This was my entry into the anonymous Tales From The Void Contest, the winner of Judges' Choice and Public Vote, though I believe the end result was a close one. There were amazing stories in the contest! Thank you to everyone involved, most especially to the writers of those amazing fantasy and sci-fi stories. I loved reading them, and I'm unbelievably grateful to have been amongst it all.
Thank you to ysar for her outstanding Beta services, as well as to Anna Faze for pre-reading, and to Mostly a Lurker for her friendship.
LDE-8 is not the most hospitable of planets.
Terraforming has made huge headway into giving it a breathable climate, but it has not improved the generally unpleasant, hot and windy conditions of the outpost world.
There is little evidence left of the water that once covered much of the landscape. Now, there is only fine sand that permeates everything, gets in everywhere.
It will be another few years before the place is truly ready to colonize, but in the meantime, it's still a hellhole buffeted by fierce tornadoes, some spanning as wide as two miles.
Deep underground, inside an extensive cave complex, palaeontologist Dr. Bella Swan, head of a small archaeological offshoot of The Company's science division, scratches away at a dig site protected from the elements.
Below the surface, the air in the caves is many degrees cooler, though the heat lamps needed for the digs burn above like fake, halogen suns, make it a little stifling and stale.
An undetermined electrical anomaly deep within the planet's mantle prevents comprehensive scans of the soil, so Bella's team works blindly in the worst affected area, hoping to manually find signs of prehistoric organic life in the maze and perhaps discover the origin of the strange readouts.
Others might find this aggravating, but Bella is grateful for whatever makes most scans they've tried to perform here almost completely unreadable; it necessitates work on the ground. To Bella, who's a little old school, there's nothing like getting your hands dirty.
She works happily here, alone with her thoughts, the satisfying quiet broken only by the honest sounds of hard work and her own occasional humming.
Kneeling on the ground, Bella ponders a strange find made a couple of days ago, a pit which appears deliberately sunk into the rocky soil. She opens it up meticulously, probing its limits with scalpels and trowels. Deep in her gut, she knows this pit is not a natural formation.
Bella can't help feeling like she's on the precipice of something important with this strange hollow in the cave floor. She sits back on her haunches, trying to calculate where the edges might be by the way the fine dust has settled. It shimmers with the same granulated minerals as the rest of the caves, and she sifts it through her fingers, watching it drift like glitter from her hand.
The caverns are huge, as big as hangars, and all around, the rock face glints with minerals and metals; the scans have told them that there are diamond particles as well as a wealth of titanium deposits and many other elements present in the ore. Elsewhere on LDE-8, more abundant deposits of these have already been extracted, but they're too fine here and too scattered for mining.
The gleam of these inclusions makes Bella feel like she's working under a sky full of diamond stars that float just out of her reach. It's eerie here in the dark, and there are moments when she feels a kind of presence, like the caverns have a guardian spirit that watches over her work. It's as though the caves are alive and watching.
"Easy, easy," she chants into her work, pushing her glasses up on the bridge of her nose. "Let's find the bottom of this pit today."
Bella's hackles rise periodically in the spooky quiet, and she speaks out loud as if to coax out a shy animal, though there is no life on this planet. It works just as much to calm her nerves as to placate any imagined spirits who dwell among the glittering minerals inlaid in the rock.
Kneeling in the dirt, Bella's gloved hands carefully brush thick dust away from what she thinks are the pit's edges. The substrate consists of many thin layers, and so far, the pit Bella has painstakingly excavated looks to be approximately four thousand years old, give or take a couple of centuries.
She'll know for sure once the tests on soil samples have been completed, but she trusts her experience in the field.
She scratches absently at irritating grains of sand rubbing beneath the strap of her tank top. "Been here a while, haven't you?"
What's interesting is that there haven't been any findings of life here on LDE-8, indigenous or otherwise. Discovered in a sweep of this solar system around fifty years ago, the planet has been consistently terraformed in preparation for pioneer migrations, but none of the probes have ever uncovered so much as prehistoric fossils beyond the very basic plant life that once filled the seas here, though Mike, a palaeobotanist, has had a ball with identifying these new species.
The glittering maze of tunnels in the cliffs is a mystery, too, only recently discovered by Bella's team on a random recon. Elsewhere in the complex, Mike, Angela - an experienced geologist - and a couple of contractors are digging away just like Bella is wherever the scans have picked up something worth exploring. Setting down her brush, Bella takes up a manual scanner and sweeps over the newly uncovered area, deep in thought.
Sitting back, she stretches and groans at the satisfying creak of taxed muscle as the scanner does its work. Bella knows it probably won't return anything specific because of the strange resonance; the readouts will be vague at best.
"Better than nothing," she murmurs, surveying the pit.
She wonders, not for the first time, what purpose it served; in her mind, it's already a given that the cavity is made, not natural, though she has not shared her findings with her superiors. At this early stage and with no concrete proof, she has confided only in Mike and Angela, both of whom she trusts and has worked with for years.
If she's right, and there was never any intelligent life here, then who dug this pit? There is little chance that it's a natural formation. It seems to have been dug with sharp edges in a neat, precise manner, reminiscent of a burial, but she is yet to discover any sign that-
The scanner interrupts her thoughts, beeping insistently. Bella pushes up her glasses, leaving a dirty smear on her nose.
"Hel-lo, what's this?"
Studying the results, Bella is stunned.
"Organic compounds," she whispers, amazed at the readout on the screen. "Unbelievable."
Bella looks to the area in question but doesn't see anything remarkable on the surface, nothing beyond the gleaming dirt. Roughly pushing her sleeves up past her elbows, she tucks a stray lock of hair behind her ear and breathes deeply in preparation. Taking up a small scalpel, she gently digs into the soil, flicking away small sections of rock and compounded gravel.
Suddenly, there is a slight resistance to the blade. Her eyes are drawn to a flash of something other than dirt and glimmering rock. A small shard protrudes, dirty cream and much too smooth among the rough soil.
Suddenly, it's stiflingly hot in the still, dank cave.
"Oh my God."
Bella digs delicately around the shard, uncovering more and more surface area and eventually the unmistakable shape of a bone.
"No. Way," she murmurs, her eyes huge, gloved fingers lightly caressing and smoothing away the dust of ages. A smile lights up her entire face as the implication sinks in. She has found evidence of life having existed on LDE-8 as recently as four thousand years ago.
"But what kind of life?" she murmurs into the empty cave, wiping sweat from her face with her dusty forearm. "What are you?"
Setting down the scalpel, Bella reaches for her communicator, never taking her eyes from her discovery. "Mike, Ange, I think I found something."
To the team's and The Company's utter astonishment, the something turns out to be an intact skeleton of a humanoid male.
The little dig team has been frantically gathering and sending data away for analysis more in-depth than their set-up on the planet surface can handle, but they've been given the go-ahead to continue excavations, hopefully to repeat their success.
In the lab, Bella ponders the amazing discovery as it comes to life before her eyes. Scratching her fingers over her pulled-back hair, she sits back and admires the work of the digitizer: a 3D resin model of the face and head of the skeleton, based on extensive scans and reconstruction.
He has such strong features: widely set, large eyes and a very masculine chin and jaw. Bella runs her fingertips over the arch of the nose and along the cheekbone, cataloguing her discovery's face.
"You were so handsome," she muses. "Well, actually, you still are. But don't tell Mike I said that; I'd never live it down, what with you not being real and all."
The reconstructed face stares back at her, silently accepting her appraisals, and she smiles at her own fancy.
"What color were your eyes, I wonder?" Tugging on the end of her ponytail, she imagines a man with dark hair and vivid green eyes, a rugged tan to suit the desert climate. Passing her fingers over the computer's screen, she colorizes the model and then sits back in her swivel chair again, biting back her smile at the vision she and the digitizer have created.
He's real to her now, with his beautiful mouth and dark brown hair. She has made it lighter than her own but the digitizer has made it richer- its results are always a little unearthly in their coloring- and the model's hair looks like opulent bronze. She has made his eyes green, and the digitizer has interpreted this to be as green as apples from home, too vivid of course, but that's alright. They suit him - her unearthly, beautiful man from the cave.
The computer has taken her vision and made it real. The man was absolutely striking, even if the colors are a little too intense to be true. Bella is completely mesmerized.
"Wow," she whispers to the empty lab, touching the resin face once more, so gently with her fingertips. It's hard to believe that he walked this same soil four thousand years ago.
"To think that you were right there under my nose the whole time... was it you I felt? Are you the cave's guardian?" Bella grins, grateful that nobody can hear her talking to a 3D model of a long-dead man's head. Examinations confirm his age at the time of his death as being somewhere between seventeen and twenty three, though looking at the serious, intense face, Bella tends to think he's more man than boy.
"I'm going to call you Edward, after my grandfather. He was an enigma, too." Smoothing her hand across the model's brow, she smiles sadly. "He died before I was born, so it's fitting, don't you think?"
Back at the computer, she applies the completed face to the life-size hologram projection of the alien man's body. Based on scans and reconstructive measurements made of the skeletal structure, he was an impressive height, his physique strong and well proportioned.
He was certainly humanoid in descent, though his bone is denser, and his elongated, slender limbs and digits make him look more refined than the normal human being.
He's more like the elegant races populating the Taurus galaxy cluster, perhaps sprung from a melding of the races somewhere along history's timeline.
Endowed with those characteristics, the hologram stands in the lab with Bella, the whole naked six foot four of him, staring over her head and cutting an impressive figure in the middle of the floor.
Bella takes a little stroll around him, very pleased with the results of her work.
Behind her, a quiet hydraulic hiss announces someone entering the lab, and she looks up to see Ange approaching with an awed grin.
"Angie, come and meet Edward!"
"Oh, you're done! Wow," Ange states, hands on her hips as she appraises the hologram. "He's incredible."
"Yes, he really is," Bella agrees, tightening the elastic on her ponytail. "Edward was a very handsome man."
"A little too handsome," Mike announces skeptically from the doorway. Tapping his lip, he joins them in front of the hologram.
"Someone has been taking liberties with the male anatomy, too. Missing something in your life, boss?" Mike raises a suggestive eyebrow at Edward's groin.
"I don't know what you mean, Mike. The computer has created Edward's body based on average Taurean male proportions. He's perfectly normal, and so is his penis," Bella deadpans, sliding on her glasses and giving Mike a withering look. "I'm not sure what you're comparing him to, though."
Mike scowls as Angela breaks into a hearty laugh. "You walked into it, Mike," she calls out over giggles.
"That's a crap name, boss," Mike throws over his shoulder, "Maybe he deserves something from this century."
"Why, Mike? He's not from this century."
Mike just mutters under his breath, the sound of his and Ange's chatter drifting away as they collect their tools and leave the lab.
Murmuring to the empty room, Bella crosses her arms. "And anyway, it suits him. It's noble."
She stands in front of the hologram, panning her eyes over the strength of his clotheshorse shoulders, the elegance of his slender fingers, the perfect contours of waist and hip and muscular thigh. She lifts her hand, making the hologram flicker and spark as her fingers disappear into the space where his forearm should be.
"Don't listen to him, Edward, you're perfectly lovely," she reassures the hologram, then sighs, dropping her arm, "though sadly, also perfectly dead."
Days pass, and since the discovery of Edward, more remains have surfaced now that the team knows how to search. Buried deep inside the glimmering caverns, three more of Edward's people have been uncovered so far, all males of a similar structure: tall, slender and quite perfect. One of them had been through severe trauma while still alive- his bones are marked by breaks and deep cuts that show no signs of healing before he died, telling a story of pain and terrible suffering.
He probably perished from his wounds in this desolate place, and Bella tends to his bones as though he's the patient and she's the nurse, unearthing him from the glinting dirt with slow thoroughness.
"What are you doing here? You're not from here, are you? There are no other remains, no fossils of food or animals or even plants that match the period you came from. The water had already gone by the time you lived here," she muses. Abruptly, an idea takes root in her mind, and she sits back from the dig site, considering.
"No, not lived. I don't think you lived here at all."
Taking up the communicator, she pushes up her glasses and airs the thought while it's fresh in her mind.
"Mike? Have we done a drop probe of sector fifty one yet?"
With only a moment's delay, Mike answers. "No, boss, not yet. That whole complex of caverns looks like a cave-in, and we're not sure if it's safe to dig. Organic matter wouldn't be detectable at that depth from a surface drop scan, and you know we can't get anything accurate back anyway."
"Yeah, but I'm not looking for organic matter. Can we do a sweep now, concentrating specifically on metal and alloy signatures? I'm looking for solid pieces, not natural deposits."
"What, you think they stockpiled metal in there?"
"They might have, if they were salvaging from a wreck."
A moment of static silence stretches between them while Mike considers this. "You think they crash-landed here?"
"Well, think about it, Mike. There are only four of them, and in fifty years of exploration, nobody has ever found another trace of occupation here. They're an extremely evolved species that have no precursor here, and their time frame doesn't coincide with the planet's last known viability. Yeah, I think they were passing through, and maybe this is where they ditched."
"Shit, boss! That makes perfect sense. I'll get the probe set up straight away."
"Thanks, Mike, let me know if anything pings."
Bella stands and brushes the gritty dust from her legs. She still feels a presence here in the caverns, even with lovely Edward high above in the lab, his bones meticulously padded and stored for eventual removal. Perhaps their spirits still linger here, lost, so far from home that they cannot leave. Bella strolls away, stretching her arms. Perhaps once the tests about their origins are conclusive, these ancient astronauts can be returned to their home and re-buried in familiar soil.
Humming under her breath, she returns to the cave where Edward was first found, and sits alongside the pit from which he was excavated. While the other bodies seemed to have been buried in pits up to three or four feet deep, Edward had been barely covered in a layer of dirt- it was only sediment build-up through the centuries that ensured he was properly buried.
"Were you the last?" she whispers into the void.
Did he bury his teammates, then lay himself down in this pit to die, waiting for the dust to settle on him in glittering drifts over the course of four millennia?
This thought makes her profoundly sad.
Feeling compelled, Bella lies in the dirt alongside Edward's burial pit, looking up at the last thing he must have seen while he died here, alone, so very long ago.
The heat lamps used for subterranean digs throw a warm glow over the site, and on a whim, she turns them off, wanting to see the inside of the cavern for real, the way it looks when she's not here to disturb its serenity.
The way Edward must have seen it.
Bella takes off her glasses and rubs her eyes, waiting for the glare of the lamps to dissipate. Almost immediately, the air cools and smells different, not of dust frying on glowing lamp bulbs but of cold, hard rock. Her breathing slows and steadies, and she lies in the dirt in completely opaque blackness, which clings like film to her fingers and face.
When she senses no residual light, she opens her eyes, and at first, sees nothing at all. Then, as her eyes adjust, natural luminescence emanating from the glittering rock fills her with magic- the cavern is alive with twinkling lights.
Above her, the cave looks endless, diamonds glittering in every direction, catching all available light and making it reverberate with the magnificence of constellations.
"So beautiful!" Bella gasps, filling her fists with the dirt from Edward's grave. "Thank the gods, it's beautiful."
Tears slide into her hair from the corners of her eyes. She's grateful that he had beauty here when he died, so alone. "It's like looking at the stars, isn't it?" She smiles through her tears, her sadness bittersweet.
"Yes," a strange voice whispers in the distant darkness.
Bella's heart stops.
For a long, cloying moment there is nothing, and then her heartbeat explodes into a race she feels throughout her body. She sits up abruptly as her brain screams in panic.
"Is someone there?" Her voice sounds harshly loud, and she claps a dirty hand over her mouth, vainly searching the blackness around her for the source of the sound.
"I am here," says the slightly metallic voice, a little closer now, and Bella whips around on all fours, trying to locate the switch for the lamps.
"Who are you?" She shouts into the darkness, feeling so stupid for turning them off.
"I am me." The voice washes quietly over her, and Bella stops and looks up, almost fainting at the indistinct figure standing close enough to touch. In the darkness, all she can see is the man-shaped, black silhouette against the glittering backdrop.
Shakily, Bella gets to her feet, never taking her eyes off the figure. Finally finding the remote for the lamps where she left it in the pocket of her shirt, she turns the dial gently to the softest of glows.
Her mouth falls open in shock as the warmth illuminates a naked man within arm's reach, incandescent grey skin glinting like finely ground quartz.
"Edward," she whispers in awe, panning up and down over his entire body. He's right here, and he's real. It feels like eternity before she finally meets his apple green eyes.
"If you wish," the being replies, its voice oddly alien, the metallic dryness making it sound like two tones slightly off kilter with each other.
"If I wish? Then what is your n-name?" she stutters, suddenly overcome. This thing, this man, is an alien being. It has materialized in the cave seemingly from nowhere, and it looks like Edward. It looks like Edward, who has been dead for four thousand years!
Bella doesn't know which aspect of this mind-boggling scenario is the most stunning. She'd love nothing more than to sink to the ground and have a good, long sit-down, but her knees won't unlock, just as her eyes can't stop staring.
"My name is not words," it replies quietly in its inhuman voice, seemingly oblivious to her inner turmoil." Edward is a good name. Noble."
Bella blinks, wondering at the word choice, until the heat of fear crawls like scalding fingers up her vertebrae. She realizes that it has given back her own words, spoken upstairs in the lab, just days ago.
"Yes, it is," she confirms warily, "I like it."
"I like your name, also, Boss."
Bella's eyes are huge as she chokes down a nervous giggle. "My name is not Boss; it's Bella. Only Mike calls me boss, since I'm his... boss."
The glinting quartz Edward statue inclines its head to the side as though considering. "I like Bella better."
Abruptly, she gasps. "How do you speak my language?"
"We listen. We watch and learn."
For the first time in many years, Bella feels the heat of the blush which haunted her through adolescence, as it razes her skin under the stone being's intense scrutiny. "So you've been listening to us? Up there?" She points her finger up to the surface.
Bella's skin erupts in goose bumps. It said we. These beings have watched the team around the clock; that much is clear. None of the alarms have been tripped, so they can come and go as they please without detection, and while at first this scares the living shit out of her, she quickly realizes the beings have not harmed anyone so far, even though they undoubtedly could have.
"I see. Well, you know me. Now, who are you?"
"I am me."
Bella frowns, thinking fast. Its answers are so literal that the questions need to be more specific. Fumbling, she replaces her glasses on her nose, and the familiar sensation helps calm and ground her.
"What are you?"
The being looks up to the cavern, indicating the space around them with a sweep of its hand. "I am this."
Bella's eyes are full of its glimmering skin, so like the diamonds that refract from the rough cathedral ceiling above.
"You are... the rock?"
"We are everything," it replies in that strange, calm resonance.
"How many of you are there?"
"Where are they?"
The being looks up, panning over the cavern. "Everywhere."
As if on command, small, bright globes descend from the cavern surface and flicker in the space above them, like fairy lights suspended from the ceiling. They oscillate and burn like untethered souls in the darkness, and Bella stares wide-eyed at their ethereal beauty. They seem to shimmer and whisper secrets not made for her human ears.
"That's you? The lights?"
"Yes," it says, and between its brows, a glow appears, lighting up the stone face from within. Edward's brilliant green eyes are as clear as cut emeralds, and with the light behind them, they turn into iridescent gold.
The being within the stone is a shining beacon, and suddenly Bella understands. The stone body that stands here is a construct, just like her holographic Edward in the lab above. Blowing out a breath, she studies the incredible being in front of her, the reality only just beginning to sink in, though her scientific, brilliant mind is working overtime to grasp the implications of this first contact. Scratching fingers over her hair, she considers.
"So, if you are the lights, why are you... in there? You made this body? You made it from the rock?"
"That's incredible... how do you make it so... smooth?" Bella trips over her thoughts, wanting to ask everything at the same time. She studies the sleekness of Edward's stone body, stunned by its perfection, its fluidity of movement. How can he be made of stone? Stone is immobile, inflexible; it would grate and screech with every movement... wouldn't it?
"There is no disparity. I do not make it move. I am the body. I move," the stone Edward replies, and to show her, it holds out one perfect, elegant hand which begins to glow from within, its presence in every polished grain. It flexes its hand, which moves just as Bella's does, pliable and dexterous in every way.
Inside, Bella is reeling, vacillating between asking a thousand questions and burying her head in the sand. She swallows dryly, the scientist winning this internal war with the woman's instinct for self-preservation, if only for the moment.
"Why this body? Why do you look like this?"
"Because you like this body."
"Oh," Bella chokes out, feeling like her chest is in a vise. It knows she found Edward's reconstructed appearance attractive and has made this body to appeal to her, to put her at ease. It did this for her. It feels like a gift.
"Yes, I do. It's... beautiful."
To her absolute amazement, the being she thinks of as Edward smiles at her. Clumsily and a little like a grimace, but it's a smile none the less. She finds herself smiling right back.
"You say this name when you are still."
"Still? You mean when I'm... asleep? Can you hear my thoughts when I'm asleep?"
"No. Your thoughts come out of your mouth when you are asleep," it explains, and Bella's brows rise up in incredulity, remembering an old boyfriend once told her she talked in her sleep. She'd thought it was bullshit.
"But the others of your kind... they don't have bodies like this."
"They have no need."
"But you have need?"
"I want to touch you," it says plainly, apple green eyes boring into her, guileless. She can't help but be amazed at how human it seems, when it is so obviously other. Even as she watches, its movements and gestures become looser, more human. More like hers. It's obvious the being is learning and becoming more outwardly human-like, and it's increasingly hard not to think of it as 'he'.
"You... want to touch me?" Bella's eyes feel like they're bugging out of her head.
Gold and green scintillate in Edward's diamond eyes, so much warmer and kinder than stone ought to be. ''Yes."
Swallowing hard, Bella's mouth feels like the desert above them, and her stomach is lodged in her throat. "All right."
There are no seams, no imperfections anywhere on Edward's ground stone skin - he's flawless. Bella watches with a surreal sense of magic as the man made of living stone lifts his arm and gently allows his fingers to brush over her forearm, just as she once did to the hologram of him.
Once, twice he touches her skin, and the hair on Bella's body stands on end at the examination, so alien and at once so sensual. Edward is as cold as the stone he's made of, as cold as a dead thing, and by comparison, Bella feels like she's burning up, throwing off heat like deadly fever. In the stifling heat of this world, he's a cool compress. When he touches her, his fingertips light up like little yellow suns.
Edward's fingers draw a seam over Bella's arm, all the way up to her shoulder, where they follow the shallow valley of her clavicle all the way to her throat. He caresses her more gently than any lover, and she finds herself open mouthed and gasping at this invasion of personal space, so intimate and yet so completely innocent. He wants nothing more than to experience the softness of her skin, of any skin. To him, she's the alien creature, a being encased in an organic body that he does not comprehend.
Stone fingers sweep lightly over her chin and jaw, and then gently touch a lock of hair that has escaped the tie. Bella can feel the fascination emanating from him like heat. He looks so spellbound by the loose tendril that Bella surprises herself, pulling at the elastic and releasing the rest, a cascade of brown coils spilling over her back.
As he touches her hair, a soft rustling sweeps over him, and she's stunned to see his own hair becoming more like real hair- separate strands now detailed where before there was only the suggestion of them. He is bettering himself right in front of her eyes, having learned by touching her. It's too incredible for words, and she can only stare.
Edward's lucent eyes are greedy, and he sifts his fingers through her thick hair, but it's dirty after a day spent crawling around in the dust, and his fingers snag on a knot. She yelps when it pulls painfully.
Instantly, he stops and withdraws his hand, looking at her earnestly. How much emotion his stone face conveys! Bella can't stop staring at his beautiful, endless crystal eyes.
"It's alright," she soothes, missing the cool gentleness of his fingers.
"It has been so long," he whispers, looking at her with such wistful longing that her fingers curl into her palms.
"So long? Since you touched someone?"
Edward looks to the pit that once held bones. "We did not know we would die here."
Bella feels as though the breath has been sucked from her body, as if her chest is collapsing from the inside. "You. Those are your bones. It's... oh my God, you're Edward! Did you... are you-"
He interrupts her with a gentle smile. "Yes."
Stumbling backward, Bella sits heavily on the ground, trying to snatch her runaway thoughts from the air, where they float disjointedly around her head. Twice she begins to speak and stops, overwhelmed. Finally, the words come.
"You are Edward."
"Yes." He kneels alongside her in the dirt, and Bella tries hard to ignore the way his stone body behaves just like a human one, flexing and arranging itself the way a human body would. The way a naked, male body would. She squeezes her eyes shut to stop herself from staring.
A deep breath makes her almost lightheaded. "I'm just going to sit here and stop asking questions. Instead, I want you to tell me. Tell me everything. Can you do that?"
"Yes," he agrees in his strange two-track, alien voice. He sits beside Bella like a statue, as still as white and ancient marble. Haltingly, he tells her his story as though he hasn't recalled it in a thousand years, as though it's someone else's. In a way, Bella thinks, it is.
"We came, like you, to this place. It was an... accident. I do not remember what happened, only that we did not leave, and became one with this place."
Despite her best efforts to simply listen, Bella's brain won't shut off. They did crash here! There was an accident, and they landed on this planet and never left. "Became one?"
"The stone, it lives, Bella. It lives, and it is of us, and we are of it. It does not master us, nor do we command it. It has preserved us, here, as part of itself. We can be this shape, or another shape, or no shape at all, just our own essence. Time passes, but we do not pass. We do not age. I had forgotten so much. Until you."
"But you remember who you were?" Bella asks quietly, gesturing to his body, so solid and real, right next to her on the ground, kneeling beside what was once his grave. Does it bring back memories to the being within, reminding it that it once walked in a corporeal form?
"I do not remember my other life. It has been too long, I think." Edward sounds so matter-of-fact about this that Bella wants to cry and rage on his behalf, mourning his too-short life.
"How did this happen to you? Are you - is the stone what wrecks our scans? Are you the anomaly? Is that the electrical interference?" Even as she says the words, she knows them to be true; it's the only viable explanation. The life force that exists in the living rock is what renders their scanners and probes useless. The planet mantle must be made up of this rock, the planet's soul. It's the most incredible thing that she has ever heard of. She looks at the kneeling stone being with renewed amazement.
"We do not know how. I remember that one of us died in the crash, and another... there were many wounds. I watched him die in agony, but the living stone soaked up his light." Edward's face is solemn as he remembers the details he'd long set aside. "But we did not die. We are here."
"You are here," Bella repeats, spellbound by his story. How is this possible? "And you? Were you injured?"
"I do not remember," Edward replies, but then he tilts his beautiful head as though thinking and elaborates. "There was no food, no water. I was weak. I died."
He looks at her with such frank openness that a statement which should be horrifying, isn't. It seems to cause him no distress.
"You starved here," Bella says quietly.
In the silence, she watches him, just as he watches her. The moment stretches, and Bella can't decide if she's the scientist or the woman, or why it's important to make this distinction. She must know more. She must.
Clearing her throat, she rises up a little on her knees and spreads her anxious fingers over her thighs.
"Edward, may I touch you, too?"
A flicker in his gold-green eyes looks like anticipation. "Yes," he murmurs, holding very, very still, as only stone can.
Bella's hand shakes as she slides her fingers into Edward's deep bronze hair, gasping at the texture. It's like fine beach sand but it isn't sticky, arranged instead into strands that hold dryly together. It's as though granulated silk was whispering against the palm of her hand. It's possibly the strangest thing she has ever touched.
"Do you feel this?" she whispers, "Do you feel my touch?"
"Yes," Edward replies in a strangled voice, and when she looks into his eyes, they're focusing on her so intently, so hotly, that she flushes, suddenly shy. "I... I feel everything!"
Bella knows she should find this disturbing; everything she knows as a human being - and as a woman alone in a dark cave with something stronger than herself - tells her so. Her every hair is standing on end, and she should be running, but the sensible thoughts in her head are much quieter than the deafening, hot pounding of her runaway heart.
The fact is, she has spent weeks aware of this presence, talking to it, acknowledging it. His presence. Edward has been here all along, and she knew it even before she knew him. He is already a man to her, not a rock construct.
He's Edward to her.
He's made of the stuff she has spent her life exploring, the ultimate example of life preserved in stone, and she's awestruck to be able to touch something so beautiful and so completely alien.
Bella continues to stroke his fine sand hair, and then lowers her hands to caress his poreless skin, so smooth and cold and perfect, and here she finds an incredible surprise.
Wherever she touches, colors swirl over Edward's glassy-smooth skin, like rainbows of spilled fuel floating in a puddle of water. Each swipe of her hand or press of her fingertips pulses like ripples of color from her touch. With her mouth wide open in amazement, she makes elaborate patterns with her fingers, watching the rainbows echo in waves over him.
Bella doesn't think, she just roams his body with both hands, creating an elaborate finger painting. Wide-eyed at his alien beauty, she rubs and caresses his torso and arms without restraint, rising up on her knees to get closer, to coax out with her touch the wild prisms that live under Edward's stone skin.
He watches in silence, suffering all her attentions without a word, until finally she slows down and exhales, a giddy smile lifting her mouth into a lopsided grin.
"Edward," Bella whispers, variegations of color still reflected in her eyes, "I've never seen anything as beautiful as you."
When she looks up, she finds Edward's glittering diamond eyes fixed on her hands, which lie over the center of his chest. Underneath, waves of pink and purple radiate in even pulses.
"Your heart does this," he muses quietly, "the beating of your heart."
Bella laughs, astonished, and takes away her hands, observing the waves of color recede and disappear. When her hands return to him, so do the rainbows, radiating over his chest in time with the blood that beats in her veins and through the palms of her hands.
Bella's skin prickles up in goose bumps as she folds her hands over Edward's shoulders and breathes in lungfuls of his cold, granite scent. Wordlessly, she enfolds him in her arms, laying her cheek over his.
With hesitant and gentle movements, Edward returns her embrace, and Bella can't help but smile. He's unbreakable and so much stronger than she, but his touch is so reverent.
Instead of feeling dwarfed by this alien presence, she feels exalted. Cared for.
She opens her eyes and marvels at how her own heart and his scintillating body beam waves of color and light through the entire cave.
Together, they're a symphony.
Three weeks later
I hope this finds you well. Please forgive my lapse in communication; I've been very, very busy here.
I've decided to take you up on your offer of a permanent supervisory post. I know you would have told me if the post had been assigned to someone else, so I feel confident that it's still mine to accept, and my answer isn't too late.
I know you've been waiting for some weeks, but truth be told, I wasn't sure if I wanted to continue on LDE-8.
I thought that once Site 36 had been excavated, I'd want to move on; however, nothing could be further from the truth now.
I've found that I like this place. In time, I think I will even come to love it.
It's funny how things turn out sometimes.
I've already begun to make preparations for a long-term stay; only your confirmation is needed.
"It's done." Clicking 'send' on her message, Bella exhales with relief.
Checking outside on the remote camera view, she can see the weather turning; a storm comes.
Stirred up by unrelenting winds, dirt swirls into eddies which dissolve into coarse grit, pummeling the entrance of the excavation pit- she can hear the booming winds from inside the cavern. The tarpaulin cover that is supposed to be protecting it is probably flapping wildly over the cave's mouth instead.
Riddled with a maze of interconnecting tunnels and caves, the cliffs encircle what was once an inland sea and is now a huge expanse of arid desert. There is so much to explore. In another window open on her laptop, she can see the edge of the dramatic cliffs and the reinforced corridor anchored to the ground, which leads down to the cave housing the new dig site. Yet another view shows her the outbuildings and the lab, where Ange is analyzing the latest data from the finds.
The origins of the recovered bones have been confirmed, and Bella now knows the humanoids discovered here were indeed Taureans, probably from the Magellan cluster, judging by the structure of their DNA. Bella and Edward have spent countless hours looking at images of his distant home, telling stories and strengthening his memories of a life lived so long ago.
Having confirmed that the caved-in tunnel complex just two miles away is probably what remains of their crashed craft, Bella's team now works with subsidised support from the Taurus Federation, who want to recover these remains of their ancestors' voyage and keep them for posterity, proud of their valiant past. The rest of Bella's team are there, ever closer to fulfilling this extension of their commission on LDE-8.
"The storm's almost here," Bella muses softly. "If I don't leave now, I'll be stuck here for hours."
"Stay," Edward whispers into her ear from behind her where he sits, stone hands burnishing color and light into her skin. He encircles her with his arms and draws her nearer still so that her head rests under his chin. "You are safe, with me."
Bella closes her eyes, content to view the pulsing rainbow they create together from beneath her eyelids, thrilled at how sure Edward's touch has become since the day he revealed his presence to her.
They stand at the precipice of something more, something extraordinary, and it both frightens and excites her, like nothing has ever done before.
"I will, Edward. You know, I think I will."
A/N: Thank you for reading!