Trees rushed by the little launch’s window. An icy mountain, so tall that Tete couldn’t see its top even when he bent low and looked straight up, grew larger with each second. He gasped, his panic expanding as quickly as the mountain. He roughly shook the pilot beside him who lay slumped unconscious over the control panel.
"Nefer, please, wake up! I don’t know how to engage the collision avoidance system. Nefer, this isn’t funny any more. Why, why did you snort all that resin? I don’t want to die! Please!"
The mountain filled the window. Alarms sounded, the craft shook. Then the terrible roar, then the searing pain, then the blackness.
The ‘copter came to a rest on a narrow, rocky ledge, and as the blades slowed to a stop, Jim McDermott jumped out, took a close look at the skids, and then motioned for Jennifer and Peter to join him. She jumped down, turned her head, and surveyed their cramped temporary home. The ledge ran three hundred meters in front and another hundred behind, abruptly terminated on her right by a sheer cliff that towered above them like a granite skyscraper.
On her left, after only a few dozen steps, the boulder-strewn ledge disappeared. She saw nothing but blue sky and distant, glacier-clad mountains beyond. It was a magnificent, awesome sight, to be sure, but it reminded her of how isolated they were, how dependent she was on a man she didn’t really know or trust.
The ledge itself was little more than a massive pile of boulders and gravel. Rivulets of water ran down the face of the cliff, then through the boulders, then spilled over the edge into the valley far below. At first she couldn’t see the object of their expedition, and then, far ahead, her eye caught a flash of icy silver, almost invisible against the gray boulders, almost at the end of the ledge.
After unloading the equipment, they walked slowly toward the silver object. It resolved into an elegant cylinder, flattened on one side, with a pointed end that tapered ever so slightly downward. It was no more than eight meters long, perhaps three meters in diameter. Slender wings hung from the center tapering to the blunt back end, creating two elongated right triangles. There were no seams, no lines. Everything fit together like it had been molded as a single piece. The silver hull reflected the shocking-blue sky like a foggy mirror.
McDermott stopped next to the object, turned to Garoulis and nodded. Garoulis nodded back. They stood silently, staring at the cylinder.
“What are you two nodding about?” she asked.
“Sirian,” said Peter Garoulis.
“Without a doubt,” McDermott agreed.
“What do you mean, Syrian? I had no idea they had such advanced aircraft.”
“Sorry, Jennifer,” said Peter. “Not the country in the Middle East. We’re talking about the Dog Star, Alpha Canis Major.”
“Oh… Oh.” A wave of wonder swept her. “Did that little thing fly here all the way from Sirius?”
McDermott turned to her. “OK, we’re all on a need-to-know basis, and now that you’ve seen this, Dr. Jarrett, it’s time you got the briefing. This is the fifth Sirian artifact site we’ve visited. All but one were just like this one: a small ship that rammed into the side of a mountain, a mountain that had been covered in glaciers until very recently. It’s all the melting that’s revealing these sites. We’re lucky – this one’s in New Zealand where the government is cooperative. The others were – more difficult.”
“It seems to be perfectly intact. How do you know it rammed into the mountain?”
“Because,” McDermott said. “In each case we’ve found the point of impact, and the inhabitants, well-preserved by the glaciers, all had severe trauma to their internal organs consistent with a sudden impact. But the ships themselves show no signs of damage. For all we know, we could fly them, if we could ever figure out how they work.”
Dr. Garoulis nodded. “We’d love to power them up, try to fly them, but there’s no engine, no fuel we can find, nothing to make them go. The materials in the hull and interior components are all impervious to any form of cutting, burning, or melting. And they obviously can survive impacts that would pulverize anything we make without even denting.”
“How did you get inside?”
“Watch!” said McDermott.
He ran his hand along the hull. A small, rectangular opening appeared, looking as though it were designed for a child.
“I thought you said that all the power was dissipated…”
“Yes. It’s got to be a property of the material itself,” Dr. Garoulis said. “But so far, we’ve learned very little about it.”
They crowded around the opening and looked inside. Resting in small, padded chairs were two mummified, childlike humanoids, perhaps four feet tall, with enormous egg-shaped heads and slender delicate limbs. Dried, black material covered the bald heads; greenish-black skin pulled taut on their delicate bodies. They were hairless and naked except for small, red, bikini-like coverings at the junction of their bodies and legs.
“Hermaphrodites,” said McDermott. “Every one so far.”
“We need to pump them with preservatives now,” said Dr. Garoulis. “We don’t want to lose the fine detail.”
“So these creatures are where those tissue samples I’ve been studying came from?” asked Jennifer.
“Yes,” McDermott said.
“Astounding,” she said. “I thought they were from some human-like creature. They didn’t seem that odd or different…”
She paused, stared at McDermott, then said, “Are you sure they’re extraterrestrials? Couldn’t they be some as yet undiscovered terrestrial hominid?”
“We’re a hundred percent sure they’re extraterrestrial,” said McDermott. “Now go get the preservation kit.”
“Shouldn’t we be taking contamination precautions, then?”
McDermott shook his head. “Those samples you evaluated showed no evidence of anything but Earth-based bacteria and fungi. That’s why we think they’d been on Earth, walking around unprotected, for quite some time.”
As she worked, using gloves and a mask despite McDermott’s assurances, she looked more closely at these visitors from another world. The impact had cracked their skulls. Bruising on their torsos probably indicated internal injuries. Her hands shook – she was touching creatures from another planet! They really had visited Earth. Here was proof beyond any doubt. She looked around her at the interior of the ship, understanding very well how superior these little creatures’ science must have been to that of the Earth, wondering how this amazing craft could have run into a mountain. Wouldn’t they have sophisticated collision avoidance systems?
Later, their tents set up, the camp fully put together, they sat on stadium chairs sipping soup. “I don’t think you ever finished your briefing, Mr. McDermott,” Jennifer said.
“Yes, good point. Dr. Garoulis, explain your theory about these impact sites.”
Peter ran his hand through his curly black hair. She’d noticed his good looks when they first met in Christchurch, but out here, in the open air, in the early evening light, he was nothing short of magnificent: tall; muscular; bright, engaging brown eyes; a face like a Greek statue’s. She stifled her feelings. They were unprofessional.
“We think they were here during the last major ice age, maybe eighty thousand years ago. It’s hard to say for sure since we can’t date their equipment, but the ice that’s melting here and at the other sites is about that old. The craft, I believe, are for atmospheric use only, thus the wings. We think they’re little runabouts that the Sirians used for exploration. Maybe they had to disable their collision avoidance systems to get closer to the mountains. Maybe something kept confusing them. It’s really hard to understand these accidents.”
“How do you know they’re from Sirius?”
McDermott shook his head. “Need to know. Can’t tell you that.”
She stood, walked in a circle to get control of her anger, then said, “So you’ve finally let your pathologist in on your secret. Why now, why this one?”
Peter said, “You needed to see the entire creature, as we found it; to understand the trauma they’d experienced, the long period of freezing; to decide for yourself how to properly preserve them. A materials scientist like myself can hardly do a proper job of taking samples for you.”
McDermott nodded. “Right. Our superiors demand absolute confidentiality. I know that science works better when people cooperate, but we can’t work that way here. There are too many people who know about this already. I reluctantly agreed with Dr. Garoulis that you needed to see the Sirians at the impact site.”
“What about the Manhattan Project? Hundreds of scientists took part in that and yet managed to keep it secret. Surely you could expand this operation further. Imagine what the world’s best scientists could do with that ship and its contents if they all worked together.”
McDermott sighed and shot a quick glance at Garoulis, as if to ask, “you or me?” Garoulis smiled, but said nothing.
“Dr. Jarrett, obviously your extensive education did not include anything about Klaus Fuchs.”
“Who was he?”
“The spy who provided the Soviets details from the Manhattan project, details vital to their later success in making an atomic bomb.”
“And don’t forget about how he later helped the Chinese,” said Garoulis.
She looked down, searching for another argument. “But this is different. There’s no vital national interest here!”
McDermott’s face, normally an impassive mask, betrayed internal conflict. Finally he looked back at her and said, “Sometimes it’s better to go slow. Scientists don’t understand everything about how the world works.”
Jennifer exploded. “What’s that supposed to mean! I know your background. You’re ex-military intelligence, not a scientist. You run this operation to keep it hushed up. Why? What’s the downside of revealing this incredible find to the world?”
McDermott stood and walked to the flap of his tent. “Need to know. Focus on your assignment. That’s what I’m paying you to do, Dr. Jarrett, nothing more.”
He crawled inside and zipped up.
Peter stood and walked toward the craft, motioning to Jennifer to follow. When they both stood beside one of the silvery wings he put his arm around her and spoke into her ear.
“I don’t want him to hear us. I’ve asked the same questions and gotten the same answers. He won’t explain why it’s so important to keep these finds secret. We’re ordered not to divulge anything about these sites. That’s it.”
“We’re civilians, we can do what we want!”
“Not so fast. Divulging classified information is a crime, civilian or not. You signed a non-disclosure, you pledged you would keep what you learned on this expedition secret.”
“Why is it classified? People should know about this.”
“Yes, I agree. But McDermott and his bosses don’t. End of discussion.”
“We’re in New Zealand. How exactly could they stop us?”
Peter pulled his arm away and rubbed his chin. “Now that’s a very good question. I never even considered that angle. I can see why the boss wanted to keep you away from these sites!”
Her anger flashed again. “Are you going to tell him I said that?”
He put his arm back around her shoulder. “Jennifer, the last thing I want to do is make you angry. So no, I won’t say a word to him, but please, don’t do anything without talking it over with me, OK?”
She nodded, unable to speak, so overwhelmed was she by his closeness. He kept his arm around her and spoke softly into her ear. “You’re pretty up close. I like red hair, I like a tall, willowy woman in tight jeans. Maybe…”
She pulled away. “We’ve got to keep it professional Dr. Garoulis. This isn’t the right place.”
He nodded, smiled, said nothing. She was close to losing control. She had to get away from him. She took two steps back and held up her arm, showing him her wristwatch.
“McDermott told me no personal photos, but I’ve never been to New Zealand, thought it couldn’t hurt to take a few. See this wristwatch? I bought it from one of those spy equipment web sites. It’s a camera too.”
“Oh boy, you’re really asking for trouble. I had no idea you were such a rebel!”
“I’m going to photograph those aliens. The world needs to know about them.”
“I’m heading back to my tent, Jennifer. I know nothing about this.”
After she’d taken the photos, she zipped herself into her tent and bag, but sleep wouldn’t come. She lay on her back agitated, imagining him next to her, wondering where this torrent of feeling had come from, knowing the answer. She’d spent too many years focused myopically on her career, too much time proving she was the best. She’d become the master of delayed gratification, never living in the moment. She knew that needs suppressed had a way of forcing their way out at the most inopportune times, but she wasn’t going to let them take her over now. She dug a sleeping tablet from her pack, then watched the moon move across the sky from the small tent window as the pill took effect.
The sound of crunching rock awakened her. She sat up and checked her watch: 4:05. Outside her little window, McDermott walked past, eyes straight ahead, holding a small metal case. He took long strides across the boulders toward the ship. The bright moonlight provided just enough illumination so that she could see him climb inside. He stayed for a few minutes then emerged, case still in hand, walking much more slowly back to his tent.
The sky slowly brightened to brilliant blue. When she heard Peter unzip his tent, she crawled out of hers and motioned him toward the ship. Once safely out of McDermott’s hearing range, she told him what she’d seen. His face crinkled with confusion, then he turned and ran his hand over the hull, creating the entryway. “Let’s take a look and see whether there’s anything different.”
The both crowded in, the ship a bit more spacious now that Jennifer had preserved and sealed the alien bodies in containers that sat beside the ‘copter. Their eyes scanned slowly, trying to remember what they’d seen yesterday.
Peter said, “Wait a minute. Wasn’t this panel here closed yesterday?”
The left side of the cockpit, yesterday a smooth, unbroken sheet of the same ultra-thin metal as the hull, now revealed a small, empty cubbyhole.”
“What do we do?” asked Jennifer. “Confront him?”
“Not sure,” said Peter. “Maybe…”
The unmistakable crunch of footsteps on gravel, footsteps moving quickly, rose and grew nearer, until McDermott’s face poked into the opening.
“Getting an early start, kids?”
“Yes, Mr. McDermott,” Peter said, his voice like that of a child who had just knocked over the cake his mother had spent all afternoon baking and icing.
McDermott scanned the interior, then peered intently into Garoulis’s eyes. “OK, scientists, so what do you observe in here?”
Jennifer said, “This compartment. It’s open today, wasn’t yesterday. I saw you come out here last night with some kind of case. You took something out of this compartment.”
“Excellent powers of observation. I only contract the best.”
They stared at each other. Finally, after what seemed like much too long a silence, Jennifer asked the question.
“What did you take?”
“Need to know, Dr. Jarrett. Doesn’t concern your mission nor Dr. Garoulis’s. You forget about this. You tell no one. You don’t discuss it between yourselves again.”
He turned crisply and marched away. Jennifer watched him, seething. For a man of fifty-five he had a young, confident walk, a trim form, a square-jawed, blue-eyed face that inspired respect. If not for his gray, tightly cropped, receding hair, she’d have thought him more like forty, at most.
But his bearing just made her hate him more. She’d never in her life worked in such conditions of secrecy. It violated everything she believed in, every tenet of good scientific practice. For her, sharing knowledge with fellow-scientists was not just a way of working, it was almost the only way she interacted with other people. She needed to do it, and at that moment, she decided that she would, regardless of the consequences.
Peter emerged and stood next to her. “What a flaming asshole! He could at least deliver the message with a little explanation. But no, it’s ‘those are my orders, maggots!’”
“We’re not soldiers. And neither is he. I know someone who runs an investigative web site. I’m calling him when we get back to Christchurch, Peter. I’ve decided. You can’t dissuade me.”
Peter shook his head. “You could end up in prison once we get back home. It’s not worth it. He’s not usually this bad. You’re presence is provoking him for some reason. He and I always got along fine.”
“Because you just put up with his crap, that’s why!”
Peter smiled. “Yeah, that I have done, and will continue to do.”
“Peter, I need corroboration or nobody will believe me. You’ve got to at least back me up. You don’t have to reveal anything yourself, just tell this website guy ‘she’s telling the truth’.”
“I don’t know. I like doing this work. I’d be ending my career if I did that.”
“So what? Once the world knows about this, there’ll be all kinds of opportunities. We’ll be in the best possible position to take advantage of them.”
‘Maybe you’re right, but I don’t like being forced to take sides, Jennifer. I wish you’d reconsider.”
They worked two days, photographing, weighing, measuring, finding and analyzing the point of impact in the mountain face. On the morning of the third day Jennifer awoke to the deafening sound of a black military transport helicopter hovering over the valley. Peter and McDermott had already fitted a sling over the ship and they were now maneuvering a large hook that hung down from the helicopter to a clasp on the sling. She watched the ship disappear into the helicopter followed by a pallet of equipment. One hour later, an hour in which no one said a single word, they landed at Christchurch airport.
As they climbed out of the ‘copter, Peter said, “Jim, I think Jennifer has something to tell you.”
Her eyes turned to daggers. For a moment she said nothing. McDermott stood silently, staring at her.
Finally, she said, “So Dr. Garoulis picked his side after all. Fine. I’m contacting someone I know who can publicize this – these impact sites, the aliens, the ships. We can’t keep this secret any more.”
McDermott smiled. “Tell me something I didn’t already know.”
“How could you have known…”
“Because, Dr. Jarrett, I know people. Your little spy watch was hardly something I hadn’t seen before, your self-righteous blather about sharing knowledge is your justification, and the obvious attraction between you two was how you hoped to win over Dr. Garoulis to be your corroboration, because nobody would believe your story without that.”
He turned to Peter. “Are you going to corroborate her story?”
“I don’t know, Jim. I don’t like to lie, but I don’t want to violate my non-disclosure either. So I thought I’d alert you, so you’d have time to take countermeasures.”
“Countermeasures. We’re in New Zealand. I’ve got no authority here. Of course you know that, Jennifer. And of course you know you’d be arrested as soon as you step on American soil – if you really do as you threaten.”
He stood motionless as a statue, motionless except for his darting eyes. Ten seconds passed, his head jerked down, then turned in their direction. “You’re both staying here in town tonight, right?”
He sighed, his stoic expression softened. “When all else fails, present the facts. I’ve got the authority, and I don’t like the secrecy any more than you do. Follow me. We’ve got friends here in Christchurch who’ve given us a workspace.”
He led them to a hanger-like building where two armed guards carefully inspected his badge. The door led to a long, windowless corridor of grey-painted cinder block walls. They passed three dented, scratched metal doors before McDermott stopped, waved his badge, and led them into a cavernous, dark conference room. He found the light switch, illuminating harsh, white fluorescents that revealed a heavy conference table pushed against one wall, six ancient office chairs, decrepit and tattered, around it. The arrangement left a large open space, perhaps six meters square.
McDermott motioned them to sit. He’d been carrying the same metal case that Jennifer had seen him take into and out of the ship two nights before. He opened it, removed an ordinary envelope, and spilled onto the table a tiny disk, not big enough to fill the palm of his hand, of perfectly round aluminum foil – at least it looked like aluminum foil.
McDermott carefully grasped the very edge of the disk and held it slightly above the table. “This little disk is what I was looking for in that ship. At site number two, we found a reader. It’s an amazing thing.”
He dug into his case and pulled out a tiny, silver box, a cube just big enough for the disk. He dropped the silver disk on top of it, then reached for a small desk lamp on the shelf behind him.
“This is an ordinary full-spectrum bulb. It’s the power source for the player. See how the disk disappears into the player as soon as I power it? Now watch the open space.”
Thoughts flooded her. Topics bombarded her head as though a dozen people were shouting them all at once, scrolling endlessly – fusion propulsion, biology of Epsilon Eridanii II, longevity of Sol III hardwood trees, thousands more. At the same time, a vivid, lifelike image materialized in the open space, a video of a city of white towering spires against an impossible, luminous magenta sky. The video slowly panned right, revealing tiny moving objects that could have been trains running through tubes in the air, gigantic hovering zeppelins, and finally a coastline, a body of water, and low, blue mountains on the horizon.
“It’s a thought interface,” said McDermott. “The video is just some kind of home page, their capital city according to the encyclopedia. That’s what this is, an encyclopedia. Pick a topic, just think of one, Jennifer, or grab one as it scrolls by.”
“Interstellar travel,” she said aloud.
And immediately she knew how they did it. The ideas themselves were in her brain, not words, the ideas directly.
“With an interface like this, they don’t need to translate from one language to another. It’s perfect communication to anyone,” she said.
“Anyone with a brain similar enough to understand the concepts,” said McDermott. “And based on the very few people who have studied this, our brains understand every concept.”
“Amazing,” said Peter. “I’d think there’d be at least something that was too alien for us to comprehend.”
“You won’t think that way once you study one particular topic,” said McDermott. “I’m going to take over the interface now. Origin of human species on Earth, broadcast mode.”
As thoughts filled their brains, holographic images walked by them – first on four feet, then on two, first small, gradually larger, gradually more human.
Jennifer watched, amazed, but confused too. She wanted the world to see this. How could McDermott possibly think that he was convincing her to keep it secret?
As each image took the spotlight in front of them, the specific genetic changes that led to the new species flooded their brains. But there was something else in the information – names, processes, reasons.
When homo sapiens walked offstage and the flood of information stopped, McDermott asked, “So have you figured it out yet?”
“Wow, those animations are so lifelike,” said Jennifer.
“Those weren’t animations,” said McDermott. “Those were videos of the animals themselves, taken by the Sirians. It says so in the notes embedded in the detail records. We were just watching the overview.”
“They took videos of hominids over a period of many millions of years?” asked Peter.
“No, they manipulated the fossil record to made it look like many millions of years,” said McDermott. “In fact, the entire process took perhaps five hundred years.”
“No!” Jennifer said. “That’s impossible!”
McDermott shook his head. “For someone so smart, I’m a little surprised at you, Dr. Jarrett. You still don’t see what’s right in front of you. Remember how surprised you were to learn you’d been looking at the tissues of extraterrestrials? OK, let’s take it to the next layer of detail, maybe that will do it. Homo Sapiens, final design plan.”
Information flooded them – incorporation of Sirian DNA, better voice box, larger speech center, brain naturally attuned to speech, less hair, sexually receptive at all times, fifteen more. Reasons: communicate with citizens clearly, provide all services with minimal training.
“It’s as though the Sirians think these evolutionary changes were done for their benefit,” said Jennifer.
“They were,” said McDermott. “Here it comes.”
And then it all flooded into her, unambiguously, without any doubt. Every change, over more than twenty species, all done by the Sirians for the Sirians.
“They designed us?” she said, her voice very small.
“There’s a word for that isn’t there, Dr. Jarrett?” McDermott said.
But it was Peter who answered. “God.”
“Do you see our problem now, Dr. Jarrett?”
She nodded slowly, wrung her hands, stuttered, finally said, “I suppose there’d be people who’d think these aliens were gods.”
“Not only that,” said McDermott. “Imagine the denial. People don’t like to have their beliefs undermined. They’ll claim we fabricated everything for nefarious reasons.”
“But if it’s true, so be it,” said Jennifer. “People adjust. It’ll blow over.”
McDermott’s eyes bored into her. He shook his head and said, “Unfortunately, there’s more. They had a very specific reason for designing us: they had a resort here, for the wealthiest Sirians. The humans were slaves and guards; some used as servants and prostitutes, others as a police force. They evolved us into a form they found attractive and useful.”
“We were designed to be prostitutes?” Jennifer’s voice was barely a whisper.
“Afraid so. It all stopped about a hundred thousand years ago when there was a revolution on their planet. They shut off tourist travel to Earth and we humans were left to fend for ourselves. Let me bring up the entry…”
“No!” Jennifer stood, pushed back her chair, began pacing in the open space. “It must just be fiction. It can’t be true! You must be misinterpreting. How could our purpose be nothing more than playthings for idle-rich aliens? It’s impossible!”
McDermott removed the disk from the player, then sighed. “You see how you’re reacting, Dr. Jarrett? Denial, anger, revulsion. Am I right?”
“Imagine how all the billions of people without your training, your mental discipline, your intelligence would react! It’s frightening to contemplate.”
He stood and pointed to the chair Jennifer had vacated. “Dr. Jarrett, please sit down. I want you to tell me, right now, that you’ll comply with the non-disclosure you signed, that you will not reveal anything about our findings, anything about this encyclopedia. Do I have your word?”
She sat, head down, eyes pointing to the floor. “Yes, you have my word. I was a fool. I should have known there was a good reason. I’ve had quite an education today.”
“Thank you. Could I have your watch now?”
“Of course.” She handed it to him. They sat, each lost in his or her own thoughts, saying nothing.
After some minutes, McDermott stood.
“I was a religious man. But since I learned this, I don’t know what to believe.”
He looked down a moment, then locked his eyes onto Jennifer’s. “It wasn’t fair of me to expose you to this. I should have let you decide…”
“Believe me,” she said. “I would have opted to know this. Whatever the consequences.”
Peter nodded his agreement.
“You’ll both have to join the Encyclopedia Siriana team now. You’ve no other options. I’ve condemned you to working in secrecy for a very long time, Dr. Jarrett. I’m sorry.”
She looked at James McDermott one more time, appreciating now the weight of the secret he’d carried, a load she’d now be sharing. And then she thought about the Encyclopedia – greater than any treasure ever before discovered.
“Jim, thank you for sharing this with me. It will be a privilege to continue working with you.”
He shook her hand, smiled, and led them out of the room.
They emerged from the windowless blockhouse, the afternoon light burning their eyes. Jennifer turned to Peter and said, “Well, I guess we’re going to be working together for a long time. Maybe our entire careers.”
“Imagine what we’ll learn! Imagine the changes we’ll see caused by the information on that little disk. I’m excited about it.”
She nodded. “Me too. I won’t be giving up a lot, really. I don’t have much of a life.”
He put his arm around her shoulders. “I’d like to do something about that – if you’ll let me. Have you heard of the Cashmere Hills? There’re some great walking trails and the views are magnificent. Come up there with me. It could be a nice start on getting a life.”
She squeezed his hand and looked into his Achaean eyes. “I’d like that. I’d like that very much.”