Carved in Stone

From the moment the Geological Anomaly became known to them, they each knew that it would be the focus of their all-too-short lives. Why had it been built? By whom, and for what purpose? For it was soon self-evident that it had been built: the enormous crystal structures were too orderly, too deliberate in their steady growth. Yet if the Anomaly was artificial, it was well beyond the limits of human technology.

Grigori: a young, outspoken man who had narrowly escaped political imprisonment in Putin's Russia, and who had been retrained from his background in medical imaging to instead make sense of Alberta's tar sands.

Annette: a petroleum geologist at the University of Alberta, supposedly of Métis descent though she had never sought official status; third generation of her family to work in oil and gas.

Tashkar: a software engineer working in a geophysical imaging startup whose parents, tired of the increasingly fiery rhetoric of BJP partisans, had emigrated from Kochi to stake out a foothold in the outskirts of Calgary.

All had found a sort of uneasy refuge in a dying and despised industry. All came to know of the Anomaly within a week of each other.

Grigori remembers his precise moment of discovery: 2:59pm on Friday, August 27, 2027. It could have been sunny or hailing sideways, and he would hardly have noticed. His attention was, at the time, completely focused on a set of strange readings from his custom analysis programs, designed to overlay drone, radar, and other imagery sources to sniff out the telltale signs of tar sands deposits. These particular readings were from the very edges of one of Exxon's land grants - expected to be marginal based on initial sweeps, and therefore investigated last, but investigated nonetheless; no reason to waste the investment, after all.

He'd pored over these readings for a couple of weeks now. They weren't extractable fossil fuels, that was certain - still, the wavelengths were odd, as though a massive crystal had formed just below the crust-mantle boundary. That Friday, he'd hit upon an idea: what if the latest readings were compared to those initial sweeps?

The result was small, but it passed all the usual statistical tests. The crystal had grown over the last few years. By itself, this would not have been unusual, but the crystal also seemed to grow into whatever material it came across - its composition was irregular. Whatever this was, it was completely unlike any material that had been discovered before.

Annette first heard of the Anomaly on Monday, when she agreed to a cryptic email from Grigori that asked only two things: that she meet with him in person that morning - he'd already made his way down to Edmonton from the field monitoring station - and that she keep their conversation just between the two of them. He'd taken a couple of her courses as a master's student, not long after arriving in Canada a few years back. Clearly a bright man, likeable in spite of a lingering paranoia - from his activist days in Russia, she supposed, though she'd never grilled him on this point.

They'd used to be good friends, back in those days. He had a sense of purpose that she admired, a way of asking questions she couldn't answer when many other students were content just to take what they were taught at face value. Hadn't heard from him in a couple of years, though, ever since his work started taking him into the field more and more.

They met in one of the many hipster cafés that had sprouted up around the city centre over the last decade or so. It was a popular lament that Edmonton was becoming a Toronto of the East, as though that were one of the worst fates imaginable. She sat at a featureless wooden table in the back, IKEA standard issue, sipping a passable cappuccino while she waited for Grigori.

"Annette, hey, good to see you again!" He had a weary look about him, like he hadn't slept properly in days. Furtive glances left and right as he sat down. Ah - the paranoiac tendencies were still there. Old habits die hard, she supposed.

She'd never been one for pleasantries - and she hated to admit it, but the situation piqued her interest. Dive right in, then. "So what's all this about? Mind letting me in on whatever it is that needs an urgent face-to-face meeting? We haven't talked in ages."

In response, he fumbled around in his leather sidebag, producing after some effort a handful of papers. His hands shook visibly as he carefully laid them out on the table. "These are readouts from the northern edge of the Exxon lands up by Fort McMurray." The shaking was in his voice, too. Nervous, on edge. Something she'd only rarely seen from Grigori; more often, he'd put a brave face on discomfort, remain upbeat. This must be something significant.

She looked at the papers: imaging readouts, different parts of the spectrum. Deeper than the usual range for petroleum scanning. Judging by map markings, varying resolutions of the same location. "Here" - he pointed - "here, and here. What do you see?"

Nothing, at first. A featureless jumble of pixels, could be sensor noise - no, wait. Zoomed in, the jumble took on a strangely regular appearance. Pixels became small polygonal features, like farm lots tessellated across the Prairies. But these were no farm lots; this was kilometres below the surface. Next zoom level. The polygons expanded into a self-similar substructure, a crystalline fractal. "Some kind of massive mineral deposit? Maybe crystallised around deep aquifers?"

He shook his head. "No aquifers at that depth here. I checked for those." He paused, as though considering his next words. "I double-checked what we know of mineral composition in this area as well, and this crystal formation shouldn't be possible here."

A lifetime in academia had taught her to greet new, unexplained phenomena with a careful blend of curiosity and skepticism. "So what are you suggesting? I mean, near-surface crystallography is still fairly new as a field. We don't know what we don't know. Maybe it's a fault in the sensing equipment, either in these readings or in earlier mineral surveys."

"Maybe you're right. I don't know. It's a feeling, you know? What if this is something" - another pause, and this time he leans in, way in, enough that she flinches back - "artificial?"

"This? Constructed? By who? Don't tell me you've gone all flat-earther on me, or that the aliens built the Pyramids. I'll laugh you out of this café and regret ever teaching you."

"I know, it sounds ridiculous. And I'll admit there's not much to go on yet. The issue is, I can't investigate much further on my own. The company would find out eventually that I've been using their equipment to run these scans." Pause. Deep breath. "Can you look into it somehow? I don't know, get some people up in Fort McMurray to fly some drones over, get clearer images?"

"Look, Grigori, I'd love to, but I've got my own research projects to run. Hell, with all the grant money my lab gets from Exxon, I practically work for them too. They won't be any happier with me using our grants on a wild goose chase." She drained the last of her cappuccino, got up to leave. Damn. One of those places that expects you to bus your own dishes. "I'm sorry. Look, get some sleep, OK? Call in sick a couple of days. You can even drop by the lab and say hi if you want. Crash on my couch, whatever. I've got a spare key at the lab. You still putting together money to sponsor your family for immigration?"

He nodded. "Yes, but I can afford" -

She cut him off, softening it with a kindly smile as she snatched her cup from the table. "Sure you can. But you don't have to." A long sigh. "Just - don't ask me to do this. Not this close to tenure."

He gave her a pained smile. "OK, OK. I get it. Look, I'm sorry. I know it sounds like a wild theory, and it's not fair of me to expect you to stake your professional reputation on it. And - fine, you're right. I'll take you up on the couch, just have to go back and check out anyways. Some rest might do me good."

They walked out into the gathering summer heat.

For Tashkar, the moment was later that week, early on Wednesday. Today, the summer heat was a blaze, not that it mattered with the AC running full-bore. Wearing a hoodie in summer was silly, but so was freezing your ass off.

The Gascan offices were buzzing with caffeine and the relentless clacking of keyboards. Gascan's main product was an integrated system of autonomous drones, sensor equipment, and sophisticated machine learning models. In the Gascan application, users could see stitched-together 3D renderings of scanned areas, brush across parts of the EM spectrum, predict whether a particular location was worth the cost of drilling and extraction.

Tashkar's part in the whole operation was data analysis and visualisation. Arguably the least specialised part, he thought wryly, but nonetheless the one that got potential clients excited. There was a fundamental cool to seeing something tangible, explainable. Most of their clients were used to ancient DOS utilities written by some bored grad student in the 80's, and compared with that Gascan's visualisations looked positively futuristic.

But right now, it didn't feel futuristic: it felt buggy as hell. He'd been staring at the test suite he'd cobbled together, sample data from all over Peace River and Athabasca. Most of them were null results, nothing to see here. A few were promising locations for extraction, the sort execs and sales loved to stuff into their endless client presentations. But these last three - they didn't make any sense.

In each one, the visualisation looked like some kind of early video game, a noisy mesh of polygons. They'd been using a newer sensing technique, one that was usually more accurate but could be prone to weird artefacts when scanning crystalline deposits in certain segments of the EM spectrum. And looking at these readings in those segments, it seemed these were truly massive crystalline deposits. Either that, or some low-budget CG art from decades ago.

Weirder still, the three locations seemed to form an equilateral triangle, when one corrected for the Mercator projection. That fact, which he discovered in an idle bit of tinkering first thing Wednesday, was what convinced Tashkar to ring up Annette's lab.

Gascan often consulted experts to keep abreast of the latest science: their clients were, for the most part, petroleum companies with deep pockets and savvy enough scientists to smell the whiff of bullshit from inaccurate modelling. And keeping on top of that science meant having deep networks in the universities. There was a sort of revolving door between many of the labs and the various startups dotted around Calgary and Edmonton.

And that was how, late into the twilight hours on Thursday, in a haze of excitement tinged with the lingering scent of stale pizza, the three of them found themselves in Annette's living room poring over what little they knew. The low table by her couch was littered with computer equipment, printouts, and sticky notes.

Four crystalline sites, forming two equilateral triangles over vast swaths of northern Alberta tar sands. All in areas that, according to current knowledge, would not support crystal growth, and especially not at this scale. From Grigori's reading, they seemed to be growing steadily. Analysing historical data from Gascan at Tashkar's sites, those were also growing steadily, each at slightly different rates. All several kilometres under the surface, and matching the overall composition of the crust in that location.

Annette had become a sort of de-facto leader for the trio, her earlier skepticism overridden by the raw thrill of discovery. "So. We have an unusual finding, and scant evidence so far. What can we test to learn more?"

Tashkar spoke up first, which surprised Annette - usually Grigori was the outspoken one, but he seemed deep in thought still. "Gascan has a few drones in a storage locker. We're a startup, right? We don't really check inventory that often, only when we need to take a drone out. I checked our upcoming schedule: there's one that we can grab for a few days without being noticed." He pursed his lips. "I'd have to get the key, though, plus I'd need to get back to Calgary. Earliest I could be back is maybe Saturday?"

Annette thought briefly about this. "No need for that. We've got a drone here, plus a few of the same sensors you're using, I believe. It's based off methods we first researched here, right? We might even have one still rigged up from the original experiments."

Now Grigori seemed to perk up. "If there is a pattern, we should find another site just on the outskirts of Edmonton, to the northwest. But I also think we should ask ourselves: what if this structure has been deliberately built or grown in some manner? After all, from what we know, it shouldn't occur naturally. And if it is artificial, it likely has some purpose for being there. Ideally we'd get a core sample, or ultra-high-resolution scans, or something, enough to start exploring that angle. Drone imaging won't be enough for that."

Annette again: "Maybe we can't figure out its purpose just yet. But there's still value to validating this equilateral triangle pattern. If that holds up at a few sites, we have a much stronger case that this is artificial in nature. Maybe that's the goal, then. We visit a few sites, collect just enough data to confirm crystalline anomalies at those sites. But then" - she hesitated - "then, we'll need much more equipment to investigate further. We can take near-surface core samples with the equipment in my lab, but that won't get us to the necessary depth."

"Fair enough. One hypothesis at a time, we can figure out the rest as we go along." Grigori grinned, then yawned impressively. "Damn, I'm tired. Maybe we should get some sleep for the night, then set out in the morning. Hard to set up and launch a drone at this hour anyways."

They settled in for a restless night, tossing and turning with an insatiable anticipation.

So that's a little teaser here - a quick 2000+ word draft of the intro to the story I mentioned last time. Hope you enjoyed it!

Of course, it's a rough draft, one written up quickly without research or planning. There's probably a bunch of holes in the basic science, and the characters are likewise just quick sketches at this point.

Still, that's exactly the sort of thing that can be helpful when considering a new project. Start small, play with the idea, build something concrete, share it with others, get feedback early and often. (Which is to say: if you're reading this, let me know what you think!)