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The outdoors has always been a fundamental part of my inspiration and my writing process. I live in the Rocky Mountains and spend a great deal of my time hiking—and writing. I wander for miles, voice recorder in hand, dictating chapter after chapter, or just mulling over a plotline or characters.

This short story is my effort to show readers how experiencing the breathtaking beauty of planet Earth has opened up creative windows for me. It’s my way to try and explain my obsession for hiking in the rugged wilderness to the couch potatoes who “don’t get it.”

By the time our clunky shuttle finished two weeks in roundabout transit to the “designated wilderness” planet of Bifrost, Craig and I were more than ready to stretch our legs on the trails of a new alien world. I just hoped we weren’t too out of shape for vigorous trekking.

The uniformed ranger who piloted us wasn’t altogether happy with his chauffeur duties, but his gruff answers to our many questions could not diminish my exuberance. We were two hard-working guys, looking forward to having the peace and solitude of an entire world to ourselves, and determined to take the long, risky hike to see one of the greatest sights in the Galaxy. With humanity spreading across practically every habitable world, it was nearly impossible to get away from it all. Yet time and again we managed it.

Craig had filled out the sheaf of required forms, and I had paid all of the fees. We were not just tourists of the “pull over, look, then drive on” variety. We were authorized to be here on Bifrost. We had the best modern backpacking equipment, semisentient adventure clothing, and camp supplies—not to mention embarrassingly detailed maps. These expeditions had become an annual ritual for us.

Scenery. Solitude. Adventure. This was going to be heaven.

To minimize the impact of visitors on the environment, our ship touched down in a meadow, the single authorized landing zone for official vehicles. When the shuttle’s hatch opened, Craig and I stuffed the appropriate allergen filters into our noses, then took deep breaths of the clean alien air. Ready to go.

“I have been counting down the nanoseconds until today,” Craig said. “Oh, I was looking forward to this.” He had looked tired and a little withdrawn during the long trip, but now he seemed to come alive again. Though he spends most of his life inside an artificially lit starship cabin, Hawaiian genes from somewhere back in Craig’s bloodline endowed him with honey-tan skin, deep-brown eyes, and blue-black hair. I, on the other hand, am freckled and pale as protoplasm; despite undergoing melanin treatments and applying sunfilms, I’d probably burn beet red before the end of the trek.

The ranger unloaded our packs from the shuttle’s cargo bin. Craig and I hoisted the heavy loads onto our shoulders, carefully adjusted the straps and clamps for balance, and double-checked each other’s equipment as if we were orbital construction workers suiting up for a spacewalk.

For us, no first-person-tourist simulations would do: no 3-D images of scenery, no implanted memories of the perfect vacation. This was the real thing. We were going to be entirely and blissfully alone in the wilderness of Bifrost. Making a memory.

“You’ve got seven days,” the ranger said. “Make sure you’re back in time, or I’m gone.”

Craig turned his wide face to the sky. “If you don’t see us in a week, maybe we don’t want to go back!”

“Uh-huh.” The ranger expressed an encyclopedia of skepticism in those two syllables.

“How often do you really lose people out here?” I asked him.

“About one in twelve miss the scheduled pickup and are never found.”

“Maybe they decided to turn Robinson Crusoe,” Craig suggested.

“Probably got eaten.” The ranger shrugged. “With budget cuts, the Planetary Wilderness Bureau can’t afford to go looking for everybody. It’s all in the waiver you signed.”

“We can handle ourselves,” I said. “We do a wilderness trip every year. Even if we get lost, we know how to find our way back.”

The ranger stared at us with a grim frown, convinced this would be the last time anyone would ever see us alive. I see that look on my wife’s face every time I leave on one of my outdoorsy expeditions with Craig. She never believes me when I promise to be careful, though I have survived every adventure relatively unscathed. So far.

Craig grabbed his walking stick and tossed the other one to me. “Come on, Steve, we’d better start relaxing as fast as we can. Only seven days to cure a year’s worth of headaches.”

We activated the staffs, which would help us navigate and could also act as cattle-prod defenses if we were harassed by wild animals—though we’d face severe fines and time on a penal planet if we dared to hurt any endangered alien species.

“Right,” I said. “Asgaard awaits.”

Bifrost vegetation had more blues and oranges than a typical chlorophyll-based ecosystem. We passed between scaly ferns and ethereal lichentrees that looked like upside-down waterfalls, and got a view of an ugly swatch of clear-cut ground where loggers had managed to chop down everything before strict preservation regulations had been passed. Now, gray-white stumps thrust up from the soil like razor stubble on a giant’s face.

Neither Craig nor I are foaming-at-the-mouth environmentalists, but when you’re utterly alone on a wilderness planet, it changes your perspective, clears your head. The scars left by human greed or carelessness tend to look like a big steaming pile of dog shit right in the middle of a playground—our playground for the next week.

“I’m glad I never had to haul freight for lumberjockeys or stripminers.” Craig scowled, taking the environmental damage as a personal affront. “In a beautiful place like this, what the hell were they thinking?”

“I didn’t think the company gave you any choice about the cargoes you carry,” I said.

“Screw the company—they’ve done it to me enough times. Gotta take a stand once in a while.” Frowning, he stumped off, as if turning his back on the problems of his real life. “I came here to get away from all that.”

Craig is a long-distance cargo hauler who flies a company-owned transport ship around five systems, picking up percentages along the way. He has always dreamed of buying his ship from the company and becoming an independent hauler—and he’s gotten close—though recent months had brought a series of setbacks. I didn’t know the details, but I would probably hear plenty during the long trek.

At some point each year Craig and I need to get away, escape our jobs and civilized home lives, no matter how much it costs or how far away we have to go. Forget spas and empathic massages, nightlife and interactive entertainment experiences. Sometimes a guy just wants to get sweaty, be miserable, sleep in an uncomfortable tent, eat bad-tasting food, get lost, and then find the way back again, ready to face another year of reality.

Before long the faint path descended toward the distinctive rushing-wind sound of a wide creek. We picked our way over boulders toward the cascade. Wiping perspiration off his brow, Craig climbed up onto a squarish talus slab and shook his head. “This is a trail?”

“It’s a route.” I flipped the filter over my right eye and turned it on so I could see the infrared cairns, little beacons invisible to the naked eye—and presumably to the Bifrost wildlife as well—that marked the trail without defacing the nearly pristine wilderness.

A ribbon of foamy lavender water etched its way through pock-marked stone. Some sort of indigenous algae gave the stream the peculiar tint that in itself served as a reminder not to drink the water without treating it first. In a narrow spot over the creek, three wobbly looking lichentree logs had been knocked over to form a corduroy bridge.

I gingerly started across, looking down into the angry cascade. Although none of the guidebooks had mentioned the presence of aquatic carnivores on Bifrost, the very idea made me scuttle quickly to the other side. Craig paused, bent over, and ceremoniously spat a glob of phlegm into the water. Although he’s four years older than me, being out in the wilderness always seems to transform him into a little kid.

Once we were over the bridge, I let my eyes move back and forth, tracing the discouraging zigzag pattern of steep switchbacks up the other side of the canyon wall. When I groaned in dismay, Craig reminded me, “We do this for fun, remember? Asgaard awaits.”

“Yeah, yeah, Asgaard awaits. It’s sure better than sitting in my environmentally controlled cubicle.”

I had long suspected that Craig envied my stable job with its regular salary, though he assured me he’d rather be footloose, traveling from system to system, than stuck at a desk. For most of the year I work sealed in a cubicle chamber surrounded by screens and interfaces, exploring all manner of networks, following faint data trails. I’m a specialist in tracking certain violations in the business world, a hunter hired by clients to scan the labyrinth of entertainment loops, advertising, and news stories for unauthorized use of someone else’s intellectual property. In most cases the perpetrators are too naïve or stupid to be a real threat. Still, just because they’re idiots doesn’t mean they can’t cause disasters. I’m paid to avert disaster. It’s a subtle job, and I’m good at it.

Even so, I spend much of my time dreaming of Getting Away From It All, while looking at the images in my Fifty Most Spectacular Sites guidebook. Craig does the same on his long-distance hauls. And now that we were on Bifrost, we intended to make the most of our limited time here, and make a year’s worth of memories along the way.

Soon after we began the climb, with my thighs were hauling every gram of mass against Bifrost’s gravity, I found myself regretting all of the supplies I had put into my pack. I reconsidered each item from a new angle: Why should I require a first-aid kit, if I was careful enough? Would I actually miss my sanitation amenities if I left them behind on the trail? And did I really need to eat every day? Besides, the ecosystem and indigenous species here were compatible with our biochemistry, so we could just live off the land, despite the potential fines. How would the rangers ever know?

Unfortunately for my weary legs, my ingrained commitment to averting disasters brought me to my senses, and we plodded onward and upward. After two switchbacks, we rested ten minutes, then staggered up two more. By early afternoon we climbed over the canyon rim and were greeted by the glorious sight of a thin, cool stream running across the mesa top. We bounded toward it and stopped on the bank to unlace boots, strip off self-cleaning socks, and dunk our feet into the frigid water.

Craig let out a long “Ahhhh!”, put his hands behind him, and stared up into the sky where vulture-sized butterflies drifted about on the breezes. There’s nothing like the sheer delight of a simple pleasure when you’re tired and dirty. “This is the sort of experience wives just don’t understand,” he said.

“Some wives do,” I said.

“None of mine ever have,” Craig said, and a shadow crossed his face. I thought he was about to say something more, but he yelped and yanked his feet out of the water. Several small scallop-mouthed bivalves clung to his bare toes and ankles, nipping at the flesh.

In the stream I saw a swarm of these small nibblers approaching my own exposed flesh and pulled my feet out of the water just in time. Inspecting his toes, Craig found only a pinch mark, no broken skin.

“We’re making a memory,” I reminded him—a phrase that had become a private joke between us when we ran into something unexpected.

He chuckled to himself as he pulled his socks back onto his moist feet and relaced his boots. I understood what he was thinking: After waiting so long and working so hard to get to Bifrost, we weren’t about to let anything ruin our trip. “Rest stop’s over.”

On backpacking trips, I prefer to put on an extra kilometer or two the first day, when my energy is greatest. Craig has the opposite philosophy, not wanting to burn himself out too soon, so he likes to break off early. Therefore, we compromised and called a halt exactly where we had decided to stop during the months of planning for the trip.

In a pleasant clearing surrounded by huge blue ferns, we unshouldered our burdens, activated the self-erecting tent systems, strung up phosphors for light, and turned on the discourager beacons to drive away any nocturnal predators. Since regulations prohibit real campfires, we settled for a high-resolution hologram of crackling flames and rough logs. I’d considered bringing a can of aerosol woodsmoke, but discarded it when paring down the weight of my pack.

Craig selected a self-heating gloppy concoction of noodles and sauce while I, in a show of macho fortitude, intentionally chose a Spampak. He looked at me with a frown. “You’re crazy. I’d rather eat indigenous invertebrates.”

“On the trail is the only place this stuff tastes good.” I proceeded to eat my meal with much lip-smacking.

We sat outside in the growing darkness under the camp lights and talked. When you’re hiking all day, you don’t have much extra breath for conversation, so you can let your thoughts wander, clear your head, work out personal problems and questions or, better yet, just think about nothing. That’s a luxury most people in the frenetic civilized world with families and careers and daily schedule grids don’t have.

“I wish my life could be like this all the time,” Craig said with a sigh.

“You’d miss the amenities of civilization. Eventually.”

He gave an eloquent shrug. “But there are plenty of things I wouldn’t miss at all.” He leaned closer to the campfire image. “What a year! I don’t know how I’m ever going to dig out from under the crap, Steve. Maybe it’s impossible.”

I waited. Craig didn’t need me to ask questions. He’d tell me what he wanted to tell me.

“First, I lost a huge account. A shipment of extremely delicate—and extremely valuable—skreel embryos hatched prematurely while my ship was under heavy acceleration, killing every one of them. In the wake of that disaster, my transspace insurance carrier dropped me.”

“Without insurance, how will you—”

“Then, before I could get even probationary coverage, I misaligned my ship in a spacedock on Klamath Station—and that caused damage totaling just about my entire net worth.”

“Are you going to have to declare bankruptcy?”

From the dark forest came the sound of crashing trees, a loud roar, and a frightened-sounding trumpet as two large animals collided with each other. Craig listened for a minute, then with utter faith in our discourager field, continued, “The company’s already planning to sever my contract, and if I declare bankruptcy, I’ll lose my ship and any chance at a livelihood. At that point, my options narrow down to submitting myself for scientific research or volunteering for hard labor on a terraform colony.”

“I hear terraformers get paid well. At least that’s a possibility.”

“And where could I spend the credits on a raw world?”

I groaned in commiseration. No wonder he needed to get away. “Trust me, someday when it’s all over, this will seem funny.”

“I don’t think so, Steve. It’s hard to imagine.”

I might have tried to cheer him up, but then the large indigenous animals—any guidebook would have called them “monsters”—lumbered into view. One, an elephant-sized panther, ripped into a house-sized spiny ungulate that looked like a cross between a porcupine and a woolly mammoth. The ungulate tried to duck into a defensive posture, but the panther-thing slipped under its guard.

They snorted and snarled. Spittle and blood flew. Lichentrees crashed into splinters. The porcupine creature raked a spine down the predator’s flank, but the beast didn’t seem to notice. The ungulate fled crashing away from our campsite. Without so much as a look at us, the panther sprang after it.

Resigned, Craig said, “Well, that gives me a whole new perspective on my trivial human problems.”

“Amen,” I said. “I’m turning in.”

All the next day the trail led along a sinuous arid ridge dotted with surrealistic hoodoos, hardened clay that stuck out from the softer sandstone like a petrified alien army waiting to advance. I used my clicker to snap large files of images, though Craig just stared in peaceful satisfaction, drinking in the details, taking pictures with his mind. “I store the images in my brain,” he’d once told me, “since I’m the only one who really cares about them anyway.” I had to agree. There’s nothing more boring than looking at pictures of someone else’s vacation, no matter what planet it’s on.

Late in the afternoon, the wind picked up and the sky congealed with ugly gray clouds, and I became uncomfortably aware of how exposed we were on this ridge. Rain and hail struck with the force of Thor’s hammer, stinging my bare arms. I dropped my pack and ducked under one of the hoodoos for shelter. Overhead, sheets of static lightning and blue balls of Saint Elmo’s Fire whipped about.

I scrambled to get out my electrostatic rain shield, but my hands were already wet, and I fumbled it. An earsplitting clap of thunder was followed by a rumbling boom, and I dropped the shield projector. Naturally, it struck a rock, and the device sparked and fizzled out. “Great.”

Craig crouched under the inadequate shelter with me, his head covered by his own electrostatic umbrella, a twinkling net that deflected the raindrops and the gravel-sized hail. He shifted it over so I could huddle under the meager protection that had never been designed to cover more than one person. “Here, I’ll tough it out.”

“You’re getting drenched and bruised!” I said.

“I’m making a memory.” Craig smiled, shrugging the droplets away. “Isn’t that part of the charm of this back-to-nature stuff?”

“It’s supposed to be a pleasant sort of misery,” I said. “The kind that makes you appreciate your everyday life a bit more.”

“Bifrost is going to need to toss some pretty big loads of ‘pleasant misery’ at me.”

Watching the majestic storm and waiting for the hail to end, we each ate several handfuls of hyper-granola and chased it with some energized water. Then we passed the time chatting.

Craig was having problems with his current soon-to-be-ex wife Grace, who had filed divorce forms while he was on a long-distance run, making it impossible for him to finish the rebuttal phase in time unless he dropped his cargo and raced back home—which she knew, as did I, that Craig would never do.

“Grace figured out a new tactic for increasing alimony. She claims that since I’m flitting around between star systems all the time, the time-dilation effect, though small, is still significant. Therefore she has effectively put more time into this marriage than I have. She’s trying to get 1.3 times the standard alimony calculation.”

“Never heard that one before.” It was just another nail in the coffin of his disastrous year.

As the storm rumbled and swirled around us, Craig continued to tell me about how all of his previous divorces had gone wrong. I’d lost track, unable to remember which of the women were legally bound wives and which were just long-term live-ins. He never learned to be more wary of the women he hooked up with.

But we were here on Bifrost, with only a few days to forget about the nonsense of our normal life. I tried to get Craig thinking about good times, positive things.

We both got a chuckle reminiscing about the previous year’s trip, shooting the Hundred Mile Rapids on Beta Kowalski. No one could survive the legendary whitewater stretch in a traditional kayak or raft, so Craig and I rented armored ballistic projectiles. We both found them uncomfortably similar to coffins with picture windows built into every side. Unable to control our own paths, we simply laid back for the ride, in occasional radio contact, though the thundering rapids drowned out most transmissions as we went over cascades, plunged down giant drop-offs, then shot along the current to the next set of even worse rapids. It had been an adrenaline rush for five hours straight, and we were both so weak and shaky by the time we reached the pickup point that the expedition managers had carted us off for a routine medical check. The recovery facilities and the numerous saloons at the bottom of the cascades proved that we weren’t alone in being stunned by the trip.

Afterward, Craig and I each had a different look in our eyes. “Most people don’t do that, you know,” I said.

He nodded. “Most people aren’t crazy.”

“Most people are boring.”

When we showed my wife the pictures, she was predictably horrified and made me promise I would never try such an outrageous stunt again. It wasn’t hard to agree, since I didn’t need to shoot the Hundred Mile Rapids a second time. I had already checked that one off the list, and there were other things to see and do. I had them all in my guidebook, The Fifty Most Spectacular Sites in Galactic Sector A. Everybody needs goals.

The next morning we descended steeply into a swamp, with rivulets of water snaking around dubious-looking tufts of dryer ground. I found it ironic that our discourager fields were effective at keeping large predatory animals away, yet somehow they did nothing to block swarms of annoying skeeters. The small biting insects couldn’t possibly have a natural appetite for Terran-based blood, but that didn’t stop them from biting us.

The swamp foliage was so dense and the muddy ground so uncertain that we had to keep IR filters over our eyes just to spot the trail beacons, many of which were covered with moss or slimy fungus. I had to unroll the mapfilm and uplink to the surveillance satellites and zoom in on the detailed topography.

Splashing across the marsh, Craig misjudged a stepping stone and sank in up to his knee. He pulled out his foot, dripping with greenish-black muck so viscous as it crawled off his boot that it seemed alive. Maybe it was.

Halfway through a thicket, I saw some other hiker’s carelessly discarded food foils, and my face pinched with annoyance. “Can you believe someone would go to all the trouble of coming to Bifrost, then be stupid enough to throw litter on the ground?” I worked my way off the marked trail to clean up after the slob. When I pulled at a polymer strap from a hiking pack, it came out of the muck connected to the gnawed remains of a human femur. Now it dawned on me that this wasn’t merely careless litter.

“Yeah. I think we’ve found that one-out-of-twelve the ranger was talking about,” Craig said, reading my sober expression. “He wasn’t very successful at the Robinson Crusoe bit.”

I know it sounds warped, but the only thing I could think of was, “I hope the poor guy got munched on the way back from his hike, so that at least he got to see the Asgaard Bridge.” Sometimes my priorities sound screwy even to me.

I let the bone drop back into the swamp. “I’d better leave a radio flare so the rangers can come and gather the remains.” I took one of the pulsers from my belt, activated it on non-emergency locator mode, and tossed it into the water. If I remembered right, the terms of our backcountry permits required the hiker or his surviving family members to pay all the costs of such a retrieval operation. Maintaining a wilderness planet is serious business. . . .

A large fern sprang back and slapped me in the face after Craig pushed into the dryer forest beyond the wet marsh. I wiped slime off my cheeks. We were both tired, but we had to do at least another kilometer. Otherwise, we wouldn’t reach our destination tomorrow, and the whole schedule would fall apart.

We found an adequate campsite just after dusk. Too tired to talk much, we ate our meals. That night we went to sleep early after looking at our guidebooks again and drooling over the glorious pictures of the Asgaard Bridge—certainly one of the fifty most spectacular sights in Sector A, if not in the whole Galaxy. I couldn’t wait to see it with my own eyes.

As luck would have it, thick fog had settled into the lowlands. The trail took us into a narrow gorge, where we couldn’t see anything but a gauzy mist that hung like a suffocating pillow. We moved quickly: After days of hiking, our goal was near. We were about to join the very short list of privileged people who had actually been to the Asgaard Bridge. Mere pictures would never be the same as personally experiencing this wonder first-hand.

We began our long ascent, and once in a while we broke above the low-lying mists and saw outcroppings like islands in a gray-white sea. We climbed toward our destination—the grail. As if by some malicious joke, the clouds thickened even further, making it impossible to see more than a hundred meters in front of us, then fifty, and then twenty. In clear weather, the trail would have been plain, but we had to use the IR cairns just to find our way through the mist.

“Can’t see a thing,” Craig muttered. “This is not the memory I wanted to make.”

“We’re not there yet.”

We kept hoping against hope that the fog would lift by the time we reached the Asgaard Bridge. It was mid-morning, and the sun ought to burn away the fog and leave us with clear skies and a beautiful view. It had to.

We reached the top of a mesa, then headed toward the edge of the gorge. Both the map and the IR indicators told us that we had reached our ultimate goal. And we could see nothing. Absolutely nothing. Days of hiking, months of preparations, countless permits, enormous expenses—all to get here.

To see thick fog.

The claustrophobic air intensified sounds, and we could hear the roar of the lavender river charging through the rocks and cascading into the distant gorge. I squinted, demanding optimism from myself, but I couldn’t discern even a silhouette.

“The perfect ending to a perfect year.” Craig shook his head. “It defies belief.”

“You say that every time something like this happens.” Resigned, I opened my pack, removing a snack and some juice. “Might as well have lunch.”

Troubled and sulking, he tossed pebbles into the unseen chasm, while I opened the map and the guidebook, looked at the image of the Asgaard Bridge again, and tried to calculate just how long we could wait there. This weather couldn’t last forever, but it could last longer than we had. We both remembered the ranger’s admonition that he wouldn’t wait for us—and I couldn’t stop thinking of the skeleton in the swamp.

“Three hours is all I’m comfortable with. I sure don’t want to miss the pickup shuttle. I’ve got a performance review and a raise justification when I get back to work.”

“Yeah. And I’ve got my alimony hearing.” Craig hurled another rock over the edge. “Sure wouldn’t want to miss that.”

I started figuring out how fast I could make my way back at top speed, how many extra kilometers I could put on my feet each day, but I doubted Craig could keep up.

On the other hand, I really wanted to see the Asgaard Bridge.

After three hours of growing frustration, the gray mist grew whiter and brighter, thinning. I finished packing up, reluctant to leave but watching my chronometer. We had never turned back before. Never. But our time was up.

Feeling as if a neutron star were weighing me down, I hefted my pack. “That’s it.” Many other choice words were running through my mind.

Craig didn’t move to pick up his pack, just sat staring into the opaque fog. “You go ahead.”

“You’ll never catch up.” My pace was always faster than his.

“I don’t have to.” He finally turned to me. I’d never seen such a bleak yet simultaneously peaceful expression on his face. “I’m not going. I’m staying here.”

What could I say to that? “You’re crazy! Come on.”

“I mean it. What do I have to go back for? I’d rather go native here. I’ve got my equipment, supplies, guidebooks.” The way he rattled off his justifications, I could tell Craig had been thinking about this for a long time—maybe even before the ranger had dropped us off. “The life forms are compatible, so I can hunt and forage. I can build myself a cabin. I’ll be Robinson Crusoe, living off the land. Peace. Solitude. Adventure. You of all people should understand that, Steve.”

“I understand it as a game, a break, a vacation. Not everyday life.” Craig’s expression wavered. I was articulating his own doubts. “Sure, we like doing this primitive thing every year, mainly because it makes our regular lives tolerable by comparison. The only reason we have fun getting miserable is because we know we’re going back to reality when it’s over. It gives us an appreciation for the simple pleasures.”

“I don’t have any simple pleasures left,” he said. “I’ve got nothing. No job, no money, no ship, no wife. Tell the ranger that a monster ate me, or that I fell off a cliff. Make up a good story.”

I could only stare at him. “You’ll regret it in a week, Craig. A month at most. And nobody’ll be there to throw you a lifeline.”

“No other options that I can see. And I sure don’t want to sign up for a bioresearch project. I like camping, roughing it, surviving by my own hands—” He stopped in mid-sentence and jumped to his feet, grinning. “You better take a look, Buddy! Get ready to hear a chorus of angels.”

And he was right. The mist parted, and golden sunbeams stabbed down enough to impress even the most jaded photographer. Suddenly, there was the Asgaard Bridge, an impossibly delicate and poignant sliver of rock stretched across a gorge as deep and as sharp as if a cosmic scalpel had sliced the flesh of the sandstone all the way down to the bone. Directly beneath the arch flowed a foaming cascade of pink quicksilver, a perfect strand of water, pouring from between walls of natural diamondplate crystal. Showers of rainbows filled the air all around us. It was more stunning than anything I had ever seen, more breathtaking than any image in any guidebook. High spires of quartz-laced rock rose like crystalline spears on either side of the gorge, dazzling in the light.

Putting aside the crisis for a moment, Craig and I raised hands, and gave each other a high-five. This was exactly what we’d come out here for. “By far the best one on the whole list!” He said that every time.

I pounced. “And if you stay here, who am I going to see the rest of them with?” I pulled the guidebook from my pack. The Fifty Most Spectacular Sights in Galactic Sector A. “We’ve only done seventeen, Craig—that leaves thirty-three more to go!”

He wavered, looking at the Asgaard Bridge, then back at the open book. Just to prod him, as the final part of the ritual, I found the Bifrost page and marked a big fat X on the checklist box. Another one down.

“I really wanted to see the singing cliffs of Golhem,” he admitted. “And the refractory eclipses of Tarawna.”

“Don’t forget the fungus reefs and phosphor labyrinths on Kendrick Five-A. I was thinking of a way we could combine two separate checklist locations into a single vacation for next year. We can bag all fifty, Craig. But not if you’re stuck here.”

He looked as if his engines and life-support systems had all just shut down. I knew him well enough to read a flicker of doubt in his expression. Even he hadn’t been so sure about his decision. “But what else can I do? This seemed like a decent way—make my own home, settle a plot of land. . . . I could pull it off. I know I could.”

I had an idea. “If you’re going to do that, then why not sign up for one of the terraform colonies instead? Same idea, but you’ll get a huge financial incentive and gain title to half a continent. Pick yourself a hardworking colonist wife and form a dynasty.”

He scratched his rumpled and sweaty hair. “Terraformers? I always heard that was miserable, no amenities, living with minimal resources . . . no amenities . . .” His words slowed.

“And exactly how is that different from turning Robinson Crusoe here?”

He remained silent. Then, like the mists evaporating to give us a view of the Asgaard Bridge, an uncertain smile broke through on his face. “The difference is, if I become a land baron, I can foot the bill for our next expedition.”

Though I was anxious to start back, I handed Craig the guidebook and let him spend a few minutes mulling over the images. The Fifty Most Spectacular Sights in Galactic Sector A. I set the hook: “You know, there are books like that for Sectors B and C, too.”

Craig shouldered his pack and looked at the Asgaard Bridge one last time before returning the guidebook. Shaken and still uncertain, he took the lead with a new spring in his step. “We’ll have plenty to do for years to come, Steve—if you and I make the time to go to these planets.”

“We will. As long as we get back to the shuttle in time.”

The End

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