By K.C. Ball
Jules panted like a man three times his age, as if rehearsing an adventure he might one day foist upon his children’s children. He threw his big Venomous Freerider board onto the sand and pointed a quivering finger up the smooth face of the dune.
“Son-of-a-bitch,” he croaked. “That nasty mother almost swallowed me.”
The “nasty mother” was a sinkhole. Mitch crept close to look down into the crumbling funnel in the red sand of the Atacama Desert. An inky oval yawned below, wide enough to gobble all three of them at once.
Amy leaned over Mitch’s shoulder, close enough for him to catch the familiar scent of her. She peered into the hole and whistled.
“You were lucky, babe,” she said. “A fall like that could have killed you.”
Amy stood and stepped away, snaked her hand around Jules’ arm and snuggled against him. She had made it clear, four days ago at the Pittsburgh airport, who and what she wanted on this trip. Mitch was old news—she had made that clear three months ago—but not so old that he had gotten over her.
Jules hadn’t told Mitch Amy was joining them on the spring break trip to Chile, and hadn’t given Mitch a chance to invite someone himself. It left Mitch as odd man out. If he had any balls he would have told Jules to bite himself, would have walked out right there at the boarding gate. Mitch wanted to go to Chile, though, and Jules’ mom had picked up the whole tab for the trip.
Now he couldn’t work up the courage to go it on his own.
Jules sucked in the thin air, gaining control again. “Came jamming across the sand,” he said. “Heard a crackle, like peanut brittle breaking. Felt it start to give way under my board.”
“Probably impact melt,” Mitch said.
“Huh?” Jules sounded dubious.
“Super-heated spew, maybe a piece of a meteor or lava from the volcano. It hits hard, melts the sand and forms a shell.”
Amy pinched her t-shirt, pulled it away from her ribs and breasts. Any fool could see she wasn’t wearing a bra. She toed the hole’s hard edge. “What’s it made of?”
“You’re the expert, Mitch,” Jules said. “Go ahead. Answer the question.”
Mitch could hear the mockery in Jules’ voice. He answered, anyway.
“Might be glass formed out of sand or maybe a thin layer of melted rock. Time passes, lots of time, and sand drifts over it. Jules comes along, hits it right; it won’t support his weight.”
“I couldn’t see a thing down there,” Amy said. “Anybody got a light?”
Jules tipped his head in a way that made his message clear. I paid your way. So Mitch hiked to the rented dune buggy and returned with a road flare.
“This ought to do it,” he said.
He struck the end, waited for it to hiss into red, sulfur-scented life. Then he leaned close, pitched the flare into the darkness. Amy grabbed Jules’ belt and leaned close, too.
“Is that a man-made wall?” she asked.
“Looks like it,” Mitch said.
Mitch’s father ran a quarry in upstate New York, outside Clemons. Mitch knew enough about the business to recognize cut stone. And from its color, he guessed volcanic basalt.
“In the middle of the friggin’ desert?” Jules asked.
Amy’s voice carried a hint of curiosity. “Let’s see if we can find out. Let’s go down there.”
“Go get the buggy, Mitch,” Jules said.
“I’m not sure that’s a good idea.”
“Pussy,” Jules said.
“Be nice, Jules,” Amy said.
She turned to Mitch and lifted an eyebrow. “Please? It’ll be fun.”
Mitch hiked back to the dune buggy once again. Rooster-tailing sand, he drove it as close to the sinkhole as he dared. He snaked the cable from the bumper winch into the gaping hole. The three of them went down, one at a time, hand-over-hand.
It was basalt. Mitch could see the wall had been set without mortar, had milled surfaces and cut edges finer than any he’d ever come across. He drew a breath, inches from the rock-wall face. He caught a faint odor that set the fine hairs on his neck at edge.
“We ought to head back to San Pedro,” he said.
Jules laughed. “Why?”
“To report what we’ve found.”
“Report what to who? It’s just a friggin’ hole.”
Amy pointed into the sharp-edged shadows. “What’s that?”
She dropped to her knees before Mitch could stop her and began to scoop the sand away, digging like a dog. Jules slid across the sand to her, went to his knees to help.
Mitch’s heart bumped. He stepped closer. “What is that?”
“My God,” Amy said. “It’s a skeleton.”
After an hour of careful digging, they found three sets of bones, sand-dried and held together by bits of desiccated skin. They found a skull, a torso and four limbs for each of the three sets of remains, and it didn’t take long to recognize the wrongness of their find.
The legs, arms and skulls all were stretched to gigantic proportions, the eye sockets enormous. Joints on the extra-long arms and legs bent in the wrong places.
“Those aren’t human,” Mitch said.
“No kidding,” Jules said. “Chariots of the friggin’ gods, I tell you. Aliens practically own South America.”
They laid the bones on the stone floor they’d uncovered. Each of the three skeletons would have stood eight feet tall, had they been upright.
Amy slid her finger along one thigh bone. “Hey, are they Martians?”
“They’re something,” Mitch muttered.
Jules crossed a couple yards to the beginnings of a stone-lined passage in the sand. “This looks like it goes back under the dunes.”
Amy glanced at Mitch. “Let’s check it out.”
She reached toward his arm.
He drew away. “We’re not archeologists.”
“C’mon, Mitch,” she begged, in that tone of voice she used to work on him. “It could be fun.”
“Yeah. C’mon, Mitch,” Jules mimicked.
So Mitch, Jules and Amy dug in the hard-packed sand until their hands cramped. A chill crept into the thin desert air. The cornflower-blue Chilean sky took on a crimson over-glow. When it became too dark to see, even with the lights of the dune buggy, they clambered from the sinkhole. They rode in silence back to San Pedro de Atacama, rolled through the whitewashed buildings to the cushy hotel rooms paid for by Jules’ mother.
Mitch fell asleep to the sounds of Jules and Amy giggling in the adjoining room. He dreamed of being chased across rusty-red sand by giant aliens.
Next morning, Jules refused to say a word to anyone about what they’d found. Instead, they returned to the desert equipped with camping gear, electric lanterns, shovels, buckets, coils of rope and a thirty-foot aluminum extension ladder. The rentals put a good-sized dent in the titanium credit card Jules carried. He didn’t even blink.
Digging in packed sand, lugging bucket after bucketful to the surface, turned into bone-grinding grunt work. They stopped for half an hour at noon to eat. Come sundown, they crawled fully-clothed and dirty into musty, sand-gritted sleeping bags and slept upon the sand.
Next morning, they started just after sunrise and didn’t stop for lunch. By midafternoon, they cleared the last of a twenty-yard passage and came upon a blank stone wall.
“There’s a lot of sweat for nothing,” Jules said, when the last of the packed sand collapsed to expose the wall.
Amy sighed, long and loud. “Well, it was fun. There’s still time today to do a little ’boarding.”
Jules dropped his shovel. “Yeah, to hell with this.”
Mitch leaned his shovel against the wall. “What do we do with those skeletons? We can’t just leave them here.”
“Why not?” Jules said. “It’s where we found them.”
“We need to report this. It’s a monumental find.”
Jules stepped close to Mitch. Mitch could feel the heat and dryness of the desert rising up from his long-time friend.
“What do you know about monumental?” Jules’ voice took on an edge. “How many old-bones classes did you take? Two, maybe three? You’re a geology major, not an archeologist.”
Mitch inched back. “Lay off, Jules. I’m just saying.”
Amy dropped her shovel. The clang of wood and metal on the stone echoed through the passageway. Mitch and Jules both jumped at the noise.
“Let’s not fight, boys,” she said. “Mitch might be right.”
“We weren’t fighting,” Jules said. “He’s talking crazy.”
“We can’t keep this a secret,” Mitch said.
Jules shook his head. “We’ll be buried in paperwork. What’s left of our vacation will be gone. We’ll miss the flight home.”
Amy stepped close, joining in. “And they might arrest us.”
She and Jules crowded Mitch against the stone. “Do you want that, Mitch?” she asked.
“Yeah,” Jules echoed. “Do you?”
Mitch shook his head. “No. I just think we need to do the right thing.”
“How about this?” Amy said. “We’ll take pictures and send a letter to the Chilean government, once we’re home.”
“Yeah,” Jules said. “That’s a plan.”
“Tell him you’re sorry for ragging him, Jules,” Amy said.
Jules nodded. “I’m sorry, bro. This was an adventure. Isn’t that what we came down here for? Now it’s over and I say to hell with it. Let’s go ’boarding.”
He turned away and headed for the ladder.
Amy glanced at Mitch. “Coming?”
“Don’t take too long,” she said, and hurried after Jules.
Mitch watched them climb back into the sunshine. No matter what they said, he knew he couldn’t write these three days off as nothing but a lark. There had to be something more beneath the sand than twenty yards of sharp-cut stone.
“We’ll wait a while, give you a chance to see the truth of it,” Jules yelled, from above. “Give us a holler when you’re ready to go.”
“Uh huh,” Mitch called.
His mind was elsewhere, caught by a sudden thought: times he’d bumped his arm into the wall, stumbling to the bathroom. He’d catch the meat of his upper arm on the hall light switch.
He eased along the passageway, right arm raised as high as he could reach, trailing his fingertips along the wall just below shoulder height of the skeletons. He reached the sinkhole, then turned and started back, feeling along the other wall.
Three long strides out from the dead-end, Mitch felt a bump that gave way a bit beneath his light touch. He leaned against the wall and reached up, standing on his toes, until his palm rested on the bump. He turned his head so he could see the dead-end wall and pushed.
The end wall disappeared.
It didn’t swing open or slide out of the way. One instant it stood there, solid and impassable. The next it vanished with a quiet whoosh of air.
Mitch yelled his surprise, or at least he tried. Instead he got a strangled yelp. He coughed and tried again. “Hey, guys! I found something.”
“Just a minute.” Jules sounded far away, occupied. “We’re busy.”
Mitch eased his hand from the bump, wondering if he released the pressure whether the wall would reappear. It didn’t. The opening remained. He turned toward the sinkhole.
“Hey, guys, come down here—”
They had pulled the ladder up.
“Hey,” he called. “Put the ladder back.”
“We’re busy,” Amy shouted, out of breath.
Mitch bit off a retort. The two of them were smoking dope, groping each other, out in the open. Just a little easy sex to pass the time. If they wandered off, if something happened to them, he’d be down here forever with those three skeletons.
Up above, Amy giggled.
Mitch studied the ragged circle of blue sky. To hell with them. He wasn’t going to beg.
He turned from the sinkhole and eased forward past the skeletons, suddenly aware of the thumping of his heart, the ragged rasp of his breath and the hard scrape of his sandals easing across the gritty floor. He crossed into the new space, hands outstretched in case the opening turned out to be some sort of illusion. It wasn’t. He stopped and turned to his left.
A room lay visible in the light of his electric torch, an open space big as a gymnasium.
A chamber. That’s what it was. Deep in the shadows, Mitch saw what looked like furnishings. He needed more light. There had to be an active power source, if the door still worked. That meant room lights, too.
Mitch knew what to look for now. He spotted a palm-sized bump set into the stone, high on the wall to the left inside the door. He stretched, almost on his toes, but then pulled his hand away.
Maybe the power still worked, but who knew how much time had passed since this place had been built. That might be a light switch up there, but it could be a door control, too. If that’s what it was, if Mitch closed himself in alone, there might not be enough juice left to open the door again.
“You’re such a coward,” he whispered as he stepped back from the wall.
He hurried into the cleared passageway. “Hey! Come look at this.”
Mitch heard soft noises but no answer, so he stalked back into the chamber with the electric lantern, stopped near the center of the space and drew a breath.
He caught the long-dried aroma of unwashed clothing, the familiar scent of exertion and exercise. It smelled like a dorm room, looked like one, too, if Mitch ignored the scale.
In the harsh light of the lantern, he made out three bunks set against the walls. Metal boxes sat beside each bed just like footlockers. Three folding stools and a table, its top even with his nose, occupied the center of the chamber.
“Dinner will be late tonight,” he whispered.
Gear lay everywhere, some pieces inset with dark screens twice the size of Mitch’s smart phone and studded with knurled knobs big as marbles. Three long, flat pieces hung in a rack on the far wall. They looked like nothing so much as oversized sand-boards.
Mitch grinned as he pictured three alien friends, not that much different from him and Jules and Amy, ’boarding on the red Atacama dunes.
“Roughing it, were you?” His words echoed off the walls.
He started as something near the door caught his attention, then saw a red light blinking on a chin-high table set flush against the wall. Something other than the door still worked, after who knew how many years.
The light beckoned Mitch. He drew his shoulders back and took a breath. “Time to grow some balls,” he said.
He stepped to the table.
The red glow came from a button, big as half a walnut, inset at one end of an eight-inch tube. No screens or knobs this time, but the body of the tube carried an intricate pattern of grooves and lands. The pale red-lit globe pulsed at two-second intervals, as if counting time as its life ebbed away.
Mitch couldn’t shake the image of a pink alien bunny, lethargic but still struggling to beat his drum. Mitch stepped close and leaned in for a closer look, his chin just above the table lip.
“How long have you been blinking?” he whispered.
His words echoed back from the basalt walls and he grinned as the puzzle pieces fell into place.
“You’re a clicker, aren’t you?”
Everybody had a place for keys. At home in Clemons they used a table in the entry hall. Mitch and his dad kept their car and house keys in a glass dish there.
His mom’s plastic remote to her minivan lay on the table, chained to a rabbit’s foot. She could lock and unlock the van with a single click. Start the engine, too. And if she misplaced the van in a box-store parking lot, the horn would honk when she pushed a button on the clicker.
The aliens had to have a signaling device to call their ship back from wherever they’d stashed it. They had to have a clicker. And they’d gotten used to leaving it beside the door.
Mitch could almost see what had happened.
They’d gone off to work or play one day. While they were out, some sort of disaster struck. An earthquake. An asteroid. Maybe the volcano erupted. It didn’t matter. They ran to get their clicker, all three of them panicked, because without it they’d be stuck here. Then the unthinkable occurred. Just as they reached the entrance to their shelter, a direct hit buried all three of them beneath the red Atacama sands.
“Bummer,” Mitch whispered, by way of benediction.
He pushed to his feet, hurried back into the corridor and made his way to the sinkhole.
“You two all right up there?” he called.
“Five more minutes.” Jules sounded half-asleep.
A few minutes worked just fine for Mitch. He scooped up an armful of bones and returned to the bunkroom. Seven trips did it, moving fast as he could all the way.
“Hope I got you in the right spots,” he panted, as he laid the last of the bones on the bunks.
There was one last thing to do before he left them to their rest, one thing he had to know. He stepped to the table, stretched his arm and touched the clicker with a fingertip. No sizzle of burned skin. Cool to the touch. He picked up the device and brought it close, examining it in the lantern’s white glare.
“Push it,” Mitch whispered to himself. “Be a man for once.”
Yeah, Jules and Amy were up there. Mitch had no idea what might happen to them if the aliens’ vehicle returned, but just then he didn’t really care.
“To hell with them,” he said, “if they can’t take a joke.”
He found a spot in the passageway where he could see the sky above the sinkhole. He pushed the button. It winked from red to purple. He pushed again and it turned a sapphire blue.
A minute passed. A sudden pop sounded from above, as if an enormous soap bubble had burst, and the sunlight went away as something huge blinked into being over the sinkhole.
Mitch heard Amy shriek. Jules joined in, an octave lower. Nothing else. No hiss of phasers, though. No exploding photon torpedoes. Mitch sighed. He’d watched too many movies, played too many computer games. The family minivan wasn’t equipped with weapons, either.
Amy and Jules fell silent, most likely out of air. Or maybe they’d fainted. Mitch grinned at that idea. He waited, pressed against the stone.
Nothing more happened.
He ached to see the ship, so he inched along the basalt, far enough to gaze upon the smooth, curved golden shell of the ship’s belly.
“Mitch, are you down there?” Amy’s voice quavered.
She hadn’t fainted, after all. Mitch remained silent. He held his breath.
“Jules?” she called.
Another minute passed. Amy didn’t say another word and still nothing happened. It came to him then. He held the clicker, the ignition key. The ship would hang above the Atacama, for all to see forevermore, unless someone with the clicker climbed aboard.
Mitch couldn’t allow that. He pushed the button a third time. The button blinked back to purple. A moment later sunlight almost blinded him. Faithful to its programming, the ship had returned to its parking space, wherever that might be.
“Mitch,” Amy sounded hoarse. “Did you see that?”
They’d be back down here soon. Mitch turned and sprinted to the chamber. As he ran, he pushed the button for the final time.
It blinked to pale red, so faint now Mitch could barely see it against the actinic light of the electric torch. He set the clicker on the table, just as he had found it.
Without another glance at the bunks’ occupants, he rushed from the chamber and ran down the passageway to the first bump on the wall.
He panted, his vision grayed from lack of oxygen. Back at the lip of the sinkhole, the ladder rattled into place.
Mitch stretched up onto his toes and slapped the switch that had made the first wall disappear. When he turned to look, the wall had returned. He set his back against the stone, slid into a seated position and switched the lantern off. He worked to control his breathing as he watched the ladder.
It shook even more when Amy descended. Her voice was shrill as she hurried toward him. “Did you see that thing?”
“What thing?” he asked.
“A flying saucer. Dear God, tell me that you saw it.”
“He ran away.” Amy sounded pissed.
“I didn’t go far,” Jules said, from the ladder. “And I came back for you.”
“Lot of good that did me then.”
“Come on, Amy.” Jules’ voice squeaked up an octave, as if he’d been sucking helium.
“Don’t you ‘come on, Amy’ me.”
“Give me a break,” Jules whined. “It was chariots of the friggin’ gods, just like I said.”
“Were you two smoking something?” Mitch asked.
Amy looked at him as if she were seeing him for the first time ever.
“What did you do with the skeletons?” she asked.
“What’s going on here?” Jules asked.
Mitch levered himself to his feet and stepped past Amy. He touched Jules’ shoulder. “Give me a bit of room, will you?”
Jules backed away, studying Mitch as if it was the first time he had seen him, too.
Mitch started up the ladder. “What were you two doing while you left me down here by myself?”
They couldn’t see him grin. Let them sweat a bit.
“Nothing,” Jules said. “We weren’t doing anything.”
“Uh huh,” Mitch said. “Come on, let’s go. I’m done digging in the sand.”
He climbed toward the sunlight, no longer tired, no longer angry. He had done the right thing. Amy followed; Jules clambered up behind her.
“Tomorrow,” Mitch said. “Before we leave, I’d like to see the geysers.”
Jules grunted something scatological. Amy laughed, not far behind Mitch. “All right, Mitch; the geysers,” she said. “And we’ll make this a tall tale for our grandkids.”