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Schrodinger's Grottoes
    by Andrew Gudgel

Schrodinger's Grottoes
Artwork by Anna Repp

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 the canyon.

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 universal principle.

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 grasp/hold too."

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 kiln-owner weep.

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?

"Yamaguchi wants to talk with you," said Devon, the exo-geologist, as she entered the pop-up building that was the shared workspace of the East Continent team.

Damn. She grimaced. Her counterpart on the West Continent team--and the overall project director--was the last person she wanted to talk to right now.

"Said it was important and that you should be keeping your datapad connected to the network at all times," Devon added, apparently noticing the look on Hailan's face.

She reconnected her datapad to the network, then purposefully took a couple of minutes to make a cup of tea before propping up her datapad on the table and pinging for a call to Yamaguchi.

"Dr. Zhou," Yamaguchi said when the call connected. "How are things on the other side of the ocean?"

Hailan shrugged. "Fine. Study of the Shaal Confederation is ongoing. There are a number of city-states to the Northeast that we haven't contacted yet, but we're working on finding guides."

"Your last report mentions 'Schrödinger graves.' What more can you tell me about them?" Yamaguchi asked.

Hailan's hand instinctively touched the pocket that held the data-slab. "It's a placeholder name I gave a Shaal ceremony. Just raw data at this point. I'm still working on my observation notes. I'll get them to you as soon as I can."

"Have you had any luck in obtaining material culture?" Yamaguchi asked.

Obtaining material culture. A fancy way of asking if she'd managed to get her hands on any Shaal goods. The team had been strongly encouraged before they left Earth to do whatever possible to legally obtain material for the museums. Apparently, even the patience of cultural institutions had its limits.

"No. Have you been able to convince the Doges of the Marshes to give you anything?" Hailan shot back, and instantly regretted it.

Yamaguchi pursed her lips for a moment. "No. Not yet."

Despite having diverged five-hundred Troph years ago, the two cultures on either side of the central ocean shared a belief in daptum--that the maker of an object literally put part of themselves into it. Both took ceremonious pains in dealing with broken or worn-out objects. Both had concluded that offworlders might not show the same respect. And so both refused to part with any of their 'material culture.'

Yamaguchi's expression tightened further. "A Herald arrived in-system last night."

Heralds were small, robotic, faster-than-light ships that could carry a few metric tons of supplies, and which broadcast pre-recorded data and messages as soon as they got twelve hours out from their destination--the fastest way to get information between star systems light-years apart.

"I'll tell everyone to expect mail call and be ready to unload our portion of--"

"Tell everyone to begin wrapping up their research," Yamaguchi interrupted. "If we don't send some material culture back when the Herald departs, they're shutting us down."

Her stomach dropped. "Dammit."

The ghost of a smile appeared on Yamaguchi's face. "Exactly."

Hailan blew out a quick breath. "How much time do we have before the Herald leaves?"

"Ten days."

Hailan took a sip of water from her canteen, clipped it back on her belt, then knocked on the gate of Vermilion Eleven's compound. She'd wrestled with possible solutions to the problem of getting a pot or piece of weaving for five days now. Everything short of using Devon's ground-penetrating-radar to rob a grotto--an idea he'd jokingly suggested, then apologized for when he saw the look on her face.

A few moments later, the gate opened a crack. Azure Six, the house steward, stared up at her, then stepped back, opening the gate wider. Hailan ducked down to get through and stepped into the courtyard beyond.

Azure Six spoke. "We happy house to receive this guest," appeared on the datapad screen.

Hailan tapped the icon for the traditional response to a welcome. The datapad's speakers hissed and clicked.

"May I ask you reason for visit?" Azure Six asked.

Hailan searched for "advice," but didn't find it on the lexicon menu. She tried "Help/Assist" instead.

"Please you wait." Azure Six crossed the courtyard and went into the house beyond.

The heat of the day pummeled Hailan. Sweat began to roll down between her shoulder blades.

Azure Six came out of the house and motioned to her. "House-owner invites."

Hailan started to nod, stopped, then tapped the "Thank You" icon on her datapad. She followed the steward into the house, ducking again to pass through the doorway.

Vermilion Eleven sat on a cushion, with a footed ceramic dish in front of them. On the dish lay a chunk of roasted meat of some kind and a bowl of the light gray, root-vegetable porridge that was the Shaal staple food.

A small wave of worry and embarrassment washed over Hailan. She'd caught Vermilion Eleven in the middle of a meal.

They stood and spoke, opening their arms wide in greeting. "Not expected happiness. Sit [polite imperative]! What bring you here?"

Hailan found a spot on the rug beside Vermilion Eleven and sat down, facing them. She used the datapad to sketch out her situation as best as the limited vocabulary would allow. To her surprise, she found herself crying as little as she finished explaining her dilemma.

"I see," Vermilion Eleven said, staring at her. "Great desire to assist. But problem of daptum."

Hailan wiped her face, then tapped her datapad. "I understand."

"You continue work until leave to/toward sky?" they asked.

"Yes," Hailan said.

Vermilion Eleven gestured towards a row of pots sitting in a long alcove at the back of the room. "You short [duration] grasp/hold I assembly? Increase work in decrease time?"

Hailan was moved. They're offering to loan me their collection of ceramics. Hailan tapped the icon for "Thank You" several times in a row. She could use the scanner back at the lab to take ultra hi-res images of the pots, instead of having to do scans in situ and on the fly, as she had before. It would be a great help to her research. But the Herald would nevertheless still leave for Earth empty.

"I many/much trust you no grasp/hold leave with them," Vermilion Eleven said.

She nodded, stopped, then tapped her datapad. "You can trust me."

Vermilion Eleven called for Azure Six, then gave the steward orders before turning back to Hailan. "Will come/arrive to/towards you this evening."

"I can't thank you enough," Hailan said aloud and not bothering with the datapad. Just tapping "thank you" over and over again wouldn't have conveyed her meaning, anyway.

Hailan put the next-to-last pot in the holo-scanner and closed the door. While the laser beam inside took sub-millimeter image slices of the beautifully swirled purple, blue and metallic green glaze, she went across the room to make herself a cup of tea.

"Did you try explaining the concept of a 'permanent loan' to the Shaal?" Devon asked as he pumped a container of mineral samples full of liquid self-packing foam. With only two days left before the Herald departed, she'd told the team to begin packing for when the Cutter arrived in a couple of weeks to take them all back to Earth.

Hailan poured boiling water over the leaves, watched them untwist and writhe at the bottom of her mug. "I hadn't thought of that," she admitted. "But I doubt Vermilion Eleven would agree--even if I could get the meaning across clearly."

Devon pointed towards the scanner, then the 3-D printer. "Why not just print a copy? As high as you've got the scanner resolution right now, you'd need a microscope to tell the difference. Does it matter then, which one you give back?"

Anger rose up inside her chest, and she whirled to face him. "That's just as bad as your grotto-robbing idea! I promised Vermilion Eleven that I'd return their pots. And besides they would know, because--" Realization struck her so hard that she almost dropped her mug. Hot tea sloshed out and pattered down at her feet. "The daptum would be wrong." After a moment, she smiled. "The daptum would be wrong!"

Hailan understood enough Shaal body language to know that Vermilion Eleven, one of the highest, most powerful oligarchs in the Confederation, was nervous. They stood there, uncertain in the strange surroundings of the lab. Occasionally, they would turn to look at Devon, who stood quietly by the 3-D printer.

I know how you feel. Hailan was just as nervous. The outcome of not only the expedition, not only of the future of human/Shaal relations, but of her friendship with Vermilion Eleven hinged on just a few minutes of trust. Trust that Devon and none of the others would say anything to Yamaguchi about her breaking the research protocols by bringing a Shaal to the lab. Trust that Vermilion Eleven wouldn't think she was trying to cheat them somehow. Trust in the concept of daptum. And trust, she knew, was more fragile than any ceramic and once broken, just as impossible to put back together.

Hailan showed Vermilion Eleven the scanner, placed the smallest pot from their collection inside. While the machine scanned, she began tapping on her datapad.

"This makes pictures of things using light," she said.

"Earth people see/know Shaal ceramics this manner?" Vermilion Eleven replied.

"Yes." She used the datapad to show it other images the scanner had produced, as well as images of people viewing the holos in the museums back on Earth.

When the scanner finished, Hailan opened the door, removed the pot, and set it back on the bench. Her heart pounding, she nodded at Devon.

The 3-D printer on the workbench began whirring.

Hailan pointed. "That machine makes things," she tapped into the datapad.

"Do/make which thing?" Vermilion Eleven asked.


"All/any thing?"


While the printer worked on reproducing the pot, Hailan showed Vermilion Eleven around the lab. She went into researcher-asking-for-a-grant mode, describing what each piece of equipment did and why that was important. In turn, Vermilion Eleven made polite responses, even when she was sure the translation program hadn't been able to get her meaning across.

She'd just run out of lab to show when the printer chimed. Hailan's heart began to pound again. Here goes.

She opened the printer, showed the reproduction pot to Vermilion Eleven. Their eyes narrowed for a moment, then they glanced over at Hailan.

She removed the pot from the printer and purposefully marked the bottom with a small dot of red paint from a paint pen. Then she handed it to Vermilion Eleven.

They examined the pot minutely, then turned towards her. "All/any the same."

She stopped herself mid-nod. "Yes. But does this pot have daptum?"

Vermilion Eleven paused for several seconds. "No. Yes. Small/little. You [possessive]."

Hailan was confused for a second. Mine? Then it hit her. The dot of paint. Her one, tiny addition to the machine's work.

"Do you trust me, Vermilion Eleven?"


She took the duplicate pot from their hands, placed it on the floor. Then Hailan went over, got the original pot and set it beside the duplicate.

Placing her arms around their shoulders, she turned Vermilion Eleven away. "Don't look." Then she turned herself around so she also couldn't see the pots. "Go ahead, Devon."

Devon moved the pots around on the floor, then left the lab. A half-assed double blind methodology, she knew, but then again, this wasn't a true experiment.

"We can look now," she said. They both turned around again.

Vermilion Eleven looked back and forth between the two pots.

"Which one is yours?"

They went over, stroked the rim of each pot. Their finger lingered on the right-hand one. "This. Other is you [possessive]."

Hailan almost couldn't believe it. They could sense the daptum. Here was the answer she'd hoped for. While reproductions were perhaps only a stop-gap measure, surely the museums would prefer them to holos. Smiling, she went over, lifted the pot and turned it base up. Her smile faltered. A small, red dot of paint stood out boldly against the glaze on the base.

Vermilion Eleven held out its hands. "Please give me," they said. "Other is you [possessive]."

Her heart breaking, Hailan showed Vermilion Eleven the bottom of the pot.

They stared at the pot in her hands for a moment, then gestured again, insisting. "Please give me. Other is you [possessive]."

Tears filled her eyes. "This isn't your pot," she tapped into the datapad. "I can't take it."

Vermilion Eleven stepped closer, reached up, and took the pot from her hands. "Other pot is for you [possessive] only. Not other assembly-individual. I trust you to help/assist I."

Confusion washed over her. "Help you? I don't understand."

"I think about you question long [duration]. Daptum and klethla. Troph and Earth. Pot-maker this pot part former pair/couple of I. Now dead. You take, do/make grotto of Earth. Great/large, long [duration] klethla for them. Grasp/understand?"

As she realized what they wanted her to do, she nodded, tears now spilling out of her eyes and running down her cheeks. She had a favorite hiking spot in New Mexico with canyons not unlike those around here. There were places she could hide the pot where it might not be found for a thousand years. "I promise. You can trust me."

Vermilion Eleven looked her directly in the face. "I trust you." Then they turned to look over at their collection sitting on the bench. "Machine do/make other pot, all no have daptum. You take machine pot away, no problem. You finish pot image do/make? Now able do/make?"

"Yes," Hailan said. "I have images of the others and can make copies."

"I return home. Housekeeper come short [duration] to grasp/hold assembly." They turned towards and began walking towards the door at the other end of the building.

"Eventually the museums will want real Shaal pots, not reproductions," she said.

Vermilion Eleven turned back toward her and, curling two of their three fingers, used the other to point at the side of their own head. "Child-thinker," they said. "Earth assembly-maker-places want Shaal pot. You give I machine pot. I grasp/hold short [duration]. I give you. Now Shaal pot. When you finish each machine pot do/make, come with machine pot to I." And with that, they turned and left the building.

Hailan watched the door close behind them, then shouted for Devon.

"Load the 3-D printer with all the feedstock it can hold," she said as he came back into the room. "And keep the hopper full. I'm going to be printing non-stop." She connected her datapad to the printer and began downloading scan data into its memory. "We've only got two days to get as many pots as we can onto the Herald."

Devon bent down and slid a cardboard box of feedstock out from under the table that held the printer. He stacked three of the fist-sized, slate-gray cubes on top of one another, then lowered them into the printer's feed hopper. "So did your experiment work?"

"Sort of," Hailan said, finishing the download. She stood, set the printer to work, then, leaving out the request for her to make a grotto on Earth, explained Vermilion Eleven's solution to providing the museums with Shaal pots.

"Elegant," Devon said and smiled. "But what are you going to tell Yamaguchi?"
She looked at him, thinking. I'll have to ask Vermilion Eleven next time if the principle of klethla is limited to grottoes, or if it can exist within a single object. The pots she was creating would, in the end, be both Shaal and not-Shaal; both more and less the product of two cultures. Schrödinger would have loved the indeterminacy of this. Or maybe not. Then she shook her head. "I truly don't know."

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