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4.

They landed on one of the plateaus and spent an hour taking every sort of reading they could think of. They dug in the sandy soil, they sucked air samples, they made spectrograms and took sound samples of the slightly seismic earth. They took lots of pictures. Clay, standing by the broken edge of the ridge top, looked down, westward, into a valley a hundred kilometers wide and four kilometers deep, with a wide channel of bright water in its midst connecting to the sea a quarter of the way around the planet: he was looking down on the tops of clouds that were shedding rain on the lowlands. Far in the distance, to his left along the plateau edge, a few volcanic cones smoked. The golden sun shone in a deep blue sky, as vivid as the skies of his childhood in Maine; a fractal of lacy high clouds half-covered the northwest quadrant. He took pictures that would not, even in 3D, capture the aching beauty of the vista.

That this planet, with all its quirks, with all its geological history, perhaps with all its physical history, was still here and still habitable, still unpoisoned: that he was here, standing on this planet looking down into a valley that might someday burst with farm products but which right now had not been walked in, had not been crawled or scurried or slithered in, for millions of years: all that. Clay Gilbert did not have a clue what to think about it, but he sighed, not happy, not sad, just opening himself to it all and thinking, if I’m not being messed with again by the Universe with all its curious sense of humor, then thank you, thank you, thank you.

And then he looked up and there was Rachel, a hundred meters away on a crest of rock, taking some sort of reading with one of their instruments, the atmospheric one. A tiny woman, thin as a nail but also tough as a nail, her helmet off, her black hair blowing in a steady breeze. He turned his camera on her and she looked up just as he took the second picture.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“Taking your picture, obviously,” he replied. She shrugged shyly, a little irritated perhaps, a little complimented, and a lot of other things lurked behind that. He started up the mild slope toward her. “What are you doing?”

“The air,” she said. “It’s good. I didn’t trust it so I checked again.”

“And?”

“And I checked again. But it’s fine.”

“Well,” he said, “the volcanoes are putting out something, but there’s enough plant life, I guess you call it that, that there’s a biological carbon cycle, so you have, I bet you have, stuff in the ocean that’s keeping the equilibrium in the atmosphere. If we do colonize here, I bet it’ll be on the fragile side, it’s not a large planet and it’s not a thick atmosphere and it’s definitely not a deep and powerful web of life or anything.” He laughed. He was five meters from her and a head below her. “Listen to me, I sound like Natasha.”

“Natasha,” she said. “Aren’t you worried about Natasha?”

“Well,” he said, sorting through all the things that could mean, “uh, why?”

“Out there on the patrol at the edge of the system,” said Rachel. “I mean—!” She stopped, half smiling, half nervous.

“I’m more worried about you, actually,” he said. “Should we have that talk?”

Rachel sort of sniffed around. Clay wondered what it was about her. She wasn’t herself, but she was more herself than usual. He also noticed that her nose was really quite large for her small and precise face, with her small and precise mouth and her small and precise eyebrows. She was not classically beautiful. But there was something about her, and that nose was right in the middle of whatever it was.

“Let’s take water samples,” she said, as if that was the answer to his question.

But when they flew down to the shore of the sea and landed on the hundred meter wide beach of grey-blue sand and padded down the beach to the water’s edge and took water samples and caught a bit of algae or something in a tube and took sand samples (some life in there too, mostly “plants” with some sort of chlorophyll but also something along the lines of “fungus”) and spectra of the Sun through the clouds, they found themselves talking about the weather (day length 32.1 hours, year about 480 Earth days, slight seasons, regular morning and afternoon storms). They worked for an hour, then they stopped for lunch (wafers of recycled waste, with recycled waste green tea). After his second yummy wafer, Clay said, “Walk along the beach?”

“Sure,” said Rachel.

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