by MK Alexander
I admit to being nervous. It wasn’t everyday my old professor called me to his chambers for a meeting, and this time, a meeting of some importance. The old song came to my mind, the old, soothing song everyone learned in childhood:
Protect us from the falling sky, embrace our world, we ask not why….
Eternal rampart of destiny, we praise thee, forever on high…
“I put you in charge of this project.”
“Me?” I asked, feeling both surprise and disbelief.
“Of course. It was your ancestors who began it… their idea in the first place. Who better?”
“It’s too much responsibility for one person.” A chill went up my spine.
“Nonsense. No one is better qualified. Assemble your team and get on with the task.”
“The council has approved this?”
“Of course. I still hold some sway with them.”
“I expected a chilly reception, or a tepid response at best.”
“Their passion now burns for completion.”
“And resources will be allocated?”
“Anything you need,” he assured.
“Still, it may take some time… a long time… perhaps, another lifetime. There is no way of knowing.”
“Such has been made clear to the council. They’ve promised to be patient.” My elder, my mentor, put his hand on my back with a certain affection. He had been my teacher at school for a good many years.
“Patient? Hmm… how patient?” I paused to wonder.
“Long ago, all speculation concerning the barrier was heresy,” he began in his particularly academic tone. “To mention it, let alone study its nature, was forbidden. Such ideas went against the flow. The barrier was inscrutable, immutable, impervious, impenetrable.” He let go a laugh and his whiskers bristled. “Archaic thinking…” he said with emphasis and laughed again. “New thinking has spawned over the countless years, and now, the truth of it all can be discovered— largely thanks to your efforts.”
“I echo this exact sentiment, of course,” I replied rather cooly. “Though, I think it has less to do with me, than recent events.”
“Well, there are the rumors of the mysterious burning rock, for one.”
“A myth, no truth in it at all.” He gave me a cold reply.
“Still… the story is whispered among many, and in the great schools as well. They tell of a symmetrical stone, smoother than any other, hotter than a furnace, boring, burning its way through the barrier relentlessly, and methodically, until it fell to the depths to be crushed on our shores.”
“A story, nothing more, I assure you. Our legends are filled with tales of things falling from the sky— eh? Besides, the council has dismissed this event, outright. A hoax, perhaps.”
“A hoax?” I asked. “To what end?”
“Just to stir things up… Even after all this time, some would still call it, our great protector…” He took me aside confidentially. “What has changed the council’s view is your diligent effort. All that work, poring through the archives, your measurements, your meticulous records, the frequent journeys to the heights… and, your actual progress.”
“I believe it’s this very story— this hoax as you call it— has prompted the council to change its mind.”
“Nonsense,” he bellowed.
“And this unusual stone also spoke, it’s been alleged.”
“Spoke? And what did it say, this, this burning stone?”
“Nothing intelligible… only a rhythmic pulse could be heard.”
“Again, utter nonsense. A talking stone?” he asked derisively.
“And what of the thunderous cracking we all heard just last year? It spread across the entire globe. Everyone could feel it... and its certain terror.”
“We should not speak of that. But you know as well as I, such phenomena were often recorded in the old manuscripts, and mentioned throughout antiquity. It is a… a… kind of seasonal occurrence. Such calamitous thunderings mark the epochs of time. A natural event— not the stirrings of an angry god— yes?”
“Ah, we live in an enlightened era. Everything has changed. Momentously, tidally. We’ve all seen your data, and the consensus is that you are getting close.” He patted my back again. “We believe, the council and I, that this is surely the final phase of the project. The truth will be known at last. It will be a great achievement. An advance, unparalleled in our history... a truth that will surely be world-shattering.”
“And you believe the population at large is ready for such a revelation?”
“Who can say?”
“You fully understand the implications of all this? The effort required?”
“We’ll have to go to the depths to bring up the necessary—”
“Not today… Home to your wife now, and tell her the news. I’m sure she’ll be very pleased,” he said warmly.
“That’s doubtful. She worries. She’s the anxious sort. She constantly tells me that this is a dangerous endeavor.”
“And you agree?”
“There is some danger, yes. We’ve already lost many workers this year. And countless others have died over the centuries.”
“Sad tidings, however, the pursuit of truth is worth the cost in lives. Even those who have died would agree. Their sacrifice has been honored, they are the most revered of our people. Your very own father is such a person.”
My father, yes. I had almost forgotten his contribution. He was among the first to examine the barrier in great detail, all those years ago. The memories came rushing back as I drifted home, oblivious to my surroundings. His conclusions swept through my mind: the barrier… made of the same stuff, but existing in a different state. As if our very air and its temperatures were taken to the extreme, from roiling hot to cold, and colder still, until it reached a point of solidification. What? Solidification? Such seemed impossible to me. There are currents and winds, the flows and ebbs— but solidification? How could that even be possible?
And yet his ideas came to be mine. They best explained how the barrier could be so brittle, so rock-hard, so resistant; and at other times, so soft and pasty, falling away to nothing. I remembered the first time he took me to the heights. I was little more than a child, giddy with excitement, though woefully unprepared. The heights, the bracing cold, the light-headedness that came to me… all so new to my experience. I was dizzy by the time we approached the barrier. I felt its shape up close, craggy and hilly, pitted and jagged. My father, a reckless man? Was he bringing me so close to danger? He urged me to touch the barrier with my hand. It was looming, all encompassing, cold, colder than anything, dark and impervious to my senses. Surely, it was far more ancient than anything in our world.
“It is a wall,” he said simply. “It is certainly solid, though it appears to be just like our regular atmosphere, and most importantly, it is amenable to heat.”
“How do you mean, amenable?” I asked with wonder.
“When heat is applied it falls away into normal air.”
“I thought it was chippable?”
“That as well. But we’ve been chipping away for many centuries without any great progress. We’ve but made a dent in it, less than a hundred fathoms in all these years of toil.”
“So… how thick do you think the great barrier is?”
“No one can say.”
“Will it take centuries more to get through?”
“By chipping and hacking? Probably.”
“Well, we’ll get more workers, many more, and better tools,” I offered hopefully.
“I think there is another solution.”
I didn’t understand.
“In the early days the digging was easy,” my father explained. “The barrier fell away rather quickly. Now it’s grown harder, more difficult to dig through. Ah… but we’ve learned much over the years. Most importantly we’ve learned it softens with time. We dig anew, through the hard, brittle strata, and then we wait a day or so… this waiting seems to soften the barrier, though slowly— it makes the digging a bit easier. But this takes so much time, or rather, it adds so much time to the process.”
My father led me to the cave, the dig site. It seemed huge to me, perfectly round, and polished along the sides, large enough to fit ten abreast. A true marvel— though, now I’ve come to understand, it was only a tiny pinprick in the great barrier.
“Heat? Yes, this was your father’s idea,” my mentor said the next morning. “And how do you propose to get heat to the heights?”
“I’ve outlined a plan and seek to implement it. That’s why I’ve asked you here.”
“You have a new idea then?”
“I’ve developed a novel technique… by using these tubes, very long tubes fastened together with pitch and tar. At the end of each is attached a scoop made of the toughest materials known. With these devices, we can safely reach into the depths and pick up the hottest stones from along the shore. We raise them to the barrier and let them do their work. My experiments show that these smoldering rocks can do in hours, what years of chipping would take. The rocks cool eventually and loose their efficiency. We simply let them drop back to the shore.”
“Isn’t that dangerous?”
“These falling rocks… landing on the heads of our citizens?”
“Well, they fall slowly enough… and we work only above an unpopulated area. We will take every precaution. We’ll have monitors, we’ll clear the area. None will be hit by a falling rock, of this I can assure you.”
“I’m impressed with your current idea,” my mentor said. “You should proceed at once.”
How many years passed is unknown to me. But the work progressed well enough. We made surprisingly good headway with the new techniques. The fathoms dropped away. Our cave was more than a mere pinprick now, it was a long tunnel snaking through what had been called impenetrable. Indeed, it took nearly a whole day to journey from the entrance to the furthermost dig-site.
The whispers of the workers became loose talk, the mutterings became shouts and roars when everyone realized we were getting close, very close. The digging reached a fevered pitch. The last of the burning rocks were strategically placed. Surely we were at the edge, the edge of something wholly unknown.
“I can sense it… a glow of some sort…. And yet it’s cold, very cold. Far colder than anything I’ve ever felt— colder than the barrier itself! Surely we’ve reached the edge! The end of the barrier! What fate awaits us?”
There was a great cracking and an alarming crunch. The air roiled and bubbled. A great rush of current came from nowhere. Everyone was sucked upwards at a tremendous rate— upwards against their will and despite their frantic efforts to travel back down. And then there were the screams of agony, the great spewing aloft, the shrieks of horror, the gasping for breath and the killing cold. Bodies everywhere flopped on an alien ground and froze solid in an instant.
I sensed much in those final seconds though: an unimaginable cold, surely the cold of death… yet, tiny thermal flecks also filled this place, millions beyond my counting, and more distant than I could possibly hope to imagine. And there it was, a huge, hot circular orb filling the whole sky— or now— what was beyond our sky. It bathed me in its impotent warmth, for nothing could heat this newfound cold. And beyond that, a gleaming furnace, a ball of burning rock so distant I could not comprehend how far… Then, the air in my lungs fled, and all at once I was boiling from within, and freezing from without. I lay on some foreign shore, dying.
“Mission control, this is Europa Lander Two. All systems nominal, check. Proceeding to surface anomaly: one-one-three. Beginning our descent on vector zero, zero, nine… Seeing something now, just over the ridge. Looks to be a patch of fresh ice, a recent flow maybe, in a roughly circular pattern, four, five hundred meters in diameter…. Hats off to the crew at imaging— I’d say we are definitely at the right location.
“Descending to one-hundred meters… The surface appears smooth, almost glass-like… There seems to be central focal point… not sure what I’m seeing, maybe some sort of geyser, or eruption from the very center… Seventy-five meters— holding position. Okay, seeing something else now: shapes, roughly cylindrical, about two meters in length, tapered on one end. Wow, there’s a whole lot of them down there. Too many to count, but I’d estimate a couple of hundred— scattered everywhere, frosted over with ice, some half buried. Not sure what they could be…
“Descending, fifty meters… forty… holding at twenty meters— Good god in heaven, Houston, I don’t think we have a protocol for this… Dear god… Not even sure what I’m seeing…”
That fateful broadcast took nearly an hour to reach earth, the accompanying video as well. Despite the delay, all eyes at mission control were glued to the giant center screen; all ears to the commander’s voice, who continued in real time:
“Hard to describe…. Not sure what— Houston… ah— hate to jump the gun, but I’d say… we have positive evidence for extraterrestrial life— not alive, I repeat, not alive. My god… I’m seeing something here, bodies… like fish, birds, or a… a squid, a squid-like creature. Hundreds of them, scattered everywhere.
“Descending… Surface contact in four, three, two, one… Terrain is stable, shutting down thrusters… Are you seeing this, Mission Control? I’m less than three meters from one of the shapes now… Hard to describe— seems to have wings, or… fins of some kind; a bulbous head— no eyes as far as I can tell— maybe some kind of whiskers, yeah, whiskers around what must be a mouth. I just can’t find the words to describe this… these things…um, they have hands, or a grasping appendage— some kind of hand, a pad at the end of a tentacle maybe… My god, they’re all over the place— they’re bodies, everywhere— hundreds of them, scattered all around… Dear god, this wasn’t a geyser— it was a hole… Oh my dear god, they must have dug this… They must have reached the surface. Oh my god, they’re all dead.”