by R. R. Brooks
An icy Arctic gust dumped Jork onto a blade of ice. The professor rose yelping, clutching his butt, and sure the search would be more difficult than planned. The air was colder, the light was dimmer, and now his foot was asleep.
He walked, a tall, bobbing figure, looking like a headless flamingo in his pink parka. The sled GPS system indicated he’d come a dozen miles onto the ice sheet east of Barrow, about halfway to the target.
The bone-china flatness, black in the east and glowing orange in the west, was broken by long shadows from spears of uplifted ice. Jork chose a depression and snapped open the thermoshield tent, feeling frozen bits sting his cheeks as he set the anchors.
Cold, tired, and annoyed, he crept inside with the black briefcase-sized box, a portable fuel cell that generated electricity and spewed out a bit of heat. He plugged in the sled batteries, ate a camping ration, and slept.
A whistling wind woke him before dawn and he crawled out into freezing salt air to see the corona-circled moon and clouds of crystals scurrying over a dark landscape. Jork was wondering if the buffeting gusts presaged a storm that would doom his quest, and then the satellite phone rang.
He fumbled it to his ear and listened. “I’m a few miles out on the ice sheet,” he lied. “Should be done with the magnetic field readings and back to base in a few days.” Another lie. “Weather front, eh? Well, it’s nice and calm here, but I’ll keep my eyes open.”
Jork repacked the tent, mounted the sled, and flipped on the headlamp that would limit range but keep him from plunging into a crevasse. He skimmed forward, imagining the wind as zombies cheering a new recruit. Scudding low clouds and a peppering wind marked the Arctic dawn as cold seeped through his gloves and a dull pain crept into his lower back, making him long for the abandoned snowmobile with its windshield and heater. He’d had to leave it with enough gas to get him back. A whiff of meaty smell made him turn in search of polar bears. Nothing. But then he heard a whine.
From the brume a white light emerged, bouncing up and down to the staccato snorts of the engine as the snowmobile came at him, like a blood hound on scent. It arrived, scattering ice, and the petite rider jumped off to announce the obvious:
“Professor Harold, I’ve found you.”
“What the hell are you doing here, Maria? How did you find me?”
“You, of course, are not where you told the science camp you’d be, but I found a pad on your desk. The one with calculations about an artifact in this godforsaken location. Bit careless, eh?” Maria’s big brown eyes smiled.
Jork sucked on a water bottle, scowling at his graduate student and willing himself to be calm. “Damn. But why are you here?”
“I want in on this.”
Jork stiffened and spoke in his lecture voice. “This is a private bit of work. My work. You can’t stay here. It’s dangerous.”
“Just turn around and go back.”
Maria’s voice was almost chirpy. “Can’t do that, professor. No gas left. What’s this crap about private and dangerous? Government-funded research is not private. And just because you pump iron doesn’t mean you’re less likely to freeze. In fact your low body fat means quick freezing. I’m coming.”
Jork ignored his throbbing temples and considered the situation. She was here and out of gas, and he didn’t relish murder.
“Most annoying. All right, you can come. As a witness, not as a partner.”
“This thing will carry us both?” Maria asked, eyeing the sled.
“It will do just fine, but thanks to your added weight we’ll have to stop for recharging before we get to the target.”
Maria stood in front of Jork on the platform. They bumped along for an hour until they were within kilometers of the site. When Maria signaled that she wanted to stop, Jork pulled close to an uplifted slab and the girl ran behind the ice. He almost followed before it dawned on him what was going on, caught himself, and began stomping in a small circle and cursing, looking glumly at a line of dark clouds amassed on the western horizon.
Maria returned. “Just what are we seeking, professor?“
“You know too much already, thanks to my carelessness. If you don’t know what I’m after, why did you come?” He tried to remember what was on the notepad.
“Guess I’ll find out soon enough. Let’s get moving.” She’d pulled back her hood and a full head of dark hair puffed free.
Jork saw the hair as part of the threatening clouds she’d brought with her. They resumed sledding with positions reversed. Maria entwined her arms about his waist and used his back as a windshield until the platform charge petered out. They erected the tent in encroaching darkness and stuffed themselves inside.
“The prize you’re after must be worth having.” Maria said. “Will this be something to make us famous?”
“Us? You are here as an unwanted, intrusive witness, remember?” Jork stabbed another sausage. “When we find the plaque, you can do your witnessing.”
“A plaque? I thought this was about some meteorite fragment.”
Jork couldn’t resist saying more. “I found evidence that identified and located an alien artifact. The clues come from cultures that did not have the ability to travel to the Arctic, so only an alien race could have left them.”
“You can’t be serious.”
Jork went on, unperturbed. “An Egyptian pyramid pinpointed a meridian in the northern hemisphere, an Incan monument gave the distance from the pole, and a Chinese stone formation said it was a disk.”
“A disk in the Beaufort Sea? How are we supposed to find that?”
“Each clue was surrounded by tiny circles, twenty-six of them, the atomic number of iron. It will be metal, and my sensor will detect it.”
“Even on the sea floor?”
“The Chinese clue shows it near the surface. It wants to be found. Thus the clues.”
Wrapped in reflective blankets and cramped, they got a few hours sleep. The trip began again in the dark, but gray light squeezed between dusky clouds as they reached the calculated location. Jork activated the metal detector.
Maria grabbed his arm. “Are you sure we want to find such an object?”
“Of course I do,” Jork said. “I’ll start a circle search pattern while you set up camp.” He threw the tent pack to the ground and buzzed off before Maria could ask another question. Minutes later, the magnetometer twitched over a depression whose glassy surface seemed newly frozen. Jork’s whoop brought Maria on foot.
She pushed passed him and knelt over a clear patch of ice, bringing her face close. “I see something dark about half a meter down.” A rumble shook a spray of tiny shards against her cheeks. “What was that?”
“Nothing. Now we dig.” Jork grabbed a probe and plugged it into the power generator. The device hummed and began casting chunks of ice from the pit. He scooped debris away to expose a circular stone surface surrounded by a metal collar, the top of a very large object that could not be extracted and carted off. Cursing, he lay staring at the surface symbols that seemed to change, transmogrifying from one shape to another. He grabbed a camera and photographed the pictograms, filling the memory card.
When Jork glanced up, Maria said, in a practical tone of voice, “Harold, we’d better go. It’s almost dark and the wind is picking up.”
That’s when it blew. A small hole formed in the center of the plaque and a nozzle rose above the surface. With a hiss a spray filled the area with a gritty blue mist that settled a cloud of particles like minuscule spider babies over the ice. They scurried, exploded, and vanished.
“What the...?” Jork croaked, backing away.
Maria coughed and retreated, dragging Jork with her. “My lungs are tingling. What if it’s toxic?”
“We don’t know that. And if it is, there’s nothing we can do about it here.” He stared at an ice blink, a white glare on the underside of the distant low clouds, and felt another rumbling vibration. They stumbled to the tent with biting, horizontal snow in their faces. Inside, the power box provided weak light and puffed warm air as Jork stowed the camera in his pack.
“What’s with the pictures?” Maria asked in a gravelly tone.
“I’m going to analyze the message and publish it.”
“Harold, think this through. About the impact.”
“The impact will be new knowledge about our place in the universe.”
“And the world’s religions? How will they deal with the idea that we are not alone, maybe not the master race, not the apple in God’s eye? What if the icon doesn’t mention God?” She seemed agitated and her eyes were large and dark, devoid of the usual sparkle.
Jork frowned. “The Church managed to survive the revelations of Galileo.”
“Not very smoothly, right? What about the political consequences? Chaos in the Muslim world over our infidel thinking. Chaos in the fundamentalist Christian world that would make evolution look like chewing gum in church. Are you going to tell about the blue vapor and the little scurrying things?” Maria, no longer the young and immature graduate student, seemed a dark and sinister judge. “What was that vapor cloud? I felt like I was being dosed.”
“I’m not sure. Probably just warm air from a pressure vent activated by the thermal ice drill. I feel fine, don’t you?” Maria said nothing, so Jork continued. “The god who made us could surely make aliens. This discovery could change everything, including how we view ourselves. Nothing will be the same.”
Maria breathed deeply. “I think this is too alien to reveal and you should do the responsible thing and leave it be.”
“Responsible? Discoveries should be made public. Scientists should get out here and extract this thing.”
Intensity transformed Maria’s usual placid face and made Jork think of an irritated troll. “Why do you suppose whoever created the disk put it out here embedded in a sheet of ice?”
“To preserve it and keep it from premature discovery. Mankind had to be mature enough to find it.”
“And you’re so damn sure we’ve reached that stage?”
“If I found it, then we are ready to find it. Let’s get some sleep.”
But sleep didn’t seem to be on Maria’s mind. When they stretched out, Maria turned towards Jork and their mouths met. He was surprised, but didn’t fight it.
Kissing led to touching, but, when he tried to extend the play, Maria sat up. “There is another consequence of dumping aliens on the world, a personal consequence. Your peaceful orderly life will be changed and you will be put in danger. Remember the abortion doctors killed by right-to-lifers? Remember Rushdie?”
Jork snorted. “You’re just an alarmist. I will take this thing public because that is what a scientist must do. But we have the more pressing problem of how we are going to get back with limited food and the foul weather.”
* * *
The nanovirus replicated and crawled over Maria’s DNA, quieting some genes and activating others. Invisible particles migrated to her lungs and moved out her nose and mouth to join other bugs waiting on her skin.
Jork awoke to a noise and saw a shadow above just before something slammed down on his head, bringing blood and blackness. Hours later, his eyes swollen and his scalp encrusted with blood, he got to his knees in numbing cold.
Maria had vanished. He groped for his boots near his head. They had probably deflected the blow. Phone and camera were missing and outside he discovered that the power pack and sled were also gone.
He checked the compass, and started walking, bent forward into a swirling wind, trying to follow Maria’s fading tracks. It would take four days to reach his snowmobile, at which point he’d long be out of food and damn cold. And the bitch may have taken the snowmobile, leaving him to die.
He considered how she’d argued against revealing the icon. What was she really worried about? Was sabotage her motive from the start? Had the vixen’s sudden affection been just a prelude to warning him of personal danger, when he might be more receptive, more sensitive to such nuance? Her behavior was bizarre. Almost as if she was intoxicated. Or infected.
He dared not rest, for to do so was to freeze, so he struggled on, buffeted and stung by a sleety snow. Cold seeped into his soul and exhaustion forced him to open the tent, crawl in, eat the last food, and sleep.
By the end of the next day, he was ready to give up. His head throbbed and chills shook him. He imagined dark shapes, a fata morgana that morphed into tall figures with puffy heads and arms. His toes froze. Although the wind calmed, intermittent gusts pierced him and he was ready to let the cold anesthetize him, viewing his approaching death as lamentable, not because he’d be dead, but because he’d miss out on all the things that seemed so routine, so unprofessional, like companionship and family. Contemplating these things was new to him. At last, he sank to his knees and fell over.
Consciousness faded as snow began to cover him, blending him into the bleak, frozen surface. Perhaps he slept. When he woke, his one good eye detected a hazy light, mirage-like, fixed and beckoning. It was not a puffy creature, and he forced himself to rise and stumble towards it. It was his sled, its light powered by the black box beside it.
Maria must have abandoned her snowmobile here and the succubus had lied about it being out of gas. He pitched his tent, trembling with cold and exhaustion, and dragged in the heat source. The sled pouch yielded a few food pellets, which he wolfed down before sleep came.
The recharged sled took him to a snowmobile the next day. It was Maria’s and without fuel. He found a frozen granola bar in the storage compartment and munched as he tried to make sense of Maria’s behavior. Surely she realized she couldn’t keep the artifact hidden if he survived.
But she’d left him food. He was wondering what he’d do if he ever got his hands on her when the drone of approaching snowmobiles interrupted his vengeful plotting. Lights crested a distant uplift and, minutes later, two men bounded from the machines and embraced him.
They knew nothing about Maria, forcing Jork to consider if he’d just imagined the whole thing, even the plaque, maybe suffering from snow madness, perhaps falling and hitting his head. But then he reached into his pocket and found the memory card, the pictures he’d removed from the camera before inserting a fresh card. What he would do with the images was no longer quite so clear.
* * *
Six months later, Jork in a new blue blazer and creased khakis sat in his transformed office, thinking. The college had painted the walls a pleasant beige and replaced the dented file cabinets. The desk was no longer cluttered. Two new quite foreign inhabitants shared the space with him: an air fern and a philodendron.
Once again he examined the plaque images that showed three rows of pictograms. In the first, two groups of monkey-like creatures confronted each other with what could be sticks. The second row showed men in larger groups also in conflict. In the lowest row men stood facing forward holding hands. Quite a peaceful scene, separated from the others by the space where the vent had appeared.
Maria had surfaced in a religious group that specialized in ministry to youth. They even had a Web site with videos of services, showing Maria working her way through an audience, touching the faithful, hugging, and even kissing. The ministry’s message of peace, almost a throwback to the make-love-not-war crowd, drew large numbers of young people.
Jork had lost any desire to return to the plaque site and was quite content to conduct research from his office. Maybe he’d lost his competitive edge, but it did not really bother him. In fact, he found that his colleagues and students all had become mellow. He was amazed to find himself wanting to forgive Maria and, as the thought formed, the phone rang.
“Have you figured it out yet, Harold?” Maria asked.
“I think so. The aliens infected us, right?”
“Actually, I infected you. With that kiss. I’m sorry about hitting you on the head, but I had to delay your return by a few days. To give it time to take, to stop you from blabbing. Men are a bit more resistant than women, and somehow I knew that.”
“So we are carriers,” Jork said.
“And do you know what we carry?”
“Yes. The last row of figures, the one below the vent, shows men at peace. The aliens knew we’d become human with enough intelligence to destroy ourselves with nukes and that’s when we’d need the virus to modify our DNA. It’s the love bug.”
Maria laughed. “I’ve found my way of spreading it, Harold. How are you doing?”
Jork looked at his watch. It was time for the lecture. There would be two hundred freshmen in the auditorium and he would talk as he circulated, making sure to shake hands as they left.
Copyright © 2008 by R. R. Brooks