Author:Stephen Coonts
    There are at least 100 billion stars in the Milky Way.


    Rip Cantrell was holding the stadia rod, trying to blink away the sweat trickling into his eyes, when a bright flash of light caught his eye. The light was to his left, near the base of an escarpment almost a mile away.
    Careful not to disturb the stadia rod, he turned his head to get a better view.
    “Hold that thing still for a few more seconds, Rip.”
    The shout echoed off the rock formations and tumbled around in the clear desert air, rupturing the profound silence. Occasionally one could hear the deep rumble of a jet running high, but normally the only sound was the whisper of the wind.
    Dutch Haagen was at the transit, reading the rod. He and Bill Taggart were the engineers surveying a line for a seismic shoot. Rip was the gofer, working a summer job before he returned to college in a few weeks.
    Rip concentrated on holding the rod still. Fifteen seconds passed, then Dutch waved his arms.
    Now Rip looked again for the bright spot of reflected light.
    There! Shimmering in the hot desert air, at the base of that low cliff, maybe a mile to the north. The afternoon sun must be reflecting on something shiny.
    But what?
    Trash? Here in the central Sahara?
    The three men were a hundred miles from the nearest waterhole, two hundred from the nearest collection of native mud huts. A twin-turboprop transport with fixed landing gear dropped them here three weeks ago. “Your nearest neighbors are at an archaeological dig about thirty miles west,” the South African pilot said, and gestured vaguely. “Americans, I think, or maybe British.”
    As Rip thought about it now, it occurred to him that he hadn’t seen a single piece of man-made trash since he arrived. Not a crushed Coke can, a snuff tin, a cigarette butt, or a candy wrapper. The Sahara was the cleanest place he had ever been.
    He put the stadia rod on his shoulder and waited for Dutch to drive up.
    “Had enough for today?” Haagen asked as Rip stowed the rod in the holder on the side of the Jeep.
    “We could do a couple more shots, if you want.”
    Dutch wore khaki shorts and a T-shirt, was deeply tanned and pleasantly dirty. Water to wash with was a luxury. In his early thirties, Haagen had been surveying seismic lines for ten years. The job took him all over the world and paid good money, but at times he found it boring. “We’ve done enough for today,” he said with a sigh.
    Rip looked again for the flash from the sun’s reflection as he got into the passenger’s seat.
    “Look at that, Dutch.”
    “Something shiny. Candy wrapper or piece of metal. Old truck, maybe. Maybe even a crashed plane. Found one of those once in this desert.”
    “Let’s go look.”
    Dutch shrugged and put the Jeep in motion. Rip was still a kid. He hadn’t burned out yet. The central Sahara was a big adventure for him, probably the biggest of his life.
    “Did you find that plane around here, Dutch?”
    “Closer to the coast, in Tunisia. Old German fighter plane. A Messerschmidt, as I recall. Pilot was still in the cockpit. All dried out like a mummy.”
    “Wow. What did you do?” Rip held on to the bouncing Jeep with both hands.
    “Do?” Haagen frowned. “Took a few photos, I guess. Stuck my finger in some of the bullet holes—I remember that.”
    “Did you get a souvenir?”
    “One of the guys pried something off the plane. I didn’t. Didn’t seem right, somehow. It was sort of like robbing a grave.”
    “Did you bury the pilot, anything like that?”
    “No,” Haagen said softly. “We just left him there. The cockpit was his coffin. The plane had been half uncovered by a windstorm a few weeks before. The cockpit had a lot of sand in it. The wind probably drifted sand back over the plane within days after we found it.”
    Rip pointed at the sandstone cliff they were approaching. “About there, I think.”
    Haagen stopped the Jeep and watched Rip bound away. He was a good-looking, athletic kid and smart as they come. The boss picked his resume from a pile of two hundred engineering students who applied for this summer job. The kid worked hard, never complained. Still, this was just a summer job to young Cantrell. Rip was too bright to settle for seismic surveying when he graduated next May.
    Haagen sighed, turned off the Jeep, and stretched.
    The low cliff rising in front of him was sandstone sculpted by the wind, like thousands of similar formations in this section of the desert. It was perhaps twenty feet high, Haagen guessed. The slope of the face was about thirty degrees, gentle enough to scramble up.
    “Better come up here and look, Dutch.”
    “What did you find?”
    “Looks like metal. Right in the rock.”
    “A survey marker rod?”
    “Come look.”
    Haagen slowly climbed to where Rip was perched about ten feet above the desert floor.
    “It’s metal of some kind, Dutch. Curved, right in the rock.”
    Haagen reached out, touched it. The metal was exposed for a length of about a foot. Vertically, perhaps four inches of metal were showing. At the maximum, the metal protruded about an inch from the stone.
    “Looks a little like the bumper of an old Volkswagen Beetle polished by windblown sand.”
    “It’s no bumper,” Rip muttered.
    Haagen bent down to study the exposed surface. It resembled steel, yet it didn’t. A titanium alloy? It seemed too shiny, too mirrorlike to be titanium, he thought, and the color was wrong. The metal was dark, a deep gray, perhaps.
    “Funny thing is, it’s right in the rock. Inside the rock. Now how do you suppose someone got that in there?”
    “Looks like it was exposed as the wind and rain weathered this cliff.”
    “That can’t be right,” Rip Cantrell countered stubbornly. “That would mean it was older than the rock.”
    “It’s a mystery,” Haagen said dismissively and turned to look out over the desert. Dirt, sand, and stone, but it was beautiful. He loved being outdoors. Even though he had an engineering degree he had never wanted an ‘inside’ job.
    Rip picked up a handy stone and swung it against the exposed metal. It made a deep thunk.
    Haagen turned around to watch. Cantrell swung the rock three times, hard, then examined the metal closely.
    “Didn’t even mark it,” he announced finally, straightening. “Not even a scratch.”
    Haagen bent down and again examined the surface, which was smooth, extraordinarily so, without a mark of any kind, like a mirror. Amazing how sand can polish metal. Well, wind-driven sand wears away the hardest rock.
    “There’re lots of mysteries in this desert. Lots of things we’ll never know.” Dutch Haagen shook his head, then climbed down the ledge toward the waiting Jeep.

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