Science Fiction Fiction Drama

“Join me in the hot tub.”

Other new arrivals laughed at the greeting, but she and I had a history. The words weren’t a tickle but a jab. It had been eight years, seven months, and sixteen days since we parted in the Florida sun. Another time, another world, almost literally. Then was Kennedy Space Center, now Mars-on-Earth, Devon Island, home of Haughton Crater and the Haughton-Mars Project, where for half a dozen decades international teams had tested and trained for red planet excursions.

Which wasn’t why she was there. Nor was I.

The “hot tub” had been gouged into rock a hundred seventy eight kilometers east of Haughton. Forty million years before we met, a cosmic spoon scooped a thirty meter long, six meter wide trench in the Earth. A few million years later, a glacier concealed the evidence, and now as the planet warmed and ice curled back like the edges of a singed newspaper, the trench was once more exposed. And nobody knew what to make of it.

I flew in with three others from Fort Churchill on Hudson Bay. They hailed from England, Korea, and Nigeria, I from the U.S. Exalted physicists all, all but I, a meddler. I employed my astrophysics Ph.D. to popularize science and speculate wildly. For which had she summoned me? She did nothing without purpose, which had much to do with our fizzled union.

Forgive me. I haven’t properly introduced her.

Paradox was baked into Dr. Iona Leng’s bones. Born in New Zealand, her face hailed from Beijing, her accent from Edinburgh, her intensity from the sun. The Iona I remember wears mostly white: short white shorts with ragged edges, white bikini top, white flip-flops, white-rimmed sunglasses. She blazes as she strolls up the beach, trips, and falls into my lap, a beautiful on-purpose accident that I didn’t get until much later because, you know, you just don’t want that sort of thing to be planned.

But that’s not how she looked on Devon Island. She was still Iona, her dark hair cropped short, dark eyes, enigmatic smile, but now she was wrapped in a dark blue parka and waterproof trousers rippling in the stiff wind. She wore a pair of goggles, pushed up so she could see us with her own eyes—me particularly—as she spoke her welcome.

“Join me in the hot tub, folks.”

Accompanied by laughter, she led us from landing strip to main attraction without stopping to deposit our bags at the cluster of shacks a dozen meters south of the trench. We’d all seen the photos, but as our boots slapped on the cold, bare rock, the enormity of the artifact shook us. Because that’s what it was. Not a geologic formation. Not a gash carved by the pressure wave preceding a meteorite. Ancient astronauts didn’t crash here. This was made.

We began a slow, cautious descent down a chute of rock polished to a sheen. Light sparkled in flecks of quartz, feldspar, and mica, overlaid by a coating of glass. “Ablated?” the Englishman asked. He reached out and ran a gloved finger over the wall even though he couldn’t feel a thing.

“Manufactured,” Iona replied.

He removed the glove and tried again but yanked back as fiery cold numbed his flesh.

She smiled sardonically. “Bad idea, Vince.”

We wandered the hot tub for half an hour, storing images in our brains, pacing out rough measurements, but we had no instruments, no way to probe this place’s secrets. Near the end of the excursion, she came to my side while the others were still out of hearing. “Hello, Steve. What do you think?”

I thought of the beach, of catching her as she falls, laughing, helping her to her feet, hearing her lilt and her name for the first time. “I don’t know. What do you think?”

She looked down the length of the hot tub and up its steep, curving walls. The midnight sun gleaming in the glass might cook a man in the cold. “I’m out of my depth. I design astrophysical experiments for space missions. This . . .” She turned to me, more perplexed than I’d ever known her. “This is your area.”

“I explain relativity to people who can’t operate a voice interface.”

“No, you generate bold ideas.” Without bothering to see if anyone was watching, she set her gloved hand on my parka-covered chest. “And you love me.”

“That died long ago.”

“Does it still hurt?”

I stepped back. Her hand fell away. “You know it does.”

“Ergo, it’s not dead. If it wasn’t, it wouldn’t. Q.E.D.” It could have been a joke, but no humor flickered in her eyes. “Steve. The top brains are at work on this. Academia, military, cyberbusiness. Fame, fortune, and power are buried here.” She stomped a foot on the glass. It deflected the force without effort. “But no one has a clue. I need you.”

“It always came down to that, didn’t it?”

Blinking away a tear before it could freeze, she turned sharply and waved a hand over her head. “All in, folks! Time for cocoa!”

The real scientists returned. She led us out of the hot tub to the shacks where we would be eating, sleeping, and working for the next few weeks. I brought up the rear, odd man out, the only one not qualified, the only one Iona trusted to find her an answer.


Most research begins with the work of others. I read for a whole week. Measurements, experiments, hypotheses formulated and discarded, speculation torn asunder, and from all this one extraordinary fact rose to the surface: the hot tub was so simple as to be meaningless. The rock was just rock, albeit polished to nanometer smoothness. Over it had been laid a transparent cover of such strength that diamond drills couldn’t crack it. The substance hadn’t been analyzed because no sample could be collected. Harder than diamond; resistant to acids and other solvents; harboring weak, continuous electromagnetic currents reminiscent of a superconductor…what was this stuff? Even stranger, why would anyone bother? For someone clearly had, and equally clearly, it hadn’t been us. A lot of eyes would have turned to the stars and wondered, had it not been the season of perpetual day.

Iona spent her time talking with the others and ignoring me. I saw her in passing and at mealtimes, but our eyes never met. Whenever she slipped by, I wished I could follow or that she might at least favor me with a backward glance. But those wishes were folly. There could be no starting over. Ours had never been a reciprocal relationship. She contrived to bring me into her life because she needed my leaps of logic. She offered a trade: my brain for everything she could give, and I unwittingly agreed. I loved it until I didn’t, whereupon it proved intolerable.

Nor could her final plea alter our course. In a NASA food court of all places, surrounded by engineers and secretaries and janitors gulping down fast food, at a table for two along a windowed wall bathed in golden sunlight with probably twenty people overhearing if they cared to, she stated her offer: “God, Steve, what do you want? Your creativity for my support, my companionship, my body. I’ve never asked for more. I’ve never withheld anything.”

Maybe to her that was love, but I felt swindled. I cancelled the contract.

Eight years, seven months, and twenty-five days later, I had once more played into her hands, only this time I could neither ask nor expect repayment. She knew it but offered just the same. That was Iona. Accounts had to balance. Late that night in the kitchen with my laptop, I was falling asleep in the midst of another uninspiring research paper while nibbling on a peanut butter sandwich when she slipped into the chair by my side with two glasses and a bottle of cheap red wine. She poured us each a little and slid one at me. She’d never been one for hard liquor. Nor for cheap, but one makes do with what one has.

“Anything?” she asked.

In answer, I closed the laptop and shoved it aside.

“I’ve read them all five times, myself. Lots of stuff about how it works. How it doesn’t work, actually.”

“And nothing about what it’s for.”

She smiled at the table. It might have been eight and a half years, but we still knew each other’s thoughts. “I asked myself, what would Steve say about that? Guess what answer I got?”

I propped my tired head on my fist. I had no clue.

She mimicked the action with a little smile. Her exhaustion matched mine. “You ever see one of those archeological digs where they cover the area with a transparency so tourists can see the finds in place?”


“That’s what I think this is.” Righting herself, she fiddled with her glass. “A window.”

“On a forty million year old dig?”

“Right.” She sipped her wine. “Then you’d ask yourself why.”

Since I didn’t have to, I didn’t. 

“Why display a swath of ordinary rock?” She pushed my glass closer to me.

I gave in and accepted it. “And the answer?”

“That’s why you’re here.”

“How the hell should I know?”

We alternately drank and looked into each other’s eyes while the black numbers on the LCD wall clock changed. One minute. Two minutes. Three minutes.

 “You will,” she said.


“What can I give you?”

“I stopped playing that game years ago.”

“Money? An interview?” She winked at me. “Sex? I’m kidding, of course.”

Not that it would have gone that way, but part of me wished she hadn’t been. “I don’t want anything. I’ll come up with some wacky idea, you can take the credit, and I’ll go home to the warmth.”

She poured more wine for us. “Where is home these days?”

“Connecticut. A town called North Canaan, in the northwest part of the state.”

“Why there?”

“It’s close enough to my agent and publisher but far enough from New York.”

We finished our second glass. She regarded the bottle then pushed it away. “Name anything.”

“Except sex.”

Rising, she gathered up bottle and glasses. “If you wanted, I could go there.”


She shrugged. “You’ll figure this out. When you do...anything.”

I watched her go, wishing I could name something. And she knew it.


She had jarred my thoughts, anyway. The exact path I walked and the time it took are hazy now, but they ran something like this:

A window.

Onto what? The transparency was fused to the rock. The immense weight of the glacier scraping over it through the ages hadn’t scratched it. Nothing would have been visible beneath it forty million years ago that wasn’t visible today. Earth rock couldn’t be that fascinating to an alien race. Geology was geology, no matter the star you orbited.

But the Earth was, actually, different then. The Eocene epoch started out warm and iceless, with forests pole to pole. Toward its end, the planet began to cool. Arctic forests were in transition, plants and animals adapting to the changes. Polar ice formed. Having drawn a long, slow breath, Earth embarked on an equally long, equally slow exhale.

Somewhere, a physician with a stethoscope listened, examined, diagnosed.

Of course.

A window, yes. But not onto rock. Onto the world above.

I sent Iona a text first thing that morning, asking her to meet me in the hot tub, alone, before breakfast. There in our parkas and gloves and goggles, I delivered the insight she wanted.

She stared into the glass below our feet. I could sense tickles of electricity running through it, running through us, but was it real or illusion? Was the cause outside or within us?

“Are they still watching?” she asked.

Homo sapiens has only been on earth for two hundred thousand years. We’re half a percent the age of this thing.” I scraped my heel across the surface. It left no mark. “How can we even guess?”

Pensive, she slowly knelt and pressed her insulated palm to the transparency, fingers spread in greeting. It seemed the thing to do, so I joined her. Our hands signaled hello as one, then she took mine in hers and squeezed gently. “How do we evaluate the hypothesis?”

“I don’t think we do, Iona. This technology is beyond us. Maybe in a century or three, but not now.”

“That isn’t the answer I want.”

“Sometimes we don’t get the answer we want.”

She squeezed my hand a bit harder before letting it go. We stood. The sun reflecting in the sleek curve of the walls began to sear us.

“I know,” she said. “I’m sorry. For both of us.” She motioned toward the exit, and we walked. Emerging from the trench, she paused and looked back. “We could write a paper together. Yes?”

“Is that your offer? My name next to yours?”

She didn’t say anything. She didn’t have to. Nor did I. We shared another window, one of human origin through which we knew each other’s souls. If the view wasn’t always pretty, it was at least true.

She slipped her arm through mine. “I’m starving,” she said. “Let’s make some notes over breakfast.”

June 10, 2021 18:44

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