by Andrew Gudgel
The data-slab lay in her palm, slate gray and no bigger than her thumbnail. Hailan thought
about simply turning her hand over, letting the slab fall onto the rocky ground here on the floor of
One stamp of the foot, and no one would ever know. But it was too late--she'd already
mentioned the grottoes in her last report, and now she couldn't not follow up on them. She sighed
and hooked a strand of black-and-silver hair behind her ear with her left hand, then tucked the
gray rectangle into the inner pocket of her coat.
Behind her, Shaal masons were smoothing a mixture of powdered rock and plaster over
the artfully ragged stonework that sealed this newest grotto. She had disconnected her datapad
from the network and hadn't taken footage of this part of the ceremony, justifying to herself that it
was nothing more than a final detail, not worthy of recording. But the fact was, she didn't want
anyone to see how the Shaal hid their grottoes or reveal the coordinates of this particular one. In
a few days, when the plaster completely set, the grotto entrance would be nearly impossible to tell
from the canyon wall. In a few months, everything would be weathered the same orange-tan
color. In a few decades, all who'd participated in the ceremony would be dead, and the spot
would be entirely forgotten.
Which was exactly what the Shaal wanted. A grotto-making celebrated the state of
klethla, the principle of simultaneous being/non-being. The grotto was there--it and everything
inside it existed. But being hidden from sight, it did not exist. The Shaal oligarchs had been
positively ecstatic when she described--as best she could through the translating
program--Schrödinger's famous thought experiment. They took it as proof that klethla was a
And it was her half-assed description of Schrödinger's Cat that had got her invited to be
the first human to witness a grotto-making ceremony.
Vermilion Eleven, the oligarch who'd funded the ceremony, tugged on her sleeve with one
of their three-fingered hands. They looked up at her with their vaguely lizard-like face and spoke
to her in a burst of hiss/clicks.
A row of white letters on a blue background scrolled onto her datapad screen. "You
happy see grotto do/make? More grasp/hold klethla now."
She nodded, then remembered the gesture meant nothing to the Shaal. So she tapped the
"Yes" icon on the datapad instead. Its speaker made a series of whistles.
"Good," Vermilion Eleven replied. "You tell people [possessive particle] Earth, they more
They will, Hailan thought. And that's the problem.
Once the world's governments discovered that all the cultures on the planet Troph were
less technologically advanced than humanity, they'd lost interest in exploration. After the third
mission, government funding had disappeared altogether. Several museums--the Louvre and the
Met among them--grouped together and stepped in to take up the slack. But field reports and
holographs wouldn't fill display cases, or bring in crowds, the way real, physical ceramics or
textiles would. The Shaal had both, beautiful enough to make an ancient Incan weaver or Chinese
She said goodbye to Vermilion Eleven and started through the canyon back towards
camp. On both sides, twenty-meter-tall walls of buff sandstone rose up. Hailan looked left and
right, trying and failing to discover the entrance to a single other grotto. How many are there, she
wondered. With how much inside?