In 1986, the year of Halley’s comet, I was in Antarctica. Although optical conditions were perfect (on a clear day, there is no air on Earth as transparent as the air in Antarctica), viewing conditions were less than ideal. Sure, it was night – for 24 hours a day, because winter and night are synonymous in Antarctica – and there was no wind at the time, but it was also really cold. Nonetheless, I was excited to see the famous comet that had last swung by in 1910, and I knew this was the only chance I’d get. It’s unlikely that I’ll still be here in 2062. Not impossible, but unlikely. So I put on my several layers of insulation, including my regulation-issue parka, and I stood outside until I couldn’t feel my fingers and toes. Unfortunately, Halley’s put on a pretty uninspired display this time around. All I ever saw was a tiny smudge in the sky and a barely visible tail. Much more impressive were the many shooting stars I saw on those nights I was out there freezing. For some reason, seeing them sparked this story (which, I should note, is not for young children).
THE DUST FROM FALLING STARS
Alex Duval needed oxygen.
He dropped his backpack and fell to his knees, gulping air. The cold, thin atmosphere seared his throat. He closed his eyes and stars danced before him.
White hot and unblinking.
“You right, mate?”
Alex looked up, startled, squinting against the harsh sky. A wiry old man was staring at him. Thin white hair, tattered parka, and a dirty burlap sack draped over one shoulder. One missing tooth.
The man’s eyes narrowed. “American, aren’t you?” He shook his head. “You blokes think you can bulldoze your way through everything. Look at you. You can’t even breathe. Christ!” He pulled a pouch out of his parka and dug through it, muttering to himself. After a moment, he withdrew a sprig of leaves and thrust them toward Alex. “Here, chew on these.”
When Alex hesitated, the old man shook the sprig in annoyance. “Go on, go on. Take ’em. Unless you want to sit there gasping like a fish in a boat.”
Alex took the leaves, glanced at them, and stuffed them into his mouth. They were tangy and bitter. He swallowed the juice between breaths and in a moment the fuzziness in his brain began to dissipate. His vision sharpened.
The old man nodded, a look of satisfaction on his face. “Bloody amazing, eh? Only good to about 6000 meters, though, and you’ll pay for it in a few hours.”
“Thanks,” Alex said.
“Yeah. Well. Save your thanks ’til you pay the piper.” He cocked his head. “I don’t suppose you have the strength to get yourself down about 1500 meters.” The look in Alex’s eyes seemed to be enough. “Didn’t think so. You’d better come with me then.” He hefted Alex’s backpack onto his shoulder and started walking.
“Wait! Where are you going?” Alex jumped to his feet and nearly collapsed under a wave of vertigo.
“Don’t worry,” the man shouted over his shoulder. “Not far. You’ll make it without this on your back.”
Alex staggered forward then stopped, his chest heaving. He’d never catch the old guy, who was walking as though the pack weighed nothing at all, but he knew he couldn’t let him out of his sight. Without the gear in that pack, he was dead.
He spit out the leaves and started moving. The path followed a gurgling stream up the center of the wide valley through waist-high, tawny grass. A breeze moved the grass in long, gentle waves. In the distance, snow-covered peaks loomed under a cloudless sky. The big backpack, hiding the old man’s head and torso, looked as if it were floating by itself through the sedge.
Sheryl walks lightly, four meters in front of him, her daypack bouncing, her slim legs swishing through the knee-high grass. They’re in the Adirondacks, looking for a trail not thick with people, talking about other places, better places.
She stops and waits for him to catch up. “It’s not the `Himalayas’,” she says, indignant that he of all people should be so ill-informed. “That’s a silly anglification that makes it sound like each individual mountain is a `Himalay.’ They’re called the Hi-mal-aya.”
“Hi-mal-aya,” he says, smiling. “I stand corrected.”
A breeze whips thin strands of sandy hair across her face. She pulls them back with a single finger and returns his smile, brightly.
He realizes, too late to do anything about it, that he is falling in love with her.
The old man turned off the trail and headed uphill, toward a stone and mud hut next to a rocky outcrop. A thin wisp of smoke drifted from the chimney. Alex struggled up the hill, pausing every few steps to catch his breath. The man disappeared into the hut, and Alex imagined him rifling through his backpack.
When he reached the hut a few minutes later, his head was pounding. He leaned against the doorframe, gasping for air. The old man appeared in the doorway, took his arm, and led him inside. It was dark, and the air was thick with the odor of burning dung.
“Headache, eh?” the man said, guiding Alex to a rough-hewn chair and table. “Well, you can’t say you don’t bleedin’ well deserve it.”
Alex rested his elbows on the table, closed his eyes, and put his head in his hands. A ball-peen hammer was inside, trying to beat its way out. He heard the old man shuffle around for a few minutes, then a steaming cup of liquid was shoved under his nose.
“Drink this,” the man said.
“What is it?”
“Never mind that for now. Just drink.”
Alex sipped. The dark liquid was bitter, but the moisture soothed his throat, and the heat eased the pain in his head. He looked around. A small fire under a steaming pot provided the only light. The flames cast shifting shadows on the cluttered walls. Two more pots hung from hooks above the hearth. Bunches of dried leaves dangled from the ceiling near a shuttered window. A mat lay in one corner, covered with blankets and skins. Alex’s backpack was on the floor next to the door, untouched. On the other side of the one-room hut, a shelf full of books covered the wall.
The pounding inside his skull diminished. “Thanks,” he said, indicating the hot drink, “for whatever this is.”
The man sat down on the other side of the table. “Cordyceps, codonopsis, schizandra berry, and some Gynostemma, if those names mean anything to you.”
Alex shook his head.
“Used for mountain sickness,” the man went on. “Those leaves I gave you earlier were Gynostemma. You could use some Erythroxylum, too, but you won’t find any of that around here. That’s coca, to the uninitiated.” He regarded Alex carefully. “Feeling better?”
“Yeah, thanks.” He set the cup down. “I should go.”
The old man laughed. “You’re begging for pulmonary edema, mate. Bugger of a way to die.” Before Alex could respond, the man went on. “Came through the reserve, did you?”
“How long did you acclimate in Dhorpatan?”
“Didn’t. Flew in yesterday.”
“Bloody hell! Kathmandu to Dhorp and straight up to 4800 meters in one day? Are you daft?”
Alex pushed the chair away from the table and stood, but the room started to spin. He sat down again.
“Look, mate, you need rest.” The old man indicated with his head. “Use my bed. I still need to do a little collecting. No one will bother you.”
Alex pulled himself hand over hand through Glenn Station. Where was Sheryl? He knew she had to be here somewhere. He poked his head into the sleeping quarters. Empty. He backed out of the hatch and launched himself across the galley. Control was vacant, too. Where was everyone? Without knowing how he got there, he was in the laboratory pod. Still no Sheryl.
Then he was outside the station. The stars burned bright and steady against the black backdrop of space.
“Sheryl!” His voice echoed in his helmet. No answer.
It was hard to breathe. Was there a problem with his suit? He fumbled with the oxygen flow control. He couldn’t get any air!
Someone kicked him in the stomach. No. It was the manipulator arm, swinging wildly. It rammed him again in the gut. But it didn’t knock him away. It should have knocked him away.
Why couldn’t he breathe? He started to panic.
He jerked awake, sucking in big gulps of air. He opened his eyes, confused. Was that a dream or a memory? It was getting harder to tell them apart. He wondered if he was losing his mind.
Where was he? Dark, earthen wall. Rank, musty furs. He heard a noise and turned his head. The old man was leaning over the fire, stirring a boiling pot. Alex was about to ask how long he’d been asleep when he got another jolt to the stomach. He grunted and doubled over in pain.
“Told you you’d pay for it,” the old man said. “Best get some food in there.”
“No, thanks,” Alex said through clenched teeth.
“If you don’t eat, it gets worse.”
Alex forced himself up and staggered to the table. The old man placed a steaming bowl in front of him. Another gut spasm hit, followed by a coughing fit. When it passed, he picked up a thin metal spoon and took a tentative bite. The stew was hearty and thick, the meat gamey.
“Yak stew, in case you’re wondering,” the man said. “The meat’s not too tough if you cook it long enough.” He slid a cup of dark tea onto the table.
Alex glanced at it. “Is that the same stuff as before?”
“Tastes like shit.”
The old man chuckled. “That’d be right, but it’s probably the only thing keeping you alive right now.”
Alex coughed again, long and hard.
“Fluid’s building up in your lungs. Better drink.”
Alex sipped the hot liquid. The old man sat down across from him with his own bowl of stew and dug into it with gusto, slurping loudly. He wore a tattered rugby shirt, the ends of the sleeves stretched and frayed. The smoldering fire highlighted the gray stubble on his face. His nose had been broken.
“You’re a Brit,” Alex said.
“Figured that out, did you?”
“What are you doing up here?” He glanced around the hut. “Looks like you’ve been here a while.”
“The question is, what are you doing up here?”
Alex put the cup down and went back to the stew. The stomach cramps were less intense. The old guy was right. Food helped.
The man grunted. “Fair enough. You asked first.” He waved a hand at the dried plants hanging near the shuttered window. “I collect herbs. They’re a big thing these days. Good money to be made.”
When the man went back to his stew, Alex glanced around the dingy hut. Good money must mean something different here, he thought. He scraped the last of the stew out of the bowl. “What’s your name?”
The man let out a sharp laugh. “Been here so damn long, I’m not sure I remember!” He put his spoon down and his expression turned serious. “They call me Pagala around here. Means ‘crazy.’ But there was a time when I was called Graham. You?”
Alex told him.
“And? What brings an American with a French last name up to this God-forsaken place?”
“I’m looking for someone.”
Graham appeared startled. “Looking for someone? Who?”
Alex stood up. “I’ve bothered you enough. Thanks for the food and the…tea, but I need to go.”
Graham stood as well. “You leave and you’re dead.”
Alex gave him a sharp look.
“Sorry. Didn’t mean to be so blunt. One loses the social graces after a while. Point is, you either head back to Dhorp, assuming you can make it, or you acclimate here for a couple of days, drinking plenty of that tea.” He gestured toward a teapot steaming over the fire. “Go higher now and you’re done for.” He stopped, as if to let that sink in. When he spoke again, his voice was softer. “Fact is, I wouldn’t mind the company. Don’t get to speak the Mother Tongue very often these days.”
Alex hesitated. He opened his mouth to speak and another coughing fit made him lean on the back of the chair to keep from doubling over. When it passed, he nodded. “All right. But not in here. I’d just crowd you.”
He pitched his mountain tent on a flat spot a few feet from the hut. Graham ran his bony fingers along the bright yellow fabric. “Very posh.”
Alex tossed his backpack into the tent and unrolled his sleeping bag. Night was falling, and with it the temperature. All of a sudden, all he wanted to do was sleep.
Graham handed him a bunch of Gynostemma leaves. “When you wake up in the middle of the night feeling like you can’t breathe, chew on a few of these. Won’t hurt you to swallow them, either.”
“Thanks.” He zipped up the door to his tent as Graham stood watching. Behind the old man, far across the valley, a herd of yak moved like dark shadows through the grass.
Sheryl met Alex in the laboratory pod. She floated across the room and wrapped her arms and legs around him. He glanced nervously at the hatch.
She smiled. “Don’t worry. I checked. Everyone is asleep.” She kissed him, long and hard.
He embraced her in return. They tumbled together, kissing, bumping lightly into the walls.
“I believe we are the first ever members of the 100-mile-high club,” she said sometime later. “Wait. Does it count if we’re at apogee?”
“We can’t keep doing this,” he said, pulling on his overalls. “Sooner or later, someone will find out. We should just come clean.”
“What, and give this up?” She floated over, took his face in her hands, and kissed him again. “I like working with you up here. It wouldn’t be the same if one of us had to stay on the ground.”
“What if we both stayed on the ground?” he said. “All the time. We do two or three more missions, finish the station. Then we bag it and buy a house in Colorado.”
“And then what?” Sheryl let go of him and floated over to a port. She pointed at the Earth spinning beneath her. “And give this up? Admit it, you love it as much as I do.”
She was right. But, “I love you more.”
She smiled again. God, it was a pretty smile. “When Glenn is finished, Moon Base will be starting. We can transfer. Maybe the company will have changed its policy by then.”
“What if they don’t?”
She pushed herself toward the hatch. He could tell he had annoyed her. “We’ll worry about that when the time comes. I have to do comms. See you later.” Then she was gone.
Alex awoke to the sound of a yak grunting somewhere far off. Bells clanged faintly. He sat up and rubbed his face. A pile of chewed leaves lay on the tent floor next to his sleeping bag. He felt as though he hadn’t slept, and his lungs were congested. He coughed up phlegm, unzipped the tent, and spit.
The door of the hut creaked open. “Breakfast,” Graham said. Then the door slammed shut.
Alex tossed the chewed leaves out of the tent and stepped into the cold morning air. The sky was overcast, but there was no wind. Farther up the valley, about a kilometer away, a man tended a herd of grazing yak. Alex zipped up his tent and entered the hut.
Two bowls of porridge and hot cups of tea sat on the table. Graham was sorting through boxes of food on a set of rickety shelves next to the hearth. He looked up when Alex entered. “Sleep all right, did you?”
Alex shrugged. “Not really.” He pulled out a chair and sat down.
“Well, first night’s never good.” Graham joined him at the table and dug into his porridge.
“I’ll give you some money for food,” Alex said.
“Don’t be daft.”
“It can’t be easy to get it up here. I don’t want to—”
Graham stopped with the spoon halfway to his mouth. “I said don’t worry about it. You’re my guest.”
“All right,” Alex said, after a moment. “Thanks.” He raised the cup to his lips. The bitter tea really did make him feel better. Tomorrow he’d be strong enough to leave. Or the next day. She was close. He could feel it.
“I’m going hunting up near the glacier fields,” Graham said. “6000 meters. You’d best stay here, build your strength.” He nodded toward the hearth. “Plenty of tea in the pot. Drink as much as you can stomach.”
Alex nodded. Moments later he watched Graham work his way up the trail, the burlap sack draped over a shoulder. He stopped for a few minutes to talk with the yak herder, then continued toward the snow-covered peaks. When he had dwindled to a speck, Alex re-entered the hut.
He poured himself another cup of tea and walked over to the bookshelf. Principles of Plant Identification. Medicinal Properties of Herbs. Field Guide to Meteors and Meteorites. A Guide to Himalayan Plants. Plant Taxonomy. Introduction to Botany. The last one was written by a Graham Harwood. Alex put down his tea and pulled the book off the shelf. The top was dusty, and there was a patina of mildew on the cover. He leafed through the volume. It looked like a typical college textbook. In the back was a black and white photo of the author. Alex held it close. Hard to tell, but, yes, it could be the same guy. Younger. A head full of dark hair. The nose was straight and even.
He put the book back. On the floor next to the bookshelf was a metal box with a handle on each end and a latch secured with a combination padlock. Out of curiosity, he lifted one handle. The box was heavy, and hard objects shifted inside. Rocks, from the sound of it. That’s odd, Alex thought. Why lock a box full of rocks?
He finished his tea and went outside. A breeze had picked up and there was a bite to the air. He pulled his parka out of his tent and put it on. Up the valley, the yak herd had moved upslope. The herdsman stood next to them, swinging a stick in the grass. Alex had the feeling the man was watching him.
Mountains rose in the distance, massive, snow-capped, jagged. One was taller than the rest. He’d noticed it flying in to Dhorpatan. Putha Hiunchuli was its name, according to the map. Eight thousand meters. Maybe that’s where she was. Somewhere around there.
Suddenly, he was overcome with fatigue. He crawled into his tent, fell onto his sleeping bag, and was asleep almost immediately.
Sheryl’s sitting on the cliff edge, her feet dangling over the side, He’s on his stomach looking over the precipice. A hundred feet below, a stream bubbles its way over boulders and fallen trees. In the distance, the high peaks of the continental divide reach toward a sky streaked with high, thin clouds. Even in July, the mountains here are blanketed with snow.
She leans back on her arms, lifting her face to the sun.
“You’re beautiful, you know,” he says, and she smiles.
At night, in each other’s arms next to the fire, they watch for meteors.
“I could live here, I suppose,” she says dreamily. “Someday. With the mountains and the stars.”
“Most people would think we see enough of the stars.”
She sighs dreamily. “It’s not as romantic up there. They don’t twinkle. I love it, you know, but it’s not the same.” She points suddenly. “Shooting star!”
He misses it, looking too late.
He awoke to the sound of the hut door creaking open. There was a moment of shuffling inside, then the snap of a padlock opening. Rusty metal hinges squeaked. A rock thumped into the box. Then the lid closed and the lock snapped shut.
Alex waited a few more minutes before entering the hut. Graham was piling fuel onto glowing embers, trying to get the fire going again. There was no flame, but smoke billowed up the chimney. A thin, musky haze filled the hut. He looked up when Alex walked in.
“Yak dung makes for a shit fire,” he said. “No pun intended.”
“Sorry,” Alex said. “I should have kept it going. I guess I slept—”
“No worries. You need your rest. I’m used to it. Just be a few minutes.” He poked the smoldering pile with a stick. “Dal bhat for tea. Know what that is?”
“Rice and lentil soup. National bloody dish of Nepal. Sorry. No meat tonight.”
“I’ve got some salami in my pack.”
Graham’s eyes lit up. “Salami! Now that would be lovely!”
Alex retrieved it and set it on the table. Graham picked it up and held it to his nose, inhaling deeply. “Now that is nice. Do you know how long it has been? Well, of course you don’t.” He set the salami down and handed Alex a knife and metal plate. “You can do the honors.” He turned back to the soup, stirring it with a long wooden spoon. A tepid flame now licked the bottom of the pot.
Alex sliced half the stick into the plate, savoring the pungent, garlicky smell. The haze in the hut had dissipated, replaced by the odor of spiced lentils. His stomach ached, but these weren’t cramps, just good old hunger pangs. He hadn’t eaten since breakfast. He stuck a piece of salami into his mouth.
“You didn’t drink much of the tea,” Graham said.
“Slept all day.”
“Fair enough, but the more you drink, the faster you’ll acclimate.”
“You were a college professor, weren’t you?” Alex hadn’t meant to blurt it out like that, but there it was.
Graham paused for a heartbeat, then went back to stirring. “Saw the book, did you?”
“I wasn’t trying to be nosy. I was just looking—”
“No worries.” He was quiet for several moments, staring into the pot as he stirred. Then he said, “Oxford, it was.”
Alex frowned. “How did you end up—?”
“Let’s just say there was a rather impressive misunderstanding, and it was either spend the rest of my life in jail, or hide.” He tapped the wooden spoon on the edge of the pot. “I reckon the hiding part worked out quite well, don’t you?” There was no sense of triumph in his voice.
Alex didn’t say anything.
“Oh, well,” Graham said. “That’s life, as they say. What about you? You said you were looking for someone, but there’s no one up here except me and the wogs. I’d know if there was anyone else.”
Alex stared at the table. The wood was scratched and scored. Someone had carved the name Eileen into a corner. “She’s here.”
“She?” Graham straightened, the spoon dangling from his hand. “A white woman? Mate, I guarantee you there’s no one here like—”
“She’s here!” Alex glared into the man’s eyes.
There was a long pause.
“Right,” Graham said finally. “Whatever you say.” He went back to stirring.
They ate in silence. Afterward, Alex trudged down to the stream for water. He felt stronger, but it was still an effort to work his way back with a full bucket. He had to pause and rest several times. By the time he reached the hut, it was dusk. Graham stood outside, looking up into the sky. Alex kept his eyes on the ground.
“You know,” Graham said, “if I ever leave this place, I’ll miss the stars. I don’t reckon there’s anywhere they shine as brightly as here.”
There’s one place, Alex thought, but he didn’t say anything.
“And the meteors. Seems like there’s a hundred every night. Did you know that meteors add as much as 78,000 tons to this old planet every year? All that dust floating down from space.”
The old man might as well have kicked him. Alex swallowed and zipped open his tent.
“Satellites, too. Sky’s full of them. In fact, there goes one now.”
Alex was on his knees, pretending to be occupied by something in his backpack.
“There used to be this one. Biggest, brightest one I ever saw. Reckon it was a space station or something. Then it got dimmer and dimmer, like it was being pushed away. You know anything about that?”
Alex closed his eyes. “Look, Graham, I’m really tired.” He could feel the old man staring at him.
“Sure, that’s fine,” Graham said finally. “See you tomorrow, mate.” He picked up the bucket and went into the hut.
Alex pulled off his boots and parka and crawled into his sleeping bag. He lay on his side, staring at the wall of his new tent. He’d thrown away the old one. It was perfectly good, but he couldn’t be in it without seeing her lying next to him.
He squeezed his eyes shut. He’d find her. If it was the last thing he ever did, he’d find her.
He was back in the station, pulling himself along the main corridor. Where was Sheryl? She had to be here somewhere. He poked his head into the sleeping quarters. Empty. He backed out of the hatch and launched himself down the corridor toward the galley. Vacant. Where was everyone? Without knowing how he got there, he was in the laboratory pod. Still no Sheryl. But she should be here!
Then he was outside the station. The stars burned bright and steady against the black backdrop of space.
“Sheryl!” His voice echoed in his helmet. There was no answer.
He was falling toward the Earth. He spun himself around. Where was the station? Nothing but stars and empty space. And the Earth, getting closer and closer. The atmosphere buffeted him. His suit became hot. In moments, he would burn up.
He awoke, covered in sweat. Another dream? Yes. The same damn dreams, over and over. Stars shone faintly through the fabric of the tent. He turned onto his side and closed his eyes. It took him a long time to fall back asleep.
The sun woke him the next morning. The air was crisp, the sky clear. Hills on the eastern slope cast long shadows across the valley.
Over a breakfast of rice porridge and yak butter, Graham said, “I’m collecting just up the valley. No more than 5000 meters. You can join me today if you feel strong enough. Be a good test to see if you’re acclimating.”
Alex sipped his tea and nodded.
They set out a short time later, the burlap sack hanging over Graham’s shoulder. Alex kept up with the Brit’s brisk pace. The air was still, the sun warm on his face. They stopped after about a kilometer so Graham could talk to a man leading his herd across the stream. The yaks’ hooves splashed in the water, rattling the stones that made up the stream bed. Were these the rocks Graham was collecting? Bells clanged noisily from the animals’ shaggy necks. One of them regarded Alex with baleful eyes. Alex wrinkled his nose at the beast’s musky smell.
The herdsman wore a black coat and baggy pants. His hat was tall and boldly patterned, though the once-bright colors had faded. The conversation involved a lot of pointing to different places up and down the valley. Through it all, he kept glancing at Alex. Finally, he asked a question.
“Ameriki,” Graham answered, glancing back at his guest.
The herdsman smiled and nodded at Alex.
After leaving the herdsman, they trudged another kilometer upstream, then Graham turned off the trail to the left. They stepped on large stones to cross the stream and headed up the slope through recently browsed stubble. Piles of dried yak dung lay scattered about.
“We’ll take some of this with us when we leave.” Graham said. “I’m getting low.”
As the hill got steeper, Alex fell behind. He caught up to Graham at the base of a stone escarpment, where low shrubs grew next to the rock. Graham was pulling leaves off and stuffing them into his pouch.
Sheryl plucking mountain wildflowers and holding them up to him. Sandy hair waving in the breeze. Blue eyes smiling. Forested hills and snow-capped Rockies in the background.
Alex sat down, breathing heavily.
“Rhododendron anthopogon,” Graham said. The bush rustled as he plucked another handful of leaves. “I’ve been putting it in your tea the last couple of days. Good for the lungs. Wouldn’t hurt you to chew on a couple now.”
Alex stood, pulled off a leaf, and sniffed it. Its smell reminded him of balsamic vinegar, strongly aromatic, but not unpleasant. He stuck it in his mouth and chewed, swallowing the tangy juice.
There was a high ridge at the head of this valley, with another valley to the right. From his position high on the hill, he could see the glacier fields. Is that where she was?
“Bollocks!” Graham exclaimed.
Graham pointed up. “See those pink flowers thirty meters up? Long, dark leaves? That’s Nardostachys jatamansi.”
“Is that good?”
“Ah, yeah, mate. Calms the brain. Keeps you sharp. Great for the liver, too. Haven’t seen much of it lately.” He put his hands on his hips and studied the wall.
Alex studied it as well. It wasn’t a technical climb. “You want it?”
Graham laughed. “Yeah, but I’m not as agile as I once was.”
“So I’ll get it for you.” He took off his parka.
“What, are you daft? If you fall, there’s no bloody medical help up here.”
“Don’t worry about me. This climb is nothing.”
And it was, for the first twenty meters. There were plenty of holds, even small ledges where he could rest and catch his breath. After that, it became more difficult. The pitch became steeper, the granite more brittle. Pieces broke off beneath his hands and bounced to the ground below. He used the sleeve of his shirt to wipe the sweat from his forehead.
When he was five meters below the plant, he reached an impasse. The wall beneath the ledge holding the herb was too sheer. He looked left. Nothing. He moved to the right, testing each hold carefully. His fingers were raw. It had been too long since he’d done this. Not since…
It’s 5/10 so Sheryl’s leading, because she wants to and because she’s better than he is. He watches her from seven meters below, her strong arms reaching out, her hands grasping the rock, testing each hold.
They’re both roped in. They’ve done this a hundred times before. Why is he so nervous now?
Because he loves her. Because he wants to spend the rest of his life with her. Raise kids. Grow old together. Because now he has more to lose.
Seems like everything they do is dangerous. He used to love the thrill, the newness of every experience, the newness of her. Now he wakes up in the middle of the night, reaching over to make sure she’s still there.
Forget Moon base. When Glenn Station is done, they’ll leave the company. No more rides into space on top of a slowly detonating bomb. No more pushing the odds. There are other ways to make a life. Once they start a family, she’ll feel the same. She’ll understand.
The rock under his right foot came loose and clattered away. His leg dangled in the air. His right hand started to slip. For a split second he saw himself falling, free falling, tumbling into the Earth, the continents rushing toward him.
“Shit!” He found another foothold and pressed his body against the coarse granite, his eyes pressed shut,. His breath came in gasps. The rough rock dug into the skin of his cheek.
“You right, Alex?” Graham shouted up. “Look, give it up, mate. It’s not that important.”
“No, it’s all right,” he shouted back. “Just resting for a minute.” He looked up. Another meter or so, then he could work his way to the left. The plant was less than five meters away, its flowers fluttering in the breeze.
“Okay,” he muttered to himself. “Just get the plant. Get the damn plant.”
A few moments later, he reached it. Tiny, pink flowers and long dark leaves. The whole thing was no more than 20 centimeters high. He plucked it from the narrow ledge and tossed it away from the cliff. Thirty meters below, Graham ran over and picked it up.
As was often the case, the descent was more difficult than the climb. Alex tried to retrace his route, but it seemed to take hours. Finally, he jumped the last meter to the ground. He moved away from the escarpment and lay on his back in the grass, staring up at the deep blue, high-altitude sky.
The next minute, Graham was leaning over him, blocking the sun. “You right?”
“Yeah. Just give me a minute.”
“It’s a beautiful specimen. Thanks, mate.”
They started back a few minutes later. At the bottom of the slope, Graham stopped to stuff dried dung in his sack. Alex knelt by the stream and washed the blood from his hands. The cold water stung.
Back at the hut, Graham hung his herbs to dry while Alex stoked the smoldering embers of the fire. Then he put on water to boil and retrieved two packages of freeze-dried food from his pack.
“Chicken curry!” Graham exclaimed, as the spicy odor filled the hut. “Brilliant! Do you know how long it’s been—” He stopped himself. “Ah, hell. Why do I keep saying that?”
After they’d scraped their bowls clean, Graham leaned back and worked a toothpick in his mouth. “That was bloody brilliant, what you did today.”
“Climb a lot, do you?”
“Used to. We—” He swallowed, stared at the table. “Yeah. I used to.”
“You and your friend? The one you’re looking for?”
“Yeah.” He looked up. “I’m leaving tomorrow.”
Graham nodded. “Well, I reckon you’re ready. That tea’s right magic, innit?”
Graham took the toothpick out of his mouth and leaned forward. “I’ll tell you a secret, mate. I’m leaving, too. Decided that today.”
“What about your…problem?”
“Bollocks to that! Listen, I’ll tell you another secret. Herbs aren’t the only thing I collect.” He kicked the locked metal box with one foot. “Did you wonder what was in here?” He reached down and pulled it over to the table. Orange flames reflected from the dented, metal surface. He undid the combination lock and flipped open the lid. It was full of rocks, as Alex had guessed.
“I can tell from the look on your face what you’re thinking, mate. Daft old man with a box full of rocks, right? But these aren’t what you think.” He lifted one the size of a baseball and held it out. “Here.”
It was heavier than Alex would have thought, irregular, gun-metal gray, and heavily scalloped. Each facet was smooth and polished, as though it had been torched.
“That’s an iron meteorite,” Graham said. He dug another out of the box. “This one here’s a mesosiderite. Bloody rare, these are.” He set it on the table.
Alex picked the second one up. It wasn’t nearly as heavy as the first, though they were of similar size.
“Collectors pay good money for meteorites. I reckon I’ve got a few thousand quid here, enough to start over somewhere. Somewhere warm, with trees, preferably.”
“Where did you find these?”
“Up at the glacier field. As the glaciers melt back, meteorites drop out. You just have to know what to look for.” He put them back in the box.
Something shiny caught Alex’s eye. “What’s that?”
Graham pulled out a piece of metal with charred and melted edges. “This? Just a piece of space rubbish. Probably part of a satellite. Not sure why I put it in there. You can have it if you like.” He leaned over to close the box.
Alex turned the piece over in his hands. On one side, there were traces of white paint. He caught his breath. “When did you find this?
“Ah, must have been about three months ago. Saw it fall. Bloody big meteor, that one was.”
A river of ice ran up the middle of Alex’s back. His head swam. Blood rushed in his ears. He gripped the fragment in one hand and held on to the edge of the table with the other to steady himself.
“Are you all right, mate?”
He fought to keep his voice steady. “Where? Where did you find it?”
“Up the valley. About four kilometers, I reckon. Close to the glacier field.”
Alex stood up so fast the chair toppled to the floor behind him. “Take me there!”
“What? Now? It’s the middle of the bleedin’ night!”
“Take me. Please! It’s important.”
“Sorry, mate. Tomorrow morning. I’m not going out there now. Too bloody cold.”
Alex slammed his free hand on the table. The empty bowls bounced and a spoon clattered to the floor. “No! It can’t wait!”
“Christ, mate! What’s so bleedin’ important that—?”
“Now, Graham! It has to be now!”
The two glared at each other. Alex’s heart was pounding. His knuckles were white on the hand wrapped around the fragment.
“Bloody, crazy yank,” Graham muttered. “Right, then. Do you have a torch?”
“In my tent.” Alex jammed the fragment in his pocket and bolted out the door.
A few minutes later he was following Graham up the trail in the darkness. His hands were in the pockets of his parka, one fondling the metal fragment, the other gripping a flashlight. A bitter wind blew down from the mountains, stinging his nose and ears. Yak bells clanged somewhere to his left.
The sky was clear, the trail just visible by starlight. Alex kept his eyes on Graham’s back, never looking up. They walked in silence, except for occasional, unintelligible grumbling from the old man. Their shoes crunched on the rocky trail.
Two hours later, Graham stopped. Another two kilometers ahead, glaciers glowed dully in the dim light. On the left was a steep ridge. On the right, a more gentle slope led up to another ridge. There were patches of snow on the ground.
Graham pointed to the right. “Over there. That’s where I found it.”
Alex switched on his flashlight and swept it over the ground. Low grass. Rocks. Snow.
“You looking for more pieces like that?” Graham asked. He sounded annoyed and impatient. “You’ll have a devil of a time in this light.”
Alex said nothing. He moved up the hill, sweeping his flashlight beam back and forth. His ears stung and his eyes watered from the cold.
“Mind you, there probably is more of it around. It was a right bloody rain of glowing bits, if I remember.”
A reflection next to a large rock caught Alex’s eye. He ran toward it, ignoring the burning in his throat and lungs. It was another piece of metal. He reached down to pick it up. Like the one in his pocket, this fragment was charred and the edges were melted. He turned it over and the breath left his lungs.
There was still some white paint and, in one corner, charred but unmistakable, a “B” next to a tiny Space-X logo.
He jiggles his pod’s manipulator arm, trying to fit a difficult girder onto the frame. Glenn Station stretches away above him, a circular structure one hundred meters across, holding living space, laboratories, manufacturing plants, solar panels, and antennas, all of it drifting motionless against the background stars. Below him, a cloud-flecked Earth fills the sky.
Their orbit is eccentric, 300 miles high at perigee but only 90 at apogee, where they are right now. When construction is complete, the company will boost the station to a higher, standard orbit. For now, though, a low apogee makes it cheaper for them to ferry up construction material. The time there is brief enough on each pass that the station doesn’t lose appreciable momentum from atmospheric drag.
It used to make Alex nervous, working here in the upper reaches of the atmosphere, but he doesn’t think about it much any more. Especially now, when all he can think of is the recalcitrant piece of metal in his manipulator arm.
“Sheryl, sneak up and tweak the other end of this thing, will you?”
“Having a little trouble, are we?” she replies, teasing. “Hang on, I’ll be right—”
A sharp inhalation of surprise.
High velocity metal bits ping against the skin of his pod.
“Sheryl?” He releases the girder, engages positional thrusters, turns, searching, trying to remember her last position. “Sheryl!” Where the hell is she?
Then he sees it. A tiny white dot spinning into the blue and white of the Earth.
“Shit!” he whispers. “Sheryl! Are you all right?”
Her voice, shaking. “Yeah. A little bruised. I think my main thruster blew.”
He engages his main thruster and the force presses him against his seat. “Janice! Beta pod malfunction—”
“Copy. Pete’s on his way to the shuttle.” Pause. “Alex, what the hell are you doing?”
“Going after her.”
“Negative.” Trying to keep his voice calm. “She’s on a re-entry trajectory.”
“Copy, Alpha. Now so are you. Repeat, discontinue your pursuit.”
He ignores her. “Sheryl, I’m coming, but you need to neutralize your spin.”
“Working on it.” Pause. “Got an air leak. Need to put on my helmet.”
He checks his fuel gauge. Shit! He’s burned through half his propellant. If he doesn’t save the rest, he’ll blow right by her. He shuts down, but he’s not gaining, just following her into the atmosphere. Sweat drips into his eyes. He wipes it away with one hand. “Dammit, Pete! Where are you?”
“Disengaging from station now. Nothing more you can do, Alex. Discontinue your pursuit.”
“Goddammit, Duval! I can’t grab both of you! Discontinue! That’s an order!”
Beta pod stabilizing now, the spin slowing.
He’s breathing too fast. Quick glance at the oxygen gauge. When he looks back, he’s lost her. “Shit,” he says again. Too many clouds below them. The southern equatorial Atlantic. Africa coming up.
“Alex,” Sheryl says, “listen to Pete. No sense both of us flaming in.”
“You’re not flaming in! Use your positionals to boost up!” He’s shouting into the radio, panic in his voice, not caring if others hear it.
“I’m dry, Alex. Nothing left.”
The tiny white dot re-appears over Central Africa. So far away. Barely visible against the brown.
“Alex, it’s too late for her.” Pete again. Alex hates him now, hates what he’s hearing, refuses to believe it, but the man keeps talking.“Same for you, partner, if you don’t listen to me. I am closing on you, but if you don’t reverse thrust, I am aborting!”
“Alex, don’t be stupid. My hull is already heating up.”
The white dot disappears, slipping into Earth’s shadow.
Think! Think! “Sheryl! Blow the hatch! The escaping air—”
“No air left. Alex, please!” Begging for his life, not once for her own.
“Duval, do you hear me? This is your last chance! I am aborting!”
Hands moving of their own accord, yanking back on the stick, body shoved against the restraining straps, vision blurring, tears breaking free and slamming against the window, spattering into bits.
“Jesus, Alex,” Pete says. Then, “Sheryl, I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be, Pete. No one’s fault. At least I’ll go out in a blaze of glory.” Her voice steady.
No! No! No! No! Beating on his armrests, furious, helpless.
“Alex, I love you. Can you hear me, Alex? I love you.”
“Yes, I love…” His throat constricting with pain.
“We were good, Alex.” Her voice quivering now. “Weren’t we? Weren’t we good, Alex?”
“Yes.” A whisper all he can manage.
An orange streak appears over the Arabian Sea, heading toward northern India, Nepal, Tibet.
Sheryl’s transmission breaking up. “Don’t forget me, Alex. I lo…you. Don’t for…me…”
The orange streak flares, brightening, a trail of fire blazing across the globe.
A loud clang as the tow clamp attaches to his pod. Instant acceleration, his body pressed against his harness as the shuttle’s powerful engines start up. More tears wrenched from his eyes. Voices talking to him, but he doesn’t hear the words.
Below him, against the night, the flame grows smaller with distance, dimmer, harder to see.
Alex’s legs buckled and he dropped to his knees, his body wracked by sobs. He squeezed the jagged fragment in his palm, clutching it fiercely, as though it were a lifeline. His hand was hot, like the heat of re-entry, and the heat dripped down his wrist and into the grass. He clawed at the frozen ground with his free hand and pressed the dirt to his chest, as if he could touch her one more time.
“Bloody hell,” Graham muttered from somewhere nearby.
For the first time since the accident, Alex lifted his face to the sky. Stars filled the heavens, blazing without mercy, white hot and steady. Tears blurred his vision. He blinked to clear them, and they ran cold down his cheeks.
“Don’t forget me, Alex.”
“Never,” he whispered. “I’ll never forget you.”
As if in response, a meteor burned across the zenith, leaving a trail of glowing dust, dust that would drift slowly down to join the Earth.