. And to make up the time, we'll skip the next three ledges and go straight to the ninth. Clear?"

Shelley nodded. Wil and Katherine spoke on their private frequency, then opened a line to me. "That's reasonable," said Katherine. "We're happy to wait."

Ten minutes later, the gem was free. Shelley held it in front of her helmet light, turning it around in her hand.

Its entire surface was smooth and black, reflecting Shelley's headlamp like a mirror. Its front end, the part that had been buried in the wall, was sharp, pointed, with flat sides, like a cut diamond. Shelley held it out toward me. I shook my head. She labeled it and dropped it into her sample bin.

We continued down the rope.

I increased our speed to four meters per second, coasting past the six, seventh, and eight ledges, heading towards the last.

We saw more of the black gems. They were getting larger, too--I passed one longer than my arm, jutting out from the wall like a spear. All were wedged into the wall at an angle, their smooth back ends pointed downward toward the canyon floor. Whatever they were, they'd come from below.

Shelley asked twice to stop, but I ignored her and continued downward. When we passed the eighth ledge, she buzzed me again. I tapped my radio, so she knew I could hear her, but I didn't respond. The canyon was getting interesting.

It widened as we descended, something Shelley's crude radar map hadn't resolved. And there was a curvature to the walls, as though we were entering a bowl, or a crater.

The mysterious gem shards were everywhere. Most were still black, but I'd spotted a few reds and a translucent one that refracted my headlamp into a rainbow -- an astonishing sight twenty kilometers below ground on a gray, frozen moon.

We reached the ninth and final ledge, a mere three hundred meters from the bottom. We'd made up all the lost time, so I locked the splicer to the descent line, shuffled to the rear of the ledge underneath the overhanging wall, leaned back, and looked up.

It's a compulsion that I have. Whenever I find a new cave, I stop, look up, and picture the first cave I ever explored.

I grew up in Northern Arkansas, in a crowded home near a patch of dark woods. Those woods captivated me. Summers, I'd slip away from my six older siblings and explore, wooden staff in hand, imagining myself to be Jacques Cartier or Ernest Shackleton.

One June afternoon, I came across a thin stream that disappeared into the side of a hill. I dug through bushes and dirt with my staff, made an opening, and slithered through on my belly. The ground fell out from under me and I slid downward over wet rock, crashing to rest in a muddy puddle at bottom.

When my eyesight adjusted, I saw that I was inside a tall, round dome beneath the hill. Dozens of stalactites clung to the ceiling, some stretching down more than a meter. A beam of sunlight broke through the jagged hole I'd made, dancing off the stalactites and the floor. Narrow passages spoked away from the dome.

I spent the next two months exploring that cavern. I crawled through every passageway I found, some barely wider than my shoulders. I drew maps on construction paper and hid them under my mattress. I told no one.

In late August, I breached a new duct at the edge of my maps, and when I looked up, I saw a spot of light. I heard voices. I reached the light, a tiny crack at the top of the wall, and peered through.

On the other side were tourists. Pasty-faced suburbanites following a guide holding a glowing flag. It was an enormous chamber, ten times bigger than any I'd found. Electric lights draped the walls and the ceiling. Paved walkways, with rails, steered the group on their casual walk. The guide's voice droned on about the cave's history and geology.

I backed away from the crack of light, retraced my steps through my carefully mapped passageways, and climbed out the slope I'd fallen down two months before.

It turned out I hadn't discovered anything at all. I'd just stumbled into a side entrance to a well-known show cave. My portion was too narrow and dry for tourists, so it had been left undeveloped. There were maps online which matched my drawings precisely.

In school the next fall, I learned that every square foot of the planet had been scanned, probed, radared, and meticulously mapped in the early 21st century. There were no dark woods anymore, no hidden caves. The twenty-first century's first great accomplishment, the textbooks said. They didn't seem to realize what had been lost.

I shredded my maps and dumped them into the compost pile behind our house. I never went back to that cave again.

Shelley is wrong about me. I'm not running, I'm searching. I've always been searching. For something, anything, new, unseen, unmapped. Because when I find that thing no one else has seen, for a moment, at least, I'm back in those dark woods.

And here, 23 kilometers below the surface of Miranda, three billion kilometers from Earth, I had once again found something new. The concave wall above me was dotted with the gem shards, poking out from the overhang like stalactites. Light from my helmet bounced among them, sometimes reflecting, sometimes refracting, forming a tapestry of color on the canyon wall.

"Lance? Lance? Are you ready?" Now it was Shelley who was in a damn hurry. She'd noticed that the shards were all jammed upward into the wall, realized they were flung from below. "Magma chamber? Volcanic glass?" she mumbled. She didn't sound convinced. She wanted to reach the bottom.

Slowly I stood, grasped Shelley's arm, and led her back to the descent line.

Where were Wil and Katherine? I widened my headlamp beam and swept the ledge. They were twenty meters away, at the rim of the ledge, but nowhere near the rope. I was about to castigate them for the safety lapse when I noticed something: they'd removed their ankle weights.

Wil saluted. "See you at the bottom, boss!"

And then they jumped.

I took a step toward the precipice then caught myself, clinging to the line. I did some quick math in my head: 300 meters, 0.008g. It would be a hard landing, but they'd make it. They'd see the bottom first.

Shelley laughed. She'd done the math as well. "Didn't think of that, did you?"

I stood silently on the ledge, the cave dissolving to mist in my mind's eye. I waited, absolutely still, until my heart rate returned to normal. I grasped the rope with both hands and slowly, steadily, resumed my descent.

In this micro-gravity, it would take Wil and Katherine ninety seconds to reach the bottom. They talked at me the entire way down.

"It's the deepest canyon in the solar system," said Wil. "Did you really think we'd let you touch bottom first? It's an Armstrong moment!"

"We'll save a portion for you," said Katherine, in that annoying silky voice. "A third of the floor, somewhere above deepest point, for you to explore on your own. That's only fair."

"Yeah," added Wil, "a nice cave or two. You can make your maps."

I stayed silent, continued my steady descent.

"You're not that different from us, you know" said Katherine. "You think you are, but you're not."

The ninety seconds were up, and they finally stopped yapping.

Then the screaming began.

First Katherine: a full throated, high-pitched scream of terror. "Katie! Katie!" shouted Wil. There was a soft grunt, followed by that awful hissing, gurgling sound I'd only heard twice before. Katherine's screams stopped.

Then Wil: another scream, another grunt, another hiss. Silence.

I continued descending, but slowed my speed to two meters per second.

I heard a new noise in my helmet. It was Shelley, hyperventilating. I looked up. She was pulling herself back up the rope, as fast as she could, her sample bins swinging back and forth, whacking into each other.

I squeezed, stopping my descent, then yanked the rope, sending myself flying upward. After three heaves, I reached Shelley and grabbed her ankle. I jerked her down to my eye level, placed my mask against hers and yelled "Stop!" She did.

"What happened?" she asked, eyes wide, still breathing through her mouth. "What happened? What happened to them?"

"Their suits decompressed. They're dead. Or will be shortly."

Shelley closed her eyes. She pulled me toward her, digging her gloved hands into my back. I let her hold me, waiting for her breathing to steady. Five minutes passed.

"Climb back up to the ninth ledge," I said, once she'd calmed. "Go slowly. Wait for me there."

"What about you?"

"I'm going to finish my descent."

Shelley released my arm. I extracted my diamond knife and slashed her sample bins free, cutting her mass by two-thirds. The bins drifted, spinning, toward the canyon floor.

I pulled away from Shelley and resumed my descent.

I slid down the rope slowly, a meter at a time, my headlamp pointed straight down. For ten minutes, I could see only the rope, trailing away into darkness. Then structures emerged. Gray bulks at first, then color.

The canyon floor was filled with gem shards. All different shapes and colors, like pieces of broken sculpture. Some were small and sharp, pointing upward menacingly, others large and smooth, like fallen tree trunks.

I slowed to a stop a few meters above the floor. Kicking against the top of a smooth shard, I swung to my right, until I was above a open patch of ground, and released the rope. Ten seconds later, my feet softly kissed the ground.

I widened my headlamp beam and swept the terrain. Shards, as far as I could see, and blackness beyond. The rope's slack, several hundred meters worth, piled up around them.

I attached a homing beacon to the rope pile and headed away, walking toward Wil's and Katherine's likely landing spot.

I didn't know much geology, but these shards didn't look like volcanic glass. Too fine, too symmetrical. I passed one that was almost a perfect sphere, another with long, red branches, or tendrils. I reached down and touched it. It was flexible, even in this brutal cold.

I found Wil and Katherine. As I'd expected, they were impaled on shards.

Katherine had landed stomach first on a tall spike. It had passed through, leaving her suspended a few feet above the ground, arms outstretched, now frozen in place. Wil hadn't fared much better. He'd landed in a sitting position, hands reaching toward Katherine. Two jagged shards had pierced his rear and thigh, just enough to depressurize the suit. His face was frozen in a scream, eyes lined with burst blood vessels.

I couldn't help but notice they'd never touched the canyon floor.

I extracted their bodies from the spikes and carried them over my head, one in each hand, back toward the rope, navigating around shards.

As I approached the rope pile, I saw two lights, not one. My homing beacon, where I'd left it, and a headlamp.

It was Shelley. She'd followed me down to the canyon floor and now knelt on the ground, mass spec sensor in hand.

She looked up, her headlamp beam swinging to Wil, then to Katherine, then to my mask, momentarily blinding me.

"I never liked climbing," she said. "Even back then. I only did it because of you."

I placed Wil and Katherine on the ground, spun them onto their stomachs, and located their air supplies. Both still more than half full. I pumped the remaining liquid O2 into Shelley's and my tanks, topping us off. Now, I would have time to explore.

Shelley had lined up a dozen shards in front of her and was methodically scanning and labeling them.

"Stay within sight of the rope," I said. "And keep your radio on. I'm going to walk around." Shelley did not look up.

I hiked away from Shelley, heading slightly downhill, toward the highest concentration of gem shards.

They were getting steadily grander, more varied in shape and color. I passed one enormous cylinder, stretched across the ground like a fallen sequoia. I pulled out my diamond knife, braced my feet under a rock, and gave it a whack. The cylinder scratched, but didn't crack. The knife rang in my hand, sending vibrations through my elbow.

I continued downhill, passing through a forest of shards, until abruptly, the shards stopped.

I was standing now in flat, open terrain, the ground once again the familiar mixture of white ice and gray rock. I turned my headlamp to max power and aimed it straight ahead.

Well, I'd solved The Mystery of Miranda.

Shelley was right that something had crashed into the moon like a hammer, eons ago, bursting it apart. Only that something wasn't a comet or moon fragment, as her papers had all suggested.

The ship was shaped like an egg, resting on its side, cracked open in the middle. The hull was smooth and black -- the same material as the gem Shelley dug from the canyon wall. Twenty meters high, half again as long. From the canyon floor, I could see only hints of the interior -- wrecked passageways, jumbles of multi-colored shards, strewn about in the chaos of disaster.

From where I stood, I couldn't tell much about the alien occupant of the ship, if there even was one. But with a certainty I couldn't explain, I knew this: He was an explorer. He'd traveled farther and farther, searching, and wound up here, at the bottom of a hidden canyon, dead, in a place no one else had ever seen.

My radio clicked on. "Lance? It's been an hour. Are you okay? Did you find something?"

I knew what Shelley would do if she saw this place. She'd fill her camera stick with pictures of the wreck, bring samples home, write a paper. Geologists, astrobiologists, engineers, historians, tourists would all descend on the canyon, filling it with lights, turning it into a show cave, with the egg and its occupant the centerpiece. There are reasons, I thought, why I focus on the present, and not on the future or the past.

"Stay where you are, Shelley," I said. "There's nothing for you here."

I turned away from the broken egg and headed back toward the rope, navigating around shards, moving as fast as I could.

Shelley and I sat on the ninth ledge, the one with the overhang. She'd spread a dozen shards on the ground in front of her and was stroking them, one at a time. She shook her head. "Still a mystery."

"Is that so bad?" I asked.

"No, I suppose not." She stuffed most of the samples into her suit pockets, as many as she could fit, leaving the larger ones behind.

"I'm sorry about the things I said to you, Lance, on the way down. You really hurt me, all those years ago."

I turned and looked at Shelley, truly looked at her, maybe for the first time. For a moment, I saw what had appealed to me all those years ago. The eager eyes, now softened with age. The desire.

The moment passed.

"Any chance you'll come back, Lance?" she asked. "Bring me with you? Help me gather more samples, figure out where these gems came from?"

I sat with my legs suspended over the cliff's edge, turning a small, red shard over and over in my hand. I tossed it over the ledge and watched it float, slowly, back toward the canyon floor.

I shook my head.

There were still new things to see.


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