Marc A. Criley
Mars gleamed above the curving ceramacarb hull of the Gracious Balaenoptera. We’d swung past and it had receded to a garnet nestled in a velvet blackness strewn with the light-year diamonds of a sparkling Milky Way. But here and now, blazing twenty kilometers to port was our interstellar visitor, comet 172I/DSCS. Barely visible from Earth, out here it churned slow-motion glitter. Ripples, curlicues, backlit streamers of gray and silver rain. Crepuscular cosmic rays and the nebulous electric blue glow of the ion tail.
Deep Space Comet Survey astronomers had spotted it crossing Jupiter’s orbit, its hyperbolic trajectory confirming an interstellar origin, marking it as a rare and temporary visitor to our solar system. The comet had unexpectedly remained intact through a near-miss of Mars, ripping through the tenuous upper atmosphere and altering its course. It was now projected to end its journey with a dive into the Sun.
DSCS asked if we’d tweak our homebound Martian slingshot to pull up alongside for some data collection and to grab a sample if we thought it safe. As if we would miss a chance to greet this visitor on its one and only appearance in our solar system.
We’d slotted into a parallel course this morning, keeping safely ahead and offset from the dusty nucleus. Once on station, we killed rotation, hitched up mag boots, and hiked out to gawk.
Already streaming out more than a hundred thousand miles, the comet’s blue ion tail rippled in the solar wind, and the dust tail glittered white in reflected sunlight.
“Well,” I said, “how’s this rate for anniversaries?”
Maya crossed her arms and looked up. “Not bad. And you arranged it all for me?” There was a grin in her voice. “It may just edge out Sputnik Planitia.” She reached over and hooked a suited arm around mine. Leaned in a bit. We bumped helmets, took a sip. A ’37 Syrtis Amore waited back in the galley, but it was strictly sippy water on EVA.
For our tenth we’d swung an ultra-long haul out to the Pluto/Charon system. We’d nitrogen ice-boated out for six days at the most isolated resort in the solar system.
“Y’know, sweetie,” I said, “fifteen years in, and I still don’t know why you married me. I was so afraid you’d say no. Wasn’t sure I actually heard ‘yes’.”
Her gloved hand squeezed my arm. “I had no choice. You offered up the glamor of freight hauling, deep isolation, and giving up the Earth below my feet. And maybe I was nuts about you. Still might be.”
We bumped helmets. I squinted past the reflected comet dazzle on her visor. Yep, a smile that outshone Mars, this blazing comet, and the incandescent golden jewel of the sun. A smile that’s taken me from one end of the solar system to the other.
“Maya! Dominic! RiskCon 2! RiskCon 2! Maya! Dominic!”
I snapped awake. GRACIE, the ship’s cybernetic executive, slid the lights up. I ripped open the sleep web and heard Maya tearing out of hers.
“Status?” she said.
The wall monitor flickered on. We paused just for an instant to stare. The glowing, dust-puffing comet that yesterday we toasted fifteen years of togetherness alongside was today coming apart at the seams. GRACIE said, “172I/DSCS breaking up. Fusion torch warm up initiated, yawing to reduce cross section.”
I grabbed the bedbar, flipped out of the zero G sleeper, and somersaulted to the door. I kicked off the frame to hit Command two doors down. Maya right behind. I hooked the grab bar and swung into the room. Maya yelled, “GRACIE, start rotation! Push to two RPM!” As I arrowed towards the engineer’s station the exterior views came up. Visible we already saw; infrared was blocked by the dust cloud; radar showed comet chunks crumbling like a dissolving sand castle and tumbling away. We were way too close.
“Dissolution commenced seventy-three seconds ago,” GRACIE stated. “Exceptional volatiles. Explosive vaporization driving high velocity jets. Impacts expected prior to torch zero.”
“Debris mass and timing?” Maya called out from the emergency cabinet as she snatched a pair of lifesuit canisters. She flung one at me.
“Centimeter and below debris in eleven minutes,” GRACIE said. “One to ten meter impacts possible in fifteen.”
I intercepted the lifesuit bundle. “GRACIE, preflate suits.”
The suit popped and unfurled, hinged forward at the midriff. I shoved my legs in down to the boots and worked my upper half into the torso until my head popped the helmet collar. “Seal,” Upper and lower portions magnetically aligned, locked, contracted to form fit. I left the visor up. As I looked over Maya’s head popped into her helmet and her suit sealed and contracted. “You okay?”
“I’m good,” she replied, staring at a monitor.
Two sparkling, radar-bright streams spiraled out from the comet.
“GRACIE, radar monitor. What’s spraying from the comet?”
“Highly reflective cylinders. Radar cross-section estimates size at 25x50cm.”
“So far, estimating four thousand.”
Maya and I stared at each other.
“Maya,” GRACIE said, “first impacts in nine minutes fifty seconds.”
“Right. Strap in. RiskCon 1. Whatever those things are they’ll have to wait.”
This wasn’t what we’d signed up for heading out from Saturn with a load of ring ice. The comet had remained intact plowing through Mars’ upper atmosphere. Why was it self-destructing tens of millions of kilometers later?
Every sensor was compiling data in real-time. A torrent, expanding the frontiers of cometary science. I just hoped we lived through it. But ceramacarb hulls can take a hellacious pounding. Cargo bays were mostly empty and depressurized, just a couple million tons of ice headed for Luna. Rotation spread out the damage, yawing cut our profile, though it takes awhile to turn a whale like the Gracious. Nothing to do but reduce vulnerability cross section and watch the approaching hail storm.
“Was this an extra anniversary surprise?”
“Well, did’t want things gettin’ all stale. Fifteen years, y’know, boredom sets in.”
“Initial debris impacts in one minute,” GRACIE announced. The reactor torch power countdown dropped below eleven minutes.
GRACIE reported first impact.
We both smiled grimly.
First impact of many. Many. But the Gracious, at six hundred by three thousand feet and taring a quarter-million tons, could survive it. GRACIE tallied impacts and severity. Most baseball-sized and under. Took damage. Lost comms, most sensors. Only a tiny fraction of the comet cloud impacted us across twenty kilometers of empty space. But Gracious was a big target, and thousands of tons of sand, gravel, and steadily bigger rocks were crashing into us. We watched the clock. Sweated hull integrity.
“Two hundred ton low-speed impact in… three minutes,” GRACIE announced.
“Why didn’t we see that?” I yelled.
“Only two sensors remain marginally functional,” GRACIE informed us, “obscured by dust.”
“Where’s it gonna hit?” I said.
“Engine block, anticipating major damage. Emergency safing reactor and coolant systems now.”
My chest hollowed out. I started panting, my vision sizzled.
“Stop,” Maya whispered.
I ground my teeth, shook my head. Cleared it. Five more minutes and base power would’ve torched us out of here. Maya and I sealed up.
Impact. Creaking bulkheads, power dropped out and returned as electronics rerouted and rebooted.
I headed down Gracious‘ core spire to triage. The reactor access shaft running through the engine block now sported a passage leading directly to open space, the other end a jumble of boulder, debris, and solidified NaK reactor coolant. Struts, cables, ductwork, bulkwork, shredded metal, and composite furred the hole the rock had punched into the ship.
The reactor and containment chamber were untouched, so we still had power via the redundancies. But primary NaK coolant system was obliterated and the secondary system was trashed as well. Tertiary came through okay, but that was for minimal circulation in drydock. Even at full stir the reactor was limited to two percent.
It didn’t take a nuclear propulsion expert like me to see that this couldn’t be fixed out in deep space. But I had to figure something out, and soon. Shadowing a sundiving comet would not end well.
The next three days I lived and worked out of the airtight twelve by twelve by sixteen foot engine block habitat, the “space rack”, to avoid the quarter-mile zero-gee slog up the spire each day for meals, washing, and resupply. Primary goal was getting to our cometary vandal and strapping it down tight. We couldn’t have this rock banging around under acceleration. GRACIE ran a half-dozen spiderbots alongside me, cutting out junk they carried away and stuffed into an empty cargo bay.
“Dom!” Maya radioed.
I spun and saw a spacesuited figure floating about ten feet away, steadying herself on a torn strut. Maya had been checking hull integrity and working on the antenna and comms units.
“You’ve been running eleven straight hours, and you only got like four hours of sleep last night. I brought cookies and some Ol’ Smoothie. And I need to show you something.”
I looked back at the plug of debris, then over at the cutter-armed spiderbots clipping pipes and struts and hauling away the debris. “GRACIE,” I said, “I’m going to take a break, hold when you’ve got a visual on the rock and call me.”
After equalizing pressure the rack’s inner door opened and Maya rushed in, pulling me in after her. “GRACIE, bring up the cargobot videostream from where I marked it.” She turned to me and lifted her visor. Eyes and smile wide, she said “Watch.”
I popped the can of root beer and sippy sleeved it. Bit into an excellent vegan chocolate chip cookie. And watched.
On the wall monitor a small spot slowly flickered like a silver star, then turned into a tumbling oblong shape.
“One of those silver things,” Maya said, “drifting at a couple meters per second. It was going to pass within a hundred meters so I sent a cargobot after it.”
“You get it?”
“It’s in a bio hold isolation unit now.”
“In vacuum, at 40K, should keep it inert. GRACIE, display and zoom in on the cylinder.”
I stared speechless at a series of incised lines along the side of the cylinder. Entwined and crossed like a DNA double-helix. Below that were line drawings. The smaller ones I couldn’t make out, but the large one looked like a whale, despite the vertical fish tail. Long pectoral fins swept back from behind its jaw, and another pair of “fins”, side-by-side short triangular ones, rose from its forehead. A stippling of dots flanked it from jaw to tail.
“GRACIE’s running ambient spectroscopy and sonography right now,” Maya said. “Slow speed non-invasive. And programming some cargobots to survey what’s left of 172I.”
“But… there’s only short-range docking comms, she won’t be able to fly them.”
“Dead reckoning. Send them out on a pre-programmed course. Whatever they see they’ll store for GRACIE to analyze.”
“And grab more of those?” I waved at the cylinder on the screen.
“They’ll try, if they find some. And I’ll continue hull scans and system diagnostics and simulations so we get out of here in one piece.”
“You’re the crack pilot, you’ll get us out.”
We stared at the image of cylinder.
I brushed my glove against the screen. “And that’s coming home with us.”
I headed back to work. The other maintenance conduits the boulder had punched through looked clear, so GRACIE’s spiderbots and I spent about thirty hours clearing down to the two hundred ton extraterrestrial visitor lodged in Gracious’ engine block. We carbon strapped it into immobility.
Gracious’s hull remained mostly intact, if heavily pitted. But all three steerable antenna units were obliterated, leaving only the short-range comms normally used for docking. We could transmit, but not receive.
Maya and GRACIE plotted an unavoidably sun-grazing course to put us into an Earth-bound freight lane. We were running on fumes, so skipping the nutri-bars we hauled ourselves to the galley to nuke some lasagna, pop a bag of Martian red, and get GRACIE’s analysis of the cylinder and whatever the cargobots found.
On screen a sonogram outlined a perfect cylinder, ten inches in diameter by almost twenty tall. GRACIE put up a contrast-enhanced, algorithmically boosted interior rendering. Parallel curving diagonal streaks led to a sharp seam about two inches below one end of the canister; an obvious screw cap. Three concentric shadowy layers nestled inside, a container in a container in a container–GRACIE tagged it on the screen as a dewar flask, with the innermost one enclosing two stacked racks of tubular shadows, like vials, eight each. GRACIE cautioned some of this was provisional pattern matching.
Then the hi-res of the DNA and fish graphic. Just the double helix above the minimalist rendering of the creature.
“Whale,” Maya said.
“But,” I said through a mouthful of lasagna, “vertical tail.”
“Fish or whale, aquatic.”
“And that smaller graphic?”
“Maybe its food web?”
“That double helix looks like DNA,” I said, “but what’re the odds of alien DNA?”
“Amino acids are all over space, and those Martian glacial lake viruses figured out RNA. With hundreds of billions of planets in the Milky Way alone, what are the odds of DNA only evolving once?” Maya paused. “It’s tremendously flexible. If that’s anything close to DNA a genomic AI could analyze it, tweak it, and a bioreactor could build it out.”
“And what? Drop it in the ocean? Not so sure about the wisdom of that. Could it even survive in a terrestrial ocean?”
“Maybe a genomic AI could adapt it for our environment.” Maya’s face gleamed with excitement.
I laughed. “I love you.”
Then she lit that smile. “I love you too.” She turned to the screen. “GRACIE, what did the cargobots find?”
“No additional cylinders were retrieved. Two cargobots did not return and are presumed lost.”
“Uh-huh,” Maya said. “Maybe we don’t do that again. What else turned up?”
GRACIE displayed the view from cargobot 5’s cameras, panning until a large curving metallic shard embedded in a chunk of rock hove into view. Long beams, like trusses, extended through the rock and emerged out the opposite side. “Cargobot 5 observed a portion of a spherical shell and an apparent reinforcing structure within the comet body.”
Maya gasped, and my jaw hung open. GRACIE tagged the dimensions of the beams and shard and wireframed a ten meter sphere tangent to it, then packed in fishcan sized cylinders. “Preliminary estimates of structure’s volume indicate possible capacity of 10,800 cylinders.”
I closed my mouth. “Did they bury a seed vault, or I don’t know, an ark, in a comet and send it out to find a new home? Maybe programmed it to flyby and assess likely stellar candidates? And then it ends up almost hitting Mars. Which should’ve torn it apart.”
“Maybe systems were just failing after eons of radiation, cold and vacuum. Nothing lasts forever,” Maya said. Got too close, the gravitational stress could’ve initiated a slow-rolling microfracture cascade. Our comet stayed together as long as it could. And then it couldn’t.”
Maya grinned and shrugged. Then lost her smile. “But now it’s a sundiver.”
I dropped my head into my hands. “We’ve got to get more of those cylinders and take them back with us. We owe it to whoever sent this. It may be all that’s left of that world. Maybe a whole ecology, their own DNA, records, “golden disks”, whatever, just floating out there. We can’t just let it all fall into the Sun.”
“There’s no time,” Maya said. “Every day we’re three million miles closer to the Sun. We have to give it a wide enough berth that Gracious can handle the heat. It’s going to be close. We have no sensors to find canisters, and we lost two cargobots just looking. We have to get out of here as soon as we possibly or we get cooked.”
Maya took my hand and squeezed it. “But the cylinders are easy to spot in visible or microwave frequencies; their expulsion from the comet may have put some of them out of the sundiver trajectory, maybe along with some shards of that vault. I’ll have GRACIE extrapolate from the initial data and transmit what we can of their trajectories. They’ll be out there just waiting. If not for us, then for someone else. Orbital mechanics, baby.”
My wife the pilot.
“We’ll miss the sun by thirty-five million kilometers,” Maya said, “well inside Mercury’s orbit. Then eight weeks or so coasting to the closest space lane.”
“Gracious can stand up to that heat despite the damage, right GRACIE?” I asked for the tenth time.
“There are adequate safety margins with proper thermal management,” GRACIE responded.
“We just spit roast for a few hours at closest approach,” Maya said.
I tightened the seat harness, though two percent torch acceleration is hardly noticable. Monitors for reactor, coolant, electrical system, and life support showed green across the board. We were suited, visors up. Hardly necessary, but remote possibility failures kill you just as dead. On the main monitor a diffuse cloud rippled around us in the solar wind. We were literally inside what was left of the comet’s coma. Too bad Earth and Venus were on the far side of the sun, the dusty remains were putting on a heck of a show.
“Alright GRACIE,” Maya said, “let’s go.”
One bar, two percent, on the torch thrust stack lit gold. Floating dust, stuff sensed but not really seen, drifted past, settled behind us. Fraction of a gee. On our way.
And then we were not. I changed from flight to EVA suit and scrambled down the spire to see what had killed the torch and redlit every propulsion indicator ten minutes after we’d cleared the coma.
Carnage. Apparently when the rock plowed into us a half-ton chunk calved off and punched itself into a storage locker down a side passage. Out of sight. I’d missed it. Working too hard, too long. When we kicked on the torch, the rock jarred loose, careened down the nearest access passage and plowed into the last working heat exchanger. NaK everywhere. We were out of backup coolant systems. No more torch. No more delta-V.
We hurtled past Mercury’s orbit. I’d pilot lit the reactor and jury rigged it, just doable with some scavenged coolant. No plasma thrust, but enough power to keep us warm and cool… until it couldn’t. Gracious rotated to even the heat, but hull temp climbed with every passing hour. We didn’t need that much lateral velocity change, but ten or ten thousand meters per second is equally unreachable without a torch. Venus and Earth spun on the far side of the Sun, Mercury retreated. Even at maximum torch it would take a ship nearly five weeks to reach us from any one of them, and GRACIE estimated she could keep us cool for only one more.
I’d thought about overloading the reactor and going out with a bang. The Gracious Balaenoptera, though, was just too massive to come apart that way. Some other thought was hiding behind that, but whatever it was, it was biding its time.
We’d transmitted everything we had on the comet, and what little we’d learned of the fishcan, along with our theory about 172I’s disintegration. We recorded our goodbyes, told GRACIE to send them on after we were gone. We made zero-gee love one last time.
“I’m gonna miss all this,” Maya said in the afterglow. Tears had been shed, but those were dry now as we floated together. Loose strands of Maya’s hair tickled my chin as I held her against me. “You’d’ve thought year after year out here would’ve driven us nuts.”
“Certain family members, on both sides, were convinced it did.”
“Yeah, well, they never base jumped the Rupes, or hot soaked Europa, or sailed under a full Charon.”
“Or methane skied Titan.” I said. “Though mainly for me it’s the stars out here, the Milky Way, Andromeda. Diamonds in the sky, like I never saw back home. And being the only humans in ten million miles. That is some solitude. It just worked for me, but it worked best with you.”
Maya lifted her head to mine, kissed me hard. Okay maybe not the last time.
In the warmth, and darkness, and quiet, and a brain at peace for a few short moments, something clicked. The comet came apart. The Gracious Balaenoptera can come apart, in theory.
I’d thought about overloading the reactor until the containment field collapsed, triggering an explosion, which would wreck the engine block, but not destroy the ship. But dumping most of Gracious, and then cranking up the reactor? Then a controlled containment field collapse? I blinked as I ran numbers, doing estimates and round offs in my head.
Numbers, plasma flux, megatons, mag fields, joules…
I started murmuring, got louder. “Overdrive the containment field…max the burn rate…beyond redlined. Massive volatile dump – -we’ve got ice, tons of ice. A directed containment collapse could, could, do a vectored blast.”
Against my chest Maya said, “That’s what you’re thinking about right now? Going out in a blaze of glory?”
My brain sizzled. “No, really. If we were strapped in the space rack when it went up… We might live through this.”
Maya leaned her head back, and we locked eyes. Dead on serious I told her, “We need to blow up the ship.”
“Eight… seven…” GRACIE intoned. All that’s left of The Gracious Balaenoptera — the engine block — is shaking and shrieking, GRACIE’s nanosecond magnetic and EM adjustments trying to keep a raging stellar core caged for just a few seconds more. We’re exhausted. Two days jettisoning cargo bays, structurally reinforcing the space rack to hold it together under insane gees, then slathering it with ceramacarb to rigidify and seal it. Charging full batteries and oxygen, finally detaching and pushing off the core spire, our home for fifteen years.
Now counting down.
To a megaton fusion containment breach.
A hundred fifty feet below us.
Thick gel crash cushions on the floor, perpendicular to the detonation vector, us lying dead flat to prevent a limb being torn off by the explosive acceleration. GRACIE estimates forty-plus gees, which stress models contend the ceramacarbed rack — and us — can survive, briefly, very briefly. We set up automated nutrient and hydration IVs that might keep us alive if we and the equipment survive the blast. We snapped an archive cartridge of GRACIE and embedded it and the fishcan in a block of ceramacarb. We broadcast our plan and detonation vector, hoping there’d be someone out there to hear it. Or find some pieces to pick up.
All power thrown into the containment field, bottling up nova grade plasma until the last possible microsecond, until the chamber’s flooded. Everything shaking so bad I can’t see straight. The panels of green, yellow, and red status indicators now just arcs of color.
Everything smears red.
“Breach,” GRACIE blipped.
I closed my eyes.
“Oh God.” Me or Maya, or both, couldn’t tell.
The rack deck smashed into us.
I remember being very thirsty.
I remember hearing a Martian-accented voice: “Oh my God they’re still alive.”
Another voice, same accent: “Grab that block of carb, it’s marked. Add it to the collection.”
One more: “It’s gettin’ hot in here! Let’s go, let’s go!”
I remember a sting on my neck, and a wave of cold washing through me. And then nothing.
The rain had stopped, though leaden clouds looked ready to unleash another cold Scottish downpour. The waves in the small bay surged against the sandy beach. Barely any movement out where Maya waded, jeans rolled up above her knees. Outside the small bay the waves heaved, cresting and breaking as they contended for entry. Beyond that, halfway to the horizon a large patch of choppy water gave away the location of a swarm of skittish bala shrimp.
“Can you feel your feet?” I asked.
“Not a bit,” Maya said. “For a change.” She smiled as she pulled her rain-spattered hoodie tight around her shoulders. She kept scanning the gray horizon. “I love knowing they’re coming this way…”
“It was eighty-five years ago today,” I said.
Maya grinned over her shoulder at me. “We really started something, didn’t we?”
A few minutes later my mobile vibrated. I checked it. “GRACIE says we oughta head up.” I nodded towards the headland rising to a plateau a couple hundred feet above the sea. Maya turned to me, then picked her way back to the beach. I helped her sit as she stepped onto the sand. I brushed her feet off with a hand towel. “Chicken foot,” I said. She smiled.
I slipped wool socks over her feet, velcroed her sneakers. I creaked back up and helped her stand. “Gracie says it’s that way.”
Hand in hand we headed across the sand. I spotted a corroded “Scenic Overlook” sign. An arrow pointed to a rough trailhead that passed up and around out of sight.
“Let’s go, old man,” she said.
I grinned, middle-aged maybe, not old yet. Though it felt like it sometimes. More so lately.
A half-hour later we reached an old picnic table. We grinned at the gleaming alloy tabletop, it’s surface decorated with the now iconic graphics from our recovered cylinder. A weatherproof visitor log was chained to the the table. We signed it.
We dropped down on the bench. We ached. People in their one forties are usually still pretty limber. We haven’t been limber for a long time. A century of medical advances could prolong life, but couldn’t fully restore the shattered bones and shredded muscles of that bare second of forty-six gees. The report from the medics on the Martian corvette that had raced after and finally caught up with us estimated we only had a few hours left.
“Is that them?” Maya asked. She stood and pointed out to sea, to the north.
A couple miles out the bala shrimp swarm sensed something. The huge patch of choppy ocean settled, smoothed, stilled to an iron gray mirror. We held our breaths. A line cut the patch, became a rippling vee, followed ten yards further out by another.
“Yessss,” Maya whispered.
I hauled myself up and grabbed Maya’s hand. Within seconds a pair of thirty-foot fins, blazing coruscating neon red/gold fins, emerged. Beyond those another pair carved up through the surface, triangular exploding cascades of prairie storm violet-blue lightning. Around each pair the ocean warmed gray to gold, flashed to green to blue to red to silver-white to black and back to gold. Rainbows exploded.
Balaenoptera astra gloria. Glory whales.
The more distant pair of fins rose further, pushing a mound of water. Rivaling the length of one of those ancient aircraft carriers, the whale broke the surface, erect tail ruddering the pallid sea. Light detonated across its back, a fireworks/laser light show mash up. On the back of its mate patterns of color; rhythmic, arrhythmic, sparklers, frenzied electronic dance flow schematic twisting shooting spinning sparkling spinners actinic silver red gold morphing into blue and white and shocking pounding bursting blasts of life and stars and god damn supernovas.
“Oh my God!” Maya shouted. Jumped up and down, pointed. I saw it too. A small black — midnight velvet black — shape popped up between the two beasts. A calf, maybe two months old and nearly the size of a blue whale, born up North at the height of arctic summer. Black, black as space, silhouetted against bioelectric lightstorm furies.
The more distant swimmer winked out and submerged. The calf dove after. The remaining creature rolled on its side, fin skating sparks off the iron sea. From jaw to tail, a galaxy of stars. Gold and silver, piercing, diamond stars rippling, fountains whorling in crashing waves of gold and froth. It slid down into the dark.
“Welcome to Earth,” I whispered.
Maya hooked her arm around mine, leaned in and whispered, “Best anniversary ever.”
“Glory Whales” © Marc A. Criley, first published here in Cosmic Roots on August 22, 2020
Marc A. Criley avidly read fantasy and science fiction for over forty years before deciding to try his hand at writing it when he got into his early 50s. His short stories (and haiku!) have appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Galaxy’s Edge, Frozen Wavelets, and elsewhere–rest assured it is never too late to start writing. When not writing, he and his wife “manage” a household of cats in the hills of North Alabama. Marc tweets about writing, space, Alabama, and other shiny things as @That_MarcC and maintains a personal website and blog at kickin-the-darkness.com.
Illustrations by Fran Eisemann. Stock from NASA and Pixabay