Smears of cryogel stuck to the explorer’s eyelids, the back of his neck, his genitals. A single shower never got rid of it all, but in his rush to resume scanning for the diamond planet, Maitch Esso hadn’t taken time for the second or third he’d really need to get clean. He noticed a stray patch of gel on his left forearm; taking a greasy towel, he rubbed at the goo, gradually releasing it from his skin. Underneath, a part of his personal scrapbook came into view: a red rose with the name Achelle, his wife, and a simple diamond formed from a few crude lines. The first, he remembered, he’d paid for after their first date; she had a matching one with his name. He wondered if she had kept it, after he had left. The second he had done himself, at fourteen, poking out the shape with a needle wrapped in thread and dipped in India ink. Somehow, it had lasted as long as the professional one.
“Refocus, buddy!” Maitch stared at the flat-screen, punching up the 3-D view. Stars leaped about with the change in perspective. Nothing looked right as yet.
This time he felt sure. He could feel it more strongly than any of the previous twenty-six times. When he found the diamond planet, the first one to do so since Earthmen had been talking about, searching for and believing in this one precious object, he, Maitch Esso, would be a legend among legends. To speed his search, he had created a unique algorithm, processing centuries of myths, tall tales and observable facts, along with geology, chemistry and the astrophysics of solar energy fields. Each factor had its own alphanumeric in his formula. As a result, he was searching for a binary star system that had captured a passing white dwarf. Together, this trio would have applied pressure and heat for a millennium to cook down a nondescript carbon planet into the largest, most valuable jewel in the universe.
Cosmological analysis had yielded a catalog of points jumbled across the constellations, and Maitch had tracked them one by one. They had all proven dead ends. Next on the list of likely targets, the algorithm pointed to an area just inside the Capricornus Void. That alone comprised a massive territory, but he had programmed the trip anyway. One more stop on a long series of stops.
Now, the ship’s computer had woken him from the sleep freeze again. “How long have I been down?” Maitch said aloud.
In response, the computer flashed a chronometer on the screen. It would have read him the time, except he had turned off its damned voice a long time ago. Too irritating. The vocal circuit had developed a fault, so it dragged out certain vowels and one consonant in particular: “s.” The drifting thing sounded like a giant anaconda, hissing and sputtering away. One day, the fault would spread to the other circuits, and then he would be bunched into the fourth dimension.
Maitch stared at the clock. Thirty-eight years of freezer burn.
“Danglers,” he swore. “My whole life passing before my dreams.” Twenty-six times he had woken like this, sometimes after five years, sometimes after decades; more than fifty, once. All in all, probably five or six hundred years, give or take a few. The computer would know; none of it would matter once he found the diamond.
Back to work. The computer had divided the area into blocks one astronomical unit per side. He pushed the scanner’s viewplate across the current cube, examining every celestial body from dwarf planet on up. Maitch took on the search himself. When you’re hunting for something that doesn’t exist, like Atlantis or Lemuria, you have to drift with your intuition rather than navigate by fact and figure alone.
After days at the scanner, loneliness dragged at his mind. Maitch could make it a couple of days without hearing a human voice, especially when he had something to busy himself. Now the work had become rote. Luckily, he had saved all Achelle’s voicemail messages when she was contacting him to find out where he’d gone, to get him back, to make him feel guilty for abandoning their life together. Needing to hear his wife talk, Maitch set the computer to continue scanning before taking the speaker bot from the cupboard where it lived during his cryosleep periods.
The robot, simply a cheap, generic android with limited functionality, had a blank plastic face and rubber lips. The lips, he noticed, were cracked and crumbling from dry rot. The plastic skin had yellowed. Its eyes had been installed so they moved to add expression, but they seemed dull, blank, lifeless. The paint on the molded hair had faded, and much of it had flaked away.
Maitch touched the magnetic key to the back of its neck, and the bot jerked briefly, masticating its lips in a parody of facial exercise.
“Talk to me,” Maitch said. “Play the recordings. Start with number C-sixteen.”
“Maitch! This is your wife again,” the robot’s lips moved in crude approximation of the words. Achelle’s voice, musical, warm and soft despite her frustration, came through a speaker hidden behind the rubber flaps. “Remember me? Please call me when you get this message. Dacta has been asking about you. I think you should tell him yourself where you’re going. Old Sol knows I don’t understand.”
“I’m close this time, Darling,” Maitch said, speaking to the robot. “This is it. I’ll bring back proof, and then I’ll be famous. Book tours. Speaker’s fees. Exhibitions of stones and photographs. We’ll be rich. You’ll be famous, too. I know you’ll like that.”
“The money’s running out, Maitch.” The tape continued. “You didn’t leave enough for the bills. My job alone can’t cover them. Your clients are threatening to press lawsuits. What am I going to do?” Her throat caught in a sob, pinching off the words.
“I know. I’m sorry. I had to do it. I had to follow my dream. You always said I should follow my dream.”
“You said forever. We’d be together forever. Life’s adventure. The shop, a home, a family. That would be enough for you. What happened? Wasn’t I enough?”
“Yes, darling, I know. You were enough; you were great. I don’t know why I did it. But here I am. It will be over soon. Then I’ll come back.”
Now his heart had clotted with a thick soup of grief and loss; his mind ran through all the regrets. He’d had enough of the old words for now.
“Stop the tape,” he told the bot. “Voice circuit activate. No recording.”
The robot turned its head from side to side and pursed its lips. “Hello, Maitch.” It was Achelle’s voice, taken from snips of the recordings and stitched together into new words, new sentences.
“Hello, Darling. Come with me to the kitchen.”
The android stumped after him. Its left foot dragged; its left arm dangled, useless.
“How’s your arm?”
“It’s okay today. My foot doesn’t want to cooperate. I’m sorry I’m moving so slow.”
“I’m sorry I messed you up. If I hadn’t left that floor hatch open, you wouldn’t have stepped in it.”
“You tried to fix me.”
“But then I messed it up. I didn’t know what I was doing. I disconnected the wrong circuit and disabled your arm.”
“You did your best with what you had. The manual wasn’t clear. At least you cared enough to try.”
They made it to the kitchen at last. “Have a seat,” Maitch said. “Would you like a nanny block?”
“No, thank you. I don’t know how you can eat those things. Nanny blocks are for little kids.”
“What’s not to like? Sweet, milky, chewy. Like treacle, but with all the nutrients a man needs. I’ve always liked ‘em.”
“They’re gross.” The cracked lips approximated a rictus of disgust.
“Nanny blocks are perfect for space travel. Never spoil, never lose flavor.”
“They never had any flavor.”
Maitch ignored the remark. “Besides, they take me back to the days of my youth, good times. Simpler times. That’s important in a long voyage.”
“It didn’t have to be so long.”
“That’s the way it happened. I might have found it in the first year. But it didn’t happen that way.”
“You look tired.”
“I am. I need some jet-nap.”
“You should get some real sleep. The computer can monitor the scanning process.”
“This is too important. I can’t spare the time.”
He took one shot of jet-nap and then another. Closed his eyes. In ten minutes he awoke, feeling as refreshed as after a ten hour sleep.
Maitch looked at the robot. “I’ve got to get back to work. Power down for now. We can talk again later.”
“Okay. Good night, Maitch.”
“Good night, Darling.”
The explorer sat down before the monitor. Supernova starlight! The computer flashed the coordinates of the diamond planet on the screen, along with a dozen text alarms about the proximity of their target.
With shaking hands, Maitch programmed the spatial data, the trajectory, speed and other minutiae of a short range astral leap.
The biggest diamond in the universe. Maitch could see it in his mind as clearly as if it actually appeared on the screen, as realistically as if it appeared before his very eyes. In his plans, his dreams, his every waking thought and even in nightmares, the diamond had been present. He begged it to appear, worshipped it, cursed it and loved it. Sometimes he felt he willed it into existence. Something he knew he would find one day, fulfilling a life’s ambition, a life’s hard work and sacrifice.
Maitch had sold everything, given up everything, even his wife and child, his business and home, his friends and enemies, his planet and his people. No matter. Upon his return as a hero, he would have all that and more. Legends, gods, don’t sweat the small stuff.
“Just a matter of days, now,” Maitch told himself. Those stars, the white dwarf and red giant pair that had captured a passing red dwarf—would loom up on the screen, and then he would circle in, tracking the orbit of the one he sought, like a lover pacing the one true love, the most beautiful planet of all.
When at last he closed on the diamond’s location, the screen showed nothing there. No fragments, no moons, no planet of any kind, of any mineral or rock.
“What is this?” he asked the computer. “Check the algorithm and recalculate the trajectory.”
[[Trajectory is correct.]] The computer printed the words on the monitor. [[Visual evidence not available. Mass differentiation indicates the presence of an irregular, oblong object, approximately 2000 miles diameter at smallest point.]]
“That big? Wow!” Diamond light radiated from his consciousness, as if projecting the image of what he sought on the empty space before him.
Some tales said it was invisible. That would explain how it had eluded the greatest diamond hunter of them all, Dax Tallissi, who spent nearly a thousand years at the task. But something so simple and obvious as mere invisibility would not deter Maitch Esso. He alone had been too clever to be duped like the others.
“Try an alternate scanning protocol. Red shift, ultraviolet, x-ray, radiation, and so on.”
The computer got busy with the assigned functions. He pondered additional techniques.
“Fire a laser array into the area. Let’s see what reflects.”
The ship emitted a carnival of focused lights, fanning out in beams and pulses and myriad preset patterns that danced in the vacant aether before him. He lost himself in the swooping curves of a random shape as it folded over itself, carving out an asemic poem he could almost make sense of. Maitch imagined the cryptic, floating text might contain instructions for solving the mystery of the diamond planet’s location.
Nothing reflected back, so the experiment had failed.
“Danglers! Think again, Maitch.”
The various scans also gave negative results, as did a half dozen other remote imaging strategies.
“Only one thing left, Maitch, and that’s the human touch. The one thing that can’t be masked or fooled. You’re going out there, buddy. No diamond planet is going to slip through your fingers!”
Taking a well-worn pressure suit from a locker, he inspected the patches covering much of its outer shell. One loose patch, and another. He got out the heat gun and glued the fabric down. Then he began pulling the protective garment over his body, sealing it, testing the seals. It would do.
The airlock routine went smoothly, and he released the umbilical bit by bit, backing away from the ship. With 500 feet of line to play with, he felt he could cover a good area. Something had to be within that range, if the scanner was correct, although why it hadn’t pulled the ship in with its gravity he couldn’t figure.
“Who knows what kind of gravity well a diamond planet will have,” he told himself. “No one’s ever experienced it. It’s one more textbook page that will have the name Maitch Esso all over it!”
He had his arms outstretched, which proved to be the best possible move because his body bumped into something, and he might otherwise have cracked the faceplate on it. As excitement overtook him, he scrabbled at the invisible wall for a moment. The portable scanner showed nothing specific, just a wavering set of numbers. Where was the mass? Where was the gravity?
He felt the invisible wall sliding under his gloves, then he grabbed at empty space. A force sucked him in, drawing out the umbilical until it snapped taut, catching him there for a moment. Oddly enough, the background stars had disappeared, all except for a small circular patch back there, up the line. Then it closed off. The tether came loose and he fell on and on, like tumbling into dreams, until he could feel his mind and body no more.
Maitch awoke in an elegantly finished room feeling more refreshed than he had in years. A carefree sense of lightness filled his mind, like he had achieved a major goal or finished a big project. His muscles were loose, mind clear and alert. And something was missing. Anxiety and loss and a desperate sense of struggling for something just out of reach.
The mattress under him rested on a real wood frame and possessed a firm, pillowy softness, like it had been made from some packed gel; the linens felt soft and thick, and the comforter had a fluffy pile like he had never seen. The nightshirt covering his body was made of fine white fabric. Although sparely furnished, everything had been made from high quality materials: nightstand, a small chest of drawers, a simple desk and swiveling chair to match. He vaguely remembered going on a spacewalk, and yet he had ended up in the finest hotel room available to man anywhere in the galaxy. Perhaps this was heaven, his just reward for a lifetime of hard work, diligence, self-discipline. What had he done with his life? He wasn’t quite sure, but he knew it had been successful to have earned this.
Getting out of bed to inspect the room, he found beautiful clothes folded in the dresser: fine cotton shirts, gabardine slacks, men’s hose and a pair of Italian leather shoes. After changing, he felt ready to face the remainder of this hospital, hotel, heaven, or whatever it was. The doorknob turned without a hitch, so he pulled open the door. A long, featureless hallway in a neutral, glowing white faced him, stretching out to a fine point of perspective in either direction. The ceiling reached far overhead. He began to walk. Then he found a waiting room, where creatures like he’d never seen before stood around a table, conversing and possibly taking a meal.
They looked like trees, he thought at first. Eleven or twelve feet high—fifteen or more, depending on the individual, if you counted the branches sprouting from their heads. Their trunks, long and tubular, with a rough, bark-like skin, tapered down to legs that ended in broad, flat feet, more like splayed sections of the trunk after being split up the middle to one third of its height. At the midpoint of their bodies, two pairs of long thin arms stretched out to end in six or seven long thin fingers. Their faces were made up of two widely spaced knots filled with a kind of blue glass—their eyes, Maitch supposed—and a single, broader knot below that, perhaps a mouth or nose.
One of the trees stepped away from the group to approach him.
“Greetings, Sire, most graciousness,” the creature said through a translation machine. The gaping hole of a mouth did not move. “My name is Crenth. Pleased to meet my fellows Jenib, Karof, Forll, and Zulkad. Your sleep has been most well, I believe.”
“Yes, I slept fine.” Maitch struggled to find his thoughts so he could put them into speech. Where to begin? “Uh, how did I get here? Was I in some kind of accident?”
“Accident, you had on your spacewalk.” Crenth said. They really should get that translator adjusted, Maitch thought. “Unconscious found you when.”
The creature used the stick-like fingers of one of its left limbs to adjust something hanging from the branches above its head. “We found you unconscious. Nearly dead.”
“Wow. I’m not sure what happened. Did you see what happened?”
“Did not. We could not. No, we arrived on the scene much later.”
“Is my ship still out there?”
“We located your ship, many thousand miles away.” Maitch thought it seemed odd the creature used the specifically Earth American unit of distance in its translation. “It is now docked to our craft. You can leave anytime you feel able.”
“That would be great. I have really important things to do. If only I could remember what they were. There might be something in the ship’s log. My computer will know.”
“Your computer suffered damage. We have rebooted it. A courtesy, you understand, to facilitate you safely.”
“Okay. I appreciate that. I’m grateful for everything you’ve done for me.”
“A pleasure it should be ours,” Crenth said. “Would you take a meal with us, before going you on?”
“I’d like that. I am pretty hungry.”
“Excellent. We have synthesized some food for your metabolic system. Join us at our table.”
The surface of the table stood far over Maitch’s head. As he stood beside it, a small platform rose under his feet, pushing him up until he stood at a correct height and distance for eating. A place setting had been made for him. In a bowl, pale yellow noodles writhed in a green sauce, and unusual blue florets, yellow leaves and red nuts bobbed with their motions. On a plate, strips of burnt bacon lay in a thick orange gravy. Maitch did not want to seem rude to his hosts, who had saved his life. He picked up a piece of the bacon and dipped it in the sauce.
“Hey, that’s not bad!” More like beef jerky, the meat tasted great in the cheese-like sauce. He cleaned the plate, hoping he would be full enough to beg off eating the noodles.
“Try the spaghetti,” Karoff said. “I worked the synthesizer very hard to make it authentic.”
“You’ve met humans before?” Maitch asked, giving the bowl a sideways glance. He had never eaten a worm, although he had heard they were nutritious. He picked up the spork beside the bowl and twirled up a noodle, spearing one of the florets to hold it in place. Closing his eyes, he inserted the food into his mouth. Chewed. The noodle twitched, but it tasted just like homemade pasta, the floret like broccoli, or a close relative. Strand by strand, he finished the meal, drank some of the liquid, which proved to be just water, despite the greenish tinge.
“I don’t suppose you synthesized any scotch?” he asked.
“Scotch? We do not know this food. What can we make it for you?”
“Nevermind. This meal was great. I appreciate it.” Something snagged in the back of Maitch’s mind. Something he was forgetting to do, some work or repair. Maybe that was it. He had gone outside the ship to repair something, forgot to anchor his line. A rookie move.
“I guess I’ll go back to my ship now.”
“Fine will you be that,” Crenth said. “Forll will guide your way.”
“Great. Well, goodbye!”
“Goodbye, Sire, and you are met well.”
The tree Forll lead him down a maze-like collection of tunnels, all in white.
“How do you find your way around, Forll? Are you sure we haven’t been walking in circles?” Maitch hoped the creature had a sense of humor.
“The light tells me the way. Can you see the change in its luminosity? These make signs to remind me where to go, although I have traveled this path many times.”
“It all looks the same to me.”
“We are sure it does.”
They came to a circular patch in the wall. “This airlock leads to your ship,” Forll said. The entity used long fingers to probe a small rectangular patch of brighter light, and the airlock dilated open, shutter blades fading into the walls. “Have safe travels on your way to Earth.”
“Earth?” Maitch repeated. “No, I won’t go back there. I have family on Aldebaran Three. It’s a colony world.” An image rose out of a dense fog in his mind. Achelle and their son living in a house there. His house. His home. That had been a long time ago. Too long.
“Let your journey be swift and your life be long.”
“I thank you again for all your hospitality and assistance.”
The tree bowed slightly. “A pleasure it is ours.”
One airlock is much like another. After a few paces, Maitch arrived in his own ship. Standing before the control panel, he had a clear vision of his last actions there: looking at the computer screen, programming a course of action, wearing his patched and worn pressure suit. He had been planning to go outside, on a spacewalk. After that, he could not remember.
“Where have I been?” he asked the computer. “What did I leave the ship to accomplish?”
[[You left the ship to fix the portside radar dish. It had developed an electrical fault. A cloud of space dust cycled through, piercing your suit and weakening your line. You broke free and must have been unconscious. I could not reach you on the faceplate monitor.]]
“Ah, I understand. I had forgotten all that.” But he hadn’t forgotten, Maitch knew. The ship did not have a portside radar dish. Punching in some commands, he called up different views of the vessel’s exterior, jumping from camera to camera along that half of the ship. Then he saw it. There was a radar dish. It looked pitted and worn, as if it had been there for centuries, faithfully sending data to the computer. Yet he felt certain it had never been there before.
Taking off his suit and flopping it on a chair, he sat down at the computer screen, began the routine checks of prelaunch. He had to calculate a course. ‘I guess I’ll go home to Aldebaran Three,’ Maitch thought. ‘Might as well.’ Halfway to typing in the destination, the search field automatically filled in the remainder of the word and called up a course, already charted and programmed. Yet Maitch could not remember having thought to go home prior to this moment.
“Where were we headed when I went out to make the repair?” he asked the computer.
[[To Aldebaran III. You wished to go home for your son’s birthday. He will be 23 years of age in two months. You might be slightly late.]]
That would be an understatement. His son would have turned twenty-three many years ago. Maitch calculated a moment. Perhaps 500 years ago! Maitch had missed it during one of the sleep-freezes. Unless his son had been spending most of his time in cryopods, he would not be celebrating any more birthdays.
Now his arm itched. Rubbing his left forearm with his fingertips, he felt a bit of cryogel on his skin. ‘I thought I got all that off,’ he thought now. His eyes strayed to the spot, the kind of slow scan one performs when expecting something unpleasant. As if pointing to a spot on a map, his fingers rested on two images inscribed on his arm long ago: the two things he loved most in the world. His wife Achelle and a diamond. Did he give his wife that diamond? No, he had taken it away. Taken it back, along with all the other things he had sold to buy this ship. For a time, a mystery greater than love had overtaken him. The diamond. A world of diamonds. A mine. Or a planet. His memory caught on something, like when his suit snagged on a burr of metal protruding from the wall. Then it began to tear open, just a little at first, like with the suit, and then it opened all the way. A memory rushed through, then dozens of memories, a cascade of longing, searching, struggling, maintaining a journey long grown old and tiresome; obsessions he could not shake, could not put aside. Not now. Not after everything else had been put aside and had receded far into the past.
He had gone out to check for the diamond planet. A force had stopped his progress. Then it had admitted him. His line had broken. He had woken in the hotel room on the alien ship.
And the trees had lied to him. His computer had lied. His ship had lied. There had never been a portside radar before; it had not developed a fault; he had not gone to repair it; he had not been struck by meteors; the aliens could not have found him floating half dead in empty space.
“They must be hiding the diamond planet!” he said, his voice harsh and strained. “Preventing me from achieving my goal!”
Thoughts came to Maitch in a rush, a set of plans forming in crystal clear windows, like facets on the diamond planet he was about to discover and claim for all mankind. At this moment, his own ship must be inside the barrier the trees had erected to block detection of the planet. They would be observing his ship carefully, to ensure that he departed as planned, heading for the fake destination of a human colony world he had not known in centuries and had no pull to now.
Fingering the keys, Maitch performed a single command for the computer: he turned on its voice. “Now listen to me,” he said. “I am going outside. The aliens must not know where I’m going. When they contact the ship, you are to first tell them I am engaged with calculating our trajectory; second, that I am performing a complete inventory of the supplies; and third, that I am reviewing the functionality of all systems. That should give me three days to search for the planet they have hidden around here. After that, they will try to investigate the ship, so you will set a course for Aldebaran Three. Proceed in that direction for three more days. Then return to this point in space. I should be able to contact you to pick me up. At that time, I’ll be a legend, the first Earthman to touch down on the diamond planet! Did you get all that?”
“Yes, sir.” The computer’s voice juddered and squawked, raising the hairs on Maitch’s neck. “I shall serve you faithfully as always.”
“Great. Now I have work to do.”
In a few moments, Maitch was jetting away from his own ship, marveling at the size of the alien craft beside him. The bright white hull, formed as a tube and pocked with unusual knots, boles and goiters like the trunk of an ancient sycamore, stretched to a vanishing point ahead and behind him. Off in the distance, he could see a dwarf planet, but a round one. Perhaps a diamond in the rough, but in any case, the aliens had been hiding it, and he would know what was there soon enough.
The charcoal orb loomed closer and closer. His heart pounded and his mouth felt dry. ‘I can’t believe it,’ he thought. ‘I’m going to touchdown on the diamond planet.’
The sphere clearly had no atmosphere, and it orbited a sun so distant it could not be seen except as another point of light in the firmament of lights that filled the larger view. He came down, the planetoid rising up as an arc below him, as if it spread loving arms wide in welcome of its conquering hero. A gray surface jumped at him, and he triggered hard fire from his jets to slow his fall. When his feet touched solid ground, Maitch staggered a few paces, but not just to catch his balance. His mind was reeling at the possibility of achieving his goal after centuries of search, many lifetimes of sacrifice. Tears forced themselves from his eyes. At first, he swiped his glove up to wipe them away; hitting the faceplate, he remembered where he was, what he was about to do.
The low gravity of the dwarf planet did not hinder his movements as he set off on foot, picking a direction at random. A step launched him a couple feet in the air; with some trial and error, he used this effect to his advantage, taking giant steps across the gray-green surface, kicking up tiny clouds of dust and grit. The place seemed featureless, flat and largely unmarred by space debris. Perhaps all this material had accreted on the giant diamond underneath. If he kept walking, he surely would find some area where the crystal itself was exposed. He could take pictures of it with the camera in his suit helmet, and that would be his proof of discovery.
Hours later, Maitch felt tired despite the low level of work required. The surface had not changed. No craters or scratches or cracks presented themselves; nothing that would reveal the true surface underground. The pedometer in his wrist control unit indicated that he’d already covered twenty-five miles.
‘Right about now,’ Maitch told himself, ‘those drifting trees are contacting my ship to inquire about my delayed departure.’ He chuckled, thinking of the ruse he had set up. Then he thought again. The last laugh would be on himself, after he’d spent his three day lead walking around in this wilderness.
“Just a bit more, Old Buddy,” he said, coaching himself. “This ain’t so bad. Firm ground. The goal within reach. Fame and fortune ahead. After grinding it out for so long in that cryogel and on the flight deck, this is a walk in the park!” He laughed at that.
After another few hours, he lowered himself to the ground. “Just a quick rest and back at it,” he promised himself. Maitch stared at the unbroken, gray horizon, thinking about facets glinting in the light of his helmet. Cold pierced his suit, so he turned up the thermostat. His eyes closed on their own. Now he floated in a tunnel of light; this time, he could see the gradations in the luminosity, like shades of white on paint sample cards. The various pieces and differentiations of brightness formed a picture he recognized as Achelle, what would be a very old picture now. This picture moved; his wife shook her head, and her lips opened, “No diamond is worth that, Maitch Esso! No diamond is worth that!” Their last words, their last argument, the last time he saw or spoke to his beloved wife. She was the true diamond in his life, and he had shucked her with the rest.
Another voice spoke out of the light. “You’re a fool, Maitch. You’re a fool! There’s no diamond planet, and if there was, diamonds wouldn’t be worth a damned thing.”
He had to think a minute to place the speaker; the picture had formed from gradations too subtle for him to distinguish. Then he remembered. Those were his own words, spoken every time he climbed back in the cryopod, the gel filling the capsule and rising over his body. He said it every time, twenty-six times now, and each time he had woken up to go on searching.
As if the light tunnel had imploded, causing a flash behind his eyes, Maitch came back to consciousness with a jerk. He felt hot tears on his cheeks. He had committed himself once again; now he was too far to go back. Struggling to his feet, struggling to push one foot out in front of him, to keep his balance as he launched into the thin atmosphere, to keep his eyes on the horizon, the explorer pushed himself forward. Another mile. Two miles. Five miles. Ten. Fifteen. He walked until couldn’t bear to look at the pedometer again.
His eyes blurred on the path ahead; the landscape had changed in some slight way. Yes, like heat shimmering off a desert plain, bending the light, teasing his vision with the refractions. Perhaps the reflection of a flat crystal surface! Taking huge leaps, Maitch bounded forward. The wavering field intensified, thickened, brightened until he came upon a waterfall of electric light pouring up from the surface and dancing there in his vision. What lay beyond remained obscure. In some way, it appeared as if the ground kept going onward, but then he saw his own image imbedded in the haze of flowing illumination. The barrier simply mirrored the landscape around it, effectively erasing what lay beyond.
“This is it,” Maitch moaned. “Behind this wall. I know it! Lies the diamond!”
Extending a gloved hand, he touched the lighted wall. No negative effects, so he pushed through, inching his way forward, arms outstretched. Moving particles of light engulfed him, and then he was through them. At his feet, the same dull, flat surface. Looking ahead about a mile, the ground rose sharply into a curved structure, like a meteor had hit the malleable surface material and forced it out and up, creating a circular mountain range around a massive depression.
This could be the break in the surface he had been looking for, the one that revealed a sizeable portion of the planet’s true surface.
Once again, Maitch pushed himself forward, galloping toward the barrier. His pace slowed as he climbed the steep sides of the crater. One step at a time, each one a monumental effort, as if he now had become reluctant to face the reality of his goal—or its ultimate failure.
At last at the top. Maitch had his eyes closed as he made the final steps. He stood on the ledge of the crater, shifting his legs into a power stance. Then he opened his eyes.
The crater seemed a couple miles across; he could see the other side, but only as a faint, curved edge. How deep it went, he couldn’t know, for it had been filled in with crystals, from one edge to another and up the lip until just a yard from the top. Looking down, he could tell the stones had been cut into the classic diamond shape, with a broad upper surface that formed a cap over the straight sides tapering down to a faceted cone below.
He scooted down the inner wall of the crater, got right to the edge of the vast crystal pool. Kneeling in a deliberate way, like performing a focused yoga posture of considerable complexity, Maitch Esso reached his hand into the pool and pulled up a handful of the clear stones. A half dozen right there in his glove, and every one of them a perfectly carved diamond, none of them below 25 carats.
In a daze, he took his first tentative steps into this sea of diamonds, a crazy grin plastered on his face. The gems covered his boots as he waded into them, like walking on water sparkling with a myriad shards of sunlight, hope, and glorious victory. Then the explorer collapsed onto the pile of cut stones, and he cried, shedding tears for his wife and his son, for his lost friends and lost lives and lost years. And he cried for himself. All the hardships, sacrifices, loneliness, years of nanny blocks and jet-nap, recycled air and stale, depleted water, hoping and moving forward into nothing.
There was no diamond planet, but there was this lake of diamonds. Was that better or worse? Where would he go now, and how would he get there? And what could he possibly say about his discovery? How would people react to the fact that the legend was a hoax which had cost many men their lives?
A party of the aliens found Maitch Esso sitting on a small hill of diamonds amid the vast sea of them in the crater, running jewels from hand to hand. As if he had been blinded by the light reflecting from the crystals or just by the shards of his own broken dreams, he did not recognize the trees at first. They spoke to him, but he did not respond right away.
When the explorer finally did speak, his words were angry. “What is the meaning of this charade? How dare you! You’re murderers, worse than murderers, for all the lives you’ve taken by this little trick. How could you hide the truth about the diamonds? Why would you do it?”
Then he made demands. “I’ve spent many lifetimes searching for these stones. I’ve given up happiness and success and worldly goods. And now these stones are mine. I claim them all. I will fill my ship with them, and then I will come back with a tanker, a fleet of tankers, to take them all away. And you won’t try to stop me!”
The trees conferred among themselves. Then Crenth stepped forward, holding up its hands. “You have duped yourself. There never was any evidence of a diamond planet, but you believed it anyway. We never made you so gullible. You have a singular power, you humans; you can each manifest an idea so powerfully that it becomes real. Long ago, we found one of your kind, searching for something he believed to exist. To help him, to give him peace, to restore his life and happiness to him, we invented a machine to remove this idea from his mind.
“As it was extracted, this kernel of thought turned into a physical object. And that crystaline thought, all trace of it, was erased from his mind. That is the function of our machine. It is as if the thought itself has become physical, so it can only be fully extracted in that form. We have found that only humans have such a powerful ability at self-delusion.
“We do have our own weaknesses. We developed a lust for these diamonds, and in our zeal, we traveled to Earth and all its colonies and planted the rumor of a diamond planet in Earth-human populations. We thought we would collect a few jewels for ourselves, having no way to predict the effect our actions would have. Each diamond in this crater represents one human thought. Hundreds, thousands and millions of earthmen have come this way, bearing these diamonds in their mind’s eyes. Feeling guilty for the pain we have caused, we set ourselves the task of removing each diamond, hoping to restore peace. But still you keep coming. Long ago it became a burden to us, but it is a burden we bear, in penance for our own greed.”
“Penance?” Maitch croaked. “Retribution. Reparations. Peace of mind can’t replace the lost years! I’ve given up everything I ever loved for this one dream, this one blind search.”
“Why did you do it?”
That stumped him. “I don’t know,” he said at last. “The dream consumed me. All the others striving and reaching, all the tales and evidence…it fueled me, it drove me on. My life seemed mundane in comparison to the adventure, the thrill of the chase.”
“You have had that thrill, that adventure. Was the price too high? Nonetheless, you paid it.”
“Yes. That’s true.”
“We can tell you now. You were the greatest of them all. Your diamond, the one you held for so long in your mind’s eye, is larger than any other we have ever extracted.”
Maitch gave a grunt of cynical laughter. “Another lie. No doubt you tell every one of us suckers the same tall tale, as if that alone would make it all worthwhile.”
“We’ve never had another human discover the truth. Once the diamond is removed, all memory of that quest is also removed. We plant a new memory and send them on their way. They seem satisfied then. They seem content. There is no anger, only gratitude.”
Shaking his head, Maitch growled. “Fine. But I’m not grateful. I do remember my quest, and I know it was all a lie! I expect something else in return for the trouble your deceit has caused.”
“We owe you nothing. If we could, we would put you under the machine again. However, it works only once.”
“That’s not good enough!”
“Furthermore, we cannot allow you to leave this place. If word got out, your governments would send military fleets to destroy us and steal our jewels.”
“Damn right! And so they should!”
Crenth overlooked that outburst. “You will be our guest on this planetoid. We will provide you with a shelter, nutritious food, and the fine accoutrements you saw in your room on our ship. You will live out the remainder of your years here. As I understand human physiology, after so many years soaked in cryogel, you won’t have long to wait. That should console you in your exile. It will be short. But you will also get one wish you have made. For that time, all these diamonds will be yours.”
“Danglers! You’re damn right it will be short! I’ll escape!”
“I don’t think so. We will prevent any ships from landing, and you will not be able to fly out once we take your jet pack.”
The explorer glared at the trees as they lowered a self-contained, pressurized quonset hut to the surface and loaded it with boxes of materials. They prepared a platform for landing supply drones and showed him how to signal in an emergency. Then the trees turned to their ship.
Maitch felt the leviathan weight of solitude looming over him, wrapping his body in its powerful coils; as the monster tightened its muscles, it applied pressure in slow, steady increments. He began to suffocate, his ribs cracking, his skull breaking. A high pitched sound, like a naked scream of terror, rose in his mind. How had he passed all the long lonely years already? One idea had kept reality at bay, and the power of that idea had dissipated to nothing, and to less than nothing. All that remained was a faint, mocking laughter, heard as if somewhere far away, hiding behind the shriek. Now the tonnage of those years crushed his mind, grinding his body to dust against the barren surface of this isolated world. To live out his years in this place, with nowhere to go, no sleep freeze to keep him numbed to the passing of time, no hope or dream to keep him going; he could not bear it. Here was the true price of the diamonds. He could not pay that price.
“Don’t leave me here,” Maitch begged. His hysteria forced itself out in a sob. “Kill me, set me adrift, take me with you, but don’t leave me alone!”
“We cannot do any of those things,” the tree Forll said. “Is there anything else we can bring you from your ship?”
“You have it?” A new idea had come to his mind, expanding rapidly until it filled the space once occupied by the diamond. A new hope, a new dream.
“We retrieved it, yes.”
“I’d like to have my wife as company.”
“Your wife? There were no other humans on board.”
“It’s an android with my wife’s voice. It will help me pass the time.”
“Ah, companionship. There was a robot there, but it is in poor condition, falling apart. We can provide you a better one.”
“No, I don’t want another one. I want my wife.”
“Very well. I will seek approval, but I don’t think that will be forbidden.”
“I hope not.”
The trees left in their spacecraft. In an hour, another craft hovered over the landing pad. It dropped a line laden with boxes. Maitch rushed over and cut open the cartons. Some of them held food. In one, he found the robot. He felt the pressure on his body releasing, the scream in his mind subsiding. He pressed the magnetic key to the back of the robot’s neck. It took him a moment get his first words out. What if its speech circuits had broken?
“Activate voice. No recordings.”
“Hello, Maitch. I’m glad to see you.”
“Hello, Darling.” Something was shining before his eyes, sending its bright beams deep into his brain, filling him with an almost tangible substance, like joy but more effervescent, almost explosive. It had to be contained in his mind, and he struggled to keep it in.
“So you found the planet?”
“Yes. I brought you here to share it with me. We cannot leave, but I don’t suppose there was anywhere we could go. Everyone I ever knew is gone, buried in the centuries. We’ll be here until we die. It’s likely to go fast for me. They say people who spend too much time in sleep freeze age rapidly when they stay out.”
“Will I die?”
“You will run down, eventually. You’re already falling apart. Soon I’ll start falling apart, also. I just hope you’ll do a better job repairing me than I did on you.”
“I will do my best, Maitch. I’m glad we’re together. Now we’ll have our grand adventure. A home, a life, together.”
Maitch smiled. He could feel himself relax; the leviathan had slithered off. “Let me get this stuff inside. I’d like to take this suit off. Then we can talk. I don’t ever want you to stop talking. That’s the most valuable jewel on this whole drifting planet full of diamonds. Even the giant one I made in my own mind can’t hold a candle to it.”
The yellowed plastic face of the android seemed to brighten with joy, as if it had developed its own AI after all the centuries. Maitch knew it must be his imagination. A robot like this couldn’t have feelings. Nonetheless, it said, “That makes me very happy, Maitch. We’ll be comfortable here, you and I, no matter how long we have remaining.”
He took her good hand and looked into her lively, sparkling eyes, moist with tears of happiness. Her soft lips formed a smile that sent ripples across her flushed cheeks. Wrinkles, crow’s feet, laugh lines, these were to be expected. Neither of them was as young as they used to be. She had returned his grip, and her hand felt hot in his, so he glanced down at it. On her arm he saw a rose and the word “Maitch” tattooed in dark green ink on her skin. A new reality rushed at him, filling his empty heart, rising to fill the vast spaces in his mind vacated by the monstrous idea of a planet-sized diamond.
Achelle, again at his side, and nothing else would matter more than this ever again.
Maitch lead his wife through the hut’s airlock. It opened on their new home, a single bright room filled with beautiful wooden furniture: a bed with an intricately carved headboard, a love seat, a wardrobe with inlaid panels. To one side stood a mahogany dining table, its legs carved into luxurious curves by a lathe, accompanied by two matching chairs. A fine pile carpet spread across the floor. There was a small kitchen area, with a range, a sink, pots and dishes, cooking utensils and silverware. The walls were hung with textiles bearing a simple pattern of tropical leaves and flowers.
“It’s lovely, Maitch,” Achelle said.
“Yes, it is.” His voice came at a distance, for his eyes had discovered something else. On the table lay a crystal stone, its facets gleaming in the clear light. Back in the human worlds, it would be the rarest, most beautiful, and most valuable diamond ever known. They could take it on an exhibition tour and make a fortune. Instead, they were trapped here, alone with it. “That’s the largest diamond I’ve ever seen.”
“It’s almost as large as my head,” she said. “Is that the one you carried in your mind for so long?”
“It must be. It’s like a cruel joke for those trees to leave it here. It stands for everything I sacrificed, everything I lost, all the time and loneliness.”
“If it weren’t for this stone,” Achelle said, “we wouldn’t have this now. That’s the important thing. I think it’s beautiful.”
Maitch saw the gem on the table through her eyes. The bitterness left him, replaced by a new feeling he could barely understand. For once in his life, the explorer felt content. He had his diamond, and his diamond planet, but now something new occupied his mind.
His wife stood beside him in the radiance of the stone, and she glowed with a far more beautiful light than any diamond.