10-4 short story

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A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis

10.4 (Fall 2010)




courtesy of artrenewal.org


Supreme Anomaly

J. S. Moseby

      On initial scans from the Remote Orbiter, it had puzzled the geologists.  It possessed the height of a moderate volcanic mountain, yet it lacked cone-like contours.  Even the severest volcanic slopes might have approached only forty degrees on a planet of this mass, and then only at their summit: this object, feature, or structure was virtually perpendicular to the surface.  Nearer and nearer scans justified the equally insane impression–a fantasy which everyone expected to see dispelled by each better image–that the sides were perfectly squared.  Measurement of the shadow cast by the anomaly when AC 13 was rising, setting, and at various intermediate stages of day confirmed the height at six thousand meters (less by perhaps two to three hundred).

    That the planet’s gravitational force was comparable to Earth’s, and that its atmosphere was of a terrestrial density, offered no clues.  Indeed, Ogygia’s many resemblances to a home that most of us remembered well (and whose images all of us revisited almost weekly, if not daily) only deepened the mystery.  For nothing like this had ever been seen on Earth.

       One way–the immediately obvious way–in which Ogygia differed from Earth was the apparently complete absence of life on or in her.  One could scarcely be sure without a landing: hence our mission, or one of its major objectives.  But it had been very clear to everyone for a very long time that highly evolved life had not overrun the planet’s surface.  This removed yet another plain explanation (and what would have been much the most exciting one) for the anomaly.  Something so unnatural in shape and size must truly be unnatural, an artificial construct.  Yet where were the artificers?  There were no observable roads, aqueducts, or canals; no supporting structures, such as independent habitations or protective walls or towers; no signs of ordinary social flow, such as spontaneous low-energy sources or routine small movements.  There was no movement at all, routine or sporadic: no movement over the dusty alluvial plains, no movement along the ragged ridges to the north and west, no movement of any perceptible sort in the permanently shadow-draped valleys.  Certainly no movement in the air, unless it originated in something the size of an insect.  And, eventually, we would have detected even insects.  Besides, insects require vegetation; and of visible surface vegetation, there was none, either.  Ogygia was turning out to be much more like Mars than Earth.

    But then, all the life on Mars had turned out to live below the surface.  So it might be here: hence the mission.

    But then again, Mars had never displayed anything like Anomaly 3 (so-called simply because of the quadrant in which the scanners started their work: it was indisputably Number One in regard to its oddity).  In the early days of photographing Mars, explorers had frightened themselves after too many days and weeks of poring over grainy gray blots, imagining at last that they had found a vast face set upon the surface to stare into the stars like a Sphinx.  Of course, a good night’s sleep and a new angle of the Sun had dispelled the thrilling terror.

    And there was something else about the Martian incident–something that undermined its credibility as a sign of life–which one would have to class back among “resemblances” in the context of Ogygia.  The “face” had been unique.  There had been no other faces staring at possible extra-Martian lenses from other parts of the planet.  If a sophisticated population were to engineer such an enormous sculpture–if they were to consider its erection so important as to justify one megalith–then why not five, or eight, or eighty?  So for Anomaly 3: if it were built by intelligent and technologically advanced life, why would it be the only one of its kind?  There should be copies of it, or perhaps smaller versions leading up to it.  Several pyramids were made in ancient Egypt.  (Had there been more than one Sphinx?  To be researched later.  But DICTA makes mention of Polynesian face-monuments built for no apparent reason, yet in the hundreds.  Can we or can we not infer, then, that there should be more than one Anomaly 3?  If we cannot understand our own kind from several thousand years back…)

    Be that as it may, there were no replicas of Anomaly 3 anywhere on Ogygia.  Nothing of even a few dozen meters in height.  The mapping had long been complete as we planned the mission.  There was nothing comparable anywhere on this planet, or anywhere (that we knew of) in this arm of the galaxy.

    Of the other eight anomalies, already we knew that one had been entirely misread by an intern and two others due to instrumental shortcomings.  Anomaly 2 was indeed a remarkable volcano, and Anomaly 6 was of a sort that we could all scarcely wait to view directly in the mission’s next phase: a frozen lake, perhaps, or something with extraordinarily reflective properties.  Yet these and the remaining genuine oddities fell into categories of structure found elsewhere in the galaxy.  They were exciting, but far from baffling.  Only Anomaly 3 should not have existed.

    We had known this before the landing.  We had even viewed the site remotely before the landing with a resolution well beyond the human eye’s (achieved now by the fully mobile ATAVUS, which executed a complete walk-around: Anomaly 3’s perimeter proved so huge that  the survey had to be discontinued after AC 13 set and resumed the next morning).  Yet somehow we were unprepared for what we saw upon disembarking.  The artificial eye had not been capable of the human version’s exquisite peripheral vision: it had not dizzied us as we looked on from orbit.  On the contrary, it had frustrated us with too much detail.  It had revealed to us the texture of Anomaly 3’s wall–a non-porous, unpolished stone (probably synthetic) which offered no seam for meter after meter, kilometer after kilometer.  Each face had measured just under a kilometer and a half in width: not one centimeter of all that had betrayed any crack or fissure, natural or manufactured.

    But this foreknowledge, shocking though it certainly was, had not primed us for the sheer, unspeakable, unthinkable enormity of the structure.  It hit us instantly upon exiting the lander.  Sardelis fell straight back in the dust.  I know this because I stumbled over him as the weight of the vision pushed me back, as well: I should probably have ended up on my back, too, if his body had not preempted my tumble.  Perhaps the others responded the same way, every one of them.  It is extremely likely that they did.  Yet I never looked.  I could look at nothing but the great monolithic face, rising and rising and rising and rising, stretching and stretching and stretching.  I can only describe my feeling as one of being afloat.  With so much surface spreading to either horizon and fanning upward until it actually pierced a wisp of haze and continued beyond, one had the distinct and reversed sense that DOWN THERE should have been one’s solid ground, and that UP HERE was the vertical wall upon which one crawled miraculously without slipping off.  Galactic travel accustoms one to infinity, almost jades one with it.  How strange, that something necessarily, transparently artificial should have given me the most irresistible dose of the infinite I had ever known…

    This is not part of any official report, so I will not bother to return upon those words and excise them.  They are subjective impressions–but what else do I have that communicates the phenomenon?  An edifice many times the size of the largest station ever conceived (not built, but conceived), its visible portion enclosing almost fourteen thousand cubic kilometers (and we must also assume a very substantial subterranean structure, perhaps a third again of that value)….  When we returned yesterday, Fardelo so infuriated me during the debriefing with his, “Big rig, huh?” and his incomparably stupid laugh–the one other thing in the galaxy without compare–that I very nearly slapped him.  Perhaps I am recording these feelings so that someone may read them in the event of a psychological inquest; or, since there was no true incident, perhaps I merely wish to conduct my own inquest into my state of mind.  But is there not something grotesque about having no more sense of the place than that?

    We are told, are we not, that we exist independently of our androids precisely to have feelings, since a feeling often conceals an objectively useful datum.  Why, then, are people like Fardelo chosen for missions like this?

    The dust had been determined entirely non-toxic, and it should not have contained any stone fragments sharp enough to cut through our lining (in any case, the atmosphere would have been breathable for short periods); so I remained in it beside Sardelis for quite some time.  We sat with our hands on our knees.  From our position, approximately five hundred meters from the structure, we were sufficiently angled to see part of two faces.  The face that more or less confronted us ran laterally until we could no longer clearly distinguish it from the brown distance, though the slate-gray mountain range which posed a horizon obviously was well beyond its limit.  As for the much more angularly oriented side, it also ran away from us into a kind of brown-gray smudge.  Our readings had told us that the extent of each of the four sides fell well short of two kilometers, and the planet’s surface was scarcely hilly here.  Yet we curiously had the sense (for Sardelis and I began to converse quietly off the record as we sat) of an immeasurably great length.  I have decided upon reflection that this illusion must stem from Anomaly 3’s incredible height.  Try as one might, one could not simply focus one’s sight upon its lateral dimension: the vertical tended to absorb the lateral as the eye trailed farther and farther along, so that the mind lost its way and one was at last looking skyward without realizing it.  With the structure’s perfect, inviolable uniformity, such error was inevitable.  Not a seam, not a door or window, not a ledge or cornice… no sign, emblem, or insignia… no change of color from top to bottom, from side to side (but for the angled side’s uniformly darker brown shadow)… one found oneself, eventually, fingering the dust to be sure that one was not in fact sitting on the stone infinity’s rim.

    I was repeatedly surprised, at a purely subjective level, to re-confirm that I sat a good five hundred meters away from Anomaly 3.  It soaked up my mind like a dry sponge brushing over a water droplet.

    And at last it also drew my body in.  I discovered that I was walking without ever having made the conscious decision to stand up.  Sardelis was beside me, and I know that Yordelis was beyond him.  Then there were two others, I believe.  Certainly it was Fardelo who sped by in the MOTAV.  I should say in his defense that the rest of us were wasting valuable time and resources in taking a needless hike; but the speed at which he passed us, churning up dust and surely drowning out the noise of any attempted communication (whether among us or from the denizens of Anomaly 3) was strictly against protocol.  I could have him suspended on that ground alone.

    As for wasted time, I will not pretend that we devoted a moment to examining the soil, which might somewhat have justified our daze.  Yet ATAVUS had already made a detailed analysis.  When Morbel later attempted to defend our sluggishness along these lines, it was a difficult defense.  Yet we did blunder into the negative discovery–the non-discovery–that there appeared to be no vents, outlets, sensors, or other contacts between the structure and the outside environment embedded in the dust.  I would come to stress that point at the debriefing, even though establishing it had been the farthest thing from my mind as we walked.  It has now acquired immense significance for me–as huge in abstraction as the physical presence of Anomaly 3.

    The brown sheet grew and grew over us until it WAS us: our full horizon, our world, our every thought and being.  A timeless, characterless All that might as well have been Nothing.  Even the antics of Fardelo shrank to the buzz of some tiny, dying fly at the far end of a vast room.  We touched the stone, leaned on it–even pressed our chests to it.  Someone fell down again… but for most of us, it was too close now even to push us down.  The sensation, rather, was of being drawn within.  I remember patting my palms upon the perfectly smooth yet sheenless surface, and then trying to pour my thoughts through them into the mass.  I had wondered if vibration might draw a response, or if the hidden occupants might be telepathic.

    For occupants there must be, or must have been: I was sincerely shocked when a doubt was raised on this score during the debriefing.  Nature could not possibly have engineered such rigid, unscathed, severely simple perfection.  Yet it was certainly conceivable that the planet’s inhabitants, having spun themselves into this gigantic cocoon of synthetic stone, had sealed themselves too well.  Inside–if only we could reach inside–might wait corpses by the million.  The planet’s ecosystem had plainly degenerated in a catastrophic manner, for despite abundant geological evidence of fluid surface water, it was now as dry as a bone (the Martian paradigm again).  Perhaps they had forgotten something or run short of something after having walled themselves off, impenetrably and irreversibly, from a now-toxic exterior.  Or perhaps they were insulated all too well: perhaps a contagion had spread among them all and left no survivors, distancing oneself from society being now out of the question; or perhaps they had grown weary of each other’s company (a magnified version of my ongoing friction with Fardelo), and push had led to shove had led to blow had led to stab had led to… what a horrid vision.  Yet still more horrid, perhaps they had simply given up (given up eating, given up reproducing) in despair over having lost the Sun–whatever they called their AC 13–forever.  imagine having been born in a transport vehicle which will never reach any destination within one’s lifespan: imagine living for no better reason than to bring someone else into life who might bring someone else into life whose great-grandchildren might one day be able to exit the huge, comfortable coffin.

    I did not offer many of these explanations for display during the debriefing.  As I have written before, what emerged from that session–all that emerged from it–of significance to me was the observation, volunteered at first as a hasty, somewhat guilty rebuttal to the charge of inattention, that Anomaly 3 had absolutely no contact whatever with its surrounding environment.  It was as hermetically self-sustained as if it had been launched into interplanetary space.  Its very atmosphere must have been recycled; for there were plainly no intakes in the walls, and if gasses had for some reason been inducted or ejected far from the structure by an underground system, the openings required would have been huge.  We already knew that the very top panel of the edifice was no more porous than its sides: we knew this first of all, since it was first surface scanned in detail.  The only remaining option would be a subterranean system of entrances and exits or of ducts and valves–which would make a certain amount of sense, inasmuch as the water exiled from the planet’s surface would very likely have welled in abundance beneath that surface.

    But why not at least have a door, invincibly sealed against the corrupted environment’s threats but still, at some point, capable of unsealing?  Why not at least have a sensor?  If this species so longed to survive that it would construct such an impregnable capsule, then why not include a warning system against new external threats–a window, a sensor, a trip-line?  A major reason for sending down a human party had been to encourage contact–to advertise, as it were, the innocuous frailty and well-meaning curiosity of the designers of ATAVUS and other exploratory craft.  They could have seen from our actions that we were non-robotic–all too non-robotic; and they would have extended a hand or spoken a word, if they had seen us as we are.  They had not seen us.  They had not been looking.  For perhaps thousands of years, they had been walled in this beached asteroid of a crypt, not looking for anyone or anything.

    Yes, thousands of years.  The plain had once been the bottom of a lake, and no such structure as this would ever have been attempted unless the terrain had been thoroughly dry and settled: a far terminus, we determined, of perhaps ten thousand years.  Yet that must also have been the approximate near terminus; for unless the forces that destroyed the natural environment also motivated Anomaly 3’s construction, why would the mass ever have been constructed?

    In volunteering for the follow-up mission, I have drawn upon every bit of trust and credibility that I have ever banked.  The Admiral is not pleased that we had to curtail our visit to Anomaly 2 due to overstaying at Anomaly 3, and I cannot offer an entirely convincing explanation of why the delay occurred,  It seems absurd to have spent so many hours in merely staring.  We attempted to gather sensor readings, of course, but no instrument registered anything but background noise.  Since protocol forbids any sort of drilling into any artificial structure on the initial mission, we can only guess (but it is a well-educated guess) that the synthetic stone is impervious to normal impact and extends far underground.  Our data, in short, are a series of blanks and negatives.  Nothing, no, nothing.  Indeterminable.  Nothing.  My case amounted to arguing that ascertaining so much nothingness requires a great deal of time.

    If I do not participate in the follow-ups, I have decided that I will tender my demission.  It will be impossible for me to focus on other assignments if I must leave this one in its present state.  No one regrets more than I, in retrospect, that we paid so little attention to Anomalies 2 and 6.  They may very well hold the answer to the mystery of Anomaly 3.  A suspiciously perfect caldera… might it not be an entry and exit, fabricated with incredible industry a quarter of the way around the planet, to 3’s strange polis?  A twenty-thousand-square-meter mirror of perfectly smooth ice near the planet’s south pole… might it not be Anomaly 3’s artificially sustained water source, or purification plant, or vacationing retreat?

    Most of all, though, I should like to be allowed to penetrate that perfectly smooth, seamless synthetic material by any means possible.  A slight risk exists, perhaps, of polluting the internal environment, and a much greater risk of disturbing the internal peace.  Concerning the latter, I haven’t the slightest pang of conscience.  To make such a wall, to make it perfectly, and to make it for all time to come… I find, as I collect and classify my feelings, that this deeply angers me.  I should like to dig these beings out of their millennial hole, drag them out into the light of day, and ask them–by sign or through interpreter–just who they think they are.

 A frequent contributor to this journal for years, Dr. Moseby lives with his family in the Atlanta area, where he occasionally teaches at several institutions.