face, or recall the timbre of his voice. An open grave lies like a wound, a raw sore upon the land, mused Frank Headlee, watching his two colleagues lead the tall, graceful woman in black from the cemetery. And it was such a mockery, for Headlee, his colleagues, and the widow all knew that grave had no one in it.
A long and many-forked path led them to this solemn farce on a windy Wyoming hillside. And at every branching stood Miranda. She had guided her husband's career - put him through graduate school, some said, though time had shrouded the facts of their early years together. Certainly, she contributed to his appointment as head of the Conestoga Project. (NASA bigwigs crumbled like so much wet sand beneath Miranda's great, dark eyes.) His Lady Ligeia, Julian Thorne always called her. Julian had been a devotee of Poe…and a shrewd observer of his wife's character. For if Miranda resembled Poe's gaunt pale beauty in looks, she struck even closer to the mark in her indomitable will, and in her passion for Julian Thorne.
None of them, not even the worldly Sam Maxfield, could ever fathom how a soft-spoken forty-two-year-old, nondescript physicist had managed to win such a rare prize as Miranda (Miranda the mysterious, whose origins - even unto her maiden name - remained obscure. The marriage was a fait accompli long before Headlee, Maxfield and young Carter Bushnell arrived on the scene; the Thornes celebrated their twentieth wedding anniversary the week NASA announced the Conestoga Project.
The concept of an extremely rich, heirless and slightly dotty Wyoming rancher (inspired by the sight of a UFO hovering over his east pasture), the Project was billed as "an intergalactic cultural exchange program" A traveling jumble sale, Headlee called it privately. The rancher conceived the idea that the only way to understand a civilization is to see, touch and commune with the actual artifacts of that civilization. ("I don't got faith in nothin' I can't see for myself," as he put it.) The Pioneer and Voyager crafts, with their coded messages, left him cold. "Them space fellas would learn more about mankind from one pair of my old work boots than from all yore micerdots put together," he said.
The rancher pressed his point by dying and leaving the bulk of his estate to NASA, for the purpose of carrying out his version of foreign relations. Since he had the proverbial friends (and former neighbors) in high places, the money was actually allocated. And so it came to pass that Headlee, the stiff-lipped, British astronomer; Maxfield, the cultural anthropologist, stout, bearded and avuncular; Bushnell, a perfect caricature of the eager young grad student; and Julian Thorne - part poet, part physicist and the most gifted of them all - found themselves engaged in sending work boots to Alpha Centauri. They oversaw the building of the ship, plotted the trajectory, and selected the cargo. And then Julian Thorne died.
"You will do it gentlemen; you must do it." Miranda stood dry-eyed and collected that afternoon in the hospital. Her voice never wavered from its soft, steady contralto. Like some legendary Medieval queen - or so she seemed to Bushnell. He thought her splendid.
"Miranda, what you're asking is not only crazy, it's ghoulish," blurted Sam Maxfield indignantly.
"No, Dr. Maxfield," Miranda replied evenly, "I will tell you what is ghoulish: to bury a man in the ground. To seal him up with dirt and filth, and the worms which eat his flesh and the damp which rots his bones. That is ghoulish. It is barbarism. I will have none of it. Not for Julian. Julian loved the stars…."
Headlee lounged against the windowsill, ignoring the hospital's strict rule against smoking. He had earlier noted the arrival of a van marked Denver Cryogenics Foundation. Now he understood, and felt for the first time in his life a deep and genuine pity.
What you are hoping for is impossible, he wanted to tell her. ("The universe is fraught with possibilities," Julian Thorne had been fond of saying, "and given time enough, every one of them will come to pass.") But not this, Headlee argued silently with his friend's ghost, not this. We can't restore life to a frozen corpse; we never shall be able to. And neither can the Star people, if they even exist. But he couldn't say that to her. He took her hand.
"You do realize," he said gently, "that you will never see him again?"
"That doesn't matter," she said shortly, dismissively, "only that he may someday, somehow, live." And she won them over, as simply as that.
So, as technicians prepared mankind's first interstellar Cultural Exchange Probe for launch at Warren Air Force Base, Headlee, Maxfield and Bushnell secretly removed one thousand pounds of Cultural Exchange Materials, including one can of Campbell's Cream of Tomato Soup, various Pre-Columbian artifacts recently manufactured in Guatemala, eleven volumes of fundamentalist religious tracts, and a sixty-pound sock knitting machine from the British Isles (the latter quietly restored by Bushnell, who thought it a hoot.) In place of all this they slipped in Julian Thorne, safely ensconced in the Denver Cryogenics Foundation's finest last-forever, maintenance-free capsule.
But these launchings take time, and the snow lay deep upon the prairies before the Conestoga's cargo holds were locked and sealed. By the time the ship cut its way like a gold and silver knife through the earth's atmosphere and headed out past the lunar orbit toward Mars, the red roses which lay upon Julian Thorne's putative grave had dissolved into so much rusty pulp, washed away by melting snow and spring rains. The Conestoga, with its unheeding passenger, passed within 20,000 miles of the red planet.
On earth, life went on. Carter Bushnell suffered an attack pf conscience, took up vegetarianism, and left school. He had intended to devote his life to Greenpeace and the safeguarding of the harp seal, but got caught up instead in the revolutionary fervor of a downtrodden people half a world away, joined their cause, and died, painfully, on a foreign battlefield at the age of twenty-eight.
Maxfield, on a field trip which included Nevada's famed Mustang ranch, met a young lady of refined manners, waif-like charm and remarkable agility. He managed to evade his grandchildren long enough to elope with her to Washington state, where they took up with a Hindu sect based around Tantric yoga and subsistence farming. There he sired a fine crop of children and wrote nine books advocating astral projection as the only feasible means of space travel.
And every year as the aspen leaves began to fall, Frank Headlee escorted Miranda Thorne to stand before an empty grave on a windy Wyoming hillside. "There's no use in my coming here," she remarked once, "but I have no other place to go." She looked up into the blue Wyoming sky and almost smiled, her eyes wet beneath the thick dark lashes.
As the Conestoga neared the outer portion of the asteroid belt, on the day when Sam Maxfield's second daughter was born, and while Carter Bushnell's parents contemplated the loss of their only son, a meteor struck the ship. This was a most unlikely event (one which might have surprised even Julian Thorne), given the vastness of space, the tiny fraction of it occupied by the Conestoga, and the so-called laws of probability. Nevertheless, it happened.
The meteor sliced open the front starboard cargo hold as neatly as a surgeon going after an appendix. From the wound emerged three items: the English sock-knitting machine, which was promptly bopped by another meteor and sent off on a wide-ranging course that eventually led to incineration on the hellish "day" side of Mercury, thus depriving the Alpha Centauries of an amusing and informative exhibit for their Hall of Sciences; several very bad Romance novels; and the capsule containing Julian Thorne.
Headlee, apprised of a loss of communication with the ship, said nothing. He did mot like the strange look which sometimes came into Miranda Thorne's eyes these days, nor the occasional shrillness of her once-resonant voice. The will, she said, again and again; if one only had the will, one could accomplish anything.
As the silver capsule, scarcely a speck in the solar system, glided slowly past the orbits of Jupiter and Saturn, and toward distant Uranus, Julian Thorne slept. And on some level which had nothing to do with brain function, or synapses, or coursing blood, he dreamed. Dreamed of warm flesh and long black hair, silky-soft between his fingers.
For a time, the capsule was caught up in the tail of a huge comet, all blues and greens and fire colors, and was carried back across the solar system in an elliptical orbit of many years. At last, the comet made a sharp veer toward the sun and the capsule spun clear, on a path that led back outward, past the orbits of Neptune and Pluto, into the void.
The approaching comet provided a spectacular show for the citizens of earth. Miranda saw it, and thought of Julian, somewhere among the stars. Her love for him endured, but their time together was beginning to seem like some long-ago dream. All of life was beginning to seem like a dream to Miranda now. On the day the comet plunged into the sun, she died. Headlee died soon after.
In his days of life, Julian Thorne had often had cause to ponder eternity. It was his job.
"Think of a mountain," he said to Bushnell, who had trouble comprehending a time so ancient as the Eighteen-hundreds, "higher than the highest peak of the Himalayas. Now, imagine that once each century, a man comes with a piece of finest silk, and rubs it once gently across the tip of the mountain. When he has worn the mountain to the ground, we call that a second in eternity." Bushnell laughed.
On earth, there were good times and bad, wars and famines, long periods of prosperity, and then more wars and famines. A series of earthquakes sent California into the sea and gave Nevada a quite majestic coastline. There was an ice age and the glaciers crept as far south as the Texas Panhandle and the Ohio River. When they retreated, no trace remained of a certain Wyoming hill. Time passed. While Julian Thorne slept, earth moved through its final days. At last, as those few who remained on humanity's home world sent out prayers to various gods, the sun flamed, the waters evaporated, the air hissed and was gone; the earth died.
After many, many millennia, more, in fact, than even Julian Thorne could have conceived, the capsule drifted into the Aldebaran system and was taken aboard a scouting ship from the fourth planet. The Aldebareans quickly divined the workings of the primitive life form within the capsule, and the faulty circulating pump which had caused it to cease activity.
Since they were good and gentle beings (despite strong physical resemblance to what earthmen of Julian Thorne's time would have termed "bug-eyed monsters"), and always willing to help, they restored the visitor to its original operating condition, with the necessary improvements to avoid future breakdowns in function.
Rising from the ocean depths; rising from the cold, oppressive dark of the bottom to sun-warmed waves which bore him gently towards shore. The beach at Padre Island: wind murmuring through palms, the singing of birds, Miranda's laughter. Her long, subtle fingers roaming over his body; the salt taste of her lips, the gritty sand on her arms and on her breasts. Julian Thorne stirred from his dream.
"Miranda," he whispered, and opened his eyes.