The C-130 ascended into the polar night as the flickering oasis of McMurdo Station faded beneath them. Dr. Cora Kern thumbed through the thin dossier for the fifth time, her uneasiness growing with each pass. Her partner, a man who was a complete stranger only 45 minutes previous, sat calmly beside her with his hands folded in his lap.
“Doesn’t this seem odd to you?” She asked.
“Which part?” Master Sergeant William Church replied.
“All of it!” she said, waving the file in front of him
“I’ve seen worse,” he said.
“Worse? Were we in the same briefing?”
“Let me see; 72 hours ago, McMurdo Station detected mysterious seismic activity east of the Hudson Mountains, near the Amundsen Sea. 52 hours ago, satellite imagery revealed a depression in the ice some 200 meters in diameter, then, 18 hours ago, a lidar scan of the anomaly revealed evidence of possible structures beneath the ice. It seems pretty straightforward.
“I’m no stranger to Antarctica, Church. In my years with N.O.A.A, I’ve participated in five expeditions, and I’ve never heard of such an anomaly.”
“And I’m certain that your expertise in such matters is why Commander Roach requested you for this mission,” said Church. “As I was chosen for mine.”
“Yes, the consummate outdoorsman.”
“Ma’am, I have provided survival training to the most elite soldiers from every branch of the military, on every continent, and in every climate,” Church rolled his eyes. “Sure, I’m an outdoorsman.”
“I’m sorry, Master Sergeant, I meant no disrespect. It’s just that the implications of this dossier suggest….”
“The presence of man-made structures where none should exist buried under 200 million years of ice?”
“Yes, exactly,” she said. “You don’t seem very concerned.”
“It’s your job to be concerned, it’s my job to get you there.”
“About that, are you sure that thing is safe?”
“The M3 Rover?” Church gestured over his shoulder.
Dr. Kern stood and examined the vehicle, placing her hand on the smooth, white spherical exterior. There were no windows nor any detectable doors or hatches.
“It looks like a giant cue ball,” she said.
“Well, it’s not. This vehicle was designed for the first manned mission to Mars. If it can handle a ten-thousand-foot drop into the McMurdo Dry Valleys, with 200-mile-per-hour winds, our jump will be a cakewalk.”
“I’ll attempt to suspend my disbelief,” she said and returned to the bench.
They spent the next hour in silence. Dr. Kern poured over her dossier for some un-gleaned insight into the mission while Church double and triple-checked his gear. Finally, the co-pilot entered the cargo bay with an update.
“Fifteen minutes!” he said. “Prepare to deploy. When the light turns green, you go. Understood?”
Church nodded, stood, and grabbed his pack. Dr. Kern swallowed the lump in her throat, retrieved her own pack, and assisted Church as he released the straps binding the M3. When the straps were cleared, Church produced a small touchscreen interface and activated the Rover.
A seam appeared where there was none before, and a square hatch slid open, revealing a two-seat cabin. Church opened a cargo hatch on the interior and stowed their packs. Then, reaching for a handle mounted to one of the seats, he pulled himself up and assisted Dr. Kern in the same process. Once seated, the seat’s frame expanded like a gyroscope, and the overhead hatch closed. A modest array of panels and screens blinked on, and the cabin was bathed in cool, blue light.
“You ready for this?” Asked Church.
“No,” she said.
A video panel, like a mock windshield, displayed the doors of the C-130 opening up, beyond which a swirling maelstrom of ice raged through the yawing abyss. The lights on either side of the door changed from red to green, and the M3 rolled forward off the ramp and fell into the storm.
Dr. Kern gasped and clenched onto the frame, dimly aware that the seats were adjusting automatically to maintain orientation. The screen, which betrayed no reference of direction, suddenly went grey as a loud popping noise filled the cabin.
“Relax,” said Church. “The inertia dampers deployed perfectly. Look,” he said, pointing at the screen.
Below the monitor, a smaller screen displayed a digital image of the Rover at the center of a cluster of what looked to be larger spheres interlocked like a matrix of soap bubbles.
“Are those balloons?”
“Something like that, you better brace yourself,” he said, noting the altimeter.
There was a sudden lurch as they hit the ice pack, then weightlessness as they bounced upwards. The impacts repeated several times, each time shorter than the last until they finally came to a stop. Then, after a sudden whoosh of air, the dampers deflated and disengaged, leaving the Rover free to advance across the ice.
“Wow, are those boys good or what? They dropped us less than a klick from the anomaly!”
Church entered the coordinates into the navigation system, and the Rover rolled forward, crossing the rough Antarctic terrane with ease. After a few moments, an ominous plume of steam appeared on the horizon, rising from the anomaly’s location. As they arrived at the site, their eyes fixed on the monitor, staring in wonder at what should not be.
“Definitely not a volcano,” said Dr. Kern.
They hastily grabbed their packs and exited the Rover, snow stabbing through their parkas as they nervously approached. Most of the structure remained encased in ice, but enough protruded to identify it as a ring of smooth, matte black metal, three meters thick at the rim and two hundred meters in diameter. The ice was wet and melting at an alarming pace.
Church climbed on top of a clear section of the rim and looked over the ledge, then signaled for Dr. Kern to join him. He flashed his light into the void and shook his head in disbelief. Though they could not see the bottom, it was clear that they were standing on the rim of some enormous vent or chimney.
“I’ve never seen metal like this before,” said Church, knocking on it with his knuckles.
Church activated the wench and attached a pair of carabiners while Dr. Kern donned her harness. Once fully secured, they returned to the precipice and prepared to descend.
“We move together, slow and easy.”
They stepped into the void and slowly rappelled down the side. The whipping winds subsided to a mournful howl as they blew over the icy aperture above. Continuous drips of water fell like rain around them, passing to a seemingly bottomless depth.
At fifty meters, they could no longer see the ice above them, only a faint grey slit of the aperture was visible. At seventy-five meters, the titanic silhouette of great machinery began to take form below. As they approached one hundred meters, a ledge became visible that seemed to span the circumference of the colossal cylinder. Church increased the speed of the wench, and in a moment, they dropped to safety.
The ledge was ten meters wide and made of the same smooth, black metal. At the center of the stadium-sized structure was yet another cylinder, occupying about a third of the diameter of the chamber, its origins lost in fathomless depths. A steady flow of steam rose from the void around it, obscuring its possible purpose.
“Look!” said Church, detecting movement in the escaping gases.
A second cylindrical shape rose from the first, silent but steady. It extended some fifteen meters upward before thrusting back down piston-like with immense and sudden velocity. The resonating impact resounded throughout the structure like a deep and deafening bell.
“Watch out!” Dr. Kern shouted, pulling Church away from the ledge.
As they scrambled toward the wall of the cylinder, great chunks of ice broke free from the encasement above and shattered like glass across the walkway and titanic apparatus. The grey Antarctic sky pressed down upon them through the now half-open structure, further illuminating the chamber.
“I suppose that accounts for the seismic activity!” Said Dr. Kern, rising to brush the ice crystals from her jacket.
“Over here, there’s a tunnel,” said Church, pointing his light at an enormous doorway further along the ledge.
The arch was fifteen meters high and ten meters wide, leading into a passage constructed of the same black metal. As they passed beneath and continued, they detected no visible seams, rivets, or junctions. It was as if the entire complex had been cast in the mysterious alloy.
“Who built this?” Dr. Kern wondered aloud.
“I think I may have a clue,” said Church, settling his beam on what appeared to be a pile of rubble.
Dr. Kern turned her beam to the debris and walked closer to investigate. At first, it looked to be a collection of irregular columns of white granite. Removing her glove, she approached a section and ran her bare hand over its icy length. Immediately she was seized by terror as she recognized it as bone. While her brain struggled to make sense of the unorthodox shapes and maddening proportions, her eyes fell on an object that could only be the skull of the thing, two meters tall with four cavernous eye sockets and rows of arm-length teeth.
“Dr. Kern, I think you’re going to want to see this,” said Church, who had moved down the passage.
She backed away from the thing, toward Church’s voice, reluctant to turn her back on it. She found Church standing at the terminus of the great hall, staring into another gigantic chamber. With the exception of the doorway, the room was a perfect sphere of about 30 meters in diameter, made entirely of the same smooth, matte black metal. Floating at the center was another smaller sphere comprised of a liquid metal that resembled mercury.
“What do you make of that?” Asked Church.
“This shouldn’t exist!” She stammered. “It’s like the legends of Hyperborea or Atlantis, it shouldn’t be real!”
Dr. Kern edged forward, drawn down the concave floor and toward the shimmering ball. It lowered as she approached, condensing in size so that it conformed to her height. A soft glow emanated from it in a hue hitherto unknown to the human eye. Again, she removed her glove and extended her hand to touch it. As she reached, a mirror of her own arm formed from the liquid metal and extended to meet her palm to palm.
Her face went slack, and her eyes dilated to black disks. Her body remained rigid and standing, though she had no conscious control. The glow intensified, vibrating at a frequency that inspired a sense of synesthesia. Then it was gone. Dr. Kern fell to her knees, staring dumbfounded at the metal orb.
“What happened? Are you Ok? Did it communicate with you?” Church asked, helping her to her feet.
“No, it’s not sentient,” she stammered. “It’s an interface, but meant for them.”
“An alien race, long dead, from what I can tell.”
“What was it like?”
“I felt like I was listening to a voice that was speaking every possible language simultaneously. Oh my god, Church, we have to destroy it!”
“This thing, it’s a reactor. It’s been dormant for 200 million years, but it’s active now. That heavy-duty apparatus back there is connected to the Earth’s core, and it’s warming up fast. We have to stop it!”
” I can’t stop it from here, but if this thing comes online, the heat and energy output will destabilize the ice sheet. We could lose Thwaites Glacier and the Pine Island Glacier in a matter of weeks, if not days. That alone would raise sea levels by ten feet. Tens of millions would die, and millions more would be homeless. It would be a global catastrophe!”
“You’re right, Dr. Kern, but unfortunately, that’s not how this will play out,” said Church, drawing his pistol.
“What are you talking about? Millions will die!”
“And their sacrifice will be remembered when this technology is repurposed for the benefit of humanity. This discovery is too precious to allow it to be lost under two miles of ice.”
“Did you know this was here!?”
“My superiors suspected, though it could have been a natural phenomenon. We had to be sure, that’s why you’re here.”
“Damn it, Church!”
“Sorry, doc,” he aimed the pistol.
The heavy piston of the reactor slammed down just at that moment, resonating through the chamber and causing Church’s shot to go astray. Dr. Kern lunged forward and shoved Church into the metal orb. A shimmering tendril reached out and enveloped his head, interfacing with him. She pried the weapon from the stunned Master Sergeant’s hands and shot him three times in the chest. Immediately, the tendril withdrew as Church fell dead, and the orb returned to its perfect shape.
She rifled through his pockets, retrieved the control for the M3, and raced back to the main cylinder. The previous piston strike had cleared the remaining ice, and the steam had intensified. She snapped into her harness and activated the wench from the controller, swiftly zipping her up and over the lip.
Entering the Rover, she quickly inputted the coordinates of their extraction location and engaged the autopilot. The Rover lurched forward at maximum speed. Once moving, she flipped on the radio and began hailing the extraction team.
“This Dr. Cora Kern for Commander Roach, over!”
“Roach here, go ahead, Doctor.”
“Request immediate extraction; Church is dead, situation volatile!”
“Roger that, Doctor, we have your coordinates. Big Bird inbound, just hold tight.”
“Thank you, Commander!”
Two hours later, as the M3 Rover was crossing the Pine Island Ice Sheet toward the Amundsen Sea, she saw the tiny blip of a helicopter appear on the screen, then another. As they approached, she recognized that neither of them was the expected CH-47 Chinook; they were gunships. Her heart sank as the stuttering light of machinegun fire lit up her screen, and the flare of missiles delicately laced through the Antarctic sky.