by Amie Kaufman
Once we reach the top, I see it. A huge stone structure juts out of the cliff face at the end of the valley, its walls curving ever so slightly around in the start of the Fibonacci spiral it forms from above. I’ve studied every satellite photo of this temple, imagined myself standing before the huge pillars supporting the entrance a thousand times in the last few weeks, but nothing prepared me for the reality of a structure built by an alien species.
This moment feels holy.
“Hey, Oxford!” It’s only when Amelia shoves the bike into me that I realize I’ve dropped my end, leaving her to haul it over the lip of the cliff by herself. I grab the seat, pulling it onto level ground, then turn my attention back to the temple’s façade.
“That it?” she pants, clearly needing a few minutes with her breather.
“That’s it.” I can’t contain myself—I can see the entrance chamber in my mind’s eye. If this temple is anything like the one Explorer IV’s astronauts photographed, there’ll be carvings in the anteroom, frenzied and abstract. The patterns and waves of glyphs will be etched into the stone surfaces with the kind of violent exuberance that makes me want to get to know their creators—and makes me a little afraid of them. Dropping my pack, I’m walking toward it before I’ve even decided to move.
“Jules, stop!” Amelia grabs my arm, dragging me to a halt. “It’s been there a zillion years, it’ll probably still be there in the morning. Let’s not get blown up or melted or sliced and diced tonight, okay? It’ll be dark soon. We can hole up here tonight, the temple walls will hide the light from our camp from the canyon floor.”
I grit my teeth, forcing down a noise of frustration. She’s right. Deus, I know she’s right, and this is exactly the sort of thing I need her around for. But it’s right there. I’ve spent my whole life dreaming of this. My father spent most of his life dreaming of this. A pang shoots through my heart, making my eyes water. He should be here. With an entire expedition of experts at his back, and the world holding its breath to see what he would uncover.
I’ll have to feel it for him. I breathe deep, gazing at the temple and letting the euphoria in. “There’s nowhere left on Earth,” I say, the excitement bubbling up again, overruling my frustration. “Not the highest mountain, not the remotest desert, or the deepest trenches of the ocean. Nowhere someone else hasn’t been first. But this, Mia, this is ours. Everybody else who comes here, they’ll be walking in our footsteps. We have the privilege of this first glimpse of another culture. Another species. Another world.”
I can’t help it, the excitement rising in me—she’s still holding my arm to keep me from running forward, and I grab hers in return, reeling her in so I can throw my arms around her, lifting her clean off her feet to turn in a wild circle. “Us! First!”
She gives a startled squawk as we whirl, and she swats at one of my arms, and it’s the feel of her—wiry and tense and strong—that reminds me who she is. What she is. Scavenger. I set her down, trying for nonchalance but getting only so far as awkward. She’s got a smile on her face, small and a bit baffled though it is.
“Let’s make sure our first steps inside the temple aren’t our last,” she says breathlessly, dismissively, but I can see an answering glimmer of excitement in her eyes. Some part of her gets it, that this isn’t just about scavenging—that it can’t be, no matter how badly you want money. For just an instant, she’s not one of them. She’s just a girl, standing at my side, while we linger before the doorway to an ancient alien world.
I have to clear my throat, then clear it again. “Right. You’re right. I just—I want so badly to know why they led us here. What secret they’re hiding, what really happened to them.”
Her mouth quirks. “So long as you’re not dying to know.”
I can’t hide my smile, despite her horrendous pun. And maybe a tiny bit because of it. “Just think, Mia. We could find anything in there. And tomorrow, we’ll be the first humans in the universe to set foot inside that temple.”
THE DESERT SURFACE OF GAIA gets bitter cold once the suns go down.
My phone’s thermometer cheerfully announced to me that it was only a few degrees above freezing by the time we found a good spot to camp in the lee of the temple walls. Fortunately for me, I have some experience with deserts in my scavving territory, so I wasn’t exactly caught with my pants down.
To be fair, neither was Jules. Caught with his pants down, I mean. Though, watching him now as he pulls a sweater on over that not-so-spotless-anymore buttoned shirt, I can’t say I would’ve minded much.
Mia. Get your head in the game.
I have to stay focused on why I’m here. Before I register the impulse, my hand’s slipping into my pocket to pull out my phone again. It’s set to automatically download incoming messages whenever the station or the relay satellite’s overhead, but I’m not really expecting anything when I unlock its screen and check my inbox. A few notices pop up that there’s been bidding activity on some of my Chicago salvage auctions, but it’s hard to care much this far away. If I die here, the auction site’ll just confiscate my earnings. So it’s not until the alert I’ve set up with a little icon of a pair of heart-shaped sunglasses pops up that my heart does an instant flip-flop.
I glance at Oxford, who’s hunched over the wave-stove, and I stroll some distance away. I put in one of my earbuds, then play my sister’s video message.
“Miiiiiiiiia!” Her voice, loud and bright in my right ear, instantly makes my eyes sting. I haven’t seen her in five months. “Dunno if you’ll get this, but if you do, you should already be on Gaia—on Gaia! I mean, WTF, you’re listening to me talk to you in another galaxy.” She recorded this after a shift waitressing at the club, I can tell. Though she’s changed into sweatpants and a tank top and taken off her makeup, I can see traces of the lipstick they make her wear and her arms shimmer with the holographic glitter lotion that’s supposed to make her look hotter.
Hotter. My fourteen-year-old baby sister.
This is why I have to get her out. Right now she just takes drink orders. But once she turns eighteen…her contract doesn’t let her stay a waitress forever.
“I wish I could be there with you,” she goes on. “Well, actually, not really. Actually, it sounds horrible. Impossible. But you like doing impossible things. I can’t wait for you to get back. I’ll meet you in Amsterdam.”
We saw a movie once, which we siphoned off a neighbor’s net connection, where these two lovers had a plan to meet in Amsterdam when they’d both taken care of the obstacles between them. Our stolen connection cut out before the end of the movie, but Amsterdam became our end goal, our code for a future without hiding and stealing, without our constant fights about her staying in school while I worked, without the constant fear of being found out as illegal sisters. Of course, neither of us is ever going to be able to afford to go to Europe—our Amsterdam has always been Los Angeles, where the Undying solar cell means there’s clean water. It also means it’s not cheap to live there, but expensive places are often safer, and with what I could make in a place like this…
After Evie managed to get herself tangled up with the club while trying to help pay our bills, I found that movie again and watched the ending. One of the lovers killed himself and the other took a fast-food job in New Jersey where he had to wear a clown suit and advertise on street corners. I never had the heart to tell Evie.
Evie’s gone quiet in the video, her expression torn. She never wants to say anything that’s hard. Everything’s bright and hopeful, and to speak of fears and worries and hardships is to summon them closer, invite them to hover over us. I can see her struggling not to pour out her fear for me. Finally, she plasters a wide, brittle smile on her face and says, “I miss you. Stay safe.” And then, softly, almost as though she hopes her mic won’t pick it up: “I wish you weren’t there alone.”
She stares at me across the millions of light-years between us. Then she presses her fingers to her lips and blows me
a kiss, and the screen goes black.
I wish you weren’t there alone.
I glance over at Oxford, who’s still puttering around the wave-stove, looking like a mad scientist from an old movie.
He’s shivering as he “doctors” our dinners, but I can’t tell if that’s from cold, the thin air, or from the fact that his body, despite its lanky size, is clearly too small to contain the sheer volume of excitement coursing through it from being this close to an Undying temple. I thought I knew excited—I mean, that time I found a ’24 Chevy Air-bike almost intact in the remains of a collapsed garage had to be one of the highlights of my whole life. But this…if I weren’t here, Jules would be through that temple entrance already, stumbling around in the dark and probably on his way to being impaled by some spike trap by now.
I feel like I’ve got a dog on a leash smelling freedom. And metaphorical or not, that leash is stretched to the snapping point. I can feel his tension, as real as the cold creeping in the collar of my polar fleece hoodie. There are about a million questions swirling around in my head, and I have a feeling the answers could be dangerous—but Jules is clearly set on keeping his secrets.
If I push him too hard, he might decide he doesn’t need me after all, not now that I’ve gotten him to the temple. But some teenaged kid doesn’t just wind up here conveniently possessing the knowledge the entire human race has been trying to pry out of Elliott Addison’s head. I’m going to figure out how he knows what he knows, and what it means for me. But right now, when he sees his goal within reach, isn’t the time to ask hard questions. Better to wait until he can’t avoid them by leaving me behind. And I’m not naïve enough to believe he won’t drop the scavver scum he’s had to team up with as soon as he thinks it’s safe to kick me to the curb. Arming myself with as much information as possible is the best way to make sure that if anyone’s getting a jump on anyone, I’m going to get one on him.
“What’s on the menu, Oxford?” I ask instead, as his eyes wander yet again to the sandy, dusty, and otherwise featureless wall of the temple next to us. Academic excitement or not, dinner smells good, and I’m not letting some doe-eyed professor type burn it because he thinks maybe one of those sand grains is gonna tell him how the Undying used to live.
“Hmm?” His eyes snap back after a moment’s hesitation. He’s got a flashlight that pulls apart into a lantern, and on its dimmest setting I can make out the glimmer of his eyes meeting mine. “Oh. Lime-glazed chicken and wild rice with porcini and kale.”
I blink back at him. “I think I heard chicken.”
His lips twitch, and as those eyes flash, I wonder if he’s trying to size me up like I am him. “It’ll be delicious, I promise. I have a few days of real food, vacuum sealed, before we’ve got to resort to more drastic measures for our nutrition.”
“Canned beans isn’t drastic measures,” I point out, feeling defensive. “It’s good.”
“After some cayenne and brown sugar and about half a dozen other things to make it palatable.” He removes the dish from the wave-stove box and carefully splits its contents evenly into a second bowl for me. Part of me wants to point out I’m like half his size, and that he’s gonna need more food than I will. But the bigger part of me wants to eat the hell out of that chicken and lime rice thing, so I shut my mouth and take the bowl he holds out to me.
I do speak up, though, when he starts to pack the wave-stove up again.
“Hey, wait. Throw some rocks in there.”
He pauses, his thick brows drawing inward in that way they do when he thinks I’m a whack-job. “Throw some what now?”
“That thing heats stuff other than food, right? That can from the beans earlier today about burned my fingerprints off.”
“It heats inorganic matter too, yes.”
“Well, heat up those rocks, wrap ’em up in your blanket with you when you sleep, and you’ll be toasty warm. Not as nice as having another person to curl up with, but almost as good.” I flash him a bright smile, just to see what happens. Even if the light was brighter I’m not sure I could tell with his dark skin whether he was blushing, but when he swallows hard and turns away to locate some suitable rocks among the rubble, I know what I’m seeing.
Score. He may think scavengers are scum, and that the tomb raiders here on Gaia are the scummiest of the scum, but he plays for my team and he thinks I’m cute. And I can work with that.
Sometimes cute gets you into trouble when you’re traveling alone. I’m not an idiot. But one look at Jules and you know he’s not that guy. I’m pretty sure he’s one of those guys who would’ve apologized the first time he kissed a girl just in case he did it wrong.
If, somewhere deep down inside, he still thinks I’m cute even after learning that I’m basically his archnemesis, maybe we can work together anyway.
I snuggle down into my blanket, cradle my bowl close to my chest, and watch him through the curls of aromatic steam rising around my chin.
I’m trying to judge what’s under the khakis, the button-down, the argyle sweater—not that way, though a girl’s hormones will do what they do, not my fault—to figure out if he’s got any athletic ability at all to go with his self-proclaimed genius. He’s got strength, more than I’d have thought from an academic type—he about cut off my air supply with how hard he held on while we were on the bike—and he kept up with me when we were running. But I can’t tell if he’s got the conditioning we’re going to need once we get inside. Hell, to be honest, I don’t know what kind of conditioning we’ll need once we get inside. I was only going to skim through the temple antechambers like the rest of the scavvers—none of us has the ability to navigate the Undying’s network of traps and pitfalls that killed the Explorer astronauts. I don’t know if I’ll eventually have to ditch him so I can move faster, once he’s gotten me past the Undying security checks.
I don’t want to ditch him. And not just because his know-how will be handy in figuring out whatever traps the Undying have left to try to kill unworthy looters. I like this guy. He’s cute, in a don’t-kick-the-puppy way. Hell, he’s cute in a come-back-to-my-place-and-meet-my-puppy way.
But I’m on Gaia. I’m on an alien planet. I’ve risked my life, everything I own, everything I could ever own or be or do, for this chance. A pair of big brown eyes and a sheepish smile that flashes white in the dark when he sees me watching him…that, I can find somewhere else once I get home. Maybe not the same smile. Maybe not the same eyes. But something.
I let my breath out in a sigh and take a bite of my dinner.
Oh, holy crap.
I must’ve made some kind of happy-place noise, because when I manage to lift my head, I find Jules staring at me, mouth half open. He shuts it with a pop. Definitely blushing, but just now, I don’t care.
“This is fricking awesome,” I blurt, blankets falling away as I sit bolt upright and start devouring my dinner. All thoughts of allies and betrayals and the color of his eyes go flying straight out the airlock. Chicken. And whatever a porcini is, I’m in.
It isn’t until we’re finished and the bowls are wiped clean and the hot rocks from the wave-stove are tucked inside our sleeping mats—mine, a single thick-weave blanket I can roll up in; his, a true space-age marvel of engineering with zippers and quilted pockets of god knows what and a self-inflating pillow at one end—that we can actually talk again. I have vague memories of him trying to start up conversation over dinner, but at that point I was more interested in what my spoon had to say.
Now, though, as I look into the cool blue light of the dim lantern and the desert chill creeps in around my face, all that’s left of the chicken is a warmth in my stomach and fingertips that smell like lime. And I feel reality setting in once more.
Cute or not…he basically thinks I’m a monster. He thinks of what I do back home as pillaging, stealing, criminal in every sense—though it’s not like anyone’s coming back for all the crap that got left behind when the sandstorms started sweeping through Lincoln Square. But
if he thinks my regular work is a problem, he sees what I’m here to do as even worse, by a magnitude of infinity. To him I’m here to kill what he’s clearly devoted his life to discovering and preserving. I’m a monster.
His words come out of the dark so abruptly that I startle, jerking my gaze from the lantern and searching for him on the other side of it. My eyes are so dazzled by the light that all I can see is the red-green afterimage, lantern shaped, dancing this way and that. “What?”
“Why come to Gaia to do this? The raider gangs, that I can…well, I can’t understand that, but I know why they’re here. Money will make people do a lot of stupid things, but you—you can’t be more than what, fifteen? You should be in school, you should be…you should be home.”
He’s been thinking about exactly the same thing I was. There’s so much I want to say. What home? And I haven’t been in school since I was thirteen. I’m not like you, I don’t get to think about what I “should” do, only what I’ve gotta do. You don’t get to decide my choices are stupid when you don’t know a thing about me.
Instead what bursts out, in a voice so sullen I might as well still be thirteen, is: “I’m sixteen, Oxford.”
“Regardless,” he replies, unfazed, “even if you have some reason not to be with your parents right now, or in school, you could be looking for a job with a little less ‘almost certain death’ in the fine print. You’re young, you could—”
“Oh, and you’re what, thirty, Mister ‘I’m starting college early next year’?”
With the afterimages from the lantern fading, I can see that he’s frowning now. “Seventeen,” he admits finally. “Look, Amelia, this is all coming out wrong. I’m not trying to—just—what could someone like you possibly need with the kind of money you get from a dangerous expedition like this that a normal job wouldn’t get you?”
“Someone like me?” I know what he means when he says someone like you. He’s seen the grimy blue-and-pink hair with two-inch brown roots showing, the worn boots, the gear cobbled together from ancient finds in old warehouses; he’s heard the bad grammar, the advice from someone who’s already seen years as a criminal. “You think I’m just some stupid punk slum scavver who thought, ‘Oh, hey, I’ll up my game and hop a spaceship to the other side of the galaxy,’ but since I’m clearly poor as dirt and dumb to boot and couldn’t tell you what the hell a porcini is, I couldn’t possibly know what to do with a couple hundred grand in smuggled Undying artifacts, so I should just find the nearest fast-food joint and—”