by Bill Kowaleski
Part 1 appears
in this issue.
After Jennifer had taken the photos, she zipped herself into her tent and bag, but sleep wouldn’t come. She lay on her back agitated, imagining him next to her, wondering where this torrent of feeling had come from, knowing the answer.
She’d spent too many years focused myopically on her career, too much time proving she was the best. She’d become the master of delayed gratification, never living in the moment. She knew that needs suppressed had a way of forcing their way out at the most inopportune times, but she wasn’t going to let them take over now. She dug a sleeping tablet from her pack, then watched the moon move across the sky from the small tent window while the pill took effect.
The sound of crunching rock awakened her. She sat up and checked her watch: 4:05 a.m. Outside her little window, McDermott walked past, eyes straight ahead, holding a small metal case. He took long strides across the boulders toward the ship. The bright moonlight provided just enough illumination so that she could see him climb inside. He stayed for a few minutes then emerged, case still in hand, walking much more slowly back to his tent.
The sky slowly brightened to brilliant blue. When she heard Peter unzip his tent, she crawled out of hers and motioned him toward the ship. Once safely out of McDermott’s hearing, she told him what she’d seen. His face crinkled with confusion, then he turned and ran his hand over the hull, creating the entryway. “Let’s take a look and see whether there’s anything different.”
The both crowded in, the ship a bit more spacious now that Jennifer had preserved and sealed the alien bodies in containers that sat beside the ’copter. Their eyes scanned slowly, trying to remember what they’d seen yesterday.
Peter said, “Wait a minute. Wasn’t this panel here closed yesterday?”
The left side of the cockpit, yesterday a smooth, unbroken sheet of the same ultra-thin metal as the hull, now revealed a small, empty cubbyhole.”
“What do we do?” asked Jennifer. “Confront him?”
“Not sure,” said Peter. “Maybe...”
The unmistakable crunch of footsteps on gravel, footsteps moving quickly, rose and grew nearer, until McDermott’s face poked into the opening.
“Getting an early start, kids?”
“Yes, Mr. McDermott,” Peter said, his voice like that of a child who had just knocked over the cake his mother had spent all afternoon baking and icing.
McDermott scanned the interior, then peered intently into Garoulis’s eyes. “Okay, scientists, what do you observe in here?”
Jennifer said, “This compartment. It’s open today; it wasn’t, yesterday. I saw you come out here last night with some kind of case. You took something out of this compartment.”
“Excellent powers of observation. I only contract the best.”
They stared at each other. Finally, after what seemed like much too long a silence, Jennifer asked the question. “What did you take?”
“Need to know, Dr. Jarrett. Doesn’t concern your mission nor Dr. Garoulis’. You forget about this. You tell no one. You don’t discuss it between yourselves again.”
He turned crisply and marched away. Jennifer watched him, seething. For a man of fifty-five he had a young, confident walk, a trim form, a square-jawed, blue-eyed face that inspired respect. If not for his gray, tightly cropped, receding hair, she’d have thought him more like forty, at most.
But his bearing just made her hate him more. She’d never in her life worked in such conditions of secrecy. It violated everything she believed in, every tenet of good scientific practice. For her, sharing knowledge with fellow-scientists was not just a way of working, it was almost the only way she interacted with other people. She needed to do it, and at that moment, she decided that she would, regardless of the consequences.
Peter emerged and stood next to her. “What a flaming asshole! He could at least deliver the message with a little explanation. But no, it’s ‘Those are my orders, maggots!’”
“We’re not soldiers. And neither is he. I know someone who runs an investigative web site. I’m calling him when we get back to Christchurch, Peter. I’ve decided. You can’t dissuade me.”
Peter shook his head. “You could end up in prison once we get back home. It’s not worth it. He’s not usually this bad. You’re presence is provoking him for some reason. He and I always got along fine.”
“Because you just put up with his crap, that’s why!”
Peter smiled. “Yeah, that I have done, and will continue to do.”
“Peter, I need corroboration or nobody will believe me. You’ve got to at least back me up. You don’t have to reveal anything yourself, just tell this website guy, ‘She’s telling the truth’.”
“I don’t know. I like doing this work. I’d be ending my career if I did that.”
“So what? Once the world knows about this, there’ll be all kinds of opportunities. We’ll be in the best possible position to take advantage of them.”
“Maybe you’re right, but I don’t like being forced to take sides, Jennifer. I wish you’d reconsider.”
* * *
They worked two days, photographing, weighing, measuring, finding and analyzing the point of impact in the mountain face. On the morning of the third day, Jennifer awoke to the deafening sound of a black military transport helicopter hovering over the valley. Peter and McDermott had already fitted a sling over the ship and they were now maneuvering a large hook that hung down from the helicopter to a clasp on the sling.
She watched the ship disappear into the helicopter followed by a pallet of equipment. One hour later, an hour in which no one said a single word, they landed at Christchurch airport.
As they climbed out of the ’copter, Peter said, “Jim, I think Jennifer has something to tell you.”
Her eyes turned to daggers. For a moment she said nothing. McDermott stood silently, staring at her.
Finally, she said, “So Dr. Garoulis picked his side after all. Fine. I’m contacting someone I know who can publicize this: these impact sites, the aliens, the ships. We can’t keep this secret any more.”
McDermott smiled. “Tell me something I didn’t already know.”
“How could you have known—”
“Because, Dr. Jarrett, I know people. Your little spy watch was hardly something I hadn’t seen before, your self-righteous blather about sharing knowledge is your justification, and the obvious attraction between you two was how you hoped to win over Dr. Garoulis to be your corroboration, because nobody would believe your story without it.”
He turned to Peter. “Are you going to corroborate her story?”
“I don’t know, Jim. I don’t like to lie, but I don’t want to violate my non-disclosure either. So I thought I’d alert you, so you’d have time to take countermeasures.”
“Countermeasures. We’re in New Zealand. I have no authority here. Of course you know that, Jennifer. And of course you know you’ll be arrested as soon as you step on American soil, if you really do as you threaten.”
He stood motionless as a statue, motionless except for his darting eyes. Ten seconds passed, his head jerked down, then turned in their direction. “You’re both staying here in town tonight, right?”
He sighed, his stoic expression softened. “When all else fails, present the facts. I have the authority, and I don’t like the secrecy any more than you do. Follow me. Friends here in Christchurch have given us a workspace.”
He led them to a hanger-like building where two armed guards carefully inspected his badge. The door led to a long, windowless corridor of grey-painted cinder-block walls. They passed three dented, scratched metal doors before McDermott stopped, waved his badge, and led them into a cavernous, dark conference room. He found the light switch, illuminating harsh, white fluorescents that revealed a heavy conference table pushed against one wall, six ancient office chairs, decrepit and tattered, around it. The arrangement left a large open space, perhaps six meters square.
McDermott motioned them to sit. He’d been carrying the same metal case that Jennifer had seen him take into and out of the ship two nights before. He opened it, removed an ordinary envelope, and spilled onto the table a tiny disk, not big enough to fill the palm of his hand. It was made of perfectly round aluminum foil; at least it looked like aluminum foil.
McDermott carefully grasped the edge of the disk and held it slightly above the table. “This little disk is what I was looking for in that ship. At site number two, we found a reader. It’s an amazing thing.”
He dug into his case and pulled out a tiny, silver box, a cube just big enough for the disk. He dropped the silver disk on top of it, then reached for a small desk lamp on the shelf behind him.
“This is an ordinary full-spectrum bulb. It’s the power source for the player. See how the disk disappears into the player as soon as I power it? Now watch the open space.”
Thoughts flooded her. Topics bombarded her head as though a dozen people were shouting them all at once, scrolling endlessly: fusion propulsion, biology of Epsilon Eridani II, longevity of Sol III hardwood trees, thousands more.
At the same time, a vivid, lifelike image materialized in the open space, a video of a city of white towering spires against an impossible, luminous magenta sky. The video slowly panned right, revealing tiny moving objects that could have been trains running through tubes in the air, gigantic hovering zeppelins, and finally a coastline, a body of water, and low, blue mountains on the horizon.
“It’s a thought interface,” said McDermott. “The video is just some kind of home page, their capital city according to the encyclopedia. That’s what this is, an encyclopedia. Pick a topic, just think of one, Jennifer, or grab one as it scrolls by.”
“Interstellar travel,” she said aloud.
And immediately she knew how they did it. The ideas themselves were in her brain, not words, the ideas directly.
“With an interface like this, they don’t need to translate from one language to another. It’s perfect communication to anyone,” she said.
“Anyone with a brain similar enough to understand the concepts,” said McDermott. “And based on the very few people who have studied this, our brains understand every concept.”
“Amazing,” said Peter. “I’d think there’d be at least something that was too alien for us to comprehend.”
“You won’t think that way once you study one particular topic,” said McDermott. “I’m going to take over the interface now. Origin of human species on Earth, broadcast mode.”
As thoughts filled their brains, holographic images walked by them: first on four feet, then on two, first small, gradually larger, gradually more human.
Jennifer watched, amazed, but confused too. She wanted the world to see this. How could McDermott possibly think that he was convincing her to keep it secret?
As each image took the spotlight in front of them, the specific genetic changes that led to the new species flooded their brains. But there was something else in the information: names, processes, reasons.
When homo sapiens walked offstage and the flood of information stopped, McDermott asked, “So have you figured it out yet?”
“Wow, those animations are so lifelike,” said Jennifer.
“Those weren’t animations,” said McDermott. “Those were videos of the animals themselves, taken by the Sirians. It says so in the notes embedded in the detail records. We were just watching the overview.”
“They took videos of hominids over a period of many millions of years?” asked Peter.
“No, they manipulated the fossil record to made it look like many millions of years,” said McDermott. “In fact, the entire process took perhaps five hundred years.”
“No!” Jennifer said. “That’s impossible!”
McDermott shook his head. “For someone so smart, you surprise me, Dr. Jarrett. You still don’t see what’s right in front of you. Remember how surprised you were to learn you’d been looking at the tissues of extraterrestrials? Okay, let’s take it to the next layer of detail, maybe that will do it. Homo sapiens, final design plan.”
Information flooded them: incorporation of Sirian DNA, better voice box, larger speech center, brain naturally attuned to speech, less hair, sexually receptive at all times, fifteen more. Reasons: communicate with citizens clearly, provide all services with minimal training.
“It’s as though the Sirians think these evolutionary changes were done for their benefit,” said Jennifer.
“They were,” said McDermott. “Here it comes.”
And then it all flooded into her, unambiguously, without any doubt. Every change, over more than twenty species, all done by the Sirians for the Sirians.
“They designed us?” she said, her voice very small.
“There’s a word for that isn’t there, Dr. Jarrett?” McDermott said.
But it was Peter who answered. “God.”
“Do you see our problem now, Dr. Jarrett?”
She nodded slowly, wrung her hands, stuttered, finally said, “I suppose there’d be people who’d think these aliens were gods.”
“Not only that,” said McDermott. “Imagine the denial. People don’t like to have their beliefs undermined. They’ll claim we fabricated everything for nefarious reasons.”
“But if it’s true, so be it,” said Jennifer. “People adjust. It’ll blow over.”
McDermott’s eyes bored into her. He shook his head and said, “Unfortunately, there’s more. They had a very specific reason for designing us: they had a resort here, for the wealthiest Sirians. The humans were slaves and guards; some used as servants and prostitutes, others as a police force. They evolved us into a form they found attractive and useful.”
“We were designed to be prostitutes?” Jennifer’s voice was barely a whisper.
“Afraid so. It all stopped about seventy thousand years ago when there was a revolution on their planet. They shut off tourist travel to Earth, and we humans were left to fend for ourselves. Let me bring up the entry—”
“No!” Jennifer stood, pushed back her chair, began pacing in the open space. “It must just be fiction. It can’t be true! You must be misinterpreting. How could our purpose be nothing more than playthings for idle-rich aliens? It’s impossible!”
McDermott removed the disk from the player, then sighed. “You see how you’re reacting, Dr. Jarrett? Denial, anger, revulsion. Am I right?”
“Imagine how all the billions of people without your training, your mental discipline, your intelligence would react! It’s frightening to contemplate.”
He stood and pointed to the chair Jennifer had vacated. “Dr. Jarrett, please sit down. I want you to tell me, right now, that you’ll comply with the non-disclosure you signed, that you will not reveal anything about our findings, anything about this encyclopedia. Do I have your word?”
She sat, head down, eyes pointing to the floor. “Yes, you have my word. I was a fool. I should have known there was a good reason. I’ve had quite an education today.”
“Thank you. Could I have your watch now?”
“Of course.” She handed it to him. They sat, each lost in his or her own thoughts, saying nothing.
After some minutes, McDermott stood.
“I was a religious man. But since I learned this, I don’t know what to believe.”
He looked down a moment, then locked his eyes onto Jennifer’s. “It wasn’t fair of me to expose you to this. I should have let you decide...”
“Believe me,” she said, “I would have opted to know this. Whatever the consequences.”
Peter nodded his agreement.
“You’ll both have to join the Encyclopedia Siriana team now. You’ve no other options. I’ve condemned you to working in secrecy for a very long time, Dr. Jarrett. I’m sorry.”
She looked at James McDermott one more time, appreciating now the weight of the secret he’d carried, a load she’d now be sharing. And then she thought about the Encyclopedia, greater than any treasure ever before discovered.
“Jim, thank you for sharing this with me. It will be a privilege to continue working with you.”
He shook her hand, smiled, and led them out of the room.
They emerged from the windowless blockhouse, the afternoon light burning their eyes. Jennifer turned to Peter and said, “Well, I guess we’re going to be working together for a long time. Maybe our entire careers.”
“Imagine what we’ll learn! Imagine the changes we’ll see caused by the information on that little disk. I’m excited about it.”
She nodded. “Me too. I won’t be giving up a lot, really. I don’t have much of a life.”
He put his arm around her shoulders. “I’d like to do something about that: if you’ll let me. Have you heard of the Cashmere Hills? There’re some great walking trails and the views are magnificent. Come up there with me. It could be a nice start on getting a life.”
She squeezed his hand and looked into his Achaean eyes. “I’d like that. I’d like that very much.”
Copyright © 2016 by Bill Kowaleski