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A Bridge to Earth

by Richard Merlin Smith

Chapter 3, part 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.

“I’ve got to call work,” said Fred as they entered the house.

“No,” said Margie as she led him toward the stairs, “I’ll call the store and tell them you’re under the weather today.”

“But,” he protested, “that order desk is going to be a mess today.”

“You’re already a mess,” she retorted emphatically, “and you’re supposed to rest. Now, go.” She tried to look stern but found it difficult with the worry that she felt.

As Fred disappeared into the bedroom she turned, went back downstairs and called to make Fred’s excuses. When she was finished she went to the service porch, took a sponge and a bottle of all purpose cleaner from the cupboard and went back upstairs to clean up the mess in the bathroom.

October 12, 2:00 p.m. EDT — NSA Headquarters

Curt walked into Jake’s office, plopped himself down in Jake’s side chair and waved a handful of papers. “All right, Jake,” he said, “we’ve got clearance to follow up on these radio signals that you discovered.” He took a sip from his coffee mug and then continued. “Fax the list of transmission data and the charts to our agent in the area.” He dropped the papers on Jake’s desk. “Did you find someone?”

“Garrison,” Jake replied, “in Los Angeles. That office has access to mobile radio surveillance equipment.”

“Garrison, Garrison,” Curt mulled the name. “I don’t recognize him. I thought I knew all the West Coast agents.”

“He’s a she, and she was recruited out there. She’s supposed to be a really sharp investigator.”

Curt nodded assent as he handed the papers to Jake. “Here are orders authorizing her to conduct the surveillance. Fax them along with the rest of the stuff.”

“Who is her coordinator here at the agency?”

“You are, Jake.” Curt stood and stretched. “Her orders spell that out, but I’d like you to call her after the fax is sent and introduce yourself.” He drifted toward the door. “See if she needs any additional equipment. Then just generally keep in touch with her, every few days give her a call.”

“This is a little unusual” — Jake frowned — “putting me on the case as a liaison, initiating the contacts from back here.”

“Well, I guess so,” said Curt, leaning his shoulder against the door frame, “but then this case is rather unusual. Our assessment was that the characteristics of the transmissions warrant special attention, and the boss came to the same conclusion. As far as he is concerned, we’ve encountered something so unusual that he wants to be sure that nothing slips through a crack. We are to pursue it until we know exactly what it is.”

“I’m impressed.” Jake pursed his lips. “I’ve seen the boss react to security issues before, but he’s never deviated from the normal routine.”

“Yes, I agree,” Curt drained the last of his coffee. “He has a gut feel that this is so completely different that it warrants very special attention.” He shrugged his shoulders and raised his eyebrows. “So, that’s it. I want you to stay on top of the situation personally. If you need relief from some of your usual duties, let me know and I’ll see what I can do.”

October 12, 5:30 p.m. — Glendora, California

Sam Brunner arrived home from work at five-thirty. He parked his car in the driveway and stepped through a break in the hedge that separated his yard from the Harts’.

When Margie had discovered Fred lying on the bathroom floor, Sam had responded to her shout, and together they had managed to get Fred onto the bed. The rest of the day had been a busy one for him and he was anxious to see his friend and discover what had happened.

Going directly to the Harts’ back door, he knocked softly. Someone was moving inside and presently Margie’s face appeared at the curtained window.

She opened the door. “Hi Sam,” she smiled a little weakly, “come on in.”

“How’s Freddie doing?” He raised his eyebrows. “Is he okay?”

“Well, he seems to be all right, ” she said. “He’s just getting up.” She closed the door behind Sam and they walked single file through the service porch into the kitchen.

“Come and sit down.” She waved toward the den. “I’ll see if I can round him up. There’s coffee in the pot on the counter,” she said as she disappeared up the stairs.

A few minutes later Margie came in and sat down. “He’s coming,” she said through a frown. “He looks tired and seems confused.”

At that moment Fred appeared in the doorway.

“Ooh,” Sam said through pursed lips, “you look a little haggard.”

“Well...” — Fred paused uncertainly — “you’d be too if...” He shook his head as if to clear it.

Margie and Sam exchanged puzzled glances.

“Why don’t you tell us what happened?” Margie offered. “We’re still in the dark, and you really had us worried.”

* * *

At the end of Fred’s narrative, Sam pulled at his lip for a moment then stood and walked over to the coffee pot to pour himself another cup. “I was just leaving for work,” he said, “when Margie screamed for help.” With his cup refilled he sat down again.

“I rushed over and we got you off the floor and onto the bed,” he continued. “Your condition was frightening. You were blue, shaking uncontrollably, your skin was icy cold and you were mumbling incoherently.”

Sam took a swallow of coffee and continued. “At first I thought that you were having some kind of seizure and so did the paramedics when they first saw you.

“At any rate I wrapped you in a blanket because that was all I could think to do.” Then he grinned wryly and added, “All day at work I really thought that you had flipped out, but after hearing your story this afternoon, I’m not so sure.”

“What do you mean?” Fred asked.

“Well,” Sam spread his hands, “it’ll have to wait until tomorrow when I get home from work.” He grinned hugely, which served to pique Fred’s curiosity. “I’ll bring something that will help me explain what I mean.” He stood and said, “For now you’re supposed to rest. If you remember anything else, write it down.”

“But...” Fred started to argue.

“Trust me, Freddie, it’s the only way I can explain things. This may be really big.”

October 13, 5:45 p.m. — Glendora, California

“Yesterday as you were describing your experience, you mentioned something, in fact several things, that rang a bell. Today I borrowed some pictures from one of my associates over at JPL.”

Sam sat on the edge of the couch and pulled several photographs from a large brown envelope as he continued. “This guy has done some work in image processing and analysis, turning satellite photos into simulated low-level flights over a landscape. Like that video that I showed you a while back, the simulated flight over the Los Angeles basin made from satellite photos.”

“Yes,” Fred remembered, “they somehow get perspective views from vertical views.”

“That’s right,” said Sam, “it’s a complex semi-automated process, and the renderings are quite impressive. This sort of processing has been done with images of Earth and other planets.” Sam laid the photos face down on the coffee table then held one up. “This is a view of the surface of Venus taken by the Magellan spacecraft’s mapping radar.”

He paused for a moment while Fred examined the photograph, then laid it down and picked up another. “This is made from the same radar data as that picture,” he said, gesturing at the previous photo, “but it’s been processed to make it appear as though we’re looking at the same area from a different position in perspective. Very effective, don’t you think?”

“It’s very interesting, for sure,” Fred agreed, “but what’s Venus got to do with my little problem?”

“Venus has nothing to do with you,” said Sam, waving the photograph, “but I want you to understand the nature of what I’m going to show you.”

“All right,” Fred responded, “what’s next?”

“What’s next.” Sam repeated it as a statement. He looked thoughtfully at Fred, briefly deciding how to to proceed. “This next picture is like the one of Venus,” he continued, touching the previous photo, “in that it was processed to turn a vertical satellite view into a perspective view. I had my friend approximate the viewing angle and position that you described.”

Sam laid the picture in front of them on the coffee table. “It’s made from elevation data from the Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter. It’s similar to the Venus data, and the effect is about the same.”

Fred felt a rush as he looked at the scene displayed in the photo. It was nearly identical to the one he had viewed in his episode the day before. “What a relief, Sam,” he exclaimed as he picked up the photo. “At least I was hallucinating about a real place.”

“Well, it’s real, Freddie my boy,” said Sam, “but I don’t think that you were hallucinating.”

“Sam, I must have been. There’s no other explanation.”

“Oh, there’s another explanation,” said Sam, “but I just don’t know yet what it is. You know,” he said, “you didn’t come away from that episode without some physical evidence of the experience. For instance — ” he gestured toward Fred’s head and arms — “your face and arms are sunburned and your ears and nose are chapped from exposure. Do you have any doubts as to when and where that happened?”

Fred had no answer.

Sam leaned back on the couch and took a slow, deep breath and exhaled before going on. “All right, let’s take it one step at a time.” He leaned forward again, took the picture from Fred’s hand and laid it back on the coffee table. “Are you certain,” he tapped the photo, “that this is what you saw yesterday?”

Fred looked again, comparing the photograph with his memory of the strange red landscape. “Yes,” he said, “the view is virtually identical except that the shadows in this picture are on the right side of the face,” he said, gesturing with his right hand. “What I saw had shadows on the left side. The sun was on the right. It seemed like morning.”

“It was.” Sam turned and looked directly at Fred and said, pointing at the photo, “Where do you think this place is?”

Fred swallowed. “Well, it looks like a barren place, probably the Mojave desert, or maybe the Sahara.” He was waffling. “There’re lots of remote places where something like this could be,” he offered.

Sam chuckled and responded, “There are lots of remote places but there is only one place like this — ” he tapped the photo — “and it isn’t on Earth.”

Fred’s face paled. “Sam,” Fred croaked, “where is this place?” This was straining his credulity.

“Mars, Fred.” He sounded almost gleeful. “It’s on Mars.”

“That’s ridiculous,” Fred jumped up and exclaimed. “You told me yourself that it takes months for a spacecraft to make the trip.” He waved his arms. “How could I have gone there and back in just a few minutes?”

“That’s the mystery, Fred.” Sam shrugged and stared at the photo for a moment and then turned back to Fred. “But your description of what you saw and felt was too precise. You gave an accurate description of a face-like feature that was photographed by one of the Viking orbiters, a hill in a northern region of Mars called Cydonia.”

Fred sat down woodenly.

Sam leaned back in the couch and spoke to the ceiling. “The face-like features were originally dismissed as a trick of light and shadow, but there have been some fairly exhaustive analyses of the face in the last few years and some have concluded that the feature may not be natural.”

He reached out and put a hand on Fred’s shoulder. “Look,” he said grinning broadly, “you’re an armchair archaeologist. You ought to appreciate the fact that you’ve just had a first-hand view of an artifact of an ancient extraterrestrial civilization.”

“Wait, wait, wait, go back,” Fred pleaded, ignoring Sam’s recommendation. “What do you mean, ‘it may not be natural’? That means that it may be artificial.”

He stood again, waving his arms. “You seem to be taking it for granted that I made a quick trip to Mars and now you’re conjecturing gleefully about what I think I saw.” He was getting rattled again, so he stopped and took a deep breath, making a conscious effort to bring himself back under control. “Look,” he said more calmly, “you’re rolling along too quickly.”

Margie came into the den from the back of the house with a worried look on her face. Noticing her concern, Fred sat down across from Sam and tried to look calm. “Why are you convinced that I was on Mars?” he said, more calmly.

Margie sat down slowly, not taking her eyes off Fred.

“Because nothing else fits,” Sam breathed. “You aren’t given to hallucinating, you weren’t dreaming, and you were treated at the hospital for symptoms of exposure. Those symptoms didn’t exist when you got up yesterday morning.”

He leaned forward intently. “Look,” he said, “the temperature on the surface of Mars is several tens of degrees below zero and, because of the thin atmosphere, the ultraviolet radiation from the sun is fairly intense.” He spread his hands, palms up. “In the short time that you were there,” he explained, “you got frostbitten and sunburned.”

He leaned back on the couch, put his feet up on the coffee table and sipped his coffee, smiling confidently, pleased with his deduction.

“I think you also told me that the atmosphere is too thin to breathe,” Fred offered, weakly.

“You’re right. It’s about the same density as our stratosphere,” Sam replied, nodding. “You shouldn’t have been able to last as long as you did because the Martian atmosphere is about one hundredth the density of Earth’s and there is very little oxygen — mostly carbon dioxide.” He set his coffee cup on the table and rubbed his hands together. “That’s the only inconsistent thing about this whole issue.”

“Sam,” said Margie, “there’s something I noticed that may fit in with what’s happened.”

“What’s that?”

“Well, I didn’t say anything about it before because I didn’t see a connection... but now...”

Both men were silent, looking at Margie expectantly.

“Well,” she began, “after we got back from the hospital and Fred was asleep, I went into the bathroom to clean up the blood. There wasn’t much, but I had to wipe up the whole floor anyway because it was covered with a thin film of gritty dust. When I rinsed out the sponge, I could see that it was rusty brown.”

To be continued...

Copyright © 2011 by Richard Merlin Smith

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