A Bridge to Earth
by Richard Merlin Smith
Chapter 5 : Back Again
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.
Fred felt a slight vertigo, less than the first time he was transported. Apparently it was a side effect of the transportation process. He was down on a broad plain at the base of a steep rise.
If Panat, the technician, had placed him accurately, he was standing at the southern end of the sculptured hill that he had seen on his first visit. The face should be several hundred feet above, on top of the hill out of sight.
He opened the canvas bag slung from his shoulder and removed a small cube-shaped device that Panat had provided. He set it down on the sand and flipped a small toggle switch on one face of the cube. The way Panat explained it, the cube would relay Fred’s voice signal back to Earth so that the rest of the conspirators could monitor his progress.
The transporter would pick up Fred’s signal from inside the vaults and transmit a signal to the relay cube outside. The process could provide real-time two-way communication because the transmission time, like the transport time, was nearly instantaneous. However, to avoid detection of the transmitter on Earth, the earthbound conspirators would use the device only in receive mode.
“All right, I’m on the surface at the base of the hill,” he spoke for the benefit of those listening at home. “I’ve got a few minutes until sunup.”
It was still dark, early morning, and the sky was beginning to glow in the east. It wasn’t yet light enough to move around and he didn’t want to waste the helmet lamp batteries that he would need inside the vaults. He just stood there, conserving energy and oxygen, watching the rapidly brightening sky. Soon it would be light enough to start his search. For now, he could take in the wonder of this alien morning.
Mend the broken pillar of the world.
Bring back the vanished gods
To walk the sacred valleys once again.
As when the Great Darkness ended,
End this night.
The bridge of light and dark,
That spanned the void between the worlds
Is gone and cannot be restored.
But life remains.
And the living pay their homage
To the Source of life.
Now, as the warming light
Breaks across the watching face,
The gift of the Giver-of-Life,
What’s that? Fred thought. He held his breath and strained to hear the faint sound. It sounds like organ chords, or the sound that wind makes through telephone wires. There. No, it’s more like whale song, almost melodic.
Suddenly the rising sun broke over the horizon and bathed the hill in light. Abruptly, the sound began to drop in pitch and increase in intensity until he could no longer hear it but could feel it. Then, just as abruptly, he could tell that the sound had stopped.
It must be an air current phenomenon driven by the heat of the sun, he thought uncomfortably. He stood a moment more, listening. But there was no more of the strange sound.
Although the space suit was somewhat awkward and restrictive he was much more comfortable than during his first visit and he couldn’t help gazing at the Martian landscape.
The panorama before him was truly awe inspiring. The terrain was starkly beautiful with its infinite shades of yellows and reds fading to dull reddish brown at the horizon. The hilly country to the south became increasingly rugged as it receded into the distance.
Whether it was an illusion of the clear atmosphere or a reality it seemed that the geological features were created on a much larger scale than on earth. Gigantic boulders strewn over the dusty plain gave way to huge rock outcrops on the gentle slope which, in turn, gave way to rugged, reddened foothills that blended into the high, dun brown mountains.
His boots made deep, clear prints in the flour-like dust. Not a breeze stirred in this place, although he knew from what he had read that there were sometimes great planet-wide dust storms driven by high winds in the rarefied atmosphere. But now nothing moved except the small puffs of dust that rose and fell quickly when he moved his feet.
The stark, utterly lifeless landscape was beautiful, compellingly so, but devastating in its loneliness. Reluctantly he forced himself to turn back toward the hill and the task at hand.
As he turned, he saw a glint of reflected sunlight in his peripheral vision off to the right. He turned back toward the south to the foothills where the light had seemed to originate. He could see nothing but the reddish hills against the bright pink sky.
Sunlight reflecting on the visor of my helmet, he thought, as he scanned the foothills for a moment more. Then he turned again to the hill where the great Martian face lay gazing at the sky.
He scanned the face of the slope looking for an opening and a steep stairway leading up to it. According to Panat and Ris the stairway was carved from solid rock and led upward from the base of the hill about fifty feet to a large arched opening, also carved from the native rock. Much like Petra, on Earth, he imagined.
“I can’t see anything of the stairway,” he announced. Maybe I’m too close, he thought. “I’ll back off a bit,” he said and, as he turned to walk away from the hill, he nearly fell. Whoa Fred, remember that you’ve got to move differently here. The gravity is only two-fifths of Earth’s.
With a more restrained gait he retreated about a hundred feet and looked again. There it is, he thought. “Okay,” he said aloud, “I can see the opening.”
He thought he could make out an opening at about the right height and there might be a landing in front of it. But where is the stairway? he wondered. Was it destroyed?
“I’m going back to a point just below the opening to see if I can find the stair.”
He walked back to the base of the slope immediately below the opening and took a close look at the rubble and dust that had been deposited on the side of the hill. Yes, the stairs are still there beneath all that detritus. I can manage if I’m careful not to slip or stumble.
“Okay,” he said, “I’ve found the stair. It looks tricky so I won’t narrate for a while.”
He started up the steps, carefully placing his feet, using his gloved hands occasionally to steady himself on large blocks that lined the sides of the stairway. The steps were about six inches high and nearly a foot deep. The width of the stairs at the bottom of the hill was about ten feet but narrowed as he went higher.
He didn’t notice the second brief glint of reflected light at the base of the hill behind him as he carefully made his way up the steps.
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Copyright © 2011 by Richard Merlin Smith