part II

Work was all that Carter had now. He had come to terms with that fact a long time ago, and, at this point in his long life, thoughts of burned bridges, lost loves, and broken connections seldom crossed his mind.

Maybe that was it, he thought, as he watched the dig team begin the careful process of excavating the collapsed cave entrance in the morning glow.

He had shoved those things, those relationships, and all their burdens of pain and loss that came with them deep down and out of his mind. It was necessary. He had to focus. There was so much to do. So much to explore. So much to discover.

And how could you do all that burdened by guilt? By sorrow? By regret? It wasn’t possible.

So sacrifices had to be made. And it wasn’t easy. He had tried to have it all for so long. But it wasn’t sustainable. For anyone. The missed birthdays and anniversaries piled up. The trips home dwindled. The daily comms became weekly. Then monthly. It was a mess.

It was the right thing to do.

At least that’s what he had always told himself. And there was always another dig, another discovery to get lost in, and the more he dug in the dirt, uncovering the secrets of alien life long past, the more he covered up his personal one, leaving it behind for the others to sift through the pieces.

But now, after all these years, he could no longer ignore his past. His decisions. His mistakes.

It was past noon by the time they had broken through the collapsed entrance and were able to push further into the cave. That feeling, that rush of discovery had never left him. Perhaps that was what kept him going. How could he get old if the feeling that drove him never did?

Their scans revealed three separate paths. The first, a shallow, squat path narrowing into virtually nothing. The second, a steeply descending tube cutting far into the mesa. And, the third, a short yet rocky passage leading to a small chamber.

Carter searched for any inlaid metaphors the paths presented but came up short and pushed it from his mind, as they entered the third passageway.

For years he assumed that destiny was done calling his name. It had once before, and it was a big one. The ultimate call to adventure. The most important discovery in human history. And, even as public interest waned and government attempts to contact the stars marked in the Cretan ruins failed, he still powered on. Moved forward. It was important work.

And after all these years, the Adarai, the mind-boggling interconnectedness of it all, after everything, destiny had again pulled him into its grasp.

“No large formations or indications of foreign objects from the sensors,” Cordts said, analyzing the projection emanating from the tablet in his hands.

Carter nodded to him in the glowing orange light flickering from the flames that hovered in the palms of the three Salii warriors the Adarai had assigned to the team. It wasn’t entirely uncommon to have a Salii or two on a more precarious dig, though Carter couldn’t remember the last time it had happened. But, due to the violent and potentially dangerous nature of what the young sage had seen, it only made sense to have them join the company.

As they neared the chamber, the smell of scorched metal filled the thick air. Again, memories from his childhood filled his mind. Metallic corpses blackened by fire laying among the rubble. Downed transport ships burning like fireflies at dusk.

There was no more running now, here at the end of the road, he told himself, as the Salii entered the chamber, telling the team to hold, while they examined the area. A young man’s mistakes come back to confront the old man he had become. What did he expect, he wondered, as he stepped over the rocky floor, examining marks of scorched black on the shallow chamber walls.

As he knelt down over the meter-wide crater nested in the center of the rocky floor of the chamber, something pulled at him. A feeling at the pit of his stomach. That reflected the very cave they were in.

Carter Redrick felt empty for the first time in his life.