The Artifact


(875 words)

‘Out in space no-one can hear you scream.’ Well, Alice could hear screams all right. Her three-year-old twins, Adam and Toni, fighting.
Adam wailed as Toni held a bright-blue shark just out of his reach. Being taller, she would lift it higher, just beyond his grasp, as he jumped up for it.
“Toni, you know how much he likes that toy. Give it back right now or you don’t go to see Daddy’s shuttle come in.”
Toni threw the toy at Adam’s chest, knocking him over. Adam began to cry.
“Pack it in you two, I haven’t got time for this.” Toni could be so cruel to Adam. She couldn’t understand where Toni got it from. Both she and Tom, her husband, had been placid, sociable children.
A screen beeped, high on the playroom wall and a message scrolled, ‘Shuttle ETA 45 minutes.’ The display showed a sweeping view over a segment of the planet Mars, where a rash of mountains rose above the dull orange surface. They looked so small, she thought, but, in reality, she knew many of them to be over two miles high. Elsewhere, the volcano, Olympus Mons, lurched fourteen miles skywards, looking for all the world like a gigantic, squat boil. The tenuous atmosphere of the planet formed a haze on the curved horizon, and beyond it, the sun blazed in the inky blackness.
A communicator sounded. Alice pressed a button and Tom’s face appeared.
“Hi, Ally, we’re on our way. They’ve found something they want to take back home, we’re bringing it up.”
That was unusual. “What is it?”
“Well, it’s some kind of artefact. It’s kinda weird ….” The signal broke up. “… shaped like a ….” Then it cut off completely.
Alice sat with the children, gazing out at the silver sails of the space station, and the shuttle dock below, set against the infinite blackness of space. Alice thought over the revelations of the last six months whilst Adam and Toni played hand-held games. At first, the digs had revealed stone tools, twenty metres below the frozen red desert, to great excitement. Then in another excavation site, metal objects, long strips of some strange alloy were found, deeply buried.
At first, they’d been told to keep it all under wraps, not to let the Earth public know. “The plebs won’t know how to handle this,” the director had told them.
But it was too big, too important, and soon, too many whistleblowers had ignored the mandate. Back on Earth, rumours of ‘outlandish conspiracy theories’ became science facts.
Now Tom, Alice, and two planetary scientists, David and Heinz, stood in a lab. The twins were next door watching videos of Earth. Lights blazed on an object lying on a table. It was ivory-coloured, about eight feet in length, a foot wide, and just over an inch thick. The width tapered towards the rounded ends, where it also curved up slightly. There was a small hole where a sample had been taken.
“What’s the lab say?” asked Tom.
David ran a hand over his bald head. “It seems to be some kind of plastic, can you believe!”
Tom and Alice exchanged glances. “What the hell is it?” Tom asked.
“Christ knows,” responded Heinz, a young man with ginger hair and a beard.
Adam appeared in the doorway, jumping up and down excitedly. “Mummy, Daddy, I know what it is!”
Alice smiled. “Don’t be silly, darling!”
“I do, I do, come and look!” He ran back into the rec room.
“Go and see what he wants,” sighed Tom, raising his eyebrows.
In the rec room, a video played. Alice gasped. “Tom, David, Heinz, you might want to see this!” she called out.
The others trouped in. They all gazed at a gigantic wave where an athletic young man balanced halfway down its huge green face. David smiled. “Yes, I’ll admit there’s a similarity. Welcome to surf city – on Mars!”
They all laughed, then a communicator beeped. “It’s the lab,” said David, as he walked over to pick up a handset.
The others stood watching the surfer riding the wave, in awe. How beautiful the sea back on Earth looked. Alice felt a pang of nostalgia.
They were startled by the sound of a handset hitting the floor. David stood, ashen-faced.
“Hey, what’s up?” asked Heinz.
David’s tone was wooden. “… They dated that artefact. I just got the result.”
“Well, how old?”
“It’s incredible. It’s … can you believe it’s sixty-six million years old!”
“What, you mean …?”
“Yes, whatever killed the dinosaurs wiped these … people out too.”
“And that … er, thing next door?”
David shrugged his shoulders. “I guess it is what it looks like. The oceans must have been evaporated by the heat of the impact.”
Alice looked up at the screen again, where the video of the surfer still played. She tried to imagine an orange sky, a huge red wave, and balancing on the ivory surfboard, a tall, slim ochre-coloured humanoid, young and adroit, thinking thoughts that we could never begin to imagine.
She wondered what Earth would be like in sixty-six million years’ time.
“Mum, can we go now? I’m bored.” Toni’s shrill voice brought her back down to Mars.

Featured in the book and audiobook, To Cut a Short Story Short, vol. II: 88 Little Stories

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