Chapter 13

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            The Iapetus began its ponderous journey back to the sun. The first few days were dark and cold, but soon the light of the sun began to push its way out from under the horizon, and the rosy blush of sunrise filled the sky. It was refreshing.

The expedition was now almost a month old, and the rover was getting to be claustrophobic. The rooms were no bigger than closets, and there was almost not time to spend outside. Even if there were, it wouldn't be very enjoyable, what with the endless desert lying flat on all sides.

"It doesn't bother me," said Amit. "At least there's windows to look out of. You should try a tour on a processor ship. Those things are pretty much flying sardine cans."

"I don't think I will, Mr. Space Captain."

"Oh, you flatter me. I was never a captain, just a lowly scrub working his life away."

"Sure, sure. Some of us wish we could be a lowly scrub on a processor ship."

"You know, it isn't all that hard. They'll take just about anyone. Not many volunteers, after all."

"Huh. Who could turn down a life of adventure and intrigue?"

"I would ask that of you. Stuck in the lab all day, you could have at least gone to Australia or something, seen the sights down on Earth."

"I just never had the time to..."

"And if I asked anyone else why they didn't go, they'd say the same thing. Don't worry, I understand, it takes a special kind of apathy to throw yourself to the black like I did."

"What do you mean."

"I just didn't care what happened to me, and found the most interesting path I could. And so I went and saw the universe."

"And how was it?"

"Mostly empty, to be honest. Did you know that the solar system's population is almost entirely on Earth? There are maybe half a billion people everywhere else."

"That doesn't get boring?"

"There's more to see than just people."

"Fair point," said Liu, staring out at the concave horizon.

Gaea was still dead. The ice samples from the glacier were speckled with exciting organic precursors, complex carbon molecules that were one step away from proteins, from life. The air bubbles trapped in the glacier proved that Gaea's current high oxygen environment was a new development, only about ten thousand years old.

On the thirtieth day of the expedition, the Iapetus stopped at the foot of a large hill. It was black and crumbling, a tall column of solid lava. The volcanic shaft was riddled with caves and crevices, a promising hideaway out of the direct stare of the sun.

The cave opening looked like a hungry maw to Liu as she stood in front of it. A scree of broken stone led up the mouth, looking sharp and threatening.

"Are you sure about this? It looks dangerous," she said.

"Well. If we can't have a little excitement while trekking across an empty planet, what's the point," said Amit, and began hiking his way up to the cave. Liu followed suit.

It smelled like dampness. The walls of the cave shone with water, and a slight trickle poured past their feet.

"This is sure interesting. I hope you still have hope of finding something living."

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