The Last Time We Visited Aldera Dune
by Teri Skultety, copyright 2018, all rights reserved
The last time we visited Aldera Dune, it was to watch the world die. The moons of Rionnata glowed with radiation in the distance. One purple, one iridescent green, one a golden orb. All like magic charms so beautiful no one would imagine the monsters hiding in their caverns and pools.
The expedition had gone on for three years. It was too late by then but we had to try because maybe, and what if. I was working on Sky Color Transmogrification. In the last months of 2020, it was noted that the sky was no longer the same color of blue, that pollution levels, chemtrails, the thinning of the ozone, was changing, had changed, the color of the sky significantly. That was the theory anyway. What I learned working in this sector was that anything out of the ordinary was deemed “abnormal” but the truth was that the planet could have been going through completely normal phases and changes, only that we’d never seen them before and anyone who had, however many centuries ago, hadn’t written any of it down. We’ve got great egos when it comes to such things. We forget our own symbiotic relationship with the Earth. We treat ourselves as invaders, who are damaging the place that is our place, out of some bizarre sense of guilt over our own existence. I’ve wondered if deep down, the collective subconscious of humanity doesn’t really believe that we should all still be living in log cabins, caves, earthen huts, without electricity or modern conveniences, because we think that would be less harmful to the planet. Deep down do we all believe we’re so out of harmony with the Mother Earth that a sense of guilt drives us to regulate everything that we engage in, in order to make life more comfortable, regulate it all to the point of senseless dysfunction? As though it were unnatural to want to sleep on a good mattress instead of the hard ground, as though our own instincts were out of sync with nature. I’ve wondered at that, how humans become so separate from their own existence they think of themselves as a blight. Or is it a lack of thought that creates the problem? It is a unique kind of madness seen in no other species.
The panel determined that a color gauge, not unlike chlorine level testing strips, was the best way to monitor the overall health of the planet. For some reason, at that time, no one mentioned the color of the ocean, not only in and of itself, in relation to the color of the sky. I realize now this had become the way of things. The obvious problem could be blatant, and seemingly overwhelmingly, unmanageable, so we’d look at some other problem, sometimes invented, imagined, misconstrued, that was also beyond us, and set to work on that. Busy work. Trying. If we kill this imaginary monster, the real one won’t get us. The oceans were turning colors too in places, green, and brown, as the waters were slowly inundated with various forms of pollution. Mud stirred, algae formed where it wouldn’t have, around floating islands of refuse. Storms shifted these garbage patches around, dispersed them, reformed them. We’d net them up, tow them out to the middle of the nothing, anchoring them netted sometimes, only to see them wash up in Antarctica or off the coast of Africa in the spring. Someone came up with the bright idea to use the refuse as landfill in between islands in places like the Florida Keys, and eventually, even in Hawaii, Japan, the Philippines, anywhere there were islands. It worked great eventually, and for a while. They added dirt on top of it, built it in and up, built roads across it. They came up with ways to shore it up, adding concrete and rebar, so the roads would withstand storms, hurricanes, high waves over the highways. They rebuilt the land bridge across the Bering Sea. With an endless supply of garbage, they congratulated themselves on solving the massive issue of what to do with it, as well as having come up with a way to make practical reuse of it. Recycling at its finest, they said. Everyone was genuinely relieved when a new coral reef began to form next to one of the roads in Florida.
Five years later, massive storms began to soak, and flood, areas that had been nothing but desert for centuries. It took another five years before anyone realized, as these storms raged on, that by filling in the spaces between closely formed islands, creating larger land masses, they’d changed the currents of the ocean significantly enough to alter the weather patterns. Monsoons destroyed dry plains and low lands, new lakes formed where there had only been dust bowls. Ice formed at the North Pole and didn’t melt, or move, or shift. Antarctica began to thaw, noticeably. This was when the expedition was formed, to Antarctica. The Antarctic Peninsula revealed itself to be a lush, green, oasis, with temperatures rising into the low sixties in the summer months. We were there, studying the migrating patterns and adaptability of wildlife, the Penguins were all migrating or dying, when I got the call about the new project.
The Cerulean Council of California and Pac West, lifetime politicians permanently elected to oversee everything west of Nevada, all the way North to Alaska, had noticed the color of the sky changing in ways that didn’t jibe with the fact that zero emissions and zero use of fossil fuels, had been achieved. At first everyone thought the new purple-red-dark -blue sunsets were spectacular, an anomaly. When the fiery oranges and brilliant yellows didn’t return, something was determined to be “wrong.” Something else needed to be studied, at length, so it could be properly fixed. Secretly. Quietly. So as not to alarm the public.
I argued that I could begin my work there, in Antarctica, and what better place, where there was zero air pollution. The last year of my stay, that was my focus.
Eventually the call came through to return to California, as this was where the strange, tie-dyed, sunsets were most visible. That had hindered the progress of the study as well, location, location, location. California, hippie- utopia- drug -induced -free for all, had turned into its own bizarre science fiction story. The homeless problem had overrun the streets of L.A. to the point where only the incredibly wealthy or their polar opposite, still lived within the city. The whole place was like a movie set run amok. Armored limousines and SUV’s cruised the streets in municipal areas, “decent,” suburban, neighborhoods survived only as gated communities with armed guards. Kids carried respirator masks in their back packs for “bad air” days, when the wind was blowing the wrong way from Nevada. Ask anyone why they still lived in California and you’d get answers like, “I’m in the movie industry. The weather is still the best here for making movies.” Or, “I was born here. My family has been here for generations (since the 1950’s). It’s my home.” The beaches in Southern California, with the exception of Malibu, Santa Barbara, and Carmel, were unusable. When the sky started turning psychedelic colors at the beginning and end of each day, there were those who thought they might be able to market it as another tourist attraction, like the Northern Lights.
We’d started vacationing in Indiana, Nebraska, Montana, places like that, to get away from it all. Places where most of the population wasn’t. Where there was still some semblance of normalcy. Eventually the problems found those places too. We’d heard they finally really found water on Mars. We were stunned when we were called to a mandatory meeting where it was revealed they’d discovered a planet that was, essentially, another Earth, only larger. Would we, those of us present, be interested in becoming the exploratory team? The first humans from Earth to set foot on this new planet?
We jumped at the chance.
The first group consisted of myself, my partner, Archeologist, Sergio Passerini, Medical, Surgeon, Dr. Elaine Harrison, Biochemical Engineer, Freddie Newhouse, Botanists Keith Barton, and Amy Connelly-Barton, in addition to a team of Astronauts and scientists that were full-on NASA people. There were twenty of us.
I met Sergio not long after college. I was assigned to one of his dig sights, the environmentalist on hand to make sure he wasn’t screwing anything up. We laughed about that a lot. Sergio, always looking for old worlds, so ready to set foot on, and in, a new one. If I’d any doubts about the condition of Earth, his willingness to board one of the new shuttles and venture into outer space, put them to rest.
Having agreed to this mission, we were quickly immersed in being brought up to speed as to the “truth” of things. It was such that it only made me wonder what else they weren’t telling us.
They’d discovered another solar system, nearly identical to ours, with eleven planets, two of which were inhabitable, fit for human life. The first, Rionnata, was closer, and smaller than Earth, approximately the size of Mars. It was like Earth, only ultimately determined to be too small to sustain any sizable population. Rionnata had been made into a travel hub, a one stop aviation terminal, complete with a hotel, restaurants, and stunning views of rain forest waterfalls. The residents of Rionnata consisted of only the number of people it took to run the mini city that serviced travel to and from. The moons of Rionnata, Ethos, Ramos, and Dionysus, were radioactive, and inhabited by tentacled creatures that lived in the water and sludge, and on Ramos, great fur covered beasts with curled horns that lived in the caverns and wandered through a perpetual nuclear winter. A team of twelve had died gathering that information.
Rionnata was located in a parallel galaxy. The new planet, the new Earth, named Caledonia, as someone decided they couldn’t call it Eden, and it was as heavenly as California once had been, was one planet beyond Rionnata. Caledonia was Edenic, pristine. The water in the oceans was clear to a depth of one hundred feet. The plant and animal life a mirror image of Earth with the exception of two species, the Smilodon or, Saber Toothed Cat, still existed on Caledonia, as did the Wooly Mammoth. It would take a decade of study to understand why. There were, of course, other species, unknown to us, though nothing particularly unusual was discovered during our five years of exploration. The birds were larger. All animal, and plant, life was robust, heartier. Looking in the same areas where evidence of ancient, or even previous, Peoples existed on Earth, we found none. No cave drawings, no hieroglyphics, no built structures, or ruins, not so much as a crop circle or a henge.
Aldera Dune was a twenty-mile stretch of coastline more beautiful than any on Earth. The water so clear, so deep, that a mile offshore it formed a reflection on the sky as transparent as glass, like a skylight in the sky. We could see our home solar system. We could see our parallel universe through this portal in the sky, suspended like models in space. We could see the Moon, the Sun, we could see Earth, home.
“Can you imagine a row of multi-million-dollar homes right up there, above the dune? Some nice high-rise condos?” Freddie said.
“If I ever doubted the nature of the human species before, I don’t anymore.” Amy said.
“Parasites.” Keith nodded.
“I think we’re a couple of levels above that.” Dr. Harrison said. She didn’t bother to look up from her note taking.
We established a base camp on the other side of the dune, in a small, wooded glen. It had become our vacation spot, away from the lab and main housing we’d set up in giant bubble tents, green houses made from PVC pipe and plastic. I don’t know why it hadn’t occurred to me before then.
“We brought plastic here.” I said.
“Well, yeah.” Freddie said.
“I’ve spent my life studying human civilizations, great cultures, societies rich in art, in history, in values and tradition with intricate belief systems. I’ve studied the development of human communication from grunt to cryptography to the possibilities of telepathy. Don’t expect me to go along with the idea that we’re parasites, Jilly, because you just realized we’ve introduced plastic to the new planet.” Sergio said.
“Oh, God, think of it. Where will they put the first factory?” Amy said. She was drinking wine from a lamb skin Bota bag, watching the strange sunset, watching the moons of Rionatta in space.
“That isn’t the plan.” Freddie said. We all looked at him. “Where do you think the waste, the garbage, generated on Rionatta, is going? Did you see a landfill?”
“They’re shipping it back to Earth?” Dr. Harrison set her notebook aside.
“The only part they weren’t certain of was whether we could continue to jump from one universe to another and back again, repeatedly, continuously, without it messing us up.” Freddie said.
“You’ve known this? These last five years, you’ve known this?” Sergio said.
“Yeah, man. I wasn’t about to get on a shuttle and jump to a parallel universe without full disclosure. We’ve been the ultimate experiment in interstellar travel.”
“So, what are they going to do, ship all the refuse back to Earth every week?” Keith laughed out loud.
“Earth is going to become a factory planet, a worker planet, among other things. Use your imagination. Think about who is in charge. They’re probably not bringing everyone to this new paradise.” Freddie said.
“You know this? Are you suppositioning? Or do you have facts?” I said. I couldn’t argue with it beyond that. We were so excited to be part of this new exploration, to be the first Peoples of Caledonia, that we didn’t think about the bigger picture. Now it was all I could think about. We’d brought plastic here. We’d built a wall around our settlement to keep the larger animals out, to keep ourselves from becoming a meal. There were plans to build the first town. Plans that there would only be towns, no cities with populations larger than one hundred thousand people. When they said that colonization would be smarter, with preservation in mind, with application of lessons learned from having polluted Earth, for some reason I thought that meant things would be done differently.
“I’ve seen the plans. I’m a structural engineer as well. They consulted me about sustainable towns. There are others, back on Earth, who have been at work for years on the plans for it all. The next shuttle arrives in a week and they start.” Freddie said.
“Jesus…” Dr. Harrison said.
“What does this mean? What are you even saying?” Amy said. She was a freckle faced ginger haired hippie. She was growing a new hybrid marijuana in one of the green houses from a mix of seeds from Earth and some stuff she’d found on Caledonia.
What does this even mean?
Dr. Harrison set up the first hospital. When we returned to Earth, she gathered what things she couldn’t part with and on the next shuttle out, she became the first permanent, full-time resident, of Caledonia. Medical staff was imported, as many as they could find to agree. Some were paid very well. Amy and Keith, and most of the members of their families, were next. They both came from generations of farmers, and that was handy in establishing the first crops, agriculture. Once there was medical care and food sources, the first members of government began to arrive one at a time, as their houses were finished. There were no mansions. No house could exceed three thousand square feet, most were closer to twelve hundred or so. Freddie was back and forth from Earth to Rionatta to Caledonia continuously. Sergio and I vacillated.
“Jilly, there’s no history there. There is no archeology on Caledonia.” He said. We were in Italy, in Padua at his family’s old house where his love for history was first given life.
“I’ve spent my life studying ways to save this planet, trying to get clean water, and food, to people who don’t have it. I’ve spent my life wanting to save the Ganges. We don’t know that there isn’t any archeology on Caledonia. We just haven’t found anything yet.” I said.
“Are we digging in the wrong place?” He said.
We went to France, to Montmartre. From there, to Athens. Finally, to Jerusalem. Side by side we rested our hands on the Western Wall. It was in these places we’d fallen in love, with the world, and one another. As we stood quietly, Sergio began to sob. I did too. I knew we were saying our goodbyes to it all.
The airport in New York was a cesspool. The parking garages at most major airports had long ago been given over to the homeless. Public transportation was the only way in or out. Everything was dirty, filthy, dingy, broken, hungry, and dangerous. We spent a few days in California. I don’t know why except that maybe we were saying goodbye to it too. We knew someone with a house in Malibu. We stayed two days. Everyone in the cities had to wear respirators to be outside for any length of time. The beach was kept clean by privately funded donors who had bribed government officials long before to get the beach declared private in some way or another. Discretely placed armed guards kept potential trespassers out. On its best days, the ocean appeared to be dark green. On its worst days, it turned a brownish-black, the color of sludge. While we were there, I told Sergio I wanted to visit the desert. We drove out to Palm Springs and then beyond. Nothing lived at the Salton Sea anymore. Tilapia skeletons decorated the shores, bird skulls, and the carcasses of discarded boats kept them company. Those fish made so many people sick. A company out of L.A. harvested them and resold what they could for years. People had no idea. They justified it because there was a food shortage among the impoverished. They paid a fine, and life, or something like it, went on. It was the first dying eco-system I ever studied.
“It was the most desolate place I could think of. I needed to see something here that had run its course.” I said.
When we landed in Florida, Sergio took hold of my hand and held it all the way to Cape Canaveral. I thought about the Plains States, and the Midwest. Places we didn’t go, didn’t say goodbye to. I realized if we’d kept on, we’d never leave. They were the only places left, and places where it snowed, that hadn’t been complete destroyed by humans. They’d get to it soon enough.
The order was issued the week before. Those who wanted to keep receiving medical benefits and replacement therapy drugs, essentially whatever the new methadone was that week, would have to work two hours per day, as assigned. By then we knew the plan was to get them up to working at least six hours per day. This was the new plan for anyone who wasn’t being moved to Caledonia. New factories were going up as fast as they could build them. Some called it the new slavery. Politicians justified it as a way to balance the books. They weren’t slaves, they were being given something in trade. We understood it was cheap labor. We understood the weeding process. Earth was being turned into a giant factory-sweatshop- landfill. Nevada was declared a testing ground, only, uninhabitable by humans. Great clouds ballooned into the sky every couple of weeks. All automobile and air traffic was re-routed around the entire state. People displaced by the new status were given their choice of states to move to, a new house, jobs if necessary. Most of them had been so continuously exposed to radiation they weren’t expected to last long. It wasn’t only the U.S. that had become this, it was everywhere. Those deemed fit, or worthy, or whom were wealthy enough, the best and the brightest and their loved ones, the able-bodied and the strong, were being moved to Caledonia, if they wanted to go. Many didn’t want to go. Many couldn’t get their minds around the idea that we’d really found another planet to go live on. In some places, entire towns seemed to disappear overnight as the residents collectively agreed to take the next shuttles out. Shuttle travel had become as common as regular air travel. We’d gone right from that to jumping through quantum holes in the universe to our twin solar system.
The migrations went on for another five years. Sergio and I had two kids by then and a third on the way. Caledonia was the new world, where all the things I’d been afraid of on Earth didn’t exist, with one exception, of course. You’d have thought we would have been smart enough to see it coming, to have known what they’d do.
The rumor circulated quietly for a while before anyone really believed it. On Earth, workers coalitions formed among the strong who survived. That’s the thing about strong people who survive, they sometimes just keep getting stronger. They had rights. They were human beings. They were citizens. Why should they be left on Earth to do the dirty work? Caledonia was self-sufficient by then. Someone had accidentally discovered that the giant creatures on Rionatta’s moon, Ramos, would eat anything. They accidentally discovered that because they dumped a garbage load there instead of taking it all the way back to earth. No one thought about the long-term consequences of that anymore than they ever did about anything else, and Ramos became a new “emergency only” dumping ground. Then it was revealed why this was particularly useful, and necessary. Our years of study, of research, had shown that Earth didn’t need humans, and that without them, it would restore itself. Many civilizations had come and gone.
Our kids loved the beach at Aldera Dune. Our kids, the first generation on Caledonia. They’d never been to Earth. We didn’t tell them what we were going to see, they were too young to understand. Sergio was writing everything down. A self-appointed historian of this new age, he was, he said, creating archaeology for future generations. We brought books with us, certainly, histories, a Bible, but none of them could tell the story that we were living. Sergio asked me once if I thought God created Caledonia too. “Why not?” I said. I don’t know that I could account for our survival any other way at the point. I remember seeing someone drop a paper cup at Aldera Dune and not pick it up right away, building sand castles. I watched that paper cup all afternoon. They collected it up as they left, but eventually, someone wouldn’t.
The kids played in the water. I did too. We had a huge beach ball that we chased around. We ate a picnic dinner and snuggled up to a small bonfire as the sun went down. The always clear night opened up the mirror space in the sky, the stars from both worlds twinkled. Earth was clearly visible. I knew it would still be there after, but I didn’t know if I would be able to look at it again. We’d decided not to go to the beach there anymore. There were other beaches, so many other beaches on Caledonia. We’d decided not to look back through that space again after this. Sergio told our kids the story over and over, “That used to be our home, we used to live there. Daddy met Mommy on Earth.”
We didn’t think we’d be able to hear anything of it but there was a great thunderous crash and crack, a warp sound wave that expanded with the explosion and contracted just as quickly in a blaze across the surface of Earth. Great sparks shot into space in the most beautiful colors. Billions of parasites extinguished at once. Cortez burned his ships. We were never going back either. I don’t know why it hadn’t occurred to me that I’d be crying. I think we couldn’t believe they were really going to do it, and there was nothing anyone could do to stop them. It had been that way since they’d found Caledonia. I guess it had been that way since they’d started looking for a Caledonia.
A boy with the family sitting next to us, asked his father what all the bright sparks and colors were. “Those are fireworks.” The father said.
“What are fireworks?”
It would be at least a hundred years, they said, before any exploration could be done on Earth again. Six months later they found volunteers to suit up to get as close as possible to check things out. They never returned.
The last time we went to Aldera Dune, it wasn’t to watch the world die. It was to watch mankind finish killing everyone left on Earth. We managed to escape a multitude of evils when we made our new life here. There were some we brought with us. Human beings are often the biggest monsters. I hope we can teach our children something better. You wouldn’t believe how beautiful it is on Caledonia in the fall. ~ End
From the unreleased collection, “Covenants of Lingering Bones”, “The Last Time We Visited Aldera Dune” by Teri Skultety