“What can you make of this?” The woman pushed the image across Nathan Shipley’s desk. Her soap-scrubbed scent contrasted with his unwashed odor and the mildew of the basement office. Nathan slipped his wire-rimmed spectacles back past his long hair and around his ears, then glanced down at the image. It was a single ideogram retouched to obscure its background, possibly a rubbing from a monument or headstone.
“Can you give me a little context? Where was this taken?” Nathan looked into the woman’s expressionless face. She appeared to be in her early thirties and in excellent physical shape, certainly not an academic. Military, he guessed, although she and the two large men with her wore gray business suits rather than uniforms.
“I’m sorry, Dr. Shipley,” she said. “I’m not permitted to reveal the location. Can you give me anything at all?”
“I’d guess it’s early Mycenaean, a predecessor to Linear A. But you knew that or you wouldn’t have come to me. Did it come off a building, a clay tablet, perhaps a pottery shard? With some context, I might venture an interpretation.”
“You could translate it?” Her eyes suddenly locked on his.
“With a wider sampling, most assuredly.” He feigned confidence, hoping he would get a chance to try. He touched the image. “This ideogram indicates time—the side marks are qualifiers.” The woman leaned in, eyebrows raised. “The leading qualifier negates prior time, the trailing one negates anything coming after.”
“Nothing before and nothing after?” The woman’s pressed palms almost clapped. “Alpha and omega?”
Nathan nodded. “Or infinity. If this came from a palace or a courthouse, it might symbolize final authority.” He scratched behind his hair-thatched ear. “On a tomb, it might indicate that time had lost all meaning.”
“Thank you, Dr. Shipley.” The woman pushed back her chair to stand. Thinking she was leaving, Nathan stood to see her off.
“We need you to come with us, Dr. Shipley.” She waved her two friends forward and whispered to them.
“I should be able to…” The woman grabbed his coat as the two men rushed him out to the waiting limousine. “Wait, my work…” Nathan protested.
Four months later, Nathan found himself on the observation deck of a Global Space Agency research lab far out in space.
“You brought me up here for this?” he asked, staring at the massive, metallic-glass sphere beside the lab. When GSA found it in Earth’s orbit three years earlier, they had keep it a secret—its location, hidden behind the far side of the sun, raised too many questions.
“What do you expect me to tell you?” Nathan asked, raising both hands, palms up. Beside him stood the woman who had kidnapped and accompanied him on the long trip to the space station.
“What it is … How to get inside,” she said, pointing to the sphere. “We’re at a standstill. You know how much money, how many scientists, how many crazy ideas are kicking around?” She looked at Nathan, her face contorted. “We’ve tried blasting, cutting, drilling—not even a dent. The thing just wobbles a bit and heals, like some indestructible bubble. We can’t even do a spectral analysis. We have no idea what sort of technology we are dealing with.”
“I suppose you tried going in the front door?” Nathan asked, tilting his head toward the sphere’s ornately embossed, other-century-style gateway.
“A field appears and blocks the way whenever we approach. Other than that, we’ve found no defenses and have gotten no reactions. Remember the symbol I showed you in your office?”
“It’s on the panel beside the gateway. You said you wanted context, a wider sampling. We think the panel might be interactive.”
“That’s it?” Nathan asked. “You want me to just walk up and say ‘hi.’” She nodded, lifting her eyebrows sheepishly and smiling.
Sixty minutes later, suited up for a spacewalk, Nathan hooked onto the cable-rail along the two-meter-wide platform connecting the GSA lab to the sphere.
As he approached, a field of white bloomed in the gateway, fluttering like wings of light. Then a clay-tablet-like panel emerged with the impression of the ideograph.
“Infinity,” Nathan murmured as he traced the panel’s symbol with his gloved finger. Another ideograph replaced the first, Who? Beneath it, Nathan clumsily traced an ideograph in the clay for “name” then the numeral six. The sixth day. The wings of light fluttered down. He entered the sphere.
The interior was bright. Gravity pulled Nathan’s feet onto a flat deck covered with living grass. The dome above displayed sunrise in a morning sky filled with drifting, puffy clouds, and a flock of birds, geese, honking like those he had seen as a boy, camping with his uncle up north. A stream-fed pond at the far side of a flowery meadow was nestled among trees, both evergreen and deciduous. Beyond them, hills rolled back to the horizon. Whitetail deer grazed nearby, lifting and lowering their heads.
“You have served your time, child of the sixth day, and may return,” a warm voice said. Nathan looked around for the source but saw no one. The fluttering white field again blocked the gateway. Longing to taste and feel the air, he removed his helmet and took a deep breath.
“Return to where? Where am I?” Nathan asked, feeling the sun warm his face and a breeze rustle his long hair.
“I prepared a special place for you, one with many rooms,” answered the voice.
“Is this a game or for real?” Everything felt, looked, and smelled Earth-like: gravity, atmosphere and terrain, plants and animals, the stream and clouds. More idyllic than Earth-like, Nathan thought as a hummingbird landed on his arm.
“I reach you where you are,” said the voice, “with what your mind is able to grasp. Your technical culture recoils from scrolls and clay tablets, anything not reducible to mathematical code, anything connected to your past. In growing, you have become uprooted. That is why I sent for you, Nathan Shipley.”
“You sent for me?” A chill shot up Nathan’s spine.
“By contacting your culture in the manner I did, I compelled scientists to seek you out and to ask the questions they have long forgotten. I created their paths for discovery long ago, in the stones, in the stars, and life itself—all things great and small. Yet those who followed my well-marked paths took credit only unto themselves, boastfully dismissing questions that would bring deeper understanding.”
“You seek meaning in all things, not just the arrow pointing to the next arrow further up the path—the arrows I set. Your culture seeks the arrows only so its quiver might be filled.”
“I am just a collector and student of artifacts and ancient wisdom.”
“You are the one who will carry my message to my people,” the voice said softly. Nathan swallowed hard, feeling small and very frightened. The voice continued, “I will come again soon with a greater reality. It is a reality many will fear, for it will come upon them like a storm upon the sea. Others will embrace it. The wind will fill their sails and carry them forward. You must go and tell my people.”
Nathan trembled uncontrollably. “It is too much. I am weak and unworthy.”
“Two gifts I give you, fruit from each of my great trees.” A figure of light came forward with a tray bearing two star-like fruit: one green, one golden.
Nathan started. “But it is forbidden to—”
“Soon all may taste this fruit. They are for your mission.” The figure of light held out the tray and Nathan consumed the fruit. “Now go and tell my people.”
Light dimmed as the sun set beyond the hills. Other lights along the path directed him back to the gateway. The fluttering white field parted like a curtain. He found himself outside on the platform with his helmet in place.
Upon returning, Nathan was surrounded by scientists, engineers, and executives in the GSA main conference room. He had met and spoken with aliens—scientists refused to consider any other explanation. The medical staff found no damage from what the aliens had fed him; indeed, his health was extraordinary. The alien message that Nathan delivered threatened some and cheered others, just as the voice had told him. Most attributed it to post-trauma stress and delusion.
Nathan felt only calm. Cleverly worded legal documents he understood at a glance—even without his glasses, which he no longer required. He knew the tests scientists gave him were intended to twist the message he’d been given.
The next morning, a team prepared to re-enter the sphere. As they approached, the sphere vanished. Everyone at GSA seemed surprised, except Nathan. They decided to wait for its return. Hadn’t the message said, “I will come again?”
Nathan hid a smile. His new discernment told him the return would not be to the far side of the sun. “I must tell your people,” he murmured, remembering the voice and sensing the warm sun on his face.