We had come to the place where the lava sky dripped into flowing peaks, which cooled to rocky crusts even as we watched.
You pointed to the nearest one, still red with inner heat. “Shall we climb?”
I knew you weren’t in earnest. “I’d love to, except…”
Except that the newly-formed mountain would be oozing fiery rocks that can slip easily underfoot. Or it might erupt in a shuddering tantrum and spew rolling plumes of ash to choke the slopes. Best to observe from a distance.
We had been sent here to discover the cause of the melting sky — a marvel to some, a terror to others — and were loaded down with more equipment than either of us had worked with before. I spent the entire morning checking batteries, looking through manuals, and calibrating sensors while you drove us in a borrowed Jeep across the sandstone desert.
By the time we reached the edge of the plain the sky had turned from a gemlike blue to a chalky white. When the road ran out, we packed up the gear and began hiking over a series of gray rock ridges, watching the sky take on an intense yellow glow as we got closer to our destination. The air smelled of solar wind and the ground radiated a comforting warmth.
Somehow I got stuck with most of the load, which must have weighed over 50 kilos altogether.
“Would you like to carry the seismograph?” I had asked, purely out of politeness. It wouldn’t fit in the packs, so we’d have to lug it by the handle.
“No. You need it to balance the weight of the tripod in your other hand.” Kind of you to think of that.
Once we got below the swirling sky we found a flat spot and immediately began setting up the instruments. No time to waste — we’d have to take a lot of measurements if we wanted to get to the bottom of this mystery.
I handed you the tripod so you could attach the camera, while I pulled out the portable spectrometer, thermal imager, magnetometer, and a snack. We concentrated on arranging the equipment and making adjustments.
I had opened my notebook to jot down the date and time when you said, “Wait. Just look up for a minute. Can you feel it?”
I paused and lifted my eyes. “Yes.” We both stood still and watched. “It seems so obvious now.”
This corner of the sky had become infatuated with Apollo’s glory, gathering in all the sun had to give, embracing its heat and light and energetic particles until the atmosphere itself had grown heavy with mineral fire, a golden fervor that flowed above us. Then here and there it burst forth to share its treasure with the earth, a passionate outpouring of joy gushing down to form radiant mountain peaks born of sunlight and love.
Of course, no one had discovered this earlier.
The drone that was first sent here to investigate lacked any devices able to sense the emotional interplay of earth and sky and stars, which has been going on for eons. That’s what eluded the geophysicists and meteorologists who pored over the data the drone obediently delivered. Only by standing under the sky could one understand the celestial phenomenon that had baffled science.
“I guess we can turn these things off,” you said. “We won’t be needing them.”
“Right. Might as well save the batteries.”
We had hauled the carefully-calibrated equipment all this way for nothing. But at least we could write up a decent report. This wasn’t a dangerous anomaly or ecological disaster, inhospitable though it may be to life. This was simply the wild delirium of planets and stars at play.
We sat down to enjoy the scene for a while. We couldn’t fully appreciate the sky’s rapture, but like these mountains, we too were born of sunlight, in a way — and certainly made of cosmic dust, as any astronomer would acknowledge. I took a few notes as another peak flowed into existence out near the horizon.
Our conclusion: No one would be building condos here anytime soon. Though it was a suitable location for an impenetrable fortress.
“If I were an evil wizard,” I said as we were packing up to go, “I’d put my magic castle at the top of that peak. Wouldn’t have to worry about unexpected visitors. Air conditioning might get expensive, though.”
“No, I’m thinking it would make a perfect spot for a dragon’s lair. Nice place to raise the little ones.”
I suggested that my wizard might like having your dragons around. You said that would be lovely.
We didn’t put those insights in our report.