The Artifact

By Adrian Holmes

I was called in from the Heiman University on Domain to investigate the finding of a possible alien artifact on Alpha Calypso 5. Normally I wouldn’t travel so far for something like this, but the message coming from Paul Ruder made me think that this could be the real thing. 50 light-years was a long way to go for something that could easily have been determined through a detail report. But, by the way that Paul had described it the two-month journey in a cramped transport would have made it worthwhile if it turned out to be real.

The T1.1 class planet was the fifth from Alpha Calypso prime and had a moderately heavier gravity than Domain’s T.093 or Earth’s T1. Its orbit was also well within the Goldilocks range so that it sustained an active atmosphere with plenty of liquid water. Water meant indigenous life and although most of it was oceanic a few species of moss-like trees and insectoids accounted for the terrestrial lifeforms. Part of the reason life on land was so sparse was that the planet had undergone a severe ice age. Now, as the planet enters a post-glacial period, life was blossoming as new opportunities became available to them. The landscape, with its few tree-like plants huddling along its waterways and primitive animal life, resembled a scene from Earth’s primordial past. Thus far nothing in the way of intelligent life had been found on Alpha Calypso Five so if the artifact proved to be of non-natural origin it would imply a visitation from a race of beings not of this world and had arrived through interstellar travel. This would be significant because so few such artifacts had been found in the 300 years since humankind left Sol Prime.

The Ageas assumed a geocentric stationary orbit around AC5’s equator, just above the research camp, and I descended to the site on one of the supply ship’s shuttles. After a turbulent entry through the upper atmosphere, the slow descent under the heavy clouds gave me my first view of the plain surrounded by receding glaciers and rough moraines. Through the shuttle’s port side portal, which would be the planet’s geographical south, I could see the snowcapped mountains that were on the northern edge of a fifty-mile-wide valley and of the area where the camp that was situated. Even from a hundred kilometers two features stood out inside the valley. One was a large extrusion of what had once been a volcanic cone and the other a rectangular, alabaster plateau that was the artifact itself. It was on the northern side of the artifact where the base camp was located and close to it was the landing pad for the shuttle.

The object that I was called to examine was massive. From the air, it rose up several meters from the plain and occupied a space about five kilometers in width and maybe 3 times that in length. Judging from the air this meant it was at least seventy-five square kilometers in size! The structure’s white coloration stood out in contrast with the surrounding gray of the broken granite outcrop and the yellow sandstone sediments. The top surface, though appearing flat, was actually studded with several scattered objects that later I was to find were pylons several meters high. We landed on the pad a half kilometer from the camp and I accompanied the crew in one of their wheeled land carriers.

Climbing out of the carrier the first thing that struck me was the temperate climate. It was overcast and it had just rain so that there was the smell of wet stone in the air. The oxygen level was surprisingly high making breathing easy so an environmental suit with carbon scrubbers was not necessary. I had read in the report that the reason for this was the abundance of phytoplankton in AC5’s oceans. This also explained why water-bound lifeforms were on the cusp of evolving into creatures that would soon exploit terrestrial niches. It felt like I was not only in a different world but in a different time.

I made my way to the great wall that was one side of the great structure. I stepped up close to it and felt its lightly pitted surface with my bare hands. Up close you could see that it was milky white like quartz and where it was smooth it had the feel of liquid softness and warmth like that of polished glass. Coming close to it, touching it with my cheek, I looked first west and then east along its length and into infinity. The top edge was sixty meters above me and from where I stood looking up its straightness split the sky with a smooth bleached solid surface on one side and a tumultuous gray ether on the other. For a moment I felt that only gods could have created something this perfect and beautiful. That moment was lost when I realized I wasn’t alone.

“You know, Yoshi, using state property for personal business is a punishable offense carrying a term of no less than three months in a rehab facility. But for a modest bribe, I could be talked into giving you two a few moments of privacy.”

It was Yon Kimber, the project’s chief geologist also from Heiman and a good friend I have known for 10 years. Tall and lanky, he was jovial by nature though very passionate when it came to his work. He was assigned to the survey project and was very excited when he heard that AC5 had glaciers. At first, finding a flat surface such as this in a wide valley meant that gypsum from an ancient seabed had been exposed by the receding glaciers. At least, those were his initial thoughts until he realized that nothing in the surrounding geological strata indicated a desiccated body of water. Then, what really got him going was the fact that it was not made of gypsum at all or of anything that could have been made by natural processes. Kimber’s findings intrigued the project’s field director, Nat Ibaria, and at his request, he ordered for its excavation. Four months later they had managed to clear only what I had been able to see from the shuttle and there was evidence to suggest that there was significantly more hidden underground. It soon became clear to everyone on the project that they were dealing with something that could be of artificial origin. The preliminary findings were so compelling that it was enough to convince the director of the Institute for Exo-biology and Natural History, Paul Ruder, of its importance and to contact me, Yoshi Ishimoto, xenoarcheologist at Heiman University.

“My god, Yon, this is wonderful,” I said to him as I detached myself from the wall.

“You haven’t seen anything yet.”

“What’s it made of?”

“Some kind of molybdenum disulfide silicate crystal in a carbon graphene-iron alloy matrix with a few other earth metals thrown in for variety. It’s nothing like the surrounding granites, heck, it’s nothing like anything I’ve seen or read about.”

“The surface, it’s so smooth. There’s no seams or lines that I can see. Don’t tell me it’s all one piece?”

“As far as we know it’s made of one solid block all uniform in composition with very little variance. The only disparities we’ve been able to find are the cupric chloride nodules and pylons that are embedded unvaryingly in the structure starting at 20 meters beneath its surface.”

“Do you know what they are? What they do?”

“Hell, we don’t even know what IT is! And then there’s the age.”

“How old is it?”

“Well, let’s discuss this and a few other things at the campsite. Ibara and the team want to meet you and you’re probably a bit hungry too.”

“After looking at this I don’t think I can eat.”

“Professor Yoshu Ishimoto xenoarcheologist from Heiman University and Domain Institute of Exo-biology and Natural History, I presume?” said the squat, bulldog faced man that was Field Director Nat Ibara of the Dominion Department of Planetary Exploration and head of the survey project. He sat at his desk looking up at me with a stern look on his face.

“Yes, Field Director,” I said as I held out my hand. The field director didn’t offer his.

“Yes, well, around here we follow protocol and one of which is that we report directly to the main camp office upon arrival.”

I let my unanswered hand drop slowly as I mentally winced.

“I do apologize for the indiscretion, Field Director, but when I arrived I just felt the need to see the artifact up close. It’s a stupendous find and I couldn’t help myself.”

“Around here we call it the geo-anomaly,” Ibara said without humor. “It is your presence here that will make the determination as to whether it is indeed an artifact or if it remains a geological anomaly. So, until you make that determination, stupendous or not, we will continue to refer to it as the anomaly. As to your “feelings” I suggest you show some restraint while you’re here. Your credentials, please?”

I handed the director my I-Data card and he scanned it with his tablet.

“Well, it all seems in order. If you and Mister Kimber will follow me we’ll go into the lab module so you can meet the rest of the section leaders.”

We left the modular habitat that made up his office and entered a larger one that was the lab itself. In there I saw several tables with a variety of samples, both biological and geological, and an assortment of testing equipment. Present there were what I assume were the two section leaders that made up the rest of the survey expedition.

“Professors Mark Harmon, exobiology; Elaine Melon, chemistry; and Yon Kimber, geology you know. Professors, I want you to meet Professor Yoshu Ishimoto of the Heiman University Domain, xenoarcheology.”

“Professor.” acknowledged the short man who was introduced as Harmon. The other, Melon, just nodded without expression.

After a moment of uncomfortable silence, Ibera finally said, “Well, now that we have had our introductions we can discuss the matter at hand. Professor Kimber, you may start the-”

“Before we begin,” I said interruptedly, “I would like to say a few things just so that there won’t be any misunderstandings.”

“Oh, and what misunderstandings could there possibly be, Professor Ishimoto?” Harmon asked rather rudely.

“Here we go,” said Melon as she rolled her eyes and crossed her arms before turning away.

“Mister Director, professors, let me make this clear,” I started to say. “I’m not here to question your work or to take any credit away from you or anyone on the team. I’m not here to oversee, or to be critical in any way as to how you or anyone of you have run this project. My job here is to assess what you have found and determine whether this artifact, excuse me, this geo-anomaly is of alien origin. If it turns out to be what I suspect it to be, that is, not a natural phenomenon, I will see to it that due credit is given to all that have done the work. I guess what I’m saying is, I’m not here to take anything away. I’m here only as a professional courtesy and nothing more.”

“That’s all fine and dandy,” said Harmon. “But, don’t be too offended if I say I don’t trust you.”

“You see, Professor Ishimoto,” Ibara began, “you have to understand why we’re a bit hesitant in sharing our findings, especially since they are very preliminary.”

“I think I can understand, Mister Director, and I’ve read the report, preliminary as it is. If you don’t mind me saying, and it is not an exaggeration, that what you have here may be the find of the century. As for trust, well, you’ll just have to accept it on my word.”

“You see, Yoshi,” began to explain Yon, “this team didn’t just spend the last eleven months here on Alpha Calypso 5, we’ve been working independently on this planet for 3 years prior to coming here. There’s a lifetime of work in the data collected on A-See Fiver that will keep us all busy for many years to come. If this discovery ends up being the real thing, well, it’s an academic bonus and one of great notoriety. We don’t want anyone, especial the Institute, to take it and the credit away from us.”

“We’ve all worked very hard on this, Professor Ishimoto,” Melon suddenly spoke up. “We’re not about to let some bureaucrat from the Dominion bring others in who will push us out and take it over.”

“Professor Melon, everyone, please understand,” I said, “although I’m a representative of the Institute I’m a researcher in my own right and a scientist first. I want to know what the anomaly is every bit as much as the rest of you. If by chance we all agree that it is, or is not, of an alien origin I will accept the opinion of everyone on the team and will respectfully reflect that in my report. As for the Dominion, let me and the Institute deal with them. The Director of the Institute is only interested in finding the truth and has enough significant clout within the government to get what you need. He’ll help me back up your claim all the way and even provide assistance so that you can continue your work here.”

“Mark, Elaine, Mister Director, I’ve known Professor Ishimoto for years. I’ve done research with him and you’ll never meet a more open-minded and honest individual than Yoshi. If he said you can trust him, believe me, you can.” Yon said as he looked at his colleagues.

“Well, Mister Kimber, I guess if you vouch for the man we’ll just have to trust him too.” With that said from Ibara, both Harmon and Melon took turns explaining their findings.

Their report was long, detailed, and went straight through the night with only a few interruptions from me when I had questions. Although we took several breaks we never stopped discussing what the team had found about the geo-anomaly. Besides what Yon had already told me the remaining details from the section leaders left my head reeling. To begin with, the dimensions of the artifact, and I will call it as such from here on, was mindboggling. Its width is 5.4 and length 16.6 kilometers. What had taken four months to uncover was soon discovered to be only the top of the structure for gravimetric readings indicate that there are another thirty kilometers is buried underneath! It is not only embedded into the continental craton but may even be sitting on the outer edge of a magma plume. It is old, very old, 3.3 BILLION years old!

Wedged as it was within the crustal plate, the artifact, despite its age, shows no obvious deformity except for one. That one exception pertained to its original height for at one point it may have been 8 to 9 kilometers taller. Scattered along the moraines on the western side of the valley were found polished pieces of the structure measuring anywhere from 3 to 45 centimeters in diameter. Once the pieces had been cataloged they added up to an estimated volume large enough to make up the additional height. Even if taken at its lower estimates, the total volume would have been approximated 3500 cubic kilometers! Then there’s its density. Using gravity displacement from debris samples it gave them a density of 1.3 to 2.7 g/cm 3 making it less dense than the surrounding granite and buoyant compared to the surrounding crustal material. Despite this, the alloy matrix of the artifact made it exceptionally strong enough to have endured the ravages of time. Yon explained to me that it took four hours of high-intensity laser drilling just to get three centimeters into the substrate. Most disturbingly to the team, and to myself when I heard it, was that about 253,000 years ago a catastrophic event had cleanly sheared the top third of the artifact almost instantaneously. This was a structure that had remained unchanged for thousands of millions of years until one day it lost its top. Could it have been due to some geological event? There was a volcano nearby, could it have done it? Evidence within the moraine debris showed that the volcano had long been dormant before the calamitous event occurred. Facts, and with each, more questions. The data on the composition, structural distribution, and the purpose of the nodules and pylons added more to the mystery of the anomalous structure than understanding.

I was both excited and awed with all that I heard. Even with so many unanswered questions, the magnitude of the finding left me with such a profound feeling of wonder. I now know what it must have felt like to be have been there when Heinrich Schliemann excavated Troy. The exhilaration of Howard Carter as they opened King Tutankhamen’s tomb. I even understood what may have gone through Edward L. Morov’s mind when he and his team discovered the first alien artifact on Chiron and establish the discipline I now study. “Here is just a small sample of what the gods had left us mortals to contemplate. Even the simplest will take several lifetimes to understand.” And so far it has taken several lifetimes with little progress. Now, a new mystery.

In the morning we broke for breakfast and afterward I went to my assigned quarters to begin the report to the Institute. We had all come to the agreement that this was not a naturally occurring geological structure but one of artificial construction and that it could not have been done by the indigenous life. It was truly an artifact of alien origin. Besides providing all of the team’s findings I also included why it would have to be necessary to increase manpower and equipment in order to continue the work. In the conclusion of the report, as I had promised, I strongly recommended that credit be given to all who were involved with the project and that the same team remain to do further research. After sending the report out through the ComNet I took a nap before dinner.

I awoke refreshed and cleaned up a bit before going to the mess commons. On arriving I found that an impromptu celebration party had been organized for both the entire expedition team and the crew of the Ageas. As I slept, the Institute had replied to my report and had agreed with all my recommendations. During the festivities, I spent most of my time conversing with some of the field techs I hadn’t met and even got to know the director and the section leaders a little better. Ibara turned out not to be as bad as my first impressions made him out to be. As a matter of fact, he was quite a cheery guy …especially after a few drinks. Ibara, I was to learn, was very protective of his team and even earned him the nickname of “Papa Doc”. Harmon also wasn’t so bad either and was actually quite likable. I was surprised to learn that my friend Kimber and Harmon had both attended the same university on Jovi and had even finished their dissertations around the same time, although in different fields of course. Elaine Melon, though, was a bit harder to get to figure out. She seems to be a bit standoffish and kept most of her thoughts to herself. That appeared to be true for throughout yesterday’s presentation it seemed to me she was holding back on something important she didn’t feel free enough to share. Even now, during the gathering, she drifted from one small group to another and spoke very little. It was like watching a bee pollinating a field of flowers; just staying long enough to make her presence known before moving on.

Someone suggested taking the party up to the top of “The Slab” and soon everyone was leaving the commons to get in line for the lift to the “roof”. Once up there, the revelry continued with small groups scattering across the wide, immense plateau. In places, the darkness was broken by conspiratorial bonfires that had been lighted with the knowledge that “Papa Doc” wouldn’t mind it just this once. It was a time to relax and celebrate, for everyone to let their hair down, to enjoy the scenery and some company. It also helped that the view of the sky above the vast plane was breathtaking.

I spotted Professor Melon walking alone by a cluster of pylons. Gathering some strength from my slightly inebriated state, I decided to walk over to her and talk. She appeared to be in deep thought when I spoke and startled her.

“I’m sorry, Professor, I didn’t mean to disturb you.”

“That’s okay,” she said after she calmed down. “I guess I was lost in my thoughts.” Her pale skin glowed in the darkness as if it reflected the starlight from the sky.

“Nice view”, I said as I turned and pointed to the spectacular sky.

“Yes, indeed it is. Being as close as Alpha Calypso Prime is to the galactic center it gives us a view on A-See Fiver that is seen by very few people, Professor Ishimoto.”

“Yoshi, please. My friends call me Yoshi.”

“Okay, Yoshi, and I guess you may call me Elaine.” Even though I couldn’t see her face all that clearly I felt her blush.

We shared a few awkward moments of silence as we continued to look up at the sky. I spoke again.

“So, what were you thinking about, if I may ask? Before I startled you.”

“Thinking? Oh, yes, thinking before you arrived. Yes. Questions. Questions we don’t have answers to, I guess.” I could sense that she was beginning to feel more relaxed with me. This made me hope that she would finally open up and maybe tell me what was really on her mind. Would she tell me what she was holding back?

“About the artifact?” I chanced to ask.

“Yes, the artifact.”

I waited for her to continued but when she didn’t I finally looked at her inquisitively.

“Well, if you really want to know,” she started to explain, “and if I do tell you, you’ll have to promise not to mention it to anyone, especially in a report? If I can have that promise then I’ll tell you.” She smiled and winked flirtishly although I knew she was being serious.

“Cross my heart. What is said on A-See Fiver will stay on A-See Fiver,” I said as I overemphasized the mark crossed my chest.

“Do you have any idea what this is?” she waved her arms around us indicating the artifact. “I mean ANY real idea what it could be?”

“Well, I can say something quasi-profound like, ‘can we ever really know what an alien culture was thinking when they built it?’ but, that wouldn’t answer anything.”

Elaine looked down for a moment before looking away. She seemed to me like she had an idea but was reluctant to share with me. I drew her attention back to me by continuing. “Alright, let’s figure it out by understanding what it can’t be. Obviously, it’s not a building or a similar structure because it lacks doors, windows, any kind of interior passageways or chambers. It’s solid, and solid with little variation. Those variations we have been able to find, the nodules and pylons, for example, do not seem to serve any applicable function, like structural support, or if they were once part of a larger array within the monolith’s matrix they seem to be inert now. To speculate any further into that would be fruitless without knowing what they are and so far they aren’t giving up any secrets. Was it meant to serve a more basic function as a docking port? Nine kilometers high is a long distance from the ground. Wouldn’t it have been easier just to land on the ground? Okay, maybe conditions weren’t suitable, it still doesn’t explain why there would only be one. Why only one? If there were others, why did only this one survive?

Once I came across an old story, a fictional one, where a strange alien artifact showed up at the doorstep of our ancient ape ancestors. This artifact began to “teach” the ape-men to make tools and that’s how humanity got its start. Could our monolith serve the same function? Was it meant for some future indigenous lifeform to find and we just interfered with the master plan of some ancient spacefaring race? If so, why doesn’t

it stop us and tell us to shove off? Why is it inactive? Did the shearing break it somehow? And what about that? What could have broken it like that? I don’t know. I’m not even sure we’ll ever know.

Elaine, I’ve racked my brains all the way around this thing half a dozen ways. I’ve asked Kimber, Harmon, hell, even Ibara what their thoughts are and everything that we could think of sums up to one big fat zero.”

I didn’t realize how much I had expressed my frustration in the last sentence until I stopped and looked at Professor Melon’s face. With a look of mock indignation and humor, she asked, “Did it ever occur to you to ask me?”

Feeling trapped by my own folly I asked, “Well, okay, do you have an idea of what it could be?”

She looked contemplatively for a moment before she answered.

“The artifact reminds me of what I saw when I was a little girl. Back then, I was one of the first settlers to colonize Avalon and thinking back to those days it struck me how closely similar it is to something I remember.” I looked at her questionably. “Now, wait a minute, Yoshi, hear me out. I was part of the initial settlement group and we found ourselves in wide expanses of land ready to be surveyed and plotted for claims. Do you know how they do that? Well, before the GPS can be set land surveyors plot the territory the old-fashioned way using stake markers driven into the ground. Those marked sections of plotted lots are sold as claims to people willing to work it. It’s done to minimize disputes where claims on featureless stretches of land can be contested.”

“I still don’t get what you’re getting at.”

“Listen, I remember once there was a dispute between two landowners. The plaintiff accused his neighbor of moving the markers unto his property line. In such a dispute another team is called in to do a resurvey and settle it. Sometimes mistakes are found in the original survey. But, there are times when it’s discovered that markers were indeed either moved or destroyed by one of the two claimants. After the new survey was done the old markers are removed, new ones take their place, and the dispute is settled.”

“So, who won?”

“What? Doesn’t matter. It’s what they used for markers that I’m trying to tell you about. They’re coded transponders on simple graphsteel spikes stuck into the ground, that’s all. It’s really low tech stuff and that’s what got me thinking. What if the artifact is a marker, a spike, telling others ‘We claim this as our own’?”

I stood dumbfounded. What if she was right? What if the artifact was nothing more than a claim marker? Could some celestial being from long ago have driven a spike into this world as a sign of ownership? I was almost convinced until I thought of a flaw in her reasoning.

“How do you explain its destruction?”

“It’s obvious. Someone disputed the claim.”