Ruth Anders held her pass up to the security guard at the door.
He inspected it closely. “You’re running a little late,” he said. “Local press are at the back, if you’d like to take a seat.” He pushed the door open for her.
Ruth thanked him and made her way into the Kepler Project press conference. She found an empty seat on the right end of the back row and slid in.
On the shallow raised stage at the front of the room, the head of the Kepler Project spouted technical details about Coin 254c, the first extra-solar planet confirmed to have life. They hadn’t seen the life in question, obviously; the planet was around thirty light years away. Various ultra-sensitive telescopes gathered data that, when analysed with state of the art computer models, gave all the vital statistics. At 1.17 times the size of the Earth, with a high oxygen content, and a stable orbit smack in the middle of its star’s habitable zone (where water could exist as a liquid), Coin 254c had all the ingredients needed for life to exist.
Ruth jotted down a few notes.
“Even with a purely hypothetical ion propulsion drive,” the spokesperson said. “It would take us hundreds, if not thousands of years to reach Coin 254c. With our current technology, we would need to send a space ark, as it were, where generations would live to sustain a population until it reached the planet.”
An image of the bloated sausage people from the film Wall-E, floating around on their hover chairs, popped into Ruth’s mind and she stifled a snicker.
“But, perhaps now with the incentive of a goal to reach, mankind may renew its efforts to explore space and reach out across the galaxy. Thank you.”
The assembled press clapped. Ruth pinned her notebook to her knee with one elbow and joined in. No one had questions, they were all too eager to hear what the next man had to say; the President of the United States. After a brief pause, the chatter in the room died down and the man approached the lectern. Ruth could hardly believe she was in the same room as the actual president; it was not the kind of thing that happened to her.
“Ladies and gentlemen. This is an historic day.”
The air behind him shimmered, distorting the presentation slides projected on the wall. Ruth glanced at the reporter next to her. Had anyone else seen that? A ripple of gasps spread through the crowd and the President turned. In a blink, the shimmer became three figures and the gasps turned to screams.
They stood on two legs, a similar height to a man. Large, bug eyes sat high in reptilian faces with flat noses and ears sculpted to the side of elongated skulls. Colourless lips peeled back to reveal pointed teeth and the leader, or at least the one at the front, raised its arm towards the President. The device gripped in its long, clawed fingers emitted a pulse and the man flew backwards into the crowd.
The screams grew in pitch and people clambered over their chairs to escape. Pulses from the weapon reduced individuals to quivering lumps, draped over chairs. Ruth dropped to the floor and crawled behind the seats at the back as her heart tried to beat its way out through a point somewhere just below her throat.
The sound of gunfire blasted the room. Ruth clamped her hands over her ears and peeked between the chairs. A group of armed security personnel gathered at the wings of the stage and returned fire. The aliens —she couldn’t think of a better explanation— wore some kind of body armour, and bullets aimed at their heads ricocheted off invisible force fields. Only two of them battled against the human agents with their pulse weapons; the third stood at the back with a large tablet-like device. He was smaller than the other two, or perhaps it was a she.
One of the agent’s bullets hit a panel on an alien’s shoulders, and the force field around its head winked out in a flash. The next bullet found its eye and it dropped to the floor oozing thick purple blood.
The second armed alien barked guttural commands to the one behind. It shouted back and frantically punched buttons on its panel. The air on the stage shimmered again and a large, metallic object materialised. The smaller alien rushed forward and opened a panel on the side of the tapered hexagon. It poked at a few controls and the device purred to life, throbbing and flashing with in an ominous, regular rhythm.
Ruth crouched lower and held her breath. Behind her, the press crowd hammered at the electrically sealed doors. The agents dispatched the last armed alien and advanced on the one with the control panel. It barked at them in its unintelligible language, slapped at a button on its chest and threw back its head with a harsh braying sound. Laughing.
Purple gore exploded out and decorated the room. The control panel hit the rear wall, bounced off, and landed by Ruth. She paused and then dove for it. The throbbing, pulsing machine increased in tempo. Symbols and shapes moved around on the illuminated flat screen device. She pressed the meaningless icons, mashing them in a random sequence she prayed would send the thing back to where it came from. Please, please, please. She screwed her eyes shut as the throbbing became a high pitched whine and then abruptly became bird song.
She peeked out one eye. Lush green grass surrounded her. She crouched in the middle of a clearing, ringed by tall trees, the control panel still clasped in her hand. A clump of alien innards matted her clipped up, blond hair with purple goo and she shuddered as she scraped the worst of the mess off.
Somehow the panel had transported her. But what had happened back at the press conference? Had the bomb exploded? How big had the explosion been? And how far had she travelled. She looked up at the sun. Was she even still on Earth?
She clambered to her feet and turned around to survey her surroundings. Behind her a huge, stepped pyramid soared towards the sky and she gasped. Grass and weeds sprouted from between the cracked, weathered stones. Not new, not in use. Perhaps she would be able to see something from the top.
She held the control panel in a white knuckle grip in case it decided to do something treacherous like disappear. A long flight of steps ran up the centre of the pyramid towards its summit and she climbed methodically. Half way up she stopped and sat, panting. When she got home, she was going to the gym more often.
There were carvings on the stone she sat on. She scraped away some of the lichen and moss between her legs and traced her fingers over the pictograms. They looked familiar, like something she’d seen in a history book, so maybe that meant she was still on Earth. If this was an Aztec or Mayan ruin, surely there would be tourists and roads and she could get help.
She started up the final ascent.
The top of the pyramid emerged above the tree line and the view stole Ruth’s breath away. Small puffy clouds dotted a deep blue sky and a sea of treetops stretched away in all directions, swelling over hills. Hazy mountains sat on the far horizon.
She couldn’t see any roads, or any gaps in the trees to suggest where a road could be. There were no parking lots or modern buildings. Perhaps this wasn’t a popular tourist destination. Had she escaped being blown up just to die alone, lost in some jungle, God knows where? Fear settled in her stomach like a mass of writhing snakes.
There were more ruins, not pyramids, but smaller structures, poking out between the trees. Maybe there would be signs or something to give her a clue which way to walk. She descended the steps and skirted the bottom of the pyramid. On the far side, patches of stone peeked through the grass, suggesting the area had once been paved. She followed the ancient road towards the structures in the trees.
The lonely beauty of the place enchanted her and pushed away the sense of dread. She ran her hands over the moss covered walls. She’d always wanted to travel and see places like this, but she never seemed to have the money, or the time. Or the courage, a small voice inside added.
A figure flashed across her path up ahead.
“Hello?” she called. “Can you help me?”
A moment later, he returned and stared at her. He wore nothing but a loin cloth below his rounded pot belly. The string of a bow and strap of a quiver crossed his chest, and a small dagger poked through his waist band. But he was, blessedly, reassuringly, human.
Ruth took a step towards him. “Oh, thank God! Can you help me? I need to get to a phone.”
He gabbled something in rapid foreign tongue. Was that Spanish? Portuguese?
“Do you speak English?”
“English?” he parroted. Then he gibbered something else she couldn’t understand, rushed forward and grabbed her by the arm. His grip dug in and he pulled her after him, through the ruins.
Oh great! Now she was being abducted by one of the locals. She was probably going to be turned into a ritual sacrifice.
They emerged into a village of small mud huts. A few of the residents looked up from chores and a small flock of naked children formed a procession behind them. Ruth felt scared tears building and her limbs trembled. “Look, I’m sorry if I was trespassing. I’m not sure how I got here, or where I am, I just want to get home.”
Her abductor dragged her towards a pale canvas tent set a little way back from the other huts. He suddenly released his grip and she tripped. She crashed to the floor at the mouth of the tent. More foreign voices shouted back and forth and she balled herself up on the ground.
Two brown leather boots emerged into the patch of ground in front of her. The man attached to them said something to the others and then crouched before her.
She kept her head down as he said something she didn’t understand. His tone was soft though.
“I’m sorry, I don’t understand you,” she whimpered.
“You speak English?” he said, his voice strong with a British accent.
Ruth looked up, past thick woollen socks, over grubby khaki shorts and shirt to a stubble dusted chin and sharp blue eyes. Then she took in the battered fedora hat and lost it. “Now I’m dreaming I get rescued by Indiana Jones! Next James Bond is gonna come parachuting out of the sky!” She sucked in rapid breaths.
“I died, that must be it. The bomb went off and I died, and this is just my dying brain trying to make me feel better.” Black spots popped across her vision.
“There’s a bomb?”
Ruth looked the man in the eyes. “Yes, the aliens brought it.” The black spots joined up and she slumped sideways.
“Will you be requiring anything else, Señor Bell?”
“No. Thank you, Pepe.” Neil slouched in his folding chair with a tin mug of coffee between his hands.
The woman lay on his camp bed beside him, still sleeping. Her strange device sat on his tiny table, emitting a pale purple glow. It resembled certain representations he’d come across in his work, but it was no Mayan artefact. The symbols on its surface were similar to certain Mayan pictograms; he couldn’t even begin to fathom how that was possible.
The woman mumbled something in her sleep and shifted. He glanced down at her in the faint afternoon light from the opening in his tent. She was pretty, underneath all the filth that crusted her skin and hair. Her clothes were an unfamiliar cut, but then, he’d been in the field for nearly two years and fashion had probably moved on. Her tailored trousers and blouse followed the curves of her body in a way he was sure his mother would thoroughly disapprove of. But, since the war, a lot of ideas about women were changing.
Her shoes were more of an enigma. He’d taken them off before tucking her under the blanket and had a good look at them. Though they were black and looked like leather, they weren’t. It was some new plastic, several different kinds in fact. He wondered what else he’d missed, being away from civilisation.
“No, no,” the woman muttered, tossing her head.
“It’s okay, you’re safe here.”
She let out a little whimper and her eyes snapped open. A second later she seemed to notice him and scuttled back against the edge of the tent, clutching the blanket.
“Where am I?”
“It’s okay, you’re safe. This is my expedition. No one’s going to hurt you.”
“No I mean where. This is Earth, right?”
He frowned. “Of course it is. Did you hit your head?”
She drew her knees up and hugged them. “I don’t think so. I don’t know. All I know is, one second I was at the press conference, and the bomb was about to blow, and then that thing brought me here.” She looked around, her eyes widening. “Where is it?”
“It’s right here.” Neil lifted the device from the table. “What is it?”
“How should I know? The aliens brought it, and used it to make the bomb appear.”
She was making no sense. Neil pinched the bridge of his nose. “I think you should rest. There’ll be food later, and I’ll try to find you something clean to wear.” He stood and moved towards the entrance.
“Wait. I’m not crazy. That thing really did bring me here.”
“It’s okay. We’ll figure it out. Just rest for now.”
Outside, Pepe peeled spuds into a bucket.
“Keep an eye on her, I need to take a look at something,” Neil said. He grabbed a torch and his notebook from his truck and then added some papers and charcoal to take rubbings.
There was so much to document at the site there’d been no need to excavate, except for what they now called the storybook chamber. The entrance had teased them with promises and over three months he’d painstakingly removed the rubble and soil from inside the subterranean room. They called it the story book chamber because it seemed to have no purpose, other than to be a canvas for the images on the walls.
Neil descended the worn stone steps into the cool room and panned his torch across the images. Between blocks of pictograms, relief carvings showed pyramids and people worshipping. He found what he was looking for near the bottom of one wall and sat cross legged to sketch the shape. Rounded edges and a hint of marks on its surface matched the girl’s device. Shallow lines radiated away from the drawing, like light emitting from it. The uncanny resemblance sent a shiver down his spine. How could something they’d drawn on a wall a thousand years ago suddenly appear out of nowhere now?
He’d only partially translated the writings in the chamber; he needed access to books back at the university to complete it. Parts of it dealt with the gods and their demands and parts referred to what he thought probably translated as “travellers”, but other parts made no sense at all, talking about “loops of time” and “the star coin”, which he figured he was reading wrong.
He took a rubbing of the image and folded it neatly inside his notebook to walk back.
As he reached the camp he heard raised voices and quickened his pace.
“No I won’t calm down. Where is he?”
“Señor Bell will be back soon. Please, Señora.”
Neil emerged into the clearing and took in the scene. Potatoes rolled everywhere. The girl brandished the potato peeler while Pepe used his bucket as a shield. In her other hand she clutched a scrunched up newspaper.
“Pepe? What’s going on?”
“Ah, Señor, gracias a Dios! I fear she has lost her mind.”
“I have not. This is all just one sick game. Take me to a telephone, now!”
Neil approached slowly with his palms facing her. “There isn’t a telephone for a hundred miles. Now just put that down, and tell me what’s wrong.”
She shook the tattered newspaper at him. “He tried to tell me this was from last week, which is ridiculous.”
Neil wasn’t sure how to respond to that. “We only make trips to the nearest town once a fortnight.”
“But it says nineteen fifty-nine!” She said, shaking it at him again.
“I would imagine it does, yes.”
She laughed at him, a little hysteria creeping in then jabbed the peeler at him. “Who’s president?”
“Well, Truman, at last I checked. I have been out here a couple of years.”
She scowled at him as if that wasn’t the answer she wanted. “Okay, um, who was the first man on the moon?”
He frowned at her. “What? No one’s ever… are you’re talking about science fiction? Jules Verne, maybe?”
“Shut up. Stop making fun of me.”
“I’m not making fun of you, please, I promise. Just put that down and we’ll talk about it.”
She looked at the peeler in her hand. Tears bubbled up and streaked down her cheeks. “It’s supposed to be two thousand twelve. They came and killed everyone and now I’m here and I just want to go home.”
She dropped to her knees. The peeler stabbed into the muddy ground and she cupped both hands over her face.
Neil crept closer. “It’s okay, come on.” He lifted her gently under the arms and she buried her face against his chest. He stroked her grubby hair. “We’ll find a way. I promise.”
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