It was, arguably, the greatest archeological find in human history. Not just because it was found on the first dig; not because of the furor it had caused; and not that it was pure enigma, but largely because it was found on Mars.
The first archeological team had arrived within weeks of the first martian survey team. They knew exactly where they were going: a large rectangular depression in the red sand of the southeastern martian desert. They arrived excited and exhausted and full of anticipation. They were not disappointed.
That first day they ventured on to the sand in the ancient hole. They descended and walked upon its surface. Even through the thin martian air, the sound of their footsteps rang hollow, and echoed as if walking in the bowels of an empty oil tanker. Stunned, they froze, and the great martian silence engulfed them.
Like a wave, it rushed over them: the twins of fear and exhilaration, knotting their stomachs and lifting their hearts.They knew that they were not the first; they knew they were not alone. The martian wind whistled a lonesome tune.
It took only a day to enter through the roof beneath their feet. The room was vast and black and hollow. The tiny shaft of light from their entrance way merely underscored the darkness. Their portable lights could not reach the distant walls.
They stepped forward.
Each foot-fall swept up a fine cloud of ancient martian dust, which lingered in the thin air before falling back with the sound of distant bells. Their footsteps,however, made no sound at all. Within this vast tomb, the only sound was the faint ringing of the rising and resting dust.
It was indeed an alien place.
They walked ahead, knowing their direction only by the receding beacon that was their entrance. They walked as the darkness folded over them. They walked well beyond the boundaries of the rectangle overhead. Still they could not see the walls and their torches only illuminated each other. The flashlights were futile, and one by one, they switched off their lights, and one by one they reached out for each other and touching, slowly walked on.
Can eyes adjust to infinite night?
Yet, there! Faint. Pale. Blue. The tiniest glow, or only a trick of tired eyes? Close? Far? Each knew the others had all seen it, for they felt the squeeze of a hand; the tension in an arm.
Ahead. It lay ahead. They walked hesitatingly, groping gently in the dark lest they run into it or run over it. Onward, onward; the gentle ringing of martian dust in their ears. It seemed they walked on and on, yet were no closer.
Then, an interruption for the mundane: a riser in one of the suits began to malfunction. They gathered around to fix the broken valve. The torches were switched on; the temporarily blinded eyes adjusted and the work was done, and the lights were turned off again.
And there, before them, rested the glowing blue orb. It had seemed miles away only moments before, yet now they were bathed in its restful azure fire.
No one moved; no one breathed. Yet the stillness held the sound of tiny bells.
They could not pull their eyes from its incandescent beauty. Did it pulse or was it a shimmer? Some thought it flowed like water, while others saw clouds. Yet later, each would say that for a moment, just a moment, it looked like home - it looked like earth.
There was the expected furor when the orb was displayed by the scientists at the Smithsonian. And there was expected lapse of interest as the headlines returned to the first world's battle of the politically correct versus the political opportunists, and the second world's battle of the haves vs the have-nots; and the third world still trying to find enough to eat. The news returned to normal, and the orb returned to the laboratory.
It was the senior scientist's son who first noticed it. He was watching a learning show, giggling and pointing as the very young do, at the television screen in the lab. He turned and pointed to the sphere and said "Miffy!"
His father looked up. Miffy was a character on the tv show. He looked at the orb. It still looked like Mars to him: redish, with faint swirling streaks. Miffy was a bright yellow giraffe. He thought little of it, although his son's attention was now fully on the orb, and he again giggled and laughed and called it "Miffy."
The senior scientist was lost in thought. He stared vacantly out the window, the lush green grass of the quad reminding him of his honeymoon in Hawaii. He shook his head to clear it, and turned back into the room, his eyes glancing across the ball.
For just an instant it looked like Maui: green and blue.
Startled, he blinked. It slowly changed from Maui to Mars.
He closed his eyes and forced himself to remember his skiing trip to Vail last winter: The wind in his face; the bright white sun. And when he looked at the sphere again, it was white.
"Miffy!" his son said.
"Out of the mouths of babes." he thought.
Needless to say, the excitment in the press was rekindled. The public's interest was again aroused. And in the first, the second and even the third worlds, there were some powerful people whose interest was piqued as well.
You could say that World War III, the final war, was started by a popsicle. It was only days after the Miffy incident that the next experiment would be performed. It would rock the world.
Twelve of the senior scientist's collegues were gathered around the orb. The plan was simple: they were all to think of a single thing, and a popsicle was chosen. At the appointed time, the room fell silent and they concentrated their thoughts as one.
Suddenly, the silence was broken by tiny popping sound, as if something wet had fallen, splat, on the lineoleum floor.
It had: it was an orange popsicle.
All hell broke lose.
The flight carrying the orb to Le Socieitie Scientifique in France was hijacked by three extremely well trained men. So efficient was the operation that it was only when the flight failed to arrive at Paris that the incident was reported. Despite a level of panic that reached hysteria in some circles, the press was not informed. The world was not aware that its greatest prize was missing.
It took three hours and the cooperation of several nation's satellites to locate the plane in Chad.
Several nations also sent soldiers to retrieve the sphere. The operation was swift, but like most international enterprises, it bumbled and stumbled along, and eventually succeeded - sort of. It was a team from the US that first rescured the orb, but in the process, they shot and killed several members of the multinational force.
In reprisal, the American team was attacked and killed, one and all. Once again the sphere's location was unknown. It began a trip through many different hands, with many different agendas, some honorable, most not.
Within a week, it was controlled by a petty dictator whose long seething rage at his neighbors to the north would finally be avenged: his 'thinkers' were conjuring up a respectable stockpile of atomic bombs.
The satellites of many nations noticed the increased radiation and the nations began arming. Not just the two neighbors, but all nations, everywhere. It was the beginning of the end.
The automatic rockets continued to send barrages long after the last human was dead. Their sensors only indicated that another battery was continuing to return fire, so they blindly loaded and fired again. There was no more terror; there was no more pain; and the philosophers (had there been any left alive) might have debated whether or not the rockets made any sound at all as they fell.
There was a quiet irony then, that it was the last rocket to fall which dislodged the orb from its shelf, and sent it tumbling to the floor. It bounced once and rolled into the corner of the room. The florescent lights flickered as the generator began to fail.
Had there been anyone left, they would have seen a thin black line slowly traced its way around the surface of the orb. When the ends finally met, a crack began to appear along the line. The crack became a split, and the halves of the sphere spread slowly apart.
From within the center of the orb a fine mist of spores arose and filled the air, tumbling out through the broken windows, and into the night. In the gathering gloom, the faint sound of bells could be heard.
The martians had arrived. The invasion was a complete success.
copyright 1996 Tracy Valleau
OTHER SHORT STORIES