by Bill Kowaleski
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. Jennifer 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, nearly 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 as if 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?” Jennifer 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. “Okay, 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 without a dent impacts that would pulverize anything we make.”
“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 was 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,” Jennifer said. “I thought they were from some human-like creature. They didn’t seem that odd or different...”
She paused and stared at McDermott. “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 and muscular, with 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 crafts, I believe, are for atmospheric use only, hence 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 preserve them properly. A materials scientist like myself can hardly do a good 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?” asked Jennifer. “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, okay?”
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.”
* * *
Copyright © 2016 by Bill Kowaleski