My first book of 2017, the techno-thriller Anomaly, is finally available! Get it for free when you become my Patreon supporter, or just flat-out buy it for $15 signed from Yours Truly. Read the sample below and get ready for the icy beauty and terror of it all!
A continent-sized excerpt from Anomaly
The room at the Pentagon had been swept twice for sound-recording devices as well as for fiber-optic cameras, chemical detectors, heat sensors, or anything else that might allow anyone outside the room to know anything about what was inside the room. Every Pentagon office, meeting room, and kitchen and dining area was regularly swept for bugs, but of any single location within the world’s largest office building, Meeting Room 1138 was the most secure.
It had been designed as an n-cube floating within the rectangular cuboid of the actual room, this “floating” created by a magnetic field array that blocked any electromagnetic signals attempting to enter or escape. A near-vacuum created between the two Matryoshka-like rooms prevented any vibration from the inner cube from being detectable. A two-foot-long retractable gangway extended from the floor where Elden stood to the floating cube as he approached; it stretched over what could be described only as a “silence moat.”
Those whose presence was requested in the room not only had to turn in any weapons before entering 1138, of course; but they also had to leave behind their cellular phones, which were switched to airplane mode, then shut off completely, batteries removed, and deposited with security, who kept them within a signal-blocking lead-lined box. Also, any ferrous-metal items had to be given up as well, since the vigorous magnetic field all around the inner cube would literally rip any such material (ferrous metal was different from metal medically implanted in a person) from one’s pockets—if the owner was lucky. If the object were tucked away so as not to be torn out, the owner would become stuck inside the imaging cylinder, shoved and held fast against the wall by that magnetic object, until the power could be interrupted.
Major Elden, USAF, wondered with amusement about the lead-lined box: Was the brass concerned about Superman coming for their phones? The amusement turned into speculation—if there was anyone in the world who would really know whether superheroes actually existed, it would be those with free access to Room 1138. It was where the biggest of the big secrets were shared—and with only those who absolutely needed to know.
Elden himself wasn’t allowed inside this room-within-a-room unless continuously in the presence of an individual who was authorized to enter. For this meeting, Elden was to be briefed by the mysterious Colonel John Ash on something “of vital national interest,” which could mean whatever Ash wanted it to mean.
Rumors circulated that anyone disclosing even the tiniest sliver of classified information obtained in Room 1138—plus whomever it was disclosed to—would meet with mortal misfortune made to look like an accident. In any group as big as the Pentagon’s 26,000 workers, some necessarily die in accidents every so often, just due to the laws of probability. However, some of these “accidents” (the persistent rumors held) were actually the murders of those with loose lips. No one knew exactly who was getting whacked; and with no logbooks of any kind detailing who used the ultra-secure room, no one of a security clearance lower than those with Above Top Secret “Compartmented” clearance knew who went in or out.
Major Elden had seen his entire life taken apart over the past two weeks, piece by piece, every fact examined and adjudged secure before moving on to the next. If Elden had to describe the experience—which he was forbidden from doing, anyway—he would have called it “an IRS audit on steroids, but with everyone you’ve ever known interrogated by agents of military intelligence like they’re at Guantanamo Bay.”
It had been exhausting and a nightmare of scrutiny he thought would never end, but finally he was granted access to Specialized Compartmented Information, information that even the president was not privy to.
Now, in front of the door, Elden looked to either side, wondering what he should do. He had no ID card, no key, nothing. Should he knock, or would that be ridiculous?
He wanted you in on this for a reason, Elden told himself. You are a resourceful, insightful man. Think. There is one chance to ace this final test. He just had to think.
The gangway had extended for him even though he had no transceivers or such on his person to signal his presence. Now that he had stepped to the door, the gangway retracted.
He thought about the extreme military security outside the door to the hallway leading to 1138. They didn’t ask for ID—he doubted they even possessed any information about whom they were allowing or refusing entry—Elden imagined that was so they never learned the names of those who sought access to the mysterious room. Name known or not, he had been scanned and x-rayed so many times just now that he thought they were going to give him cancer.
Elden noticed there were no windows in any hallways this far deep inside one of the rings of pentagons that made up The Pentagon. He didn’t actually know where he was in the giant complex, since the elevators to this level had one button only, an illuminated plunger as large as Elden’s palm, and they could move parallel as well as perpendicularly to the ground. There were also no security cameras. There was nothing at all to show he was here. He didn’t even know where “here” was.
That meant the point of entry to this hallway was the last checkpoint. And that meant that if someone made it as far as Elden had, there were no other security measures necessary—or perhaps even possible without giving away the existence of this room … or its location.
That meant anyone approaching the door would trigger the extension of the gangway.
That meant the door was open. It had to be—it didn’t even have a knob, let alone a lock.
Elden pushed on the door, and it gently opened. A second door faced him on the other end of what Elden could think of only as a tunnel of plasma. Was it a force field? Did those really exist? He put his trust in Uncle Sam and extended his right foot out and then down onto the “surface” of the tube.
It held. He took two steps forward and pushed on a second door, which opened to reveal an almost-smiling Colonel John Ash, wearing earbuds leading to a rugged case–protected smartphone, probably of CIA design. Seated in one of the chairs opposite Ash was Captain Davidson, an intelligence expert Elden had worked with several times. They nodded congenially to each other. Davidson was also wearing earbuds plugged into the device on the table. Elden entered the room and was immediately disoriented. It was eerie … what was it?
Silence. All there was in the room with them was utter silence. Elden saw that Room 1138 was not only unconnected physically to anything else and floating within a vacuum to keep any concussive waves from traveling out of the inner cube; it was hellishly, fiendishly quiet.
Room 1138 was an anechoic chamber, the kind that they use to test the sound of everything from surround-sound speakers to the buzz of a single LED. The walls, floor, and ceiling of the room were crisscrossed with low-density gray foam that absorbed every sound, allowing nothing to even touch the walls, much less vibrate them.
He could hear his own heartbeat pounding in his ears. He could hear the saliva glands inside his mouth working to keep his mouth and lips moist. And he could hear something else, something like … the ocean? Crashing waves?
After a moment, he realized that these sounds came from the colonel’s and the captain’s earbuds, which were inside their ears. But Elden could hear them over his own body’s cacophony. Ash motioned for Elden to come to him, saying something that the major couldn’t hear over the buzz and ringing coming from his ears themselves. The room ate the sound. Still, he could hear the ocean surf from Ash’s and Davidson’s earpieces. He wasn’t an engineer or a physicist, just a logistics man, so he didn’t bother trying to figure out the “why” of it.
Elden went over to Ash and took the set of earbuds with built-in microphone being offered to him. He put them on and plugged into the smartphone. Almost instantly, he felt relief from the maddening, overpowering silence of the protected room. “Sir!” he said, and all three men jumped at the tremendous boom of his voice.
“Whisper,” Colonel Ash said in a whisper himself, and this was when Major Elden realized that the device feeding him waves and seagulls was also connected to a unit allowing very quiet communication between the three men. A whisper came through as a shout. He didn’t want to imagine what an actual shout would be like. “Major, Captain, I don’t need to tell you that the very fact that you’re in this room means that any information you receive here is the most secret of Top Secret intel.”
Elden nodded, not quite confident about speaking into the transceiver yet.
“That being the case, I can tell you candidly that if any bit, one iota, of this information is shared with anyone outside this cube, you will be terminated. Not ‘fired’—terminated, as in ‘your widow will receive a check.’ That confidential information includes the fact that I have just threatened you with death. Give me a verbal yes if you understand and acknowledge this.”
“Yes,” Elden whispered.
“Yes,” Davidson croaked.
“All right, well done.” Ash bid Elden to sit in the transparent-plastic chair opposite himself and next to Davidson at the rectangular transparent-plastic table. No bugs or anything of the sort could be planted in, on, or around these clear-plastic furnishings without them being utterly obvious. Ash leaned to reach an impenetrable-looking stainless steel case and pulled it over. Four more just like it remained to Ash’s right. He entered a code on the case’s keypad, and the lock released with a click that might as well have been a bomb going off in the silence of the room.
As Ash opened the case, Major Elden and Captain Davidson instinctively leaned forward. Inside, custom-fitted within shock-absorbing black foam was a brilliantly translucent metallic tablet with indecipherable sigils and squiggles etched onto the surface. The two men examined the slate, then both looked blankly at Ash.
“What you’re looking at is an artifact from an extraterrestrial civilization. Where the objects inside these cases were found is immaterial, so don’t waste your or my time by asking or speculating about it. Just know it is central to the mission I invite you to join this day.”
“Secure that thought for the moment, Major. Before anyone says anything further, I’m following Compartmentalized Intelligence protocol by telling you that you are required to leave this room immediately if you will not be taking part in the mission. You’ve both been down this road before, so please take advantage of this opportunity to walk away from this project if you are not fully committed.”
Elden had been exposed to and followed this protocol in his intelligence logistics work, only once refusing a mission. However, he had always been given much more information before being asked to make a decision. All he had to go on was the exotic artifact Ash had just shown them. And that was enough: “I’m in, sir.”
They both looked to Davidson, who seemed less certain about signing on. No one could know what was going on in his deliberations, but if Elden had to guess, it would be that the captain was unsure about committing to an undertaking in which any intelligence slip would result in death. However, the opportunity to learn and protect must have been too great to pass up, as Davidson nodded and whispered, “I’m in, too, Colonel.” He looked to Elden and acknowledged him as well. “Major.”
All at the table seemed satisfied with one another, which was a solid way to begin an Above Top Secret operation. Colonel Ash began the briefing anew, but no longer pulling his punches regarding the actual information to be shared: “This … let’s call it a tablet. We have reason to believe that this tablet contains information coded into its strange alloy’s specific and exotic composition.”
“Information regarding what, sir?” Elden said, intrigued by the idea.
“The eggheads aren’t sure what it says, exactly, but they have been able to work out that these tablets respond to psionic waves.”
This was no time for levity, but Ash and Elden cracked a smile as the excited Davidson asked, “Sir, what in the heck is a ‘psionic wave’?”
“Psychic energy,” Ash said, his crinkly half-smile growing a bit at the sight of his subordinates trying their best not to react to his hoodoo. “But relax, that doesn’t mean you can read minds or lift buildings with telekinesis, any of that comic-book garbage. What it does mean, as far as our experts can tell without the tablet being ‘activated,’ is that the information contained within the alloy can be learned experientially. Indeed, it seems that the only way that its information can be sussed out is through a sentient lifeform’s physical contact. Somehow, this contact brings the psychic information within the tablet into the consciousness of that life-form.”
The words hung in the anechoic chamber only because Elden and Davidson were plugged in and blocked against the silence by the continuous feed of crashing waves. After a moment, Davidson said, “If I may, sir: What does that mean, a tablet being ‘activated’? Does it require some power source in order to work?”
“An excellent question, Captain. The tablets have no effect this far from their ‘power source,’ if you will. But in Antarctica, they almost crackle with energy. We believe that the hundred-mile-long gravitational anomaly buried half a mile under the western ice sheet of the continent is an alien spacecraft of tremendous age. Proximity to this spaceship seems to ‘activate’ the artifact.”
“Please pardon my bluntness, sir,” Elden said, “but what do you mean ‘seems to activate’ the tablets? Has no one tried to access the, um, psychic information? Have there been no experiments in Antarctica, having some individuals connect with the thing to find out what happens?”
“I don’t like questions,” Ash said. “However, this is need-to-know intel for you. We have not, in fact, allowed anyone to touch the tablet without wearing latex gloves. We know they forge a connection with the craft under the ice, but we have recruited scientists to do the experiential ‘dirty work.’ We don’t know if the slate’s information can be accessed more than once, so we want the eggheads to go in first and glean what they can from the psionic coding within the metal. Then they can tell us, we hope, the nature of the gravitational anomaly before we excavate it and protect it within the United States. I hardly need to tell you that an alien spaceship could contain weapons and defense technology that we want in no other country’s hands.”
Davidson said, “Isn’t there a treaty—”
“We’re violating it. This isn’t hippie-dippie stuff about measuring climate change or protecting whatever the hell endangered animals live at the ass-end of the world. This may be the most important event in the history of the human race, and we won’t let a piece of paper keep us from taking full advantage of it … before anyone else can.”
“So, the scientists touch the tablets in Antarctica, then tell us what they experience?” Elden asked. “It’s almost July—that’s the dead of winter down there—I assume this operation will commence in the South Pole’s spring? Maybe in November, or even October, since this is a time-sensitive mission?”
“We leave tomorrow.”
Elden and Davidson both started in their seats. “Go down there in winter, sir? I thought that was impossible.” Elden looked like he was feeling a chill at just the idea.
Ash almost smiled again and said, “We’re going to push the boundaries of ‘impossible,’ Major. Every second of this expedition once we get to the destination will be extremely dangerous, including landing the airplanes on the Wilson Airstrip. Then we’ll be exposed to the elements traveling the twenty-five miles to the Wilkes Land anomaly site. And then we will be exposed further as our crew builds Criminy Station by snapping together its prefabricated pieces. That sounds simple, but it’s a little more challenging when you’re facing a wind chill of minus 138 degrees Fahrenheit in complete darkness.”
“Of course. But, sir … Criminy Station?” Davidson repeated the name with amusement.
Ash shrugged. “Our building and support crew, the ‘icenecks’? They engaged in a bit of gallows humor naming it that—apparently they think this mission might include some … frustration, and they’re tough as hell, always up for a challenge. Use the name as a reminder to soberly regard the inherent difficulty of every element of this particular expedition.
“Also, note that these metal tablets have become extremely brittle after 200 million years buried in the ice, and so they must stay within their cases at all times, even as we have each egghead make contact with it and collect intel to be reported to myself only.”
Elden saw that comment as giving himself and Davidson information about where the tablets might have been found, but any explanation regarding how they were found was not forthcoming. And ultimately, as Elden knew from previous Top Secret missions, because it wasn’t shared, it was probably deemed irrelevant to whatever this mission actually was. Scientific? Military? Just an attempt to beat everyone else to the discovery? The reasons really were irrelevant to someone at Elden’s pay grade; besides, someone working in military intelligence would only be borrowing trouble to seek out the how and why of missions that had already been concluded.
“We leave tomorrow, just as soon as the scientists have been collected and brought onboard the aircraft. Any questions?”
Elden had a million questions, but none of them needed to be answered before commencing the mission. That didn’t keep his curiosity under control, however, and he sincerely hoped he would know all the answers by the time they returned to the States.
Ash smiled wryly at the lack of queries. “That’s it, gentlemen. Congratulations on surviving Room 1138. You will be texted as to what you may or may not bring. You’ll also receive notice of the coordinates where we shall meet and board the plane.”
Elden and Davidson rose and snapped salutes at the colonel, who returned them.
We might have survived Room 1138, Elden thought as he and Captain Davidson made their way out of the room and onto the extended gangplank, but surviving this mission won’t be so easy.
You never know what time it is in Antarctica. Clock time here doesn’t mean anything except as a reminder to the winter-overs to sleep and eat.
A single day at the pole—from sunrise, morning, noon, evening, sunset, midnight, to the next rosy-fingered dawn—takes an entire year to unfold. Without astronomical markers to divide a day into twenty-four hours, every expedition to the continent must keep its own time. As long as everyone in a specific camp is referring to the same arbitrary clock time, it doesn’t matter what time it “really is” in the rest of the world. The “rest of the world” itself is a vague concept in Antarctica, theoretical, irrelevant.
Some countries use UTC, others GMT, and others don’t use any outside reference at all. Those last decide when exactly to begin their twenty-four-hour cycle: watches are synchronized at 00.00 hours and the day is over at the end of 23.59. Like everything else made by men in Antarctica, timekeeping there means nothing to any other living thing on the ice or in the frigid waters around the continent. It means nothing to the ice itself or the slanted sunlight or the cold or the ever-hungry maw of death.
Everything presented here happened over twenty-four hours; but without light and warmth, a human’s measure of clock time remains irrelevant. Half a mile under the ice, there’s no difference between 100 million years ago and twenty-four hours ago.
At the surface, in winter, you’re blind from darkness and ice whipped in your face at eighty knots. You’re deaf from the howling winds. You can’t feel your hands or your face. And time is as meaningless here as it is a mile down. Come to the dark, and you’ll end up disoriented, spinning, lost, never knowing where you are or how little time it takes you to die.
I didn’t come to the dark willingly; but here I was, just the same.
H H H
The first thing I noticed when I regained consciousness was that I was on an airplane. But it wasn’t a Cessna, nor a 747; it was something I’d never encountered before. The dimly lit interior was vast, its only seats bolted to the bulkheads on either side. The dips and rumbles told me the plane was in the sky, but to my slowly focusing eyes it looked like I was inside an airplane hangar, not an airplane. Reinforcing structures arced across the top. Everything was, at least in the dim light, gray or brown. I definitely was not on a commercial flight. This was a cargo plane. I lay on the floor in a sleeping bag, next to other occupied sleeping bags.
And, my God, my exposed face was cold—cold cold, and I hate the frigging cold. That’s why I lived and taught in the South, where the mercury rarely dropped to freezing all “winter.”
I craned my stiff neck around to see, in a blur, what was going on around me, which was not a whole hell of a lot. Many of the seats, facing inward from either side, were occupied by sober-looking men and women. Their puffy jackets looked designed for some seriously low temperatures. One man wore a puffy black jacket and an LED light on a strap around his head, like an old-fashioned doctor with a mirror or a coal miner with a mounted headlamp trying to push back the blackness far below the surface. He was intently studying a stapled pack of papers on a clipboard. No one spoke to him. Actually, there was precious little talking at all, except for some barrel-chested men with thick beards making amused conversation too far away for me to pick up any words.
My head hurt and my body had stiffened a hundred different ways inside the thick sleeping bag. I could feel that my glasses were in my shirt pocket. They must have been slipped in there while I was out, which made me think that my captors—
Wait, captors? That might have been a bit of a logical leap, even for a scientist who made his living researching and extrapolating data to make educated guesses about alien life. I was an exobiologist at [redacted] University, which means that I spent a great deal of time bringing together the disparate fields of biology, geology, astronomy, space science, and any other disciplines I found helpful in making better guesses about who or what is out there.
Who would kidnap an exobiologist? The whole area of study was beloved by the media wanting a fun story, but it was the red-headed stepchild to each of its component disciplines. No one wanting to build a new kind of bomb or end cancer in our time or find a long-theorized particle turned for help to the handful of exobiologists occupying faculty offices. Thus, I had to conclude that this was not a kidnapping and I didn’t have “captors.” The question then became “Well, then, what the hell am I doing on a brutally cold cargo plane stuffed to the gills with grim-faced operatives and equipment meant for some kind of serious mission?”
The last thing I remembered from before I woke up in this weird plane was locking my office for the night and heading out to my Prius in the faculty parking lot, already sweating in the summer day’s leftover heat. Then nothing, then this.
What in the hell was going on? Had I been taken by aliens wanting to thwart me because I got too close to “the truth”? That sounded like full-on tinfoil-hat paranoid schizophrenia. I got letters, emails, and calls from the true believers every day, demanding that this self-proclaimed expert tell them “the truth” about our alien overlords. I was not going there. (Spoiler alert: There were no alien overlords. Well, none that I knew of yet.)
Also, the people on the cargo plane were just that: people. Not to mention that it was a cargo plane and not an alien spaceship. I sat up in the sleeping bag and tried to unzip it from the inside. I could feel the fob for the zipper, but it was on the other side of a thick layer of Gore-Tex. I attempted to speak, but nothing came out but a raspy squeak. I collected some saliva and forced it onto my tongue.
It worked. I cleared my throat and said clearly, “A little help?”
A burly man with a white streak right down the middle of his beard turned in surprise. “Hey, welcome aboard, amigo!” he shouted over the noise. His accent was somewhere between Scandinavian and British, making the Spanish word sound really weird, and his face was just as inscrutable. “Climb on out of that cocoon and say hi to the rest of the gang!”
I nodded at “the gang,” all of whom were taking me in now, and saw six smiles and six expressions of wary blankness. I rustled around the sleeping bag, but to no avail. “Can someone spring me from this thing?”
The burly fellow chuckled, unbuckled himself from his jump seat, and came over. He said, “Pretty warm in there?”
“I’m sweating a little.”
“Oh, hell,” he said and looked me right in the eye. “This might be … unpleasant.”
“Um, okay.” What else could I say? “Where the hell am I, anyway? What’s going on?”
“First things first, brother. Brace yourself.”
“Brace myself for wha—” I said as he grabbed ahold of the outer zipper fob and yanked it down to my waist in one superfast move. “JESUS CHRIST ON A POGO STICK!”
Some chuckles, even among the grim-faced passengers. They chuckled because they already knew that the inside of the cargo plane was cold. Cold. My slightly damp shirt made it at least twice as bad as it would have been anyway, and I screamed, my mind running the table: heart attack, seizure, frostbite, agonizing horrible death. Once again, I lost the ability to speak; I began shivering like I’d been suddenly submerged in a bathtub filled with ice water.
Except ice water is always exactly zero degrees Celsius. The interior of this behemoth machine was at least ten degrees lower than that. That’s ten degrees worse than a bathtub filled with ice. Where in the holy hell was I? Where was this plane going, space? I almost laughed as my mind screamed OMG I don’t want to say it’s aliens … but it’s aliens … in a spaceship!
I almost laughed. But I was in too much pain to do anything but shake like a jungle tree during an elephant stampede. “H-help?” I said weakly, tone rising at the end like it was a plea. Which I guess it was.
Faster than I could follow what was happening, my short-sleeve oxford shirt (it was at least 89°F at 8:30 p.m., when I was abducted) was whipped off. Three of my fellow passengers—the burly stripe-bearded man, a weathered but very strong woman who was a head shorter than anyone else, and a man wearing a balaclava with only his glasses and eyes visible—lugged over three heaters with powerful fans and turned them toward me from different directions. The sweat on my exposed skin dried immediately, and before sixty seconds had passed, I wasn’t shivering in pain anymore. It was bliss.
“Throw these on,” Stripe said (I like anchoring new people in my memory with nicknames) and buried me with a thermal base layer like superpowered long underwear, a layer of fleece, a red cold-weather jacket, and down-filled parka with a waterproof shell. With help, I got these on, and then the process was repeated with my lower half: sleeping bag whipped off to excruciating pain from the cold, the heater fans focused on my legs, giving momentary bliss. I stepped into long johns and my lower body was quickly wrapped in the same layered, thick but lightweight, bright-red items. (The icenecks wore an orange version, the military people black.) A number in white was on each arm of my bright red parka: “51.”
As in “Area.” As in hidden space aliens and occult government schemes. As in this real exobiologist’s pet peeve, not to mention the cause of those daily contacts from the UFOers and conspiracy theorists. And doubly not to mention the amusement of research grant committees.
The orange parka–wearing crew slipped moisture-wicking thermal gloves and socks onto me, then shoved my hands into a pair of dark green gloves that made my hands look like the Incredible Hulk’s. Another pair of socks made of magically thick-yet-light material went onto my feet, followed by insulated boots with Gene Simmons–level thick soles. As they helped me stand at long last, every muscle and tendon in my forty-year-old academic’s body screamed, every joint popping and creaking like the wooden beams of an abandoned roller coaster. I managed to straighten myself, and finally I could examine my fellow travelers to wherever the hell we were going. Stripe, Suntan, and Ski Mask checked me for stability and then stepped back.
“Thanks,” I said as mildly as I could. “Now can someone tell me what the hell is going on? And where … are … we …” I trailed off as Stripe pointed behind me, toward the rear of the plane.
I followed where he was pointing, and I counted five sleeping bags with their occupants’ faces framed by the ultra-insulating material. They were all still asleep—more like unconscious, like I had been—and I got a chill even under all my layers.
“Seriously, I’m dreaming, right? I left a fan on, and it’s blowing on my bare feet while I sleep, and so I’m dreaming a dream about a freezing plane that makes no sense whatsoever.”
“You’re not dreaming, Professor Weaver,” a deep voice came from behind me. “You have been drafted into service by the authority of the government of the United States of America.”
I spun around as quickly as I could in my bulky getup, and I saw a man’s face, a hard face, a grim face that looked exhausted and ready for action at the same time. The man was maybe fifty-five? (Not that much older than I, but he probably hadn’t spent the last twenty years with his only exercise being standing at the front of a graduate classroom.) Clean-shaven. Angular, pock-marked cheekbones. Gray buzz cut. He couldn’t have looked more “military operative” if he were burning down a village. “I’ve been drafted? Into what?”
“That is on a need-to-know basis, Professor.”
“Don’t you think I need to know why I was kidnapped … um, Sergeant …?”
“Colonel. You are speaking to Colonel John Ash, United States Air Force.”
Ash? I literally bit my lip to keep myself from making an Evil Dead joke. But I hardly had to stop the words—the colonel’s steely gaze killed any attempts at humor, gallows or otherwise. And I wasn’t in a particularly jokey mood anyway.
The colonel didn’t put out his hand to shake, which was probably for the best considering we were both wearing layers of gloves thick enough for a stuntman to land on. “You don’t need to know jack squat right now. The science draftees will be briefed soon. Information relevant to your role in the operation will be given.”
This was illegal on more levels than I could count. I didn’t dare say that, of course, but my mind reeled: Did my wife know where I was? The biology department? Did anyone, anywhere at all, even know I was gone? Had I been extraordinarily renditioned? Were we headed to Guantanamo Bay? At least that would be warm. The only question I could think of actually risking—and believe me, scientists don’t shy from asking questions; never go to a movie with them—was “What operation might that be … um, should I call you ‘sir’ … sir?”
“Stop asking questions.”
My head vibrated in a double take. “W-what?”
“That’s another question,” the colonel snapped. “I just told you not to ask those.”
“Do not follow that ‘but’ with another question. I promise you that I will shove my $600 Baffin Impact boot right up your ass,” he said with no more or less malice than when he told me I wasn’t dreaming. “My footwear is rated for minus 100 degrees Centigrade. That’s minus 150 in Fahrenheit, Doctor. Right. Up. Your. Ass.”
I nodded, lips shut tight. Drafted? More like enslaved. Like before-the-Fourteenth-Amendment enslaved. But what else could I do? It wasn’t like he was going to share one iota of “intelligence” until he damn well felt like it. I decided to keep my ass boot-free for as long as possible.
He motioned to two of his men—immediately identifiable as military—and barked, “Bishop, Frost—wake those lumps and dress ’em. Then get their asses over here, pronto.”
The two airmen did as they were told, quickly and without one unnecessary movement. They lightly shook each of the five “lumps” until the sleeping bag–wrapped people—I’d have bet my sabbatical that they were fellow “draftees”—opened their eyes and tried to speak. Squeaks came out, then raspy coughs, and finally they sat up and felt with shock the extreme cold of the cargo plane. The airmen efficiently shoved each new draftee into the same layered cold-weather kit I was outfitted with.
In less than a minute, the five bleary-eyed people—three men, two women—were mostly awake and all the way in shock as they took in their surroundings. Bishop and Frost led each, one by one, over to where the colonel and I were standing. We all looked like giant tomatoes in our thick red parkas.
“What in the name of God is going on?” The bespectacled fiftysomething had a well-trimmed white beard and a face pink from the cold. As the airmen (Frost, I noticed, seemed made out of protruding muscles even with his gear on) led over the rest of the Sleeping-Bag Brigade, I noticed that everyone’s face was pink—and mine must have been as well. It was literally as cold as a walk-in freezer in the plane.
“Relax, Doctor Stanton,” Colonel Ash rumbled in the least relaxing tone I had ever heard. “My men are leading your colleagues to join us. I will begin your mission briefing at that time.”
“Mission? Who are you? Who are these other people? Why are we on a plane? Why is it so goddamn cold?”
I cringed. That was a lot of questions. I whispered to him, “He doesn’t like questions.”
“Secure that chatter, Professor Weaver,” Ash snapped, then said to Stanton, “I don’t like questions.”
Bishop, an airman who looked new to the job—a greenhorn on this incredibly dangerous mission made no sense, but that was neither here nor there—brought the last of the five new recruits to the party. The white-bearded Doctor Stanton scoffed at Colonel Ash’s dismissal of his inquiries and said, “Surely, you know that those of us in academia are committed to the asking of questions? Now, let’s try again: Who are—”
“Doctor Stanton,” the stone-faced Ash interrupted, “would you please be so kind as to pull back the hood of your parka? We may be getting a bit overwarm with all this gear on.” Ash must have been warm as well, since he started removing his two layers of gloves as he spoke.
Stanton looked like he was going to make a wisecrack about the irony of Ash asking questions but plainly realized it wasn’t worth it. He pushed the hood off his head, revealing thick brown hair at the sides, perhaps to compensate for the complete lack of hair on top. He fixed Ash with a querulous expression—
—and the colonel slapped him right across the face.
“Jesus Christ!” yelped a woman from under one of the other parkas. “What in the world is going on here?” She pulled back her hood to reveal long black hair that was swept into the collar of her gear.
“Doctor Vasquez, I advise you not to ask questions.”
She stared at Doctor Stanton, who hadn’t made a sound since Ash slapped him. It took Stanton a minute to straighten from the twist of his body forced by the assault; there were tears of pain and humiliation in his eyes.
Doctor Vasquez nodded curtly at the colonel’s instructions, not meeting his eyes.
“Does anyone else have a question?” His words were met with a complete lack of anyone making a single peep. “Very good. Captain Davidson—come assist me with the briefing of these indoor kids.”
Davidson, a farm boy’s wide face appearing from the hood of his parka, attended his superior almost immediately. “Sir,” he said with great clarity over the constant loud hum of the cargo plane’s engines.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Ash began, without a trace of welcome or warmth. “I will now give you the information about this mission that I deem necessary for you to know at this time. Your questions will be ignored. Do not ask them. I will ask them.”
Under his gaze, we all made sure he could see that our mouths were shut very tightly.
“Who am I? I am Colonel John Ash. I have served for thirty years in the United States Air Force. Many of those years were dedicated toward the mission we now undertake.”
I took in my compatriots, and indeed, no matter what race or gender, we were each correctly labeled as an “indoor kid.” I now saw that the Red-Parka Brigade was comprised of we six academics, professors, or scientists. Well, five—Vasquez was something different; I could tell just by her glasses and what was left of the makeup she must have been wearing when they grabbed her. She looked more hale and hearty than the rest of us, but she had the bearing of an educated professional, serious and calm. (If I were in a situation where joking was appropriate, I would have said I could tell the difference because she seemed to lack the crushed and soiled soul of a university lecturer.) She had to be the mission’s medical doctor.
“What is this mission? Human explorers and, later, satellites have, since 1962, been continuously measuring gravitational fluctuations over Antarctica.”
All six of us visibly flinched at the last word, each simultaneously connecting the dots between “Antarctica” and the extreme cold on board the cavernous airplane. The eyes under parka hoods goggled with anxiety, even fear. I couldn’t tell you what my eyes looked like, but I could say that the rest of me wanted to throw up.
“We have for years detected the existence of and gathered information about a very large gravitational anomaly buried half a mile under the East Antarctic Ice Sheet.” He fixed his eyes on the man he had just slapped. “Doctor Stanton may see now why his expertise is needed here.”
Stanton didn’t acknowledge the mention of his name. In fact, he kept utterly silent as well as perfectly still. It was while I was subtly observing this lack of reaction that it hit me—I’d written a paper with this man! He was one of the world’s most influential research geologists. I would have been willing to bet that Stanton had forgotten more about the continent of Antarctica than the colonel (or the rest of us) would ever learn. So, yes, I agreed silently that Stanton’s knowledge would be vital to such a mission … but I had absolutely no idea why Stanton had been dragged here in the flesh. He was hardly frail, but he seemed a bit aged for a covert operation to the harshest place on Earth.
The Amerasian scientist raised his hand politely. At Ash’s glare, he said in as neutral a tone as I’d ever heard, “Colonel Ash, I do not have a question.”
“Good,” Ash said and moved to continue his briefing.
“But I do have a declarative statement: My field is theoretical fluid dynamics—”
“Just say ‘meteorology,’ Doctor Yutani. This isn’t a tenure committee meeting. You don’t need to dazzle us with your utter brilliance.”
Yutani cleared his throat and continued. “As you say, I am a research meteorologist. But it doesn’t take a PhD in theoretical fluid dyn—sorry, meteorology—to know that it’s July, the dead of winter in the antipodes. It is not possible to conduct any field research or go running around the continent on a so-called ‘mission’ in July in Antarctica. No question about it.”
That was clever, I thought. I wondered if Yutani was now next in line for an open-handed slap in the face.
“What you say is true, Doctor.” Ash looked first at him, then took the rest of us in, with an inscrutable expression. “There is nowhere on Earth more deadly than Antarctica in winter.”
His matter-of-fact tone puzzled everyone—just as he intended, I was sure.
“However, you should all think twice about whining about how ‘impossible’ it is to do anything but hide inside a plastic-walled research station until the sun rises in a few months. Instead, understand that this ‘so-called mission’ is of vital, urgent national interest. Of global interest. Otherwise, we could take our precious time waiting for the balmy 20 degrees below zero Fahrenheit that arrives in January. You are the most accomplished experts in your areas of relevant science, and that is why you were recruited. You must come to the logical conclusion that this expedition is happening now because spring will be too late.”
We scientists exchanged glances of dread mixed with undeniable curiosity. What role could we possibly play in such an international emergency? Yutani was right when he said theoretical fluid dynamics—he was probably more comfortable with a chalkboard and computer simulations than he was walking in the rain to his faculty parking spot. My field, exobiology, was entirely theoretical, extrapolating data and speculative ideas from Earth-based biology, geology, meteorology, and more to spin logical webs regarding what extraterrestrial life-forms might be like. Since landing tenure, Stanton had probably spent more time writing theory-based papers with people like me than he had spent out in the field. Whatever the others did, I was willing to bet that they did it in complete collegiate comfort and convenience—the direct opposite of anything Antarctic.
Utter darkness, outer-space cold, abduction and enslavement by the government.
I should’ve listened to my dad back in the day. I should’ve become a plumber.
The Other-Mind: Weaver
“Weaver? Weaver.” Colonel Ash observed the professor’s face, watching for any change.
The exobiologist lay on his back on a cot inside Criminy Station’s tiny medical ward. His eyes were closed, his entire body in a state of suspension. His heart rate had slowed to a couple of beats per minute, but the EEG showed his brain was very active. He was alive—in this state a person could “live” indefinitely, using so little in resources it would have been hard to calculate the amount—but his consciousness was elsewhere, the brain-wave readings spiking and falling as if Weaver were under intense stress.
Seeing no difference, he shook his head and said to Doctor Vasquez, M.D.: “I told him not to touch anything.”
“What the heck did he touch that did this to him?”
“I don’t care for questions, Doctor. He touched something. And something falls under anything, which is what I told him not to touch.”
“You want me to treat him? Tell me what he touched. I can’t do a thing until I have the whole situation.” She must have meant it, too, crossing her arms in a “final answer” position.
“All right, fine, but this is on a purely need-to-know basis.” He stomped across the unit’s hollow floor and unlocked, then unclamped, a high-tech protective case in which a rectangular metal slate rested in custom-cut foam. “He touched this,” he said with impatience, holding the case but not, Vasquez noticed, touching the slate itself.
There were unintelligible symbols etched without color into the metal. She looked at it for a moment, but it revealed nothing obvious that would send someone into physical catatonia while his mind went into overdrive. A human someone, that was. “This is an alien artifact, isn’t it?”
“Do you need to know that to do your job, Doctor?”
“I believe I do, Colonel.”
“Then yes, it is. I will not tell you where we acquired it, regardless of any need to know.”
“But you brought it with you to Antarctica?”
“Has anyone else—any other human—touched it?”
Ash paused, maybe just drawing things out to penalize her for asking, or maybe because he had to sift through his many security clearances to decide whether a mere medical doctor could be trusted with this information. Finally, he said, “Yes. When it was first discovered.”
Vasquez didn’t want to get shirty with Ash, whom she got the feeling would toss her out into the antipodean night without a second thought, but she sighed in exasperation and said, “Don’t you think that would be relevant information for me to know if I’m supposed to bring him back to consciousness?”
“Based on those who have come into direct physical contact with the artifact, he will return from this state with information vital to the success of this mission. He’ll wake up by himself with … important intelligence.”
“What—he—what kind of information?”
“That is not something you need to know.”
That cut off the conversation like a meat cleaver striking a butcher block. They both stared at the utterly unmoving exobiologist on the table in front of them. After a minute, Vasquez said in a low voice, “You didn’t tell him not to touch it, did you?”
Ash let out a huff of amusement at her deduction. “No. Quite the opposite. We brought the slate for each of our scientists to investigate. By touching it, they … well, we don’t know what happens, exactly, but when—if, to be honest—they come back, they know things.”
“He’s a scientist. His whole business is extraterrestrial … stuff. No one’s going to show him an alien artifact with writing on it and expect him not to go full egghead. This is what he’d been waiting his entire career for, Doctor. He’ll no longer wonder. He’ll know.”
Weaver could hear their voices like they were whispers on the wind, apophenia his mind tried in vain to make sense of, but he was in the middle of a battle. His hands were splayed and suckered on the ends of his fingers, like a gecko’s. In his green hands was a sleek weapon of some sort. When he looked up, he saw saucer-eyed reptilian aliens—
your brothers in arms
—in a semicircle, each of them facing a hissing and spitting monster they had backed into a corner of the valley, under a bleakly overcast orange sky, alongside a river of something that was not water. His field being exobiology, in Weaver’s man-brain the area was identifiable almost immediately: Ontario Lacus on Titan—
that isn’t what we call it
—but that wasn’t possible. Other than the simple impossibility of traveling to Titan, Weaver knew that Titan’s surface temperature hovered around minus 290 degrees Fahrenheit. None of the bipedal green men—not little green men, as each of them stood at least two and a half meters tall—was wearing anything other than life-support gear, a form-fitting fabric bodysuit, and tall black boots angled out like swim fins. No complex creature should be able to walk on Titan’s slushy surface without a damn serious spacesuit … but …
—took note of the surface from the view of this alien’s eyes. He couldn’t control them or any other part of his alien body. The ground wasn’t slushy with methane ice. It was rocky, like Mars or Venus. Humans hadn’t ever been to Titan or even yet sent a remote-controlled rover. Some part of the surface could have been rocky. But that didn’t explain how the atmosphere was warm enough for people (or sentient bipeds, in any case) to walk around and hunt—
capture and contain
—wearing only a breathing apparatus around their necks, breathing through it into a hole in their alien bodies’ throats, and no other exoplanet protective gear except that to keep them from being slashed or bitten. Or, rather, it was as if he were experiencing the “breathing” from a third-person perspective: there was “breathing” occurring, but it felt like it hadn’t anything to do with Weaver. Like he wasn’t holding the weapon aimed at the huge but squat, very agitated, dark-pelted thing—
—that hissed at them and constantly shifted its feet, looking like it was contemplating a run at them. With its tank-sized body, low to the ground and probably denser than rock, it would knock them over like milk bottles. Why weren’t they—
shooting? There were at least ten bipeds blocking off any escape route, but as soon as the powerful predator realized it could barrel through them—
—anyone in its path would be killed. In fact, now the predator lifted its bison-like head and lowed, a haunting basso profundo that echoed through the valley. Was it about to charge?
It lost the chance: a small hoverjet—
antigrav hunt shuttle
—swung into the nook they had corralled the monster into and boom—a thick netting shot out and wrapped itself around the reptile-buffalo-predator-thing. It screeched in shock and anger, then stopped for a moment. Analyzing the situation?
“What’s it doing?” the soldier—
—next to Weaver’s alien body whispered. Wait, no, it wasn’t speaking aloud. The words—which were not What’s it doing? or anything else in any Earth language—bloomed inside the mind that wasn’t Weaver’s at all.
Weaver’s other-mind responded in the same way: Calling its friends. This, again, was in no language Weaver had ever heard, but the meaning was clear, both to himself and his compatriot. He had no idea how he was telepathically communicating when it occurred to him that he wasn’t doing the communicating. He was a witness inside the mind of this sinewy “melee hunter”—an observer. The more he observed, the more he understood what was going on. The more he observed, the less he remembered that he was Weaver.
And the more he knew why they had cornered the Titan Gila. Its name didn’t come to him in English, though. It was in the alien’s—
—language, in the alien’s mind. Titan Gila was a translation produced by what remained of Weaver’s consciousness in this mind, simply the closest English equivalent for the predator’s alien name, and the translation was hardly necessary now. Weaver could have spoken in this language if his human mouth could have pronounced the words; if humans possessed telepathy, he could have broadcast in the words of these—
chaos melee hunter pirates
The predator lowed again, making the ground vibrate under their feet. But when it stopped, the trembling of the surface didn’t. From far off, Weaver heard the rumble of many, many friends of the Titan Gila. He heard it although he could see from his fellow hunter’s head that they possessed no ears.
He was hearing through his feet, or rather through the feet of his host. The swim fin–like “boots” were open in front, he noticed now. They were like sound collectors on Victrolas before electric microphones, concentrating the vibrations into what Weaver’s other-mind interpreted as sound.
This race’s ears were its—
we hear with our
—feet. Not in their feet—the feet themselves were literally the audial sensory apparatus of this race.
He felt the other-mind blast out an excited shout and heard every hunter call back telepathically. The group turned as one to face the approaching thundering herd.
Weaver controlled nothing, he could see that now: if he could, he never would have tried to take on the horde of angry predators. This was suicide. If it were his choice, his body to move, he would have fled and gotten the hell out of there, he was certain.
Except … the alien hunter’s thrill at imminent bloodshed took root in Weaver’s own mind. He wanted to fight these monsters, kill them! He and his brothers would scour Titan of these enemies and spill their blood, if they had blood. Either way, they would kill every last—
—one of the beasts.
The part of the mind that was still Weaver repeated to itself: eight. Eight? Eight what?
The hunter’s feet were moving now, the group of aliens rushing forward in a thundering herd of its own. They crested a small rise in the terrain—and not 100 meters away were at least sixty Titan Gilas coming at full speed.
Kill the rest
At the command, the hunters—
—shifted their weapons from marching to firing position and let fly.
The huge rectangle of his rifle analogue poured out projectiles with barely any recoil at all. But it couldn’t be a laser, because there was a definite but small pushback when he fired. The projectile was too fast to see, but the Gila he’d been aiming for flew into pieces.
Becoming more used to being in the other-mind, Weaver realized he could search the alien’s knowledge. In seconds, he located a bit of information: the weapon his alien arms held was a railgun. He didn’t need to poke into the other-mind to know what that was—a railgun had long been proposed as an Earth military weapon, not to mention being used frequently in science fiction. No explosives, no propellants were needed to shoot the projectile; parallel electromagnets accelerated the bullets almost to the speed of light. To be shot by one would be to die, unless one of your race can live with half its body gone.
Weaver hoped the railgun stored enough projectiles to cut through the Gilas, because there was no time to reload. There was barely time to shoot in the first place. But the fast pulsing and sonic booms created every time a projectile was slung forward by the electromagnets slipped his alien body into a rhythm, and he mowed down six by himself when—CLACK—the railgun went dead.
The mind that was still Weaver’s shrieked in terror—but the other-mind remained impossibly calm. These aliens didn’t have mouths that looked like they could smile, but the ebullient feeling among all of the hunters—
—filled the other-mind and spilled over to Weaver’s. His anxiety bottomed out, and if a mind could smile, his would have. But why? His feet could still hear so many Gilas coming, and in front of them was a wall of dead animals! Not relaxing at all … but in a moment the rumbling stopped, replaced by a hundred predators letting out a mournful lowing like the first, netted Gila had made to attract the cavalry.
Then Weaver understood: the wall of dead Titan Gilas really was a wall. The monsters couldn’t get through to the hunters or to the Gila wailing in distress.
A loud voice sounded in his head: “Air support coming!” (Weaver thought how his new friend Professor Goldsmith would have been wetting himself over hearing an utterly foreign language and not just automatically translating it but also understanding the web of connotations and contexts in which the words meant what they meant.)
The alien’s legs raced into motion, hurling Weaver forward with every other running hunter—right at the wall of dead predators. The other-mind was too overwhelmed with excitement—
—for Weaver to figure out why they were all rushing toward whatever “air support” was on its way. Didn’t soldiers usually run away from an air strike? Even as he thought this, however, he was able to tell that what his mind had translated from the other-mind as “air support” was different from a terrestrial military backup. Its aim wasn’t to kill everything in the area. It was to capture—
—it. His mind and the other-mind shared a sympathetic vibration at that moment, and Weaver was awash in the alien’s memories of its mission, its training on the tidally locked moons of some great and horrible gas giant, and this, its first assault after the final test on [there was no translation of names of people or places, just the sound in his mind no human could reproduce], where the alien had shown it could handle the Titan Gila for—
—the outfit’s next mission. That mission was the one happening right now. The alien climbed to the top of the barrier of dead Gilas and many parts of other dead Gilas and watched its fellow green-scaled hunters come over the wall of the dead. To Weaver, every one of them looked essentially the same, much like the Star Wars bounty hunter Greedo would if he breathed through his neck and spoke through his mind.
Star Wars? Weaver couldn’t remember what those sounds meant. His mind and the other-mind were too much in sync now, memories and emotions and sensations bleeding both ways inside the head of the alien.
Alien. He was inside an alien consciousness. That meant—
As one, the hundred or so Titan Gilas let out a shriek and started running haphazardly, caught between the mounds of their dead fellows and … what? It took a few seconds before Weaver could hear the sound of whatever was throwing the monsters into a blind panic, but then the tumult rang out through his alien’s feet. Something big was coming at the Gilas, something bigger than any stomp-footed kaiju, bigger than everything, if it could rumble the very ground of Titan; but, looking between the hill of the dead and the horizon, Weaver could find no visual sign of what was so greatly terrifying the Gilas.
Then the alien looked up, and Weaver saw through its eyes a massive, insensibly vast blue-steel leviathan dropping from the sky. Its sonic booms were what was rending the air and driving their monstrous catch mad. As it emerged from the hazy orange sky, it slowed to a standstill, blocking out the bleak sunlight and flattening a ring of terrain along every degree of the horizon. (Weaver had written a paper on this usually overlooked consequence of a massive hovering object à la Independence Day’s monumental invading spacecraft: nothing can belay the effects of gravity except resistance against the surface. Those giant spaceships would never have had to shoot a single laser to destroy New York and Washington and Sydney; all they had to do was hover, and they would crush flat anything beneath them. This megalithic transport, however, pushed back against gravity with virtual legs that crushed the area around its hover target.)
The Titan Gilas stood in place now, not making a sound. A massive hatch on the bottom of the blue leviathan slid open in a way that seemed slow to those on the ground but was probably moving at monumental speed from a vantage point aboard the ship itself.
The rumbling of the anxious animals’ feet ceased entirely as the mass of apex predators rose into the air toward the yawning opening in the ship.
A tractor beam, the Weaver-mind marveled. If he had ever posited in print that he believed that exo-civilizations would boast Star Wars technology, he would have been laughed out of the room.
It would’ve been the same reaction he’d have gotten from saying space aliens would be little green men. (Or big green men, as he and his fellow 10-footers were.) But there it was, an attractor impulse generator … science lingo for “tractor beam.” Weaver was amused.
The other-mind, however, felt only awe as it watched the transfer of the Titan predators. Weaver felt confident that his experience of sharing the alien’s mind would get even more interesting from here. The next world they were visiting was Jupiter’s icy moon Europa, the closest life-bearing world to Titan, for the next—
After this last deep sharing of the other-mind, the world wavered like something seen at the bottom of a swimming pool. The exobiologist felt a wave of disorientation—or, rather, multiple orientations—as his mind unhooked from the alien’s and floated back up to his body on Earth, already mourning the loss of his mind’s other half.
* * *
The EEG and EKG monitors at once regressed to the mean, Weaver’s brain waves calming down as his heart rate made a rapid rise toward normal. His eyes opened.
Colonel Ash and Doctor Vasquez immediately took the few steps to Weaver’s cot and looked down at the exobiologist, who seemed physically fine now.
“Professor?” Vasquez said in a flat, loud voice. “Are you back with us?”
Weaver nodded and indicated the water bottle on the table at which they had just been seated. He took a sip, then a swig, and finally a couple of gulps. “I’m okay,” he croaked. “I’m back.”
“Back from where, Weaver?” Ash asked in anticipation, all but holding his breath.
“Saturn’s moon Titan. I was an alien on Titan. Hunting.”
“The hell, you say,” the colonel said through what was quickly becoming a genuine smile. He pulled a chair right up to the edge of the cot and sat, leaning in with eyes that seemed to sparkle. “Tell me everything.”