The Chronoliths by Robert Charles Wilson
Copyright © 2001 by Robert Charles Wilson
All rights reserved. Used by permission of the author.
This electronic excerpt from The Chronoliths is provided by the author for a limited time to voters for the 2002 Prix Aurora Awards. It is not be distributed, reproduced, reposted or republished elsewhere without the express written authorization of the author.
Note: The Chronoliths is a Finalist for a 2004 Prix Aurora Award in the "Best Long-Form Work in English" category. To view the other entries visit the MiC Newsletter Prix Aurora Award Supplement. The 2004 voting ballot is available in HTML format and .PDF format at the Aurora web site. Voting deadline is October 16, 2004
Visit Robert Charles Wilson's website at www.robertcharleswilson.com
by Robert Charles Wilson
It was Hitch Paley, rolling his beat-up Daimler motorbike across the packed sand of the beach behind the Haat Thai Dance Pavilion, who invited me to witness the end of an age. Mine, and the world's. But I don't blame Hitch.
Nothing is coincidental. I know that now.
He was grinning as he approached, generally a bad omen with Hitch. He wore the American-in-Thailand uniform of that last good summer, army shorts and John the Baptist sandals, oversized khaki t-shirt and a flowered spandex headband. He was a big man, an ex-Marine gone native, bearded and developing a paunch. He looked formidable despite his clothes, and worse, he looked mischevious.
I knew for a fact that Hitch had spent the night in the party tent, eating the hash-laced spice cookies a German diplomatic-corps functionary had given him and feeding the same to her, until she went out with him at high tide to better appreciate the moonlight on the water. He shouldn't have been awake at this hour, much less cheerful.
I shouldn't have been awake either.
After a few hours at the bonfire I had gone home to Janice, but we hadn't slept. Kaitlin had come down with a head cold, and Janice had spent the evening alternately soothing our daughter and battling an infestation of thumb-sized cockroaches that had colonized the warm and greasy passages of the gas stove. Given that, and the hot night, and the tension that already existed between us, it was probably inevitable that we had argued almost until dawn.
So neither Hitch nor I was fresh or perhaps even thinking clearly, though the morning sunlight coaxed a false alertness out of me, the conviction that a world so brightly lit must also be safe and enduring. Sunlight glossed the heavy water of the bay, picked out fishing sloops like dots on radar, promised another cloudless afternoon. The beach was as broad and flat as a highway, a road toward some nameless and perfect destination.
"So that sound last night," Hitch said, beginning this conversation the way he began most, without preamble, as if we had been apart for no significant time, "like a Navy jet, you heard that?"
I had. I'd heard it about four a.m., shortly after Janice stomped off to bed. Kaitlin was asleep at last, and I was alone at our burn-scarred linoleum kitchen table with a cup of sour coffee. The radio was linked to a U.S. Jazz station, turned down to polite chatter.
The broadcast had turned brittle and strange for about thirty seconds. There was a crack of thunder and a series of rolling echoes (Hitch's "Navy jet"), and a little after that an odd cold breeze rattled Janice's potted bougainvilleas against the window. The window blinds lifted and fell in a soft salute; Kaitlin's bedroom door opened by itself, and she turned in her netted crib and made a soft unhappy sound but didn't wake.
Not quite a Navy jet, but it might have been summer thunder, a newborn or senescent storm mumbling to itself out over the Bay of Bengal. Not unusual, this time of year.
"Party of caterers stopped by the Duc this morning and bought all our ice," Hitch said. "Heading for some rich man's dacha. They said there was real action out by the hill road, like fireworks or artillery. A bunch of trees blew down. Want to go see, Scotty?"
"As well one thing as another," I said.
It was a decision that would change my life beyond repair, but I made it on a whim. I blame Frank Edwards.
Frank Edwards was a Pittsburgh radio broadcaster of the last century who compiled a volume of supposedly-true miracle lore (Stranger than Science, 1959), featuring such durable folk tales as the Mystery of Kaspar Hauser and the "spaceship" that blew up over Tunguska, Siberia, in 1910. The book and its handful of sequels were a big item in our household when I was naive enough to take such things seriously. My father had given me Stranger than Science in a battered library-discard edition and I had finished it -- at the age of ten -- in three late-night sessions. I suppose my father considered this the kind of material that might stimulate a boy's imagination. If so, he was right. Tunguska was a world away from the gated Baltimore compound where Charles Carter Warden had planted his troubled wife and only child.
I outgrew the habit of believing this sort of thing, but the word "strange" had become a personal talisman. Strange, the shape of my life. Strange, the decision to stay in Thailand after the contracts evaporated. Strange, these long days and drugged nights on the beaches at Chumphon, Ko Samui, Phuket; strange as the coiled geometry of the ancient Wats.
Maybe Hitch was right. Maybe some dark miracle had landed in the province. More likely there had been a forest fire or a narcotics shoot-out, but Hitch said the caterers had told him it was "something from outer space" -- and who was I to argue? I was restless and facing the prospect of another empty day fielding Janice's complaints. And not relishing it. So I hopped on the back of Hitch's Daimler, fuck the consequences, and we motored away from the coast in a cloud of blue exhaust. I didn't stop to tell Janice I was going. I doubted she would be interested; anyway, I'd be home by nightfall.
Lots of Americans disappeared in Chumphon and Satun in those days, kidnapped for ransom or murdered for pocket change or recruited as heroin mules. I was young enough not to care.
We passed the Phat Duc, the shack where Hitch supposedly sold fishing tackle but in fact did a brisk trade in native marijuana to the party crowd, and turned onto the new coast road. Traffic wasn't heavy, just a few eighteen-wheelers out of the C-Pro fish farms, jitneys and songthaews decorated like carnival wagons, tourist buses. Hitch drove with the verve and fearlessness of a native, which made the journey an exercise in bladder control. But the rush of humid air was cooling, especially as we turned onto the feeder road toward the interior, and the day was young and pregnant with miracles.
Away from the coast, Chumphon is mountainous. When we turned inland we had the road very nearly to ourselves, until a phalanx of border police roared past us in a hail of gravel. So something was definitely up. We stopped long enough for Hitch to relieve himself in a gas station hawng nam while I tuned my portable radio to the English-language radio station out of Bangkok. Lots of U.S. and U.K. top forty, no word of Martians. But just as Hitch came ambling back from the urinal trough a brigade of Royal Thai soldiers roared past us, three troop carriers and a handful of rattletrap humvees, going the same direction the local police had been headed. Hitch looked at me, I looked at him. "Get the camera out of the saddlebag," he said, not smiling this time. He wiped his hand on his shorts. Up ahead, a bright column of fog or smoke spiked the tumbled hills.
What I did not know was that my daughter Kaitlin, five years old, had awakened from her morning nap with a raging fever, and that Janice had wasted a good twenty minutes trying to locate me before she gave up and took Kait to the charity clinic.
The clinic doctor was a Canadian who had been in Chumphon since 2002 and had established a fairly modern surgery with funds donated by some department of the World Health Organization. Doctor Dexter, the beach people called him. The man to see for syphillis or intestinal parasites. By the time he examined Kaitlin, her fever had peaked at 105 degrees and she was only intermittently lucid.
Janice, of course, was frantic. She must have feared the worst: the Japanese encephalitis we all read about in the papers that year, or the dengue that had killed so many people in Myanmar. Doctor Dexter diagnosed a common influenza (it had been going around the Phuket and Ko Samui crowd since March) and pumped her full of antivirals.
Janice settled down in the clinic waiting room, still trying periodically to phone me. But I had left my phone in a backpack on a shelf in the rental. She would have tried Hitch, maybe, but Hitch didn't believe in unencrypted communication; he carried a GPS locator and a compass and figured that was more than enough for any truly rugged male.
When I first glimpsed the pillar through a scrim of forest I took it to be the chedi of a distant Wat, one of the Buddhist temples scattered throughout Southeast Asia. You can find a photograph of Angor Wat, for instance, in any encyclopedia. You'd recognize it if you saw it: stone reliquary towers that look weirdly organic, as if some enormous troll had left its bones to fossilize in the jungle.
But this chedi -- and I saw more of it as we followed the switchback road up a long ridge -- was the wrong shape, the wrong color.
We crested the ridge into a roadblock of Royal Thai Police, border patrol cars, and assorted armed men in rust-pocked SUVs. They were turning away all traffic. Four of the soldiers had trained their weapons on an ancient Hyundai songthaew packed with squawking chickens. The border police looked both very young and very hostile, wearing khakis and aviator glasses and holding their rifles at a nervous angle. I didn't want to challenge them and I told Hitch so.
I don't know if he heard me. His attention was on the monument -- I'll use that word for now -- in the distance.
We could see it more clearly now. It sat astride a higher terrace of the hill, partially obscured by a ring of mist. Without any visible reference the size of it was difficult to judge, but I guessed it must have been at least three hundred feet tall.
In our ignorance we might have mistaken it for a spaceship or a weapon, but the truth is that I recognized it as a kind of monument as soon as I could see it clearly. Imagine a truncated Washington Monument made of sky-blue glass and gently rounded at all corners. I couldn't guess who had made it or how it had got here -- apparently in a single night -- but for all its strangeness it did look distinctly man-made, and men make such things for a single purpose: to announce themselves, to declare their presence and display their power. That it should be here at all was dazzlingly strange, but there was no mistaking the solidity of it -- the weight, the size, the stunning incongruity.
Then the mist rose up and obscured our view.
Two uniformed men strode toward us, loose-limbed and surly. "By the look of it," Hitch said -- his muted southwestern drawl sounding a little too lazy, given the circumstances -- "we'll probably have U.S. and U.N. assholes all over us before long, plus a lot more fucking BPP." Already, an unmarked but obviously military helicopter was circling the ridge, its downdraft stirring the ground haze.
"So we go back," I said.
He snapped a single photograph, then tucked the camera away. "We don't have to. There's a smuggler's trail up around that hill. It leaves the road about a half mile back. Not too many people know about it." He grinned again.
I suppose I smiled back. The second thoughts were coming thick and fast, but I knew Hitch and I knew he wouldn't be argued out of this. I also I knew I didn't want to be left at this checkpoint without a ride. He wheeled the motorcycle around and we left the Thai cops glaring at our tailpipe.
This was maybe two or three in the afternoon, about the time Kaitlin began to ooze bloody pus from her left ear.
We circled up the smugglers' trail as far as the Daimler would take us, then concealed the bike in a thicket and hiked a quarter mile more.
The trail was rough, designed for maximum concealment but not maximum comfort. Steep real estate, Hitch called it. Hitch carried hiking boots in the Daimler's saddlebag but I had to make do with my high-tops, and I worried about snakes and insects.
Had we followed the trail far enough we would no doubt have arrived at some hidden drug cache, an extraction factory, maybe even the Burmese border, but twenty minutes took us as close to the monument as we cared to get -- as close as we could get.
We came within a thousand yards of it.
We weren't the first people to see it at that proximity. It had blocked a road, after all, and it had been there for at least twelve hours, assuming the sound of last night's "Navy jet" had in fact marked the arrival of the artifact.
But we were among the first.
Hitch stopped at the fallen trees. The forest here -- pines, mostly, and some wild bamboo -- had collapsed in a radial pattern around the base of the monument, and the wreckage obliterated the path. The pines had obviously been toppled by some kind of pressure wave, but they hadn't been burned. Quite the opposite. The leaves of the uprooted bamboo were still green and only beginning to wither in the afternoon heat. Everything here -- the trees, the trail, the ground itself -- was crisply cool. Cold, in fact, if you put your hand down among the windfall. Hitch pointed this out. I was reluctant to take my eyes off the monument itself.
If I had known what was to come my awe might have been tempered. This was -- in light of what followed -- a relatively minor miracle. But all I knew was that I had stumbled into an event immensely stranger than anything Frank Edwards had uncovered in the back numbers of the Pittsburgh Press, and what I felt was partly fear, partly a dizzy elation.
The monument. It was not, first of all, a statue; that is, it was not a representation of a human or animal figure. It was a four-sided pillar, planed to a smooth, conical apex. The material of which it was made suggested glass, but on a ridiculous, impossible scale. It was blue: the deep, inscrutable blue of a mountain lake, somehow peaceful and ominous at once. It was not transparent but carried the suggestion of translucency. From this side -- the northern side -- it was scabbed with patches of white: ice, I was astonished to realize, slowly sublimating in the humid daylight. The ruined forest at its base was moist with fog, and the place where the monument met the earth was invisible under mounds of melting snow.
It was the ice and the waves of unnaturally cool air wafting out from the ruined forest that made the scene especially eerie. I imagined the obelisk rising like an immense tourmaline crystal from some underground glacier...but such things happen only in dreams. I said so to Hitch.
"Then we must be in Dreamland, Scotty. Or maybe Oz."
Another helicopter came around the crown of the hill, too low for comfort. We knelt among the fallen pines, the cool air earthy with their scent. When the aircraft crested the hill and was gone, Hitch touched my shoulder. "Seen enough?"
I nodded. It was clearly not wise to stay, although some stubborn part of me wanted to linger until the monument made sense, to retrieve a little sanity from the ice-blue deeps of the thing. "Hitch," I said.
"Down at the bottom of it...does that look like writing to you?"
He gave the obelisk one last hard squint. Snapped a final photograph. "Letters, maybe. Not English. Too far away to make out, and we're not getting closer."
We had stayed too long already.
What I learned later -- much later -- from Janice, was this.
By three p.m., the Bangkok media had obtained video footage of the monument from an American tourist. By four, half the beach-lizard population in Chumphon Province had taken off to see this prodigy for themselves and were turned away en masse at the roadblocks. Embassies were notified; the international press began to sit up and take notice.
Janice stayed with Kaitlin in the clinic. Kaitlin, by this time, was screaming with pain despite the painkillers and antivirals Doctor Dexter had given her. He examined her a second time and told Janice our daughter had acquired a rapidly-necrotizing bacterial ear infection, possibly from swimming at the beach. He'd been reporting elevated levels of e. coli and a dozen other microbes for almost a month now, but health officials had taken no action, probably because the C-Pro fish farms were worried about their export license and had flexed their muscle with the authorities.
He administered a massive dose of fluoroquinolones and phoned the Embassy in Bangkok. The Embassy dispatched an ambulance helicopter and cleared space for Kait at the American hospital.
Janice didn't want to leave without me. She phoned the rental shack repeatedly and, when that failed, left calls with our landlord and a few friends. Who expressed their sympathy but hadn't seen me lately.
Doctor Dexter sedated Kaitlin while Janice hurried to the shack to pack a few things. When she got back to the clinic the evac helicopter was already waiting.
She told Doctor Dexter I would almost certainly be reachable by nightfall, probably down at the party tent. If I got in touch, he would give me the hospital's number and I could make arrangements to drive up.
Then the helicopter lifted off. Janice took a sedative of her own while a trio of paramedics pumped more broad-spectrum antibiotics into Kait's bloodstream.
They would have gained considerable altitude over the bay, and Janice must have seen the cause of all this from the air -- the crystalline pillar poised like an unanswerable question above the lush green foothills.