“Tunguska Retro” by E.S. Strout

Blueface, by Zac Lowing
Illustration: “Blueface” © 2005 by Zac Lowing

Einstein’s theory of relativity is not just conjecture, Mulder.
– Dana Scully

Friday, July 11th, 2008:

Message encoded 0923 hours EDT this date.

Top Secret.

NASA/Hubble Telescope complex reports unusual configuration of bogeys approaching solar system from Sagittarius region. Speed near or in excess that of light. Azimuth, angle of declination and photos included. Approved list of addressees follows…

1.

Tuesday, June 30, 1908:

The early morning solitude of Russia’s Central Siberian Plain was shattered by a thundering explosion. Bright multicolored lights permeated the cloudless sky. A rapid sequence of detonations over a distance of several kilometers followed. Thousands of square kilometers of coniferous taiga were flattened in an instant. Wildfowl and other indigenous creatures were incinerated in milliseconds. Astronomers at the time determined that the anomaly had approached at an azimuth of 115 degrees east-southeast with an entry angle of 30 degrees. The impact registered on seismographs in St. Petersburg as well as in several European capitals.

2.

Monday, June 30, 2008:

Twenty-four-year-old Geology Fellow Allison Guilbert, U. of Minnesota Duluth Branch, dodged a strafing attack by a squadron of aggressive mosquitoes. “No wildlife except for these pesky guys. They must be here for the hundred-year anniversary of the Tunguska event.”

“With us,” Professor Thomas Adams, her Department Head, said as he viewed the site from their grime- and vegetation-splattered Land Rover. “We’re lucky these ancient logging trails were cleared. Don’t think I could have handled a Russian helicopter flight.”

“Good thing it’s a dry summer,” Allison said. “We could have been hip deep in boggy marshland with no chance to sink deep cores.”

“We’re going to answer some old questions.  Russian scientists investigated the site in 1927, came to no verifiable conclusions with instrumentation of that day.”

Allison nodded agreement. “And those investigations by European researchers in the early Nineties? You know how I’ve bugged them, but they won’t share data. Got some nasty responses.”

“Screw them. We’ve got more advanced technology now,” Adams said. “We’ll find our own answers. Our core samplers can bore half a mile deeper than theirs.”

“There were reports of unexplained deaths in the native population. But survivors wouldn’t submit to physical exams.” An exasperated sigh from Allison. “I’d have leaned on them harder. Nuts to ancient taboos.”

“Be tolerant now,” her boss admonished. “Primitive culture, very suspicious of modern technology.”

A foot-stamp of frustration. “Damn. There might have been evidence of radiation poisoning.”

“Life is full of setbacks, Allison,” Adams said with a benevolent wink for his protegè. “You remember the Japanese group who believed the explosion was caused by a crashed spacecraft?”

Allison returned an enigmatic raised eyebrow. “Godzilla alive and well in Siberia, Professor Adams?”

“Where’s the truck with the rest of our field-lab equipment?” Adams wondered aloud.

She aimed a thumb over one shoulder. “Right behind us, Tom. And our anthropology nut Augie is with them.”

“About time. Hope they brought more bug spray.”

3.

“Thank God for enthusiastic graduate students,” Professor Adams said. “They arrived two weeks ago, began drilling last Friday. We should have some good deep core samples. Right, Augie?”

U. of Philippines, Manila, Professor Augustine Del Rosario shrugged. “If you say so, Tom. I’m here to look for old settlements. Bunch of nomadic tribes, not easy to pin down. You seen any, Allison?”

“Nobody, Augie. Tungus natives won’t come near the place. Generations of shamans have convinced them that the gods are still mad. Can’t blame them.  The radial symmetry of the flattened forest extending outward from ground zero is pretty spooky.”

She paused, her breath a moist flutter. “And what’s ever weirder, there’s been no new timber growth at ground zero since the event. Have you noticed the ground cover?”

“These shrubs do appear a bit stunted,” Dr. Adams said as he took a close-up squint through dark, plastic-rimmed bifocals.

Allison tucked unruly auburn tresses under her bandanna and exhaled a controlled sigh. “A bit stunted? Are you serious? Every leaf is different. A bizarre floral mutation, that’s for sure. Gotta be radiation effect.”

She plucked an oddly leafed twig and dropped it into a clear plastic specimen bag. “This is going for DNA mapping. I will admit though, shaman gibberish does put me a little on edge.”

“You’re uneasy?” Del Rosario asked with a Groucho Marx wiggle of dark eyebrows. “Ph.D. candidate Guilbert, the scientific purist?”

Dr. Adams smeared insect repellent over his thinning hairline, then handed the tube to Allison. “She’s from Thunder Bay, Augie. Canadians believe Bigfoot is alive and well, roaming the Yukon Territories.”

“How about your Paul Bunyan and his odd relationship with that blue ox, Tom?” she asked with a smug grin. “Babe, isn’t it?”

“Hmpf. How about you get busy with that subatomic particle detector you’re so enamored of?”

She raised a fist as she sped off across the dry marsh in the Land Rover. “You betcha, chief. I’ll start at the rim.” The deep-cleated tires spewed a rain of grassy tundra. “Be back late. Site’s damn near big as Rhode Island.”

Adams brushed away clumps of sod. “If she were my daughter…” he muttered as a grin struggled to escape his dour features.

“My Theresa is about the same age,” Del Rosario said. “In South America, tramping through Mayan ruins. Just recovering from her second bout of malaria in two years.”

“Why do we do this?”

“Beats the shit outta me.”

4.

“Thanks for saving me dinner,” Allison said as she stirred warmed-over franks and beans, mopped sauce with a bran muffin.

“The Russians are sending a helicopter for your botanical samples. They should be stateside in a week. No charge if we share results,” Augie said as late evening gloom descended over the camp.

Allison washed her plate in running water from a small stream and dried it on her U.M. Duluth sweatshirt. “I’m gonna walk around ground zero. Join me?”

“Soon as I put on gloves and this head netting,” Tom said. “I thought Minnesota had Guinness World Record mosquitoes.”

Del Rosario declined protection. “Guess neither of you’ve ever been to Mindanao.”

Fireflies blinked yellow-green abstract swirls over the grassy tundra. “Tomorrow I’m firing up the particulate isotope detector here at ground zero for comparison,” Allison said. “I was out a hundred-fifty kilos. I got some faint radioactive traces there. ”

Augie’s eyes lit with interest. “You see any native villages?”

“One small encampment. Wanna take the Land Rover tomorrow?”

“You bet. Come along, Allison? Tom?”

“I’ve almost got the field lab set up. Gonna look at deep core samples,” Adams said. “And I’ll need Allison here.”

5.

A hissing Coleman lantern brightened the mosquito-proof camp dwelling the following evening. “Were they Tungus natives, Augie?” Allison asked.

“Sure enough.” Dr. Del Rosario dug in his knapsack and produced a portable digital recorder. “Their language is an old Mongolian dialect, very similar to my native Tagalog. We connected. I look sorta scruffy, like them. And they liked my granola bars.”

“These folks have no written history,” he said. “What they told me has been passed down for four generations. Their ancestors at the time of the event were camped near Vanavara. It’s a fur-trading post near the Stony Tunguska River, a hundred kilos or so from here.” He pushed PLAY, listened for a few seconds, then forward-skipped the digital chip. “Here’s where it gets interesting. The voice-over is my translation.”

“Loud noise like thunder. Bright light in sky from near where sun comes up. Hot, many fires. Blistered our skin. Animal skin huts burned to ashes. Trees down, like with a God’s hand.”

“Hiroshima,” Allison said, eyes wide with wonder. “Much bigger.”

“Listen up,” Augie said. “It gets better.”

“More lights. Blue, white. Like lightning. Came down many places in a long line. Ground shaking like earthquake. Purple glow for many days, then gone. Many died right away, others days later. We move far from there, never come back. Gods angry.”

“Multiple impact sites,” Allison whispered. “And linear.”

Augie clicked the recording off. “They stayed about two-hundred-fifty kilos from ground zero. Some moved closer when vegetation recovered and the animals came back. About half of the exposed people died. I spotted several smaller radial tree-fall patterns identical to ground zero. Like you said, Allison. Multiple impacts.”

“Multiple impacts,” Allison repeated in a hushed voice. “Lucky it didn’t hit a population center.”

“Show Augie our results from the cores at ground zero, Dr. Guilbert,” Dr. Adams said. “He’ll be as impressed as I am.”

6.

Allison set a plastic sample envelope next to the microscope on the low camp table. “Look here,” she said. Multiple tiny crystalline fragments glittered in the lantern’s light. “These are from the deepest cores we could get. Almost a mile deep into a crust rock layer before the bit broke.”

She lifted one with a fine forceps and placed it on the microscope stage. “Take a look.”

Dr. Del Rosario peered through the binocular eyepieces. “Quartz crystal. What am I missing?”

“See any fine cracks in the surface?”

“No. Should I?”

“Any cracking would suggest Earth impact by a very large object. Like an asteroid or meteorite.”

“No crashed spaceship?”

She ignored Augie’s gibe, placed a second fragment on the scope. “Now this.”

His eyes widened in surprise. “It’s round. Like a little bead.”

“It’s still quartz, but it’s been melted,” she said. “Had to be something very hot. Something not solid. Opinions, guys?”

Del Rosario took a swallow of water from a canteen. “You tell me. I’m better with nomadic tribal cultures.”

“So far the surface findings are identical to those at old impact sites. Particulate calcium, silicates, alloys of iron-nickel, cobalt tungsten, and lead,” Dr. Adams said.

“And that concerns us?” Del Rosario asked.

“We know that similar findings have been present at known meteor collision sites, like the big one in Arizona,” Allison said. “With some oddities.”

“This one is different?” Augie asked.

“Much.”

7.

“Allison’s been trying out a new elemental and isotopic trace detector,” Dr. Adams said. “It was developed by her and some folks from U.C. Irvine in California. Several times more sensitive than those used in the ’92-’93 expeditions. Professor Guilbert, if you please?”

She plugged the device’s interface connector to the field computer port and tapped a key. Complex graphics appeared on the monitor screen. She tapped with a pencil. “These spikes show elements and isotopes previous investigators found at the surface of known meteor impacts. But then we tested the deep cores.”

Allison brought up another page. “See these little deviations?”

Tom and Augie stared, faces pale in the gas lantern light. “Background noise?” Dr. Del Rosario asked.

“No.” She tapped a key. An enhanced readout appeared. “Definite spikes. From the same depth as the melted quartz.”

“I’m impressed, Allison” Dr. Adams said. “What are they?”

“Nobelium, Mendelevium, and Californium. These are rare radioactive elements. They don’t occur in nature.” she said. “Look here.”

She passed out copies from the printer tray. “Fresh from the Nuclear Physics folks at the Minneapolis-St. Paul campus.”

Tom Adams turned pages and read with amazement. “Elements first seen in nuclear research labs like Los Alamos during the ’60s and ’70s. They turned up more recently as byproducts in military tests of advanced fusion weapon and propulsion-engine prototypes.”

“Hah!” Augie said with a self-satisfied smirk. “Maybe the Japanese were right about a crashed spaceship.”

“Oxidized traces of such a craft would remain,” Allison insisted. “I found nothing.”

Del Rosario regarded her with a skeptical eye. “So you say. Got anything more convincing?”

“Glad you asked.” She sketched diagrams on a small chalk board. “I’ve recalculated the angle of entry of the anomaly based on our current findings. Ninety, not thirty degrees. From directly overhead.”

Dr. Adams swatted a mosquito. “Why is this significant?”

“I’m getting there,” Allison said with an intimidating glare. “May I continue, please?”

Adams and Del Rosario nodded abashed affirmation.

“Good. Disturbances in the Earth’s magnetic fields were reported at the time of the event.” She passed around another printout. “It was called a magnetic storm. The Bikini atoll A-tests back in the 1950s produced identical findings.”

“Put it all together, guys. We’re dealing with a nuclear incursion,” Allison argued.

“You’re kidding,” Tom said. “The Russians couldn’t have made a fusion bomb in 1908.”

Augie agreed. “He’s right, Allison.”

“True,” she said. “But we’ve excluded all other possibilities: asteroid, meteor, comet, dark matter. Even pissed-off Tungus gods.”

“Which leaves us where?” Dr. Adams asked.

Her answer was a soft whisper. “Something not of Earth.”

Augie stifled a giggle with a hand over his mouth. “Martians, Dr. Guilbert?”

Allison blew strands of loose hair from her face. She placed both hands on her hips in defiance. “Got a better idea, Augie? You, Tom?”

Nobody spoke.

“Let me hazard a guess. Suppose it was a test of nuclear weaponry? The linear pattern of vertical impacts fits, along with those deep core findings. And the magnetic storm.”

“Their test sure as hell worked,” Augie said, his face suddenly draining of color.

“If so, Allison,” Dr. Adams asked, “Why did they quit?”

“I don’t know,” she admitted.

“Yeah,” Augie said. “Where did they go?”

8.

Dr. Adams’s face grew pale. “Of course. Time compression. The Einstein relativity theory,” he stammered.

Allison covered her mouth to stifle a gasp. “Oh my God.”

Dr. Del Rosario shrugged. “They have a time problem?”

“No,” Allison said. “We do.”

“Whoever they were, they traveled near to or greater than the speed of light,” Dr. Adams said. “Einstein’s theory of relativity predicts that time will be compacted at such velocities. What would be a few seconds to those aboard the spacecraft would appear much longer to us. We’re on a much slower time scale. It might be measured in years.”

“Oh no,“ Allison gasped. “Suppose they just took a quick trip home to reload…?” *

About the Author: E.S. Strout has been published in small-press print magazines “Crossroads”, “Lovecraft’s Mystery Magazine”, “Fading Shadows”, “Mad Scientist”, and “Millennium Science Fiction and Fantasy Magazine”. In addition to Planet Magazine, his stories have appeared in Internet publications “Jackhammer”, “Beyond s-f”, “Millennium SF&F”, and “Demensions”. E.S. Strout is on the faculty of the U.C. Irvine Medical Center, where he teaches skin pathology to dermatology residents.
(c) 2005 E.S. Strout gino_ss@earthlink.net

About the Artist: Zac Lowing was born in the Chicago suburbs in 1963, a time with limited sci-fi on TV. Sure, if you read books, there were whole universes to explore, but visually, it was primitive. The cover art for those books held his interest sometimes more. He can read a book once or twice, but those pictures… he could stare at them for hours, looking at details, wondering what was just beyond the edge… Influences on his style include album covers like Boston, muscle cars of the ’60s, and that kids’ show from England, the Thunderbirds. He held the Jules Verne movies in awe as a kid; he ate them up. But these things only let him see what they wanted him to see… “Beyond the Edge” was still a limit. He started building beyond the edge with Legos: spaceships, cities, submarines, and cars. Actually, he never really stopped building with them, as he has a seven-foot Lego ship in his living room called “The Komodo”. Then, one day in 1997, a friend gave him an old computer. Within a month, it caught on fire… what fun! This didn’t stop him though, and he soon had a slightly faster computer. At first he planned to use it for basic stuff, bills and whatnot, until he found the Paint program. For the first time in his life, he could make straight lines… and in color! While he still loved Legos, the computer didn’t take up the whole floor. He has now outgrown a series of ever-faster computers and newer graphics programs. He would love to do this type of thing for a living. He has done various logos and name pictures for people, and using a program called ICQ, he can work on the logo and talk with the person while he’s doing it, sending ideas for their approval. Other programs he has experience with are: Bryce 3D, Adobe Photoshop 5.0, Adobe Illustrator 8, Kai’s Power Goo, Poser2, and Picture Publisher LE. Zac is now attending college to learn all he can about computer graphics, and to broaden his horizons.
(c) 2005 Zac Lowing http://www.angelfire.com/il2/zvr/

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