Prose Header

A Bridge to Earth

by Richard Merlin Smith

Chapter 2
A Bridge to Earth, synopsis

The history begins millions of years ago and light-years away. The story commences a few thousand Earth years ago: a brown dwarf — a rogue star with its attendant planets — travels on a collision course toward the system of a yellow sun. Soon their disparate plasma sheaths begin to interact, and the Guardians and Stewards must make fateful decisions.

A New Order

During the first few days of the breakup, the inhabitants felt little out of the ordinary. For a while there were no further earthquakes, no high winds or tides as predicted by the scientists. But, this was short-lived.

The red star was losing mass and, as it did so, the once-stable coaxial alignment began to oscillate laterally. The polar columns thinned and writhed like enormous snakes.

In just a few days the planets had separated greatly along their common axis. With the changes in gravitational forces the two smaller worlds began to experience violent earthquakes as their crusts relaxed. Great rift valleys were formed and, in the larger of the two, continents were broken and displaced. Its inhabitants were scattered and its several civilizations, highly structured and beginning an age of refined metals, were completely disrupted.

Finally, in a great paroxysm, the rogue star began vomiting great volumes of its substance from its polar regions as enormous electrical discharges played throughout its atmosphere. The planets, no longer constrained by balanced forces, separated. The two smaller planets were flung inward to settle gradually into orbits near the central sun. The rogue was displaced less energetically away from the sun.

Earth — the present

October 11, 8:30 am, EDT — Fort Meade, Maryland

Jake Gilbert, communications analyst in the Office of Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) Operations at the NSA, National Security Agency, set his coffee cup on his desk and leaned closer to the display screen that he was scanning. He was reviewing a computer-produced list of electromagnetic transmissions selected by the SIGINT screening processor as worthy of human perusal. Each line on the list was a tersely worded description of an event involving a radio frequency transmission detected by one of the many listening posts maintained by the NSA around the world.

The screening processor is a computer system that reviews data from a myriad of listening posts operated by the NSA to detect electromagnetic transmissions that represent possible security threats.

An enormous amount of data is collected from sources all over the world. It is then relayed via satellite to the NSA and processed at high rates by the SIGINT computer, first to classify the transmissions according to several categories — frequency, source location, power amplitude, type of modulation, periodicity — and then to perform various analyses and correlations to determine the nature of the transmissions.

Based on certain predetermined parameters, selected items are listed in a report as being recommended for human attention.

Jake stopped scanning and scrolled the list back down the screen to position four items at the center of the screen. He frowned and leaned back in his chair, taking another sip of the coffee from the ceramic mug marked “DAD”, a father’s day gift from his youngest daughter. He grunted and shook his head slightly. The four events were unlike any that he had ever seen.

Two of the transmissions occurred at virtually the same time, 6:00 a.m. on two separate days, the ninth and tenth. On the tenth there were two other transmissions closely following the one at 6:00 a.m. One was at 6:05 a.m. and the other was at 6:22 a.m. They had similar characteristics, but the relative power levels were much lower although the modulation periods lasted until nearly 6:40.

Given the organizational paranoia of the NSA, Jake’s close attention to the transmissions was quite understandable. He was aware of several cases where an analyst’s carelessness had later proved to be embarrassing. And then, of course, there was the Roswell incident. It had involved the Army Air Corps, FBI, CIA and State Department. It had been impossible to keep that one under wraps, and only the release of a carefully worded story had diverted attention from the real events.

No, he thought, whatever this is, it isn’t going to be another fiasco.

With a few quick keystrokes he called up the system’s main menu and selected the electronic mail feature. He typed a short message to the Communications Monitoring Group requesting them to notify him immediately if there were any more of the same type of transmissions.

October 12, 6:30 a.m. PDT — Glendora, California

Fred Hart paused, bent slightly over the wash basin toward the mirror, electric razor in his right hand. He shifted his focus from the stubble on his cheek to the reflection of the bathroom wall. There was that odd, pinkish tinge again. This was the third morning in a row that he’d seen it in the mirror. But this time it was more intense and it made more of an impression.

Yesterday he had turned to see where the light was coming from. Of course, nothing was there but the opposite wall of the bathroom. Through the window he had noted the faint morning light in the sky. This time of year the sun was just coming up at six o’clock and the color in the eastern sky was silvery gray. He had turned back to the mirror, finished shaving, turned off the shaver, put it away in its carriage in the cabinet, closed the mirrored door and walked down the stairs to the kitchen to finish his coffee before going to work.

As he entered the kitchen, Margie, his wife, had turned and asked, “What took you so long? I thought you went to sleep with the shaver running.”

“Very funny,” he’d replied, picking up his cup and sipping. It was cold. He was about to comment when he noticed that the clock on the stove showed 6:45, half an hour after his usual departure time. He was going to be late picking up his car pool partner. Where did the time go? he wondered.

By mid-afternoon he had forgotten the incident although he did briefly consider having his eyes checked. He supposed that at his age he could be developing cataracts or some other condition that would play light tricks with his eyes.

That was yesterday. This morning was different. He was shaving as usual and leaning close to the mirror to make sure of getting the whiskers under his chin when he noticed the pink glow again. There was a pinkish tinge to the reflections in the shiny objects around the mirror and basin.

The reflections in the mirror flickered and suddenly he realized that the room was as light as midmorning. He was hovering above the basin staring into the mirror trying to focus on the wall behind him, but it wasn’t there. All he could see was a bright expanse of pink. The shaver was still running but he took no notice. He turned, slowly, because he had the strange sensation that he was on a high precipice.

The whole east wall of the bathroom was gone, along with the rest of that side of the house. He reeled with sudden vertigo as he turned back around and grabbed at the wash basin for support. It, too, was gone. He staggered and nearly fell and then he stood, somewhat unsteadily, in a near-panic condition but upright. He was standing on the ground. His house was gone and he was in the midst of a wide open landscape with no sign of his house or his neighborhood — or of civilization.

In his shuffling struggle with the sudden dizziness he kicked up a cloud of fine dust that rapidly settled around him. He was too shocked to analyze the situation rationally but he thought that he must be crazy.

He was equally sure that he wasn’t dreaming because it was unlike any dream state that he had ever experienced. Gradually, his panic subsided a little and he began to assimilate information from his surroundings. The drone of his razor finally penetrated to his consciousness and he fumbled absently with the switch for a few seconds to shut it off.

The sunlight was bright and made him squint. The sky was pale pink. The air was clear and cold and very thin and it was difficult to breathe. He looked around at the stark landscape, horizon to horizon. There were no plants, no birds, no visible signs of life. The only sound was his own labored breathing in the thin, cold air.

The ground was mostly dark reddish-brown with patches of dirty yellow here and there. Fine dust was everywhere, drifted into every crevice, covering every square inch of the surface of the ground.

Shattered rocks of all sizes, like those in the old volcanic regions of the California high desert, were strewn haphazardly across his field of view. But these rocks were sharper-edged, fresher-looking, not worn by wind and water. He shivered violently as the cold pierced his light slacks and sport shirt.

He was on a rise, near the top of a high hill from which he looked out over a broad plain to what he supposed to be the north. Behind him the terrain was increasingly hilly and gradually became mountainous toward the horizon.

In the clear air and unfamiliar landscape it was difficult to estimate distance, but perhaps a mile or so to the north the surface became relatively free of the shattered stones. Instead there were isolated clumps of large boulders and outcrops of stone. Some of them possessed a certain amount of symmetry as though they were remnants of colossal buildings.

About three miles to the north was a low hill with a rectangular base resembling a truncated Egyptian step pyramid. If his estimate of distance was correct, the hill was about a mile on a side at the base. The sides sloped upward at an angle of about thirty degrees, reaching a narrow shelf that extended part way around the hill. Inside the shelf the surface was still smoothly textured like the base but was made up of irregular-looking hummocks that formed a low cap on the hill.

Gradually, he began to see that the surface was not completely irregular. Rather the symmetry changed from four-sided in the base to bilateral at the crown of the hill.

He was situated so that he was slightly west of the axis of symmetry and he could see that every feature on the western half of the hilltop seemed to be mirrored on the east side.

This fact was not readily apparent at first because the sun, low in the east, was casting shadows that created an apparent lack of visual symmetry. But once he became aware of the underlying symmetry the patterns of light and shadow began to emphasize the shape of the surface.

Like the familiar optical illusion that turns inside out as you gaze at it, the surface of the hilltop suddenly was transformed. It was a face. Almost, but not quite, human. The expression was intense. The mouth was frozen into a grimace and a hint of teeth was visible. The eyes were wide and lidless, staring straight up out of deep sockets. The profile was flat with high cheek bones, the nose was broad and low, the lips were smooth and wide and not at all prominent. It seemed more saurian than hominid.

To be continued...

Copyright © 2011 by Richard Merlin Smith

Home Page