For practical reasons, including proximity to the mining road, they'd settled in a barren rocky area in the midst of a tundra-taiga zone, east of the Yenisey river, 150 miles from Norilsk, the second largest city in the world above the Arctic Circle. Involuntarily, he became immersed in the bush and loved the freedom and simplicity of it, the cleanness of the air--far away from the heavy industrial-mining cities--and the pleasant smells wafting in from the forest. No heavy big-city traffic jams; no noisy, dirty streets; no crime.
His knowledge of the Cambrian Period was second to none in paleontological circles, so his presence was earnestly requested by the organizers. He couldn't refuse. At first, however, he dreaded this project, fearing the worst Siberia had to offer. And though chiding himself, he couldn't help but agonize over the night spots, fancy restaurants, gallery openings, and upscale bars he would miss. As well, it'd been a long time since field work had held any excitement and romance, preferring instead the routine and comfort of campus life. Nonetheless, he had to admit he was intrigued by the prospect of examining fresh Cambrian finds, you never knew when something as yet unknown and bizarre would turn up. And the permafrost had been insulating the site for millions of years. After arriving by plane into Norilsk--one of the ten most polluted cities in the world--setting up camp with colleagues, and spending a few nights marveling at the broad uncorrupted starfield, he felt a calmness and relaxation he hadn't experienced in years, if at all. He was hooked.
The day was warm, summer in mid-stride, not a cloud in the sky; the rough Putorana Mountains--the remnants of the Siberian Traps--just behind to his left. Off to the north, about a mile above camp, south of Taymyr Peninsula, he could see Dickerson's Divot, as they jokingly referred to the large impact crater of a million years ago, radiometrically estimated. It was about seven-tenths of a mile across, which meant that the asteroid itself probably wasn't more than eighty to a hundred feet in diameter. One night over pizza and beer, Doctor Dickerson, lead paleontologist from the University of Colorado, had been informed of the crater by a geologist friend. That entire sector has been thoroughly scrutinized in detail over the decades due, not only to the expansive gas and oil industry, but also to the mining of vast amounts of nickel [second largest deposit in the world, currently], as well as copper, cobalt, and especially platinum, so topographic maps were plentifully available. During the course of a routine survey of satellite images, a cleared rocky area with a deep depression in the center of it, surrounded by forest, stood out quite dramatically.
Initially, Dickerson and a few graduate students sampled the age of the crater. Their estimates agreed with the geologist's records. However, they were surprised to discover that just beneath the asteroid debris field, the top strata was around 550 million years old, give or take. Two explanations were proffered: The force of the impact had obliterated the surface layer down to the depth of the crater--between an eighth and a quarter of a mile--or, the surface layer had been compressed and pushed down under the asteroid, most of which exploded off and out into the atmosphere. In either case, the Cambrian crust revealed itself. At the Chengjiang Maotianshan Shales of China and, most notably, the Burgess Shale site of British Columbia, among others, it was not uncommon to find such ancient sediments and shales residing near the surface.
Indeed, ego and sheer scientific curiosity finally pushed him over the edge. The opportunity to work in such a remote part of the world, far away from government oversight and distractions by the media, let alone the possibility of unique groundbreaking discoveries, had been too much to pass up. Dickerson learned at the beginning of his career that pertinent information almost casually revealed during a serendipitous meeting, like with his geologist friend, had something of a mystical source and therefore had to be acted upon and investigated.
Excitment rose appreciably after the determination of the underlying age of the matrix. Chipping through the permafrost proved a serious challenge, but we devised ingenious techniques for gently heating the surrounding matrix as we went, concern for destroying the delicate fossil etchings, if found, topmost on our minds. One week into it, we had considerable luck, discovering an entire field of imprints containing the usual suspects: ammonites, the spacey-looking Marrella, Wiwaxia, Kimberella, the aptly-named Hallucigenia, several species of trilobites, and worm tracks, but so far, no sign of the top predator of the day, Anomalocaris, or the five-eyed Opabinia. With some, soft body parts remained as carbon films, discernable to the naked eye. But ten days after the first discoveries, nothing surprisingly new turned up. Consequently, enthusiasm waned somewhat, although, to have chanced on another area in the world substantiating the Cambrian explosion was nothing to sneer at.
But early in the morning three days ago, one of the graduate students who had wandered off a hundred yards or so from our makeshift field boundary came across something remarkable and inexplicable. He immediately called us over. We all stood in awe and wonder, gazing at the find: Three humanoid skeletal etchings were pressed into the 550 million year old igneous slate in close proximity. Two figures of the same size and one half that height presented themselves in unmistakable relief. A cursory examination on site determined that the taller ones were eight feet long, had ellipsoidally-shaped skulls, large orbs for eyes, a straight mouth-line, but no nose or ears, and elongated arms coming down to where its knees might have been. Hands were wide and fingerless due to erosion, although we suspected they once had digits, how many were indeterminable. Legs were segmented into four distinct parts, feet long and wide, chest cavity appeared ribless, only a flat curved surface of bone-like material, and their spinal chords were also of one piece, no vertebra, just a notochord substitute for spine or backbone.
The smaller one was truly mysterious; it looked nothing like the other two. On initial examinination, we assumed it to be a child, but deep scanning with our portable binocular microscope showed it had been composed of what appeared to be an assortment of mechanical parts, the metal or plastic of which had long since been diffused and rendered blurry, obscuring detail. We'd have to wait until we could remove the entire slab and get it back to the lab-trailer to use our more high-powered electron microscope. All we could see was a schematic of the architectural organization, an imprint in shale.
What was this? We looked at one another in disbelief, anxiety mingled with exhilaration. Its head was round, not oval like the larger two. And where its brain should have been, we saw only a flat greyish rectangular area containing three regularly-spaced holes about the size of dimes, a narrow segment of a different material connected them. The rectangle's edges were diffused, but it was easy to see that at one time they and the corners had been sharp and well-defined. It had two eyes and ear-holes, and its mouth, or where we'd expect a mouth, was the same shape as the eyes. Did it have three eyes? And no nose, not even needle-size orifices. Its neck was extremely short and maybe two inches across. The overall interior of the trunk was boneless, a mosaic of parts, varying in size and configuration, closely meshed together, no doubt integrated in some fashion. Our superficial inspection revealed no organic, or at least, no carbon-based soft tissue; there was no film of any kind. [The electron microscope might reveal traces.] Its arms were jointed in several places, including the wrists. Finger bones, however, were not discernable; if they had at one time existed, they were now gone. We couldn't ignore the fact that we were standing in the middle of an asteroid crater. For these, whatever, to be in as good a shape as they were was nothing short of miraculous.
Doctor Dickerson decided to keep the discovery to ourselves for the time being. If we informed anyone in the outside world, even through a personal email to family or friends--not to mention colleagues--we'd be inundated with scientists from every corner of the globe. Two of the three grad students accompanied Doctor Fillman, our expert on matters of excavation, and Frank Black, our computer equipment specialist, back to the compound to collect the equipment necessary to remove the slab containing the smaller figure; the larger two would be covered securely for later scrutiny. As this find was not exclusively Cambrian in nature, I volunteered to run into Norilsk to load up on supplies. We intended to isolate ourselves for as long as we could, and take advantage of the almost 24-hour daylight.
It was late in the afternoon when I rounded the last curve and pulled into the compound, directly in front of our supply trailer that doubled as sleeping quarters for all but Dickerson and myself; we roomed in the cooking and lounging trailer; it housed computers for personal use. The larger trailer acted as the main lab, computer analysis, and communications hub; three dishes of varying sizes were positioned on the roof, locked into a geosynchronous communication satellite serving our needs.
First I removed several five-gallon jugs of diesel for our main generator, we had a backup which we hadn't used thus far. Afterwards, suddenly exhausted from the long turnaround, I checked the trailers looking for assistance, but no one was around. I assumed they were busy at the site, working to remove our guest, so I proceeded to unload everything myself.
The air was still, the open plain working its magic on my nerves. Partway through my chore, I stopped to sit on a bench and smoke a cigarette. The quiet was heavy, like a hand resting on my body. A gust from the forest to the east rustled a section of plastic sheathing covering a window of the lab-trailer; the duct tape had loosened. Wearily, I grabbed a roll from behind the seat of the Suburban and walked to the window. As I was taping it, a chill went up my spine. Not from cold, something else, a feeling that--something wasn't right.
Sunlight glared an opaque milkiness off the white aluminum siding of the trailer. The quiet stillness held a presence of its own. Needing to make some noise, I finished unloading, placing the perishables into the refrigerators, but leaving the rest on the long table that ran half-the-length of the floor. Two couches sat on either side, I grabbed a bottle of 12-year-old scotch and a clean glass and plopped down in the couch nearest the door, which I left open. I'd planned on taking a nap after my 8-hour ordeal--in and out, no dawdling--but now rejoining my compatriots demanded my attention. I'd learned to listen to my intuition long ago, and here, amidst this sprawling emptiness, it felt more intense than ever.
I took a drink and placed the glass on the table, then went outside, half expecting to see the others, somebody. I stood in the center of the encampment and listened for the sound of the two Land Cruisers or the workings of excavation equipment. It was just a mile away with only flat broken rocks and gravel between. But nothing, not even the fluttering of a passing bird or the rustle of reed-grass growing where it could, disturbed the deep silence. That chill passed through me again. The scotch finally thawed my brain, having been frozen by the monotonous drive. I entered the lab, found a walkie-talkie and flipped it on. I called for Dickerson, and waited. Static. Again, three more times, adjusting the gain and volume, still no one, just cosmic noise. I decided to drive out to the site. Whatever was going on had to have an explanation.
The road to the dig was torturous in a Cruiser, in the Suburban, it was hell. Packing specimens to withstand almost any kind of jarring had become an art, and here, obviously, it would be put to the test. The air seemed unusually clear and bright; the grime on the dashboard and dirt on the windshield appeared grittier; the old rig rattled louder and more chaotic than on the well-worn mining road, potholes and all, threatening to disintegrate at any moment. Half-way there he easily spotted the Cruisers parked near the rim; next to them was the flat-topped work tent, side-flaps up. Relieved at the sight, he slowed down. Of course, he thought, if they're all together down in the pit, they'd leave the walkie-talkies in the tent. Nonetheless, his feeling of misgivings did not completely dissipate. He pulled up to the Cruisers, jumped out and ran passed the tent to the rim, prepared to see his colleagues. But when he got there, he spotted the excavation equipment stacked neatly about two hundreds yards away, but no people. He ran back to the tent to retrieve the binoculars, then returned and scanned the entire crater, thinking that perhaps they'd found another set of specimens and were studying them. But no, he saw no one; a group of six people would stand out like an oasis in a desert, even without binoculars.
He scarmbled down the rocky side of the crater, carefully avoiding slipping and falling on the slate, then jogged across the bottom to the equipment lying next to their three specimens. They were still intact, the equipment had yet to be used. But, he thought, I left early this morning while Fillman and his two assistants were loading the Cruiser. What the hell had they been doing all this time?
He examined the specimens more closely and noticed a definite enhancement of the contours and features of what he considered remains, as though they'd been washed with a strong solvent, brightened somehow. But that's not proper protocol, he knew, damage to such fragile material, especially the loss of any tell-tale carbon films, was to be avoided at all costs. As he stared at them, they shimmered, looking now like they'd been lightened from within, not washed.
He wasn't sure what to do; this particular contingency had not been anticipated, so no plan was in place. He kneeled next to the short, machine-like figure and put a hand on it; it felt warm, the rock outside its extremities cold by comparison. He felt the others; they too were warm. Leaning back on his heels, he searched for the normal reasons to account for this discrepancy. The degree to which different mediums absorb sunlight varies. Living organisms, warm-blooded ones, exude warmth. Electrons passing through a conductor generate heat in the conductor. As he focused his mind on this rational conundrum, always a refuge for him when a boy and things in the real world got too weird, the urgency of the situation and the responsibility to act in a decisive way rang like bells. Fine well and good, he muttered irritably; now, where the hell are my friends? he asked out loud.
He stood and scanned with the binocs one more time, thoroughly. Then turned and strode up the side of the crater and into the tent. It was about 14-by-8 feet with side flaps that tied up; they assembled it when first arriving that morning, he helped. Examining the contents of the table showed nothing new, it's what wasn't there that told him something. They hadn't eaten lunch. He checked the Cruisers and saw the cooler that contained all their food and drinks in back of one. So, he thought, whatever transpired did so before lunch, usually taken around noon to one.
I stood motionless, anxiety welling-up; I couldn't shake the feeling of strangeness in the air. Grabbing a fold-out chair, I sat near the rear of the tent to face the crater and scanned the pit and the horizon with the binocs. They felt heavy, fatigue was settling in, mostly physical but now imbued with this unwanted nervousness. If I could get angry and alarmed at the same time, I felt, perhaps adrenaline would kick in. I forced myself to ignore that sense of the extraordinary having occurred, and imagined instead that shortly after I left, someone arrived from the other direction. There's only one road, and no one passed me coming this way, not on the mining road, anyway. Not until after I came to the junction with the two-lane highway, about 40 miles from here.
I let the glasses hang from my neck and stared at the brown gravelly ground before me, shade from a brace-pole slicing through at an angle. I stopped thinking, deliberately, and began to absorb my surroundings. A recollection popped into my head. I remembered, when a boy, the first time I experienced a thunderstorm; the smell and taste and feel of the air afterwards was unique and unmistakable. First impressions hold the essence of whatever comes after. That's what I sensed, sitting in that fold-up metal chair, staring into and over an asteroid crater, in the middle of the Central Siberian Plateau, in the month of July. Alone. Faced with a mystery. Am I exaggerating the situation, the circumstances, the problem? I considered, suddenly jerking my head up. I've done that before. But the electricity, I thought, it's there, in the air. What could've caused that? There's not a cloud in the sky. I wondered if this crater had its own magnetic field? What's it made of? Iron and nickel, to be sure, but only on the surface, deeper we've discovered it's of the Cambrian period. Besides, a magnetic field's not going to produce ozone by itself; a metal object, large, would have to pass through it or over it at a good clip to induce a current.
I needed to do something, to act. I took the Cruiser with the cooler and drove back to the compound. When I got there I resisted the urge to have another scotch, and instead went into the lab trailer to get on the satellite phone. Who to call? The state police had jurisdiction over this area; but just maybe they had come--by helicopter?--and taken my colleagues away, for whatever reason. The organizers at Cambridge? Might they know something? Perhaps an emergency of some sort. Perhaps Dickerson had heard news about his wife's illness? But why take everyone? No, I thought. Nonetheless, I felt the need to contact someone. Who might have some information? I decided to email the organizers. It was encrypted, and if the police had indeed taken my team away, my phone call would tip them off that I'm here. Have I been watching too many movies? I mused.
I composed a message of inquiry, informing them as to the circumstances and my situation, asking for advice and if they knew anything about my missing colleagues. If the police had taken them, the organizers would probably be aware of it. But, I was unable to connect. I put it on automatic to send every five minutes and retired to the supply trailer for a shot of scotch. I tried to laugh at myself for being paranoid, a habit from the city, telling myself everything would sort itself out in simple terms and explanations. Suddenly a truck would drive up with excited colleagues telling me about a find over the next hill. They'd had a visit from new diggers not too far away and went to check it out, making a point of not showing them what we found. Something like that.
But no, I had to admit, I didn't think so. Nothing could've torn them away from what we found this morning. Had it been only this morning? I wondered. It seemed so long ago now. I carried the bottle and glass outside and stood in the middle of the circle of trailers. The sun was far to the northwest, the air surprisingly warm. I could still smell a tinge of ozone so pronounced at the crater. Whatever happened, I decided, happened there. And by the looks of it, shortly after I left. I checked the email message, it still hadn't left. That in itself was odd; often it would get jammed up, but not for this long. I went into the lounge trailer and plopped into an overstuffed sofa, pouring another and placing the bottle on the coffee table. It'd become quite homey over the month since we'd arrived. A cave-like, comfortable space where we could genuinely relax and imagine we were elsewhere, if necessary.
I couldn't think anymore, couldn't imagine any scenario to account for their disappearance. I took a long pull on my glass and placed it on the table. Through a parting in the curtain across from me, I could tell that the sun, though never fully setting, was low on the north horizon. Exhaustion, uncertainty, and the scotch conspired to put me into sleep mode. I let myself believe that taking a nap would be best, and, like a child on Christmas eve, when I woke, everything would be fine. Curling up in the plush couch, pulling a blanket over me, I nodded off.
Growling, and then wild fluttering as of a flock of birds nearby, woke him with a start. He froze. Had they been the dangling fragments of a dream? he wondered. He'd never seen any animals around, but close to the taiga, he supposed wolves might travel through. Lying still and paralyzed with an unknown fear, he tried to remember if he'd closed the door. Through the split in the curtain across the room, he could see that it was as dark as it was going to get. Although it was light enough to get around without a flashlight, shadows would be long and black in places.
Lying there, absently clutching the blanket, an experience from when he was 18-years old came to mind. He'd been dozing in bed and thought he heard someone in the living room of the apartment. His mother and grandmother were gone for the day. Then too he'd become paralyzed with fear, but he had to act, to confront whoever it was. At the time, he stopped struggling to move, recognizing that he was the cause and so was only fighting himself. He did now what he'd done then--he relaxed his entire body and dropped like a cat to the proverbial ground. It worked, he was free. No one had been in the apartment; the sounds of movement could've very well come from his fearful mind. He hoped that now the cause would prove just as frivolous.
Carefully, he rolled onto the floor, coming to rest on hands and knees. And listened, intently. Seeing that the door was open, a jolt ran through him. With effort, he stood, cautiously walked to the door and looked out, then, forcing himself to take control, stepped into the yard. The crescent moon, too bright for its own good, shone high and to the right of the glowering sun, partway below the horizon, almost due north. The whole picture--the moon's reflected milkiness and the rugged, bleak landscape; the sun's curving rays and the elongated fractal shadows--engulfed him at once. It was easy to imagine he was on an alien planet. The muffled hum of the generator, ordinarily an unheard background noise, snapped him out of his trance.
I didn't turn that on. I used the wireless with the battery to send the email. Is someone here then? I studied the gravelly yard in the center of the trailers; it was about 30-feet in diameter. Shadows of every size and shape seemed to move under the fuzzy moonlight. The dishes on the roof of the lab-trailer, on the north side, looked like huge black flowers growing up the side of the supply-trailer. The email. I went into the lab to check, flicking the overhead light on as I entered. It still hadn't been sent. Disturbing. I checked the time; four hours since I mailed it and lay down for a nap. That's unheard of; something must be wrong with the connection. Forgoing wariness and paranoia, I tried one of the satellite phones. No dial tone. I tried the other, same thing. I scanned the long tables on which every conceivable piece of equipment we might need sat: computers, electron microscope, cameras capable of seeing in every wavelength, camcorders, desktop X-Ray machine, satellite phones, cleaning station with the latest dremels and surgical tools, all spread out ready to be used. But useless, now. The security they once engendered, gone.
Who turned on the generator? Was someone here? Again I heard the fluttering of wings, I hadn't dreamed it. Does that mean the growling was real too? The light through the open door illuminated a fan of clarity across the yard; I stepped out into the middle of it. Stars to the south, more than I'd ever seen before, in spite of the half-sun peaking over the horizon, were arranged too symmetrically, spread across the sky uniformly as though deliberately positioned for effect. As a result, the familiar constellations were gone, obliterated, no patterns of any discernable mythical figures appeared. And no Milky Way, no thick band of white light smeared from north to south. What the hell is going on? I said out loud.
A noise, a shuffling sound scraped the gravel at the far end of the compound where the generator sat in its tiny insulated enclosure. Because this was a scientific expedition and we had to pass through Russian customs, we didn't bring any weapons. I thought of my well-oiled twelve-gauge pump sitting securely in my locked gun cabinet. What I wouldn't give to have it nestling across my arms right now. Thinking one of my colleagues had returned and perhaps was injured, I started to call out, but instantly suppressed myself. The starfield, the sky was all wrong; something was going on here that was beyond ordinary understanding.
Cautiously, apprehension binding my gears, I crept towards the gen-shack. The droplight was glowing. As I neared, a long shadow moved next to it, coming my way. Adrenaline rushed and I felt the need to run and hide, but I was stuck out in the open, it was too late. I couldn't penetrate the jumble of blacks and greys to focus on the cause of the shadow, but abruptly the shadow's shape in the soft moonlight coalesced. It stretched out to a good twelve feet, and its head was elliptical, its arms long and dangling. Frozen in place, I waited. My blood raced and my head throbbed. Halfway between me and the shack, it stopped. As a voice came from the dark figure, my legs turned to water.
In a sharp metallic tone, it asked, "You seek your friends?"
I didn't know how to respond. Instead of answering, I asked, "Who are you? What are you doing here?"
He, I now thought of it as he, walked closer on legs that bent like a spiders. Petrified, my feet were rooted to the ground. I became dizzy, a tight fist gripped my heart as though the muscles around it had seized-up and would not release. Detached, I wondered if this is how people died of fright. He stopped in a shaft of moonlight near the end of the lab, as though on purpose. Out of the shadows, he truly was terrifying. Eight feet tall, or thereabouts, his long thin arms and hands of many fingers, his narrow torso and hairless oblong head with large eyes peering at me held me in thrall. I tried to read malevolence in them, but was at a loss; they were simply too alien. He wore a green bodysuit, tight around the neck and ankles, if they be ankles. In his left hand he held an object about the size of a cell-phone. I thought it might be a weapon of some sort, so I paid it particular attention. What I would do if that were the case, I had no idea. Again I dreamed of my 12-gauge. Clearly I was at a disadvantage due to my ignorance, but, on the other hand, I sensed that he too was a tad wary. Perhaps he had experience with humans; we can be most unpredictable and dangerous.
Once again he spoke, but the tight slit of a mouth did not move. "I see your mind and so use words you understand. We mean you no harm. We have come to study, like you. We are life historians from the future, five million years from your time. The imprints you and your friends found lie at the end of a corridor, a tube comprised of an almost infinite number of horizontal slices, each one of which is a mathematical platform that reorganizes and corrects the data-stream, countering remainder fluctuations produced by the field equations, and holds it in stasis, then after a nano-moment, projects the entirety along onto the next slice, or actually as the next slice, and so it goes. By this means, we are able to travel back in time. As we are dealing with time itself, how long the process takes, regardless of distance, is purely subjective.
"We came to this place, 555 million years into our past, wishing to observe the beginnings of animal life. This area was all a sea then. We manufactured a hemisphere on the bottom, our living quarters and laboratory. Because of our facility with time manipulation, we were able to accelerate evolutionary processes, compressing hundreds of thousands of years into mere weeks. This day, we detected the presence of human minds at the portal site and came to investigate. We monitor all such sites. Your colleagues were much frightened at first when we seemed to rise from the imprints of ourselves. But after we quickly explained, we invited them to our time, to travel through the tube, and to experience our society. They discussed it amongst themselves, and then agreed. They seemed most interested in the journey, very excited. After all, in spite of understandable trepidations, how could scientists, especially students of life, pass up such an opportunity?
"We and our android took them to our time. After we've shown them what we have learned of the Cambrian, their knowledge will expand a thousand-fold."
I was overwhelmed. The very idea. Nonetheless, I deliberately grounded myself and asked some simple questions. Somehow, I found my voice, croaking at first, "Why did you turn the generator on? Why have our communications devices failed to work? And what has happened to the stars? To the galaxy? And why are you here now?"
His mouth curled unmistakbly as though smiling. "I have never seen a machine like that. A generator? I was curious. I have little need of light, but apparently you do. As to the other questions, we are inside what you might call a controlled environment. Your communications devices will not work because the parameters of ordinary spacetime have been altered into ones more conducive to our experimental interests and, for present purposes, coherence of the transport wave; therefore, there is no one and nothing to receive them. In this way, the physical conditions governing the local volume of time and space have been shifted to those of a holding laboratory. It is merely a trick of perception imposed on the matter-medium, but one which greatly simplifies the mathematics.
"Prior to projecting our holographic images to a destination, we need to pre-establish a shell, or bubble, of spacetime enclosing that arrival-point--the base of the loop--for safety's sake. Our transport equipment is extremely sensitive, we have to control as much intrinsic instability--the result of vibratory dynamics--as possible. Producing those circumstances is also necessary in order to take measurements without complications caused by gravitational influence; hence, the uniformity of stars. The solar system, however, is considered a thing in itself; the effects caused by the sun and moon are treated as constants, they are simply much too close and powerful to manipulate directly. Some day, perhaps. Accounting for gravitationally-caused corruption of data is a mathematical nightmare. And, as everything is a form of data--including living things--it is a crucial consideration.
"And I am here now because we heard your friends speak of you, wishing you were with them and knowing what a great opportunity it was. I told them that this was one of possibly many visits to our time, and so you would be more than welcome at a later date."
My scientific curiosity was taking hold. "How can you do that?" Although I didn't expect we'd hug anytime soon, I was getting used to his bizarre appearance. Consequently, my body relaxed somewhat and my systems felt as though they were returning to normal; I stopped worrying about dying of fright.
"In our present, it has long been understood that time and space have a single origin. They can be created from the void and therefore arranged to represent whatever geometry we wish. Manifestation and materiality are but the tip of the iceberg, an expression I believe you are familiar with. We have machines which can accomplish this within limitations."
Extending his elongated right arm and pointing towards the heavens, an exaggerated movement which, against my will, forced me back a step, he continued, "You see the symmetry of star arrangement, significant of the absence of gravity; outside that range, all is normal, for your time. In our time, of course, the constellations are wholly different."
Momentarily pensive, or at least silent, he then went on in a different tone, "In our world of the future, there is no hunger or war or want of any kind. We have evolved beyond greed and hate and selfishness; with nature, as I'm sure you'll agree, whatever is unnecessary and useless eventually fades away." He smiled more deeply. A touch of warmth came with it as with an emotion shared, empathy, a sense of commonality, fleeting though it be, as if two waves momentarily matched crest and trough. Then spreading his arms in an unmistakable gesture, he said smoothly, "Why fight for food and resources when they can be created at will?"
Although astonished and amazed, I was nonetheless suddenly overcome with a sense of urgency for the fate of my friends and colleagues, so I asked, "When will my friends return?"
"On the morrow," he spoke into my mind, "they will be delivered where we found them. But it is imperative that the end portal be not disturbed, else we will lose hold on the Cambrian time, tenuous as it is to begin with and very difficult to create; it has pushed us to the extremes of our current capabilities.
"Return to sleep. When you awake, they will be here, I promise."
Bewildered and uncertain, I needed to know who or what he was. Had the planet been invaded by aliens, humanity conquered and eliminated? Or had we finally succeeded in destroying ourselves, and having done so, some passing alien survey crew discovered Earth ripe for colonization? Being a pessimist, I expected the worst; I felt anxious and sick at heart asking the question, but I couldn't let this conversation end without knowing.
"What planet are you from, and how did your race come to be here?" I asked, my voice halting, unsure if I wanted to know the answer.
Again the warm smile. With a slight forward movement of his narrow shoulders, he said matter-of-factly, "We are human."
With that, he pushed some buttons on the device in his left hand, and vanished into thin air. Automatically, I looked up at the sky; it had returned to normal, the Milky Way stretched along its age-old path. I turned slowly, scanning the yard as I did so. Unsteadily, I walked back to the lounge trailer, dropped into the couch and poured a stiff drink. And then another. What stories my colleagues would have, I thought, envy briefly coursing through my soul. The generator had ceased. Through the open door, I listened intently to the quiet and felt the sweet warmth of the evening on my skin.
Human. Five million years from now.
Wonder filled my mind, pushing out all rational thought. Aware of my humanity, I let it pervade my being and accentuate my existence in the here and now, and became only my physical body, from the dirt on my hands to the grainy sweat only now beginning to dry. With an acuteness I've seldom known, I watched the light of the moon bathing the floor before me with its milky softness pan ever so slowly, and drank scotch till I passed out.
At mid-morning he awoke with a severe hangover, dying of thirst, his tongue carpeted with shag. He threw his legs over the side of the couch and somehow managed to pull the rest of him up. Muddled and pained, he sat for quite a while. On the table before him stood a bottle of water, he drank, profusely; aspirin was in a cabinet on the other side of the room, miles away. As he put it down, the events of the previous evening suddenly coalesced. My God, he thought, did that all really happen? Shakily, he stood, paused to clear his head somewhat, then made his way to the open doorway. The sun was blinding, he dug into his shirt pocket for his sunglasses and put them on. He stumbled outside, searching for anyone, his colleagues, but all was quiet, no one was around. The time was half-past ten. Methodically, he built a pot of coffee, food was out of the question. Sitting on the bench in the yard, savoring the warm fresh air, he sipped and wondered as his head slowly cleared, memories of details rising to the surface. After a few cups, he filled his thermos and slowly drove back to the pit, the scene of the crime.
Half-expecting to find his friends under the tent, pacing about, talking animatedly, excited and overflowing with enthusiasm, he was, however, disappointed. No one was there. Concerned and troubled, thinking perhaps it was too early--the future human said only 'on the morrow'--he parked near the rim, got out and inspected the site--two hundred yards away--where the excavation equipment lay next to the three imprints. Following a path leading up towards himself, he spotted someone lying near the bottom of the crater, almost hidden by debris. Throwing caution to the wind, he scrambled down the rocky slope, skidding over jagged gravel, then dropping to his knees alongside him. It was Frank, their computer specialist. He appeared uninjured, but was obviously in distress.
Frank opened his eyes to see Jameson and was clearly relieved. Jameson asked, "Are you all right? What happened?"
"Water," is all Frank replied.
"Can you walk?" Jameson asked.
Frank nodded. Jameson helped him up and together they made their way to the tent and shade. Frank drank copiously, pausing every now and then. Jameson waited, impatient but understanding. After a time, Frank began, "You're not going to believe this."
"Don't bet on it," snapped Jameson.
Frank sipped water, then continued, "These alien-like creatures emerged, magically it seemed, from those imprints. They said they were human, from the future, five million years into the future. They explained everything; well, not everything exactly, as it turned out." He looked off to the distance, then back again at the tabletop.
"They travel through time, as far back as the Cambrian, maybe before, I don't know. We were curious about the whole thing, how they traveled, what they discovered about the Cambrian and other times, how they lived, everything. It seemed like an opportunity for all mankind, a first contact sort-of-thing. We could learn so much."
Frank drank more and fumbled in his shirt pocket for a cigarette. Jameson lit it. He took a puff, then went on, "Yea, they were friendly, hospitable, at first. They led us into a huge room filled with artifacts, tables on which sat cases of what looked like specimens, creatures. The room was huge, a warehouse, hundreds of yards long and wide. We were introduced to others; though not easy, I started to get used to their appearance. I expressed curiosity about their time transport equipment, how it all worked. They hid nothing, were completely open. I split off from the others and was escorted to a room heavy with weird-looking equipment, from large twisty helix-shaped things to very small nanocircuitry, and even things unseeable, on the molecular level. At the back sat a platform, large enough for several people at once to stand, about 20 feet square. In spite of the difficulty reading their facial expressions, I got the distinct impression they were humoring me, condescending, like they knew I was too stupid to understand any of it, so why not show me everything."
He drank and smoked for a bit as his thoughts caught up with him. "While they were busy over some problem, it seemed, I watched a couple of techies work a few machines, what they did, I memorized it--I'm pretty good at that--after which more of them appeared on the platform. I noticed over the shoulder of one techie a number, I figured it was a date, a year or month. I searched for one that showed place, coordinates, latitude and longitude, stuff like that. Languages are one thing, they differ, but numbers, math, it doesn't. I watched what they did, people and androids and equipment came and went. I watched, no one payed me any attention, except to stare in curiosity, objectively, you know. It was creepy, but, we'd probably treat them the same if the situation were reversed. Only difference, I thought they were just being rude, when actually they had something else on their minds.
"The techies left the room to do something or other. I was left alone, that's how little respect they had. At the time, though, I thought it was a show of trust. I took the opportunity to wander around checking things out. It was lucky I did. In spite of not having a clue as to how any of it worked, I managed to find the instruments and dials that regulate time and place. And because they'd just used it to come here, I was able to find the precise placement; it was on a dial for what looked like the main transport manager--time and place--like a recent-call number on a phone; otherwise, I might've gotten close but still way off in place and date. Who knows, if I had just flipped dials to get out of there, I might've ended up in a volcano at the end of the Permian.
"After awhile, they took me back to the main display room, the warehouse, two of them, different from the ones here. They had a military bearing, I could tell, alien as they were. We walked aisle after aisle, up and down. I had the feeling they were stalling, for some reason. I found out. The ceiling must've been 80 feet or more high. I'm not a paleontologist by training; what I know of it comes from teaming up. But a person completely untutored couldn't help but see that the samples stacking the shelves were not fossils, they were living organisms suspended in some kind of fluid or gas. I didn't understand why they just didn't take me right to the others. I called out to Dickerson and Fillman, several times, but nothing. My guards didn't object, thought it was amusing in fact. I was starting to get nervous; we turned a corner and I froze. On a shelf were glass containers, and in each was one of our colleagues. They must've stunned them with a tranquilizer or some such because they were putting Chris into one and he was still, he didn't protest.
"The two I was with grabbed my arms, but I twisted out--they're not very strong--and ran back to the transport room. An overseer and the two techies were startled when I ran in. I didn't even pause, I grabbed a metal rod from near the doorway and clubbed them with it, sealed the door and quickly as I could, dialed in the place and time for here. The switch was close to the platform. I hit it and jumped on the flat metal grid, and here I am."
He finished the bottle and lit another smoke. Then stared hard and fearfully down at the dig site. "We have to go back. Rescue them."
"But how?" Jameson asked. "We have no means."
Frank nodded. "Yea, I know. When we traveled to their time, they initiated the transfer with a small handheld device. But I didn't have a chance to grab one even if I'd seen one. I don't know what to do. Destroying this portal would probably be a bad idea, or useless. Apparently they can pop in anywhere, and if we do block this portal, we lose all hope of getting the others back, assuming they're still alive."
"What are they, then, really?" Jameson asked. "I talked to one last night, he seemed so sincere, straightforward, I trusted him." Frank reacted with shocked surprise. Jameson related the events of the previous evening, expressing his disbelief at his gullibility and also his wonder at why his visitor lied and told him all about himself and their ability to travel through time, how they did it even. He reflected on that moment when they shared friendly feelings. Then, in anger, asked again, "What are they?"
"Collectors, I'm guessing. They collect specimens. If you had seen that warehouse; man, huge. And I'm betting there's others, many others."
He finished his cigarette and flicked the butt over the rim of the crater. "When we mentioned you, they had to have heard. Maybe they came back to retrieve you. But why didn't they? Why didn't your visitor invite you along? You're right. Why would he tell you where we went? Why tell you all about it, knowing we weren't coming back?"
Jameson stood to pace, anxiously peering down at the site of the imprints. "Well, if I told anyone what he told me, they'd think I was crazy, or lying. Anyone would seek some other explanation. They knew about our compound, where it was. Perhaps, with the equipment you describe, they can see everything in a given area. I don't know. They sent my visitor to check it out, to find me. But when he did, he decided to leave me be."
"To observe what you do?" proffered Frank. "As an experiment, a behavioral one? Maybe they're watching us right now."
"Or," Jameson turned to face Frank, "He told me everything, the details in such a friendly, agreeable way--colleague to colleague--so I might believe that something else happened, an accident of transit, or that you guys decided to stay longer. In any event I might imagine, I wouldn't suspect foul play. That would give them an advantage. But what kind of advantage? It doesn't sound like they need one, they have advantage enough as is."
"But there we have it again, why not simply invite you along. Would you have gone?"
Jameson hesitated, but had to be honest. "Probably," he said, pained at the admission. Suddenly a rush of anguish mingled with shock overcame him, imagining his friends captured and put into glass specimen containers in a massive warehouse somewhere in the distant future. Creatures from the past on display for future humans to study. He could've been one of them. He shuddered visibly and collapsed on the bench. "If my visitor hadn't bothered to show last night and tell me everything, more than he needed to, then I would've contacted the authorities and it would be a case of missing men, a missing expedition, which is what they'd believe anyway after I told my story of the visitor from the future, they would've decided I was nuts. The only difference is that I would know the truth. What good would that do them?"
They sat in silence, listening to the wind blowing over the crater, the sun high and warm.
"Wait," Jameson said, "he told me it was imperative that the imprints not be disturbed. Maybe that's it. Preservaion of the end-portal. He doesn't want me to destroy it. He couldn't know that I wouldn't. But he was just making sure. Could that be it?"
"I don't know. If he was worried about it, if that spot, as an endpoint in a time-path is so vitally important for reasons we don't know, then why didn't he just kill you and be done with it?"
"Maybe he wanted to use me as a guard. Expecting my compatriots to return through it. But how much influence would I have if the authorities decided on their own to obliterate it?"
"This is useless," Frank said, disgust and exasperation in his voice. He put his head down on the table and moaned softly. "It doesn't matter. We can't know, and what difference does it make now. They're there and we're here." He sat up straight and said, "Those bastards. I'll kill 'em, if they show up again, I'll wring their scrawny necks."
After a moment, Jameson pounded his fist on the table. "But he said they were human," he insisted vehemently, angrily, "human beings."
"Yea," Frank responded. "Just like us. Collectors of life. Only we collect the fossilized remains of what life once was, they collect the real deal. And how long have we been on their agenda? How long has this been going on?"
"Speaking of which," Jameson began, abruptly shifting gears, "what about,..., going into the past and capturing someone for their display case whose offspring is a predecessor of someone significant of their time, let alone Leonardo da Vinci or Isaac Newton. Suppose that line is broken and people of their time vanish, or, specifically, whoever came up with the science of time travel or the engineer whose breakthrough solves some integral problem with the tecchnology. You know. Step on a butterfly in the ancient past and whammo, the Greeks never formed a national identity and democracy is never born? Or Germany wins the war and we're all speaking german in a tyrannical state? Aren't they worried about that kind of stuff?"
"I don't know, professor. I didn't have much time to think about it; I was too busy saving my ass. But when we got to the other end, we passed through what I understood as a cleaning machine, a huge chamber where we stood naked for a few minutes before entering a living space. Our clothes were purifed, I supposed, and handed back to us. I thought it was just to get rid of possibly dangerous microbes, besides being pretty dirty at the time. Maybe they have a genetic record of all Earth's inhabitants from eons ago, and can tell if anyone in the past is crucial, a key person, whose absence might unduly affect their time. God knows what their computer capabilites are. If that's the case, apparently none of us were."
They were tired of talking. Speculating about temporal paradoxes and such meant little, dwarfed as they were by the unimaginable science of five million years in the future.
Jameson helped Frank into the Land Crusier and together they headed back to camp. They needed to contact the outside world. Needed to warn the people of Earth about their future progeny. But who would believe them? And what would they say?
During the drive, they sat in silence, shaken and unsure, each thinking the same thing: We have met aliens who mean humanity no good. And they are us.
black and white version -- no pictures