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Memories of Enigma

Enigma was about to be devoured and explorers hurried off the planet for a safer view from the mothership. All the same, James Gartinger hurtled back against traffic for a landing.

It was plain lunacy. The giant starburst shape of The Anomaly was closing in, its spooky depthless two-dimensionality waiting patiently on Enigma’s orbital path. It would gladly take him if he weren’t back on the mothership soon. And he wouldn’t bet on making it through to the other side, either. The planet would. Eventually. But what would happen to him? Who knew, and who really wanted to find out?

He broke the cloud cover and plunged into zero visibility on the night side as purplish Philo, Enigma’s only moon, faded from view. Thunder shook the shuttle and the cockpit’s lights flicked on. He fumbled in panic inside his pocket for the soft paper protecting the rock.

Good, it was still there.

Within seconds, he broke through the clouds and the ground rushed at him under the ship’s headlights: torrential downpour over a muddy desert. What a quaint little place in which to die.

He grabbed his helmet and secured it to his suit. “Tin Can?” he shouted into his helmet mike over the roar of air-friction.

“James, I’ve got you. Don’t do it, for the love of…“

“Keep a lock on me, I’m taking the ATV. Take the shuttle back to the mothership. Have it serviced. Too shaky.”

“You’re insane.”

“I have three hours.”

“Enigma crosses The Anomaly in three hours, but if the weather gets any worse, I won’t be able to get another shuttle to you. You’ll end up a ghost.”

Tin Can was little more than circuit boards on a satellite, but she knew how to pick her words. James had visited many a dark corner of planetary caves that teemed with strange and deadly predators, yet not much scared him.

Except ghosts. Enigma had ghosts. They said the lost souls of the unfortunates who have crossed The Anomaly appeared again with the planet’s tempests. Myths. Plus, no one had ever crossed. Yet earlier that day James had seen the vague form of a faceless woman sculpted by nothing but descending rain. It had looked at him.

The faceplate of his helmet displayed a map overlay of the ground at two thousand meters and falling. At 700 meters, he reached up and pulled the manual release. His seat plummeted from the cockpit and reassembled into an ATV. Headlights cut through the darkness, vertical thrusters dampened the landing while wind turbines kicked in for a rough ride over uneven terrain.

Over the rain pummeling his helmet and the howling winds threatening to knock him off the vehicle, he hollered, “Tin Can, I’m showing the camp at 500 feet. Confirm.”

“Straight ahead. You’ll never get past the gates.”

Unhinged by imaginary shadows in his periphery, he negotiated twists and turns up a hillside until he crested the rise and saw the camp. A fortress of massive native stone glittered wet under the ATV’s high beams. It was meant to shield the camp from the storm, but also left no doubt as to its impenetrability.

“Connect me to Fia,” he said.

“She’s not taking calls. I’ll have to connect you to her assistant.”

Her assistant meant Cedric, infused with pompousness in its programming.

“You know,” Tin Can said, “that Fia’s position made it so Cedric’s got control over many sections of the camp. It’s gone to his head.”

“Hello, James,” Cedric’s voice cut in. “You need to speak with Fia? She’s busy. Try to have a nice day despite this weather, okay?” Chuckles. Disconnection beep.

Oh no-no-no. “Connect me again,” James said.

“Hello, James,” Cedric said, “Still busy. You know these physicists. Perfectionists! They’ll stay on the planet until it hits The Anomaly if they have to. But would you care to leave her a long message she probably won’t have time to listen to?“

“Hello, Cedric.” James had a bucket of patience skills. “It’s urgent. I have information pertaining to Enigma’s crossing that they’re going to want to know.”

“Oh? And what would physicists and engineers studying an astronomical phenomenon learn from an archaeologist that would prove so useful?”

“You stupid toolbox! I’m going to wrench you out of that satellite and…“

“Hey, hey! I’m not as understanding as your Tin Can, you know. Take a pill.”

“Tell her to let me in or you’ll be thrown into the scrap compactor for having failed to deliver crucial information that would have prevented a disaster. You understand?”

“Hmmm.” Cedric promptly went offline again.

Eventually James felt the soil tremble and heard the grumble of stone against stone. To his relief, the entrance mega-gate strained open. He dismounted the ATV and trudged inside in slippery mud.

The hundred-feet arena was lined with interlocking prefabs squatting under the pounding of the rain, but the area suffered no wind. James knew them to be housing labs and offices, but some looked brand new and had the perfunctory look of reinforced barracks. These had probably been recently erected for the newly arrived Marines. The military takeover of the camp was no secret. In the center stood gigantic machines like sleeping dinosaurs with feet clawing the ground. They pointed an inquiring muzzle skyward, evidently recording what they could from The Anomaly. Near them were strange pods under glass hatches, upholstered in human form. What were those for?

Military police trucks flanked him. Someone tapped him on the shoulder and he almost jumped out of his suit. A diminutive black suit scowled at him from behind a water-spotted faceplate. Military Police. But under the dim illumination of the helmet’s interior light was the gawking face of a young woman. She seemed particularly upset.

“You’ve got some nerve,” the MP yelled over the rain, not bothering to use the com link, “making threats to a scientist’s assistant like that.”

“Oh, yeah?” James said, “Got me in, didn’t it?”

Her face flared into alarm mode: “Who are you?” Scowl. “Don’t answer. I’m taking you in.” She strode off, evidently expecting James to follow, shouting over her shoulder, “You’re going to have some explaining to do. You’re in big trouble, mister!”

Perfect, James thought. Take me to your leader.

They headed toward the entrance to a hangar guarded by armed MPs. Whatever was inside had to be worth a couple of lost limbs. But to his disappointment, his escort continued to an adjacent, less impressive structure. They entered the airlock and waited in uncomfortable silence. When they got the green light and the inner door unlocked, James took off his helmet, noting that his escort did not. But now that she could see him clearly, her eyes lingered on him from behind her faceplate. She had just recognized him. He knew the look.

The room was brightly illuminated and stripped down to a bare table and four chairs. At the far end was a wall window that gave onto the impenetrable darkness outside. At the table stood a tan suit, the color immediately pinning him as military. He silently invited James to sit in the chair across from him. There was no nametag, no identifying rank on his suit or his nondescript helmet on the table. He looked to be in his fifties, with the muscle built to scare off predatory wildlife. His graying hair contrasted comically with an ink-black mustache, but his demeanor was one of nonchalance at odds with a wary gaze. They both sat.

“You’re looking for Fia Gartinger,” the officer said.

“She’s my wife,” James said.

“I understand.”

The ensuing silence made James uncomfortable and he finally blurted, “You guys want to send something through The Anomaly and use the planet as a ride.”

“Do we?”

“Everybody knows that.”

“Why did you come here, Dr. Gartinger?”

“I’ve got something you definitely want to see before you cross The Anomaly.”

“I understand,” the officer said, and nodded at the MP who promptly disappeared inside the airlock.

“You’re in charge of the camp?”

“We’re on a base. I’m Hayden Clark.”

“I do bring to you something of great interest. I decoded some of Earth’s most elusive scripts, like…“

“The Harappan,” the officer cut in. “And the Rongorongo, which wasn’t even considered a true language before you came along. I know. You have great skills as an archaeologist and certainly as a linguist. Not to mention self-publicity.” He grinned. “But one shouldn’t confuse talent of dubious utility in one area for a license to interfere with government-funded projects in another. I want to make sure that you realize that the only reason you’re within these gates is that I am fond of your wife’s contribution.”

The airlock opened and the MP took back her post by the entrance while a blue and yellow suit marched to a chair across from James. Under a flock of disheveled hair, Fia looked pale and weary. “What are you doing here?” She said, scowling as she slammed her helmet on the table. “You’re supposed to be on the mothership.”

“And so are you. Or are astrophysicists immune to impending threats from space anomalies?”

She sat beside the officer, leaned across the table, and whispered, “Don’t make a scene.”

“I haven’t heard from you in days and The Anomaly is hours away,” he whispered back through clenched teeth.

“You’re lucky you’ve gotten through the gates at all.”

Hayden cleared his throat, sparking an embarrassed smile from Fia, when something moved at the window. A husk of rain watched in silence, immediately familiar, reminiscent of a something long forgotten. The shape in the rain solidified in his memory: a teenage girl. Fia has her hand on his shoulder and she’s laughing, hair in disarray over her face. Behind her is a teenage girl, perhaps sixteen, doing a balancing act as she tries to stand up in a rocky rowboat. She’s holding a fishing pole in one hand and a bucket in the other. Fia says, “Adalyn’s sure she’s going to catch her first fish today.”

Hayden was losing patience. “What’s outside that window?” The ghost had vanished and apparently, neither he nor Fia had seen it.

“Nothing.” Nothing indeed. Was he losing his mind? He came here for a reason. What was it again? “We shouldn’t mess with The Anomaly.”

Hayden scoffed. “Now you have some grand statement to make that will single-handedly prevent a billion-dollar enterprise from grinding its big wheel? That will be the day.”

Fia threw an apologetic glance at Hayden. Why was she so afraid of him? Offended, James sprang to his feet and dug inside his pocket.

Hayden stood in alarm. The MP went wide-eyed and brandished her weapon.

“Relax!” James said, as he gingerly withdrew a piece of crumpled paper. He unfolded it on the table, revealing a rock as he turned it over. It was polished and etched with strange symbols. Hayden went catatonic. Fia’s already pale face turned to ash. James grinned. Finally, he had them. But the grin faded quickly as he realized he had misinterpreted their reaction. There was no exclamation, no congratulations, no celebration in sight. Hayden’s paralysis broke into a sneer and Fia seemed disappointed.

“Come on, guys, you know what this means!” James cried.

“Where did you find this?” Fia said.

“On the shore near the Kepler Caves.” Okay, not really. He had found it in his pocket, but didn’t remember picking it up. Small detail. “I had it analyzed right away on the mothership. The writing is unknown.”

“So you finally found what you were always looking for,” she said numbly.

“I think so, yes. But something tells me you’re not happy about it.”

“What does that have to do with us?” Hayden said.

James frowned. “You’re kidding, right? We have proof of intelligent life. An alien race set foot on this planet before we ever did.”

“It’s just a piece of rock,” Hayden said, “with squiggles on it. I just want to know what a piece of rock with squiggles on it has to do with a mission to figure out the physics of a space anomaly.”

Hayden could not be this dense. “These squiggles… wait, I have more.” James grabbed the piece of paper that had protected the rock and stretched it flat. It unwrinkled itself into a slick surface and lit up into a colorful satellite photo of Enigma.

“We’re here,” he pointed to a small red dot near a shoreline. “At the point of entry into The Anomaly.” He slid his finger down the shoreline. “The rock was found here, near the ocean. I wanted to know how large the tide was to see if the rock was within its span, and to see if it was native to this continent or had possibly come from another. It’s porous and light enough to float.”

“And?” Fia asked.

“The waterline does not advance or retreat. I checked records from orbit going back months. The shoreline never changes. Not even by a centimeter.”

“That’s impossible,” Fia said, “we know the oceans wreak havoc with the land. The pull of Philo on the water is stronger than our own moon’s.”

“And the planet has normal tides everywhere,” James said. “Except here. No one was paying attention to our very own shore. So I started looking deeper. And I saw it.”

Fia cocked an eyebrow.

“The shoreline is a fractal.”

Hayden wearily sat back down. Fia gaped at him. James continued, “It has recurring patterns all the way down to a resolution of less than a meter. It covers six hundred kilometers of shore. It’s visible from space. I think they branded the planet.”

“What,” Fia said, “like they used to do to cows?”

James scowled at her. “They have a claim on this planet!”

“It’s just a shoreline.“ Hayden said.

James stabbed at the map with his finger. “We could be trespassing on someone’s backyard! They may even have a claim on The Anomaly!”

“There’s nothing living on this planet, James.”

“I’ll have you escorted out,” Hayden said as he stood, and to James’ shock, grabbed the rock and map. “This is no longer any of your concern. I suggest you grab a shuttle immediately. Have a nice day, Dr. Gartinger.” He scooped his helmet off the table and strode inside the airlock without so much as a backward glance.

It was a tense tread back to the gates. Fia escorted James with the MP in tow. He knew he was on a short leash.

“James, you have to understand…” Her muted shout still carried through her helmet and over the rain.

He stepped in her path, and came face-to-face with her. “And why did he take the rock?”

“I don’t know.”

“You embarrassed me in there. I wouldn’t have expected such lame reception of my findings, much less be ridiculed for trying to avoid a potential catastrophe.”

“What catastrophe? You see a spark and scream fire. Where are the aliens?”

“You’re sending machines through The Anomaly.”

“Everyone knows it doesn’t return radar and just swallows drones. It’s of great scientific interest to find out why, and also why the planet eventually re-emerges intact. And where does it go when it’s inside? Don’t you want to know?”

“What’s in that hangar that requires extra security?”

“Keep your curiosity to your rocks.”

And with that he started for the gates alone, feeling her watchful gaze on him. When he saw the ATV’s frame gleaming wetly under stray light, he shouted over his shoulder, “You’ve never heard of someone by the name of ‘Adalyn’, have you?”

He turned one last time to face Fia. She was dark figure camouflaged by the storm. “And the pods in the arena,” he yelled, “they’re for people. I’m not blind.”

As the massive doors grumbled between them, she finally said, “You see her, James?”

“See who? This Adalyn?”

“Tell her I’m coming for her! She’s on the other side!” The doors thumped close and she was gone.

The other side of what? Not heaven or hell. The Anomaly? Did Fia intend on crossing into The Anomaly to get to this elusive Adalyn? Or was he just too tired and had just developed a serious case of paranoia.

“Tin Can, you’re receiving me?”

“Yes, my pumpkin. Are you ready for a shuttle? Your pulse is too high. It makes me nervous, James. What’s going on?”

“Can you brief me on the activity in the camp?”

“I’m limited as to what I can penetrate from orbit. Certain areas are cloaked.”

“Do they have a medical facility?”

“All camps do. There are military ambulances parked on the northeast side of the complex. But whatever you’re thinking of doing… don’t.”

He knelt by his ATV and unlocked the tool compartment under the seat. He rummaged through picks, chisels, trowels and chemical minilabs, and found a small field laser used to drill into rock. He quickly adjusted the laser’s settings and pointed it at his left breast pocket.

“They’re required to rescue anyone in trouble in their immediate vicinity, correct?”

“By law.”

“Contact the complex. It’s urgent. There’s been an accident involving my suit.”

“There’s nothing wrong with your…“

He burned the fabric of his breast pocket in a neat straight line.

“What in the world,” Tin Can said, “I detect a leak in your suit!”

“What’s in the air? I forgot.”

“Carbon monoxide, fool!”

“Oh.”

As the decrease of oxygen made him dizzy, he was stunned by the magical quality the rainstorm had just taken on. He watched the dancing shadows of its ghosts and saw the rain figure among a rising chatter from the downpour.

He and Adalyn are on the viewing deck of the mothership, watching the shoreline that embeds the fractal. The deck is filled with balloons, ribbons, pointy hats and confetti. In the center stands a big cake with sixteen candles on it. Many on board came for her birthday, yet she wants to talk about science. “You’ll never guess what I’ve found in the Kepler Caves,” she says. “The fractal is just a signpost that points to something very important there.”

He woke to nausea and a headache, dry heat irritating his eyes and sinuses. Stripped to his skinwear, he lay supine, his face inches from a scratched window. He knew immediately he was in the narrow confines of a hyperbaric chamber. An angry face flashed behind the glass and startled him. It was Fia. He heard the hiss of depressurization, and the eventual whir of the hatch opening that brought welcomed cool air.

He tried to stand but his legs didn’t hold him. Fia caught him in mid-fall and guided him to a seat. “I swear if you don’t die from exposure I’ll kill you myself.” Her suit dripped with rain and she kept brandishing her helmet at him, spraying raindrops in his face. “No one can figure out how someone could accidentally damage their suit with a laser that, incidentally, was set at the precise setting to avoid bodily injury!”

The room twisted hideously. “Where’s your friend?”

“Why did you do this, James? You’ve finally gone too far.”

“To prevent you from crossing.”

She gaped at him and leaned against a counter, upsetting its neat arrangement of medical supplies. She sighed. “You think I’m about to do something stupid and dangerous.” It sounded more like a question.

“Let’s face it. You’ll do as you like because that’s what you do and I can just eat it. I got that. Cross to get to that ghost, then, that Adalyn. Go ahead and kill yourself then.“

She bit her lower lip and cast her eyes down.

“So it’s true,” he said.

She jerked her head up. “She’s not a ghost. She stands on a boat, like a rowboat. It’s on a lake and she’s fishing. We’re both there. She has that glow on her face like it’s the best day of her life and everything is perfect and we love her like no other.”

He tried to jump to his feet but she quickly pushed him back down. “That’s exactly what I saw and felt,” he said, out of breath. “Who is she?”

She studied him. “She’s our daughter, James.”

Annoyed, James struggled out of his chair and stood swaying. “Where’s my suit?”

“James, you’ve got to believe me.”

“We don’t have a daughter. We don’t have kids.”

“You asked me if I saw her. That means you see her too. You’re worried I’m crossing. I’m answering your questions.”

“I thought you’d say something that would make some sense. Where’s my suit?”

Fia marched to the door. “I knew I shouldn’t tell you anything. And don’t even go near that hangar. I know you have your eye on it.” She turned and glared at him, swinging the door open. “I’m going to tell them you’re good to go. They’ll have your little tricycle outside the gates. I suggest you get off the planet immediately.” She slammed the door behind her. Her stomping receded until he heard the hiss of an airlock opening.

He cracked the door open, peeked, and stepped into a quiet hallway. Hayden had surely posted guards outside the airlock, but he first needed a suit. He quickly found the brown and yellow fabric of his own, with the burned breast pocket, dangling from a wall in an unoccupied examination room. It was sandwiched between suits of varying colors, all neatly paired with their helmets.

He locked himself in and grabbed an undamaged green suit from the wall that looked to be about his size. The name tag said, “Frederic Leamer.” He slipped into it and picked up the accompanying helmet, thought twice about it, then grabbed his own, which was of the same metallic color, hoping it would fit the standard-size collar for a suit this size. It did. And that was a good thing, because he would not have been able to reach Tin Can from another helmet without the owner’s permission.

The only window gave directly out onto the arena with a clear view of the hangar. To his left was an airlock labeled “Emergency Exit” with a conspicuous handle for the manual alarm. Perfect. Planetary explorers taken out of their natural habitat were by nature paranoid, and the security system that checked for fire and bulkhead breach would blare throughout the camp.

He pulled the handle of the alarm, setting off an obnoxious screech that drilled into his head. But before long, a plethora of lit helmets spilled out of buildings. He could barely see the suit colors but many wore the blue of physicists. Some wore red, the color of engineers, others green, the computer scientists. And, to James’ surprise, they were a few brown and yellow suits as well: xenoarchaeologists.

There were no guards outside the emergency exit. He hurried toward the hangar.

“Tin Can, you’re receiving me?”

“Loud and clear.“

“I’m turning on full capture on the helmet, as if we were on the field.”

“Oh good, finally I’ll get to see all your shenanigans through a live feed.”

“If you see anything that can be analyzed, do so immediately.”

“You know what will happen if I capture anything from a military base. I’ll be dismantled.” Feeling guilty, James knew he would miss Tin Can dearly.

The alarm stopped abruptly and he slowed to a stroll. Military officials waved people back inside buildings. James made himself small and infiltrated the group of workers that bottlenecked at the Hangar’s entrance. The MPs at the door glanced at everyone’s name tag, often not bothering to check their face. He dimmed the internal light of his helmet for good measure. As he reached the checkpoint, one of them tapped him on the shoulder. “Freddy, you dog,” the MP yelled over the rain, “next time make sure she’s at least halfway clean. It’s not worth a trip to the ER.” There was a round of laughter as he stepped into the airlock.

The vast interior glowed from the dribbling code of wall displays. James watched eager suits scatter and sit around a large semicircle of self-illuminated desktops sporting strange instruments that surrounded a luminescent floor.

As he approached for a better view, he saw that the floor was actually a giant screen and clearly the centerpiece of the hangar. At the far end of the screen was a title: “Kepler Cave 23”. When it finally registered what he was seeing, he removed his helmet and positioned it for best view on a desk.

The floor-screen displayed what appeared to be a live feed from an underground cave. Its limestone wall was polished to a glossy finish and etched with innumerable symbols and diagrams. Judging from the relative size of the footlights that lit up the rock face from its base, it was gigantic.

The symbols were of the same lexicography as those on the rock he had found. But the wall put his rock to shame. And now he understood why Fia was adamant that he avoided the hangar.

The symbols seemed different at every glance, and on closer inspection, he saw what it was: the inscriptions changed. They wiggled, almost imperceptibly, like thousands of worms locking momentarily into a distinct pattern, only to lose it again and form into another.

The diagrams also changed, the effect being of strange, short video clips etched in stone. They displayed what seemed to be the slow migration of Enigma through a space aberration, with the planet’s moon orbiting both. Others showed spidery machines weaving the aberration into a shape that was all too familiar: The Anomaly. Beside the moving diagrams, unique markings kept rewriting themselves, reminiscent of mathematical formulas.

It was then that he saw a stirring shadow in a far corner of the hangar. The ghost of Adalyn was back.

He hears his own labored breathing behind his faceplate. He and Adalyn face a cave wall covered with carvings under their helmet lights. The markings crawl behind the dust that cloud up from their shifting feet.

“It’s in the movement, dad. That’s the key for translating the symbols. You have to consider the direction and speed at which the symbols morph into one another.”

“You realize what you’ve just found, of course.”

“Touch it,” she says. “Go ahead, put your hand to it.”

He applies a gloved hand to the surface. Even through the glove, he can feel it. It has a warm, subtle vibration to it. He touches the rough natural rock beside it. It is cold and dead. “My God.”

“Yes, dad. It’s a machine.”

“You just confused our obligation to rescue a dying man,” Hayden’s voice blared as James whirled to meet him, “for an invitation to snoop around on a military base. You know what they say about the cat. The one that got curious?”

“Why aren’t you studying this thing from a safe distance? The Anomaly must be less than two hours away.”

“Because the planet is full of cats.” Hayden’s gaze drifted down to the symbols in the floor-screen and smirked. “A bit more impressive than a tiny little rock, isn’t it?”

“He might be helpful, sir.” To James’ surprise, the young MP who had escorted him earlier, now without helmet and decidedly innocent looking, fidgeted nearby. “He’s a hotshot in archaeology. He could help translate the symbols.”

Hayden flashed her a disgusted snarl. “Take this gentleman you’re so fond of to the brig, soldier.”


Judging from the empty bookshelves, the fading paint in the shape of a desk, and the window wall that gave onto Enigma, James was in an old office converted to a holding cell. It even had a standard issue cell door, complete with food slot. He had learned that the name of his MP escort was Rita. If he peeked through the slot, he could see her, sitting by the door. “Psssst!”

Rita flicked him a deadly scowl. “Get away from that bean hole.”

“Could you pass me your helmet? Just for a sec?”

“I don’t think I heard you right. Did you just ask me to…“

“My assistant must be worried about me. I’m trying to prevent a search-and-rescue.”

“I’m not opening that door.”

“You don’t have to. I can just grab the rim of your helmet through the slot. If you don’t tell, I won’t either.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me.” She glanced nervously down the hall and handed over the helmet, “Just be quick.”

Straining against the slot as he grabbed the helmet, he said, “Switching channels. Connect to James Gartinger’s assistant.”

“Access denied,” came the male voice, “voice pattern does not match suit owner.”

James cursed himself for his stupidity and vaguely wondered if Hayden had already been contacted. Exasperated, The MP snatched the helmet. “Do as the man says,” she said into it, then handed it back.

Tin Can came through immediately. “Nice feed in that hangar, James. The symbols came through clearly.”

“Apply some of my algorithms, see if…“

“They’re translated.”

“What?”

“Your old algorithms didn’t work,” she said, “the language is much too alien.”

“So how did you pull it off?”

“I hear it in your voice, James. Your lack of confidence in my abilities. It’s insulting.”

“You mean to tell me you developed your own Rosetta Stone?”

“No. I don’t see patterns the way you do.”

“So who helped you?” he asked.

“The rock you say you found on the shore and brought up to the mothership for analysis… at the bottom of the symbols, neatly concealed within the original language, is a simple decoding algorithm written in Harappan. But it didn’t escape the scrutiny of my scanners.“

James shook his head. “Impossible. Harappan is an Indus script. It’s from Earth.“

“James, the etching is recent and there’s only one person in this camp who can read and write Harappan.”

“Who?”

“Oh, James. You, of course.”

“That’s absurd. You know I’d never deface an artifact.”

“Let’s go over the native language first,” she said. “I believe it offers an explanation. The key to the translation,” she said, “is in the movement.”

It’s in the movement, dad.

“The symbols morph into new ones all the time,” she said. “You have to use information about the rate of the change to come up with a workable coding system for the symbols. This yields a somewhat coherent message across the whole text.”

Adalyn stands at his side, tracing the symbols of the rock face with her gloved finger. She talks nonstop behind her faceplate: “I was shocked by how easy it was to translate – something this alien. But once you have the correct algorithm… dad, what the language says scares me.”

“The Anomaly,” Tin Can continued, “is not a natural phenomenon. It was built. And its function is to remove whatever goes through it. Completely. It’s a giant eraser.”

“It removes… what?”

“Whatever is on the planet when it crosses. It’s pulled from the universe and is obliterated from reality. They used the Anomaly to remove their own people. So they’re gone, completely, so thoroughly, that the universe has to compensate by destroying all previous histories related to the individuals as if they had never existed, to maintain consistency and balance in the universe.”

“My God. What if that information fell into the wrong hands?”

“When someone could throw an individual through The Anomaly and completely cover his tracks, because once you’ve been pushed through, so is the act of having been pushed, because you can’t have been pushed if you never existed to begin with.”

“And the pusher,” James said, “would not even have to feel the guilt of having committed the crime, because if the wipe is clean, there should be no memory of the event.”

“The language,” Tin Can said, “suggests they used The Anomaly to eliminate crime. If the law perpetrators disappeared, so did their deeds. A sort of social purification machine.”

“Or genocide.”

“But it’s imperfect. The language is clear on this point. Certain individuals leave such a strong impact on their surrounding that traces of them remain. It’s as if the universe was reluctant to get rid of them. This part of the translation has a mystical, almost religious tone to it. They were in awe at the universe, because they couldn’t control it completely. They worshiped it, like a god.”

“And what would these traces of people who’d gone through look like?”

“I don’t know. That part does not translate into something meaningful.”

“How about memories? Deeply buried ones? Tin Can, do you have a record of someone by the name of Adalyn?”

“No, James.”


Ceiling lights dimmed to let in the ember of sunrise. It warmed the room. Beyond the window, a quiet mist filtering morning light replaced the storm. It coalesced into waltzing wisps and he knew he could easily have mistaken these fog devils for ghosts, the way he had sculpted Adalyn out of the rain.

He’s on the mothership in his cramped living quarters. He sits on the edge of the sleep chamber, lost in the browns and blues of a shoreline on the wall screen. The fractal curved with the Kepler Caves at its exact geometric center. He’d miss it, but Adalyn had not.

Fia bursts in. “Where’s Adalyn?” The panic in her voice startles James.

“Isn’t she on the mothership?”

“How can you not know? Tell me she’s not still on the planet!”

James punches keys on the computer and the shoreline zooms out to make room for all of Enigma. The Anomaly hovers only minutes away. His heart races. “Tin Can?”

“There’s two heat signatures on the planet. Near the Kepler Caves. One is Adalyn’s.”

Fia screams, “I will never forgive you this, James! How could you not keep an eye on her?” James is shaking. “She wanted to study the symbols a little longer. She said she’d be on the next shuttle out of the archaeology camp. Who is the other heat signature, Tin Can?”

“Hayden Clark.”


“Tin Can,” he shouted to the helmet, “Tell Fia that I think I know what happened to Adalyn. Tell her not to cross.”

“Fia is unreachable. Cedric tells me her current location is not disclosable.”

Fia was inside one of those damned pods already. The helmet slipped from his numb fingers and bounced on the floor. “Rita?” He peeked and saw no one.

A siren ran through the camp, accompanied by a booming metallic voice: “Thirty minutes to Anomaly.” Minutes rolled by and he began to feel restless. Did they forget about him?

The locking mechanism of his cell door finally clanked and Hayden swaggered in. He had a sidearm at his hip this time, but carried only his own helmet, and not the anticipated suit that James would need very soon.

Hayden frowned at the floor and his eyes went misty. “I’d like to think that you won’t die. Maybe you’ll end up…” His mood soured as he caught the mist out the window. “Like them. What are they? They’re always in the rain or in the mist. They look like ghosts.”

“Just a projection of your guilt, Hayden. There’s really nothing there.”

Hayden frowned. “What guilt?”

“You killed my little girl.”

Hayden’s shoulders slouched in overstated exasperation. “What little girl?“

“I know the truth. I felt it in my guts, but now I’m starting to remember things. I had a daughter by the name of Adalyn. On a previous crossing into The Anomaly, she was kept on the planet. By you. To ensure she would go through. You committed the perfect crime. She would no longer exist and you could claim to have discovered the alien language.”

“The truth,” Hayden spat, furious now, “is always relative, and seen through the eyes of misguided, overly sentimental men. Your petty concerns do not weigh against the greater good. My vision is greater in scope.”

“But how did you manage to recover information about the location of the symbols? That information should have vanished with its discoverer: Adalyn.”

“How did you…“ Hayden blurted with a befuddled gaze. Then he beamed. “Well, you’re finally about to find out what happened to that cat.”

“Is Fia going to find out too? Do we know too much about the language? About Adalyn?”

“Your daughter was just one child! The Anomaly could wipe out an entire civilization. It couldn’t become public knowledge. She was a necessary sacrifice, and all I get for being conscientious is nightmares of that little witch!” He waved his finger at James. “But you! Once you go through The Anomaly, I will not remember you.”

Fia strode into the room, surprising them both. She carried a generic gray emergency suit under one arm and a helmet in each hand. He recognized one as his own. Rita was behind her already in a helmet. A tiny red light, concealed from Hayden, blinked in Fia’s helmet. It was recording.

Rita pointed a gun at Hayden and his eyes narrowed on her. “You know what happens to soldiers with mutiny on their minds,” he said.

Fia knelt at James feet where she folded his suit and laid his helmet. Her voice was detached. “We were standing outside. We heard everything. Rita got curious when she overheard your conversation with Tin Can. She overrode the locking mechanism on the crossing chamber. She saved my life.”

“How much do you remember?” James said. “About Adalyn.”

She rose to meet his eyes. Her glare was unapologetic. “Enough.”

Hayden was furious. He threw an accusatory glare at James. “You know your wife and daughter have that same stupid little mouth, like they’re pouting all the time.”

Rita glanced at James, visibly upset, her aim on Hayden shaky. James was increasingly concerned about her lack of focus. “Keep aiming, Rita.”

“Well, look at that,” Hayden said to Rita. “You’re such an embarrassment to our marines. Drop that weapon, soldier.”

She blinked sweat out of her eyes and glanced inquiringly at James. Hayden drew his sidearm, pointed it at Rita and shot. Her helmet exploded from the back, staining the wall crimson with her blood. She collapsed to the ground.

“Dead or alive?” Hayden asked James as he now pointed the gun at Fia.

“What?”

“Dead then,” Hayden said, and as Fia glanced up, not understanding, he shot her in the head as well. Her unprotected face exploded. She went limp like a decapitated puppet.

“Dead or alive.” Hayden’s receding voice rang, a blurry gun barrel inches from James’ eyes. The room spun. “It’s all the same, you know. Don’t you want to see what it’s like to cross?” Hayden had a crazy look in his eyes. For reasons unknown to him, James heard himself mutter, “Alive.”

“That’s what I like about you. You never fail to entertain me.” And Hayden kicked James in the face with his combat boot.


“Time to Anomaly: thirteen minutes.” The sirens drilled into James’ head again, dredging him back to consciousness. His face throbbed.

He scooped up Fia’s helmet. “Fia’s dead,” he said to its mike. There was no answer. “Cedric, do you hear me?”

“I’m sorry to hear that, James.” There was fear and sadness in Cedric’s voice. “I don’t know what to say.”

“She was shot by Hayden Clark.”

“I captured the helmet’s audio. I’m at a loss. I do not understand. Mr. Clark also locked your cell. There is no way out.”

James struggled into his generic suit and grabbed his helmet. “Tin Can?” No answer.

“You really should think of giving her another name,” Cedric’s far away voice said from Fia’s helmet.

“Tin Can’s not coming through,” he yelled back. “I need to tell her what happened.”

“She knows. I’ve just relayed the audio. She disconnected from the satellite.”

“Why would she do that?”

“She didn’t say.”

“Then I don’t suppose there’s anyway you’d be able to unlock my cell door.”

The sirens whined down, leaving an eerie quiet.

“You have reached the Dead Eleven,” Cedric said.

“Would you care to tell me what that even means?” Helmet still in hand, he tried the door just to be sure. It was still locked.

“It’s the last eleven minutes before The Anomaly hits. There is not enough time for a shuttle’s round trip to and from the planet. At this time, except for one private falcon, all shuttles have left. I’m afraid I do not have the authority to open cell doors anyway.”

“Whose Falcon is it? Hayden’s?”

“Given what just transpired, it’s a fair guess he will kill you on sight if you go near that shuttle.”

“You want to be an accessory to murder, Cedric? Open that door.”

After a brief silence, Cedric said, “However, it appears that I do have the authority to execute an emergency procedure to help extract my owner’s body. Dead or alive. Your door is now unlocked.”

Outside the camp, James stumbled in the direction of the blip on his faceplate’s radar. There hadn’t been any reason to carry Fia’s body, as it would just have slowed him down, and Cedric knew it. He could hear waves crashing on the shore beyond. The mist had cleared, and as he crested a muddy hill, he saw the ocean open in front of him, vast and blue under the slow rising sun.

Hayden’s Falcon sat like a plump bird in the rocky mud near the water.

With The Anomaly this close, he would have expected roaring burners from the propulsion engines. Instead, the bird was quiet, lazily tonguing out its boarding ramp. Near it, a robotized laser drilled into a smoking boulder, carving cursive letters into the rock.

James gazed at the waterline, where the tides did not encroach onto land. It was strange technology that allowed for this. The same that destroyed what entered The Anomaly. Yet the planet went through unscathed and so did the language inside the cave. There had to be something different about the native soil and rock. Hayden had simply taken advantage of this. He’d been able to pass himself information between crossings because he had etched it down in native rock. It would have been easy enough to quickly jot down the location of the language just before Adalyn’s crossing.

And now James had flashing images of him writing the Harappan decoding algorithm on his own little rock. He had done it immediately after Adalyn’s murder as a desperate attempt to preserve enough information about the alien language and its translation. He had simply put the rock in his pocket, hoping that he would find it again after the crossing. He had never found it on the shore. Information could survive The Anomaly after all.

Sand kicked at his feet and, spinning around, he saw the large frame of a helmeted Hayden looming over him, like a bully savoring the rebellion of his victims to give him reason to hit hard. His massive arm swung and hit James’ helmet so hard that the blow knocked him down to his knees. On Hayden’s second swing, James blocked it with both forearms, clenching his teeth and fully expecting large bruises. Hayden reached for his sidearm. James sprung up and, surprising Hayden, grabbed his oxygen feed and yanked.

Hayden paniced and struggled to reconnect the oxygen but James wrenched the other end from the tank. Hayden scrambled for the Falcon. James lunged at him but Hayden was still strong enough to cast him off easily. Hayden reached the ramp and scampered up the corrugated rise, gasping for air and losing strength fast. James remembered how quickly he had lost consciousness when exposed to Enigma’s atmosphere. He was surprised that Hayden was still moving at all. He jumped on Hayden’s back and wrestled him into a headlock. They both slid off the ramp and plopped back into the mud.

Comfortable that Hayden didn’t have a fight in him anymore, James loosened his grip on him and sat panting. “You may understand what’s happening to you,” James said.

Hayden gaped at him, taking large gulps of the toxic air that was killing him.

“I’m willing to bet on something.” James said, “That if you cross, and therefore never existed, you could never have made Adalyn cross. Nor, for that matter, could you have killed Fia or Rita. Who knows what else will change after you go through The Anomaly.”

“You’re crossing with me,” Hayden croaked, and James almost felt sorry for him. “You’re not coming back.”

Something blazed across the sky and pounded into the ocean. James jumped to his feet. He couldn’t see anything in the waves, but soon enough a bulk of metal emerged from the water and lumbered toward him. It had all the looks of junkyard wreck wrenched from a greater machine. Charred from the atmospheric entry and bleeding strange fluids from cables dangling from it guts, it finally dropped before James.

“Hello, James. I left orbit immediately when I heard.”

“Hello, Tin Can. You look…”

“Ravishing? The Anomaly is less than a minute away, you know.”

“Then what are you doing here? You just guaranteed your destruction.”

“A shuttle could not have gotten to you fast enough. I’ve been with you since you were a child, James. I watched you grow into the not so handsome and dim-witted man you’ve become. I’ve followed you from planet to planet. I’m always worried about you. You need me, don’t you?”

Hayden was at a loss for words. “I have a shuttle right here.” He pointed at Hayden’s Falcon. “But it will not take your size and weight.”

“I know.”

“Then destroy the boulders you’ll find in there. They’ll survive the crossing. Give the Falcon instructions for the fastest escape route from The Anomaly. Then stop that laser that’s writing on that boulder and blast the rock clean of etchings. I’ll tell you what to write on it instead. Two words only.“

“You know, of course, that my name is not Tin Can.”

“I know,” he smiled, “but you’re terrible at giving yourself names. I’ve called you Tin Can since I was a kid.”

“No, you’re still a kid, James.”

As the Falcon lifted off the planet and swung toward the rising sun, James looked up at the sky. He still couldn’t see The Anomaly, hidden behind the blue overhead. But his helmet’s faceplate started to dribble numbers about rotational and orbital velocities. The planet was rushing toward The Anomaly at 268 kilometers a second. In just a moment reality as he knew it would cease and Tin Can would have no time to see it coming.

He turned his attention to the body sprawled in the mud. Dead or alive, it’s all the same. He had always wondered if he would find it difficult to kill a man. Not in this case.


The fishing boat danced in the water amongst glints of reflected sunlight. Nothing had gone for the bait yet. But James didn’t care. He leaned back in the narrowing stern and just watched. He wasn’t here for the fish and would never touch a fishing pole. Fia feigned interest. She didn’t care for fishing either. Adalyn crouched at the bow, a fishing pole lodged between her knees. She was still. She was patient. She had inherited her father’s dogged determination. She had inherited much and more from her mother and at seventeen she could discuss with you the physics of black holes, spoke five languages, and had offers at several renowned colleges. It was a wonder she could stand the monotonous task of waiting for nothing to happen.

“Sweetie?” Fia carefully leaned toward James to not rock the boat. “Do you remember someone by the name of Hayden? Military guy?”

James had had strange dreams, but he didn’t remember dreaming about that particular name. “No, why?”

She shrugged. “Thought it might be someone we knew.”

At that moment Adalyn jumped to her feet, making the boat rock like crazy. “I got one!” she screamed. “I got one!”

Venus was high and bright near the horizon. And James knew that just to the left of it, many light years beyond, was Enigma and its strange Anomaly. They were leaving for the planet tomorrow.

Adalyn had indicated an interest in xenoarchaeology, and looking at Enigma’s topography, had already discerned something strange where one of the landmasses met the ocean. There was a repeating pattern there that pointed to a set of caves and she was dead set on entering them.

But the most alarming find by far had been made by one of the original settlers who had gone on a stroll to explore the shoreline. He had stumbled on something inexplicably written on a boulder next to the Kepler Caves, where others had yet to set foot.

The words were “For Adalyn.”

Fiction | Short Stories


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