A continent was emerging in the Atlantic Ocean.
Todd guided the Palomino through a wide, spiraling descent out of orbit, affording Ursa a view of the land which the Earth had regurgitated overnight. Not cooling magma, but a rising island that now occupied most of the Bermuda Triangle.
"I wonder if it's radioactive?" said Todd, the eternal pessimist.
"Everything else is. MarsObserv says no. What do you suppose happened?"
"I'd say magma displacement. Some minor powers dropped bombs into volcanoes all over the Ring of Fire, into the Mariana, Philippines, and Puerto Rico trenches, into major faults--you name it. The major powers nuked the rest. They rearranged the face of the Earth.
"Would've happened anyway."
Todd snorted. Ursa and he were friends as well as colleagues, but Todd scoffed at Ursa's obsession with prophesies of cataclysm and reemerging technology. She knew he admired her ability to get the institution back on Mars to approve any project she proposed, so she didn't expect flak about the real reason she had come. Besides, Todd was a workaholic and her excursions provided him with vacation time that, in a day or two, he would admit he needed.
Todd relinquished control to the onboard computer and ordered it to land the craft, but Ursa seized the stick and attempted a manual landing, approaching at an angle too steep and slamming the Palomino nose-first into the ground.
"What brings you here anyway?" said Todd, unbuckling his restraints. Scans had revealed that seismic instability pervaded the island. The computer had refused to let them land closer to the target.
Ursa was eager to begin the hike, but first she examined the Palomino. She had buried its nose in the fine, white sand of the dune sea. Laying her pack aside, she removed the shovel, unfolded it, and began to clear away sand. The landing strut had absorbed the brunt of the impact, the footpad twisting and becoming hopelessly wedged inside the recess that housed it. Serious, but not a crisis. She had left Todd inside to inspect the systems. She didn't expect much help, having arranged his role in this "survey" mission. He stuck his head through the hatch and cleared his throat. "Half the AI just shut down, love. Not to worry, the other half is transmitting a report to MarsObserv right now."
Now she expected flak. Todd smiled and said, "Voice link is down but they'll receive the alert and send someone."
"Three to four days."
* * *
"It's about two miles beyond that ridge."
Todd grimaced as he pulled the straps of the pack over his shoulders. The packs were light but Ursa hadn't planned to hike miles through the desert. The grimace became a look of irritation. In Todd's case, the term "workaholic" excluded physical effort, besides which two computer programmers couldn't be more displaced. They were standing on a section of the Atlantic Ocean seafloor. It was an odd sensation to stand in a place that reeked of the sea when there was no sign of water. Ursa donned her sunglasses and they began the journey. The glasses would protect her from the desert glare--from Todd's glare, too.
"Where are the fish?" he said. "Shouldn't we see billions of fish floundering in the sun?"
"Sensed trouble and evacuated?"
"No ecosystem escaped the wars. Maybe there just aren't any fish."
"Believe it when I see it, love."
Ursa lit a cigarette.
"I trust there's no danger of natural gas emission," said Todd, his tone bitter.
"I'm more concerned with potential quakes."
They hiked for an hour, and then Ursa began to smell decomposing fish. Ahead, the smooth white terrain became lumpy and dark, and when they saw why, they paused. Before them an array of sea life stretched to the horizon: Acres of gelatinous corpses, like rubber balloons bloated with fluid and trailing tentacles long behind, littered the landscape. Throngs of seagulls, stark white bodies flashing in the glare of the sun, stood on the carcasses, gnawing on the meat, wrenching away morsels to toss back down their gullets. A symphony of squealing arose as Ursa and Todd approached and was taking a long time to settle. Here and there a few gulls took to the air and wheeled about to alight elsewhere. A gentle breeze wafted to regale Ursa and Todd with aroma.
She checked her wrist compass. The tiny red arrow was having trouble deciding where to point, oscillating between east and west, directions in which the mess extended to no visible terminus. She exhaled a long stream of smoke. They would have to cross this mess.
Ursa ventured first into the mess. Closely crowded, tough and slick, the carcasses yielded beneath her boots without rupturing, forcing a struggle for balance. Moreover, every step raised clouds of flies; she could feel them alighting on the bare skin of her face and neck and arms.
"Shortly after the wars began, " said Todd, stumbling, grabbing Ursa's pack to steady himself, "Earth's magnetic poles shifted erratically. Earth's core is the source of Earth's magnetic field, and the core rotates independently from the rest of the planet. Some governments projected VLF--very low frequency--sound waves through the core, altering the field. These things," he said, waving at the mess, "probably followed the new magnetic configuration and ended up at some kind of field node."
Todd often talked about the wars, but this surprised Ursa. The senselessness seemed incomprehensible. "They did that? Why?"
"Communications experiments, I think. Some say it was the real source of the global cataclysm."
Unable to bear the stench, Ursa paused to remove her filter mask. She could hear Todd mumbling obscenities as he did the same. "See? There are worse things than cigarette smoke." The mask concealed her smile, but Todd growled, and the silence that followed could have driven away the flies.
Treading clear ground again, they paused to rest atop a dune, Ursa protesting. This was recreation for her, one reason she refused to quit her cigarette habit. The exercise, she explained, balanced its consequences.
"But your overall health," he countered, "would improve."
"But my overall happiness would decrease..."
Ten minutes later, Todd capped his water bottle and they got going again. Soon they reached the ridge, a steep rise in the landscape bedecked with outcroppings of coral and festooned with copses of seaweed. Robbed of its natural habitat, the seaweed lay limp, dying as it baked in the heat of the sun. Gaining purchase from the coral, they clamored toward the summit. Near the top, Ursa slipped and opened her knee on a sharp edge. She continued to climb, bleeding, the cold wetness working its way down her leg and into her boot, transforming the sock into a wet sponge. The pain increased by increments as she walked. She had meant to tend to it when she crested the ridge, but the view from that vantage inspired her to reorganize her priorities. She had parked her sunglasses atop her crewcut, and as she spied through the binoculars, the glasses slid off, clattering on the coral at her feet.
Behind her, Todd managed the last few feet of the climb. She handed the binoculars to him, collected her glasses, and lit another cigarette. She stared at the object in the distance beyond the dunes. The tiny, pewter colored sphere didn't look like what she hoped it was. It looked too heavy, too solid, like a building in the middle of nowhere.
Proof came in an instant. Had she blinked in that instant, she wouldn't have seen it vanish and might have guessed that she had viewed a mirage. A loud report, like the crack of whip, accompanied the disappearance, echoing long behind them over the dune sea. Todd, peering through the binoculars, said, "It launched. Or exploded."
"Gravity propulsion system. Alien."
"I didn't recognize the style."
"Me either. And I checked. We're the only ones who scheduled an Earth visit, which means they eluded everyone's scans."
Todd lowered the binoculars and looked at her. "A new species?" Ursa smiled. "Come on," she said, starting down the slope.
* * *
At the base of the slope, Ursa felt Todd's hand on her shoulder. He was crouched, hands on his knees, trying to catch his breath. He looked up at her, squinting. "We can't do this. It violates the United Species First Contact Agreement."
Ursa shook her head. "That only applies to authorized visitors. They're lucky nobody blew them away the moment they breached the solar system."
"Ursa, no one detected them even when they landed on Earth. This might not be a good idea. Suppose we ignite an inter-species incident and they attack Mars. "She smiled. "Give me a break, Todd. They're not dangerous."
"Really? And would you care to enlighten me as to the obvious reason?"
"Did that ship look aggressive to you? Probably just for scouting."
"As far as you know."
"You've come this far."
She didn't have to say it. Todd understood the situation as well as she. Once they had launched from MarsObserv, under American space faring laws, she was commander of their mission. He gazed at her, studying her face, as if to measure her resolve. Then he sighed and raised a hand toward the landing site. "May they eat you first."
Smiling, she lurched into a shambling dash across the plain, ignoring the protests from her split knee, ignoring the butterflies flitting in her stomach. She concentrated on staying calm, on maintaining her composure as a first contact diplomat to the aliens. If this went well, she'd be famous and maybe rich, showing Todd once and for all.
Still, they might eat her first, but how many species had joined the United Species since its inception? Fourteen, and only two had squabbled, and the disputes, after years, still showed no progress toward violence. It was worth the risk.
When they reached the site, Ursa saw no aliens.
Before them on the ground, however, squatted an unnatural object. The size of a coffin, glossy and obsidian, its beveled edges and corners gleamed in the sunlight. Next to the thing was a hole in the ground. Whoever was here had cleared an area of sand to expose the coral bed and then excavated.
Ursa and Todd stepped off the promontory of sand and onto the lumpy bed of coral. Standing at the edge of the hole, she saw that the aliens had carved a triangle with sheer walls that descended into darkness. The shaft could easily swallow the Palomino. She saw no sign of the rubble that the digging would have produced.
"Look," said Todd, pointing down the shaft.
Deep below, something was rising, making slow ascent through the darkness. Ursa strained to see, but could discern only a patch of gray, darker than the surrounding walls, and circular. Had she glimpsed movement on that object? She retreated a step, tugging at Todd's pack. Together they stood, watching. Ursa's heart pounded. She was sweating more now than she had while hiking through the desert, and the butterflies were back, except now they felt like bats.
At the moment of truth, the appearance of the aliens persuaded her to reassess the danger. Supported on a disc the color and texture of pewter, three small creatures emerged from the shaft along with another coffin. Covered from head to toe in short, green-gold fur, they were humanoid. They resembled an extinct animal Ursa recalled reading about. Their small, fury faces, wild as any ring-tailed lemur's, indicated no surprise at the sight of humans. The narrow, vertical slits of their pupils did not widen, nor did the jaws of their protruding mouths drop. With their white faces, chests, and bellies, and white tufts of fur atop their heads, they were even sort of cute. She might not become rich, but fame was certain as Todd's pessimism.
They studied one another in silence for a long moment, then one alien stepped forward and spoke. "You nearly missed us," he said in a shrill voice. His blue, forked tongue darted out and upward toward his nose, the prongs invading two of the three nostrils before retracting. That definitely was not cute, and neither were the opposing rows of black needle teeth that fortified his mouth.
"So," said Ursa, bringing her palms together with a clap. "You speak English."
"We learned it in case of this very event, although we had hoped to procure our wares and abscond from this wretched place unmolested."
Crates. The coffins were packing crates. The tongue appeared again, and this time the other two aliens followed suite. Turning, the alien spokesperson gestured to his companions, and they set about moving the crate off the platform.
Todd said, "Wares?"
"We sold technology to your ancestors twelve thousand years ago."
"Atlantis?" said Ursa.
"Atland. They hardly needed it, but who are we to argue with gold? We decided to reclaim it when the island continents resurfaced." The tongue played out again, this time downward.
"What happened to them?"
Stepping down from the platform onto the coral bed, the alien said, "They misused technology, ours and theirs. If they had been a more open society, they might have civilized your world. Unfortunately, their most ambitious interaction with your world was a quarrel with China."
Todd said, "How...did you learn of Atlantis?"
The vertical slits of the creature's pupils widened as his blue eyes brightened. "We know more about you than you ever will! When your race regains ability to appreciate our technology, we will come forward to bargain again. We--"
A piercing sound interrupted him. Something strapped to the creature's wrist was howling like a cat in heat.
"The ship returns."
High above, the ship materialized, appearing first as a shimmer in the air. The shimmer darkened to a circular shadow, which bulged into a cloud of smoke, which solidified to a ball of pewter. The ball hung motionless for a moment, then plummeted, decelerating to a halt above the ground where it cast a curved shadow onto the coral bed.
My God, thought Ursa. Their technology is inter-dimensional.
The two creatures that had been handling the crate stood at the touchdown point. The aliens maneuvered the levitated crate directly beneath the ship, where a portion of hull dissolved to a gray cloud of smoke. The crate began to ascend, elevating the two aliens who had climbed on for the ride.
"You must not have landed nearby," the remaining alien said. His blue tongue speared out in a wide arc to probe an ear. "I can see that you have walked some distance." He indicated Ursa's leg. The wound had stopped bleeding, leaving a dark stain that ran the length of her shin from knee to foot. Behind him, the other two creatures, who had reemerged from the ship, paused to listen. "You're welcome to join us. We'll take you back to Mars."
"We'd like to," said Ursa, "but we really should be here when our rescue team arrives."
"Probably they will search the wrong places."
"What are you taking about?" said Todd.
As if on cue, Todd's question was answered by a bass rumble that emanated from below. A tremor rose through Ursa's feet. She and Todd hunkered down as a cloud of sand poured in around their boots. Momentarily, it subsided. The alien spread his arms. "This continent sinks as we speak. This planet--unstable as the day you humans last tried to destroy it. When the sea wave comes, it--"
Another temblor interrupted him, surpassing the last and threatening to upend everyone. At its climax, the coral foundation cracked, cleaving in two between Todd's feet. The crack widened, and a furrow in the sand divided the desert, stretching from horizon to horizon.
When the shaking subsided, the alien said, "We misjudged our time window. You must decide now." He smiled, exposing jumbles of black needle teeth.
The other aliens had finished their task and now stood beneath the ship, watching. Ursa and Todd faced each other.
Worry had replaced the anger on Todd's face. There was no choice, really.
"Come on," she said, grasping his arm. He didn't argue.
Copyright © 2002 by Jeff WM2000 email@example.com