Four Years Ago: Monday, July 15, 2000
Jake hadn’t expected the phone call from Bryce Duncan.
He recognized the slight Australian accent. “Bryce?”
“Your one and only grad school roommate.”
“It’s good to hear from you. What’ve you been up to?”
“Still digging up the past, except I have a small problem that requires your kind of genius. Can you hop a flight tomorrow morning to scenic Upstate New York?”
Granted, Jake hadn’t seen him in over two years because they’d both been busy, but this was a bit too impulsive, even for capricious Bryce. Still, a short vacation from this hot, humid Illinois summer sounded good. But…
“Can’t do it. I’m in the middle of a project. How about next weekend?”
“That’ll be too late.”
Jake heard a nervous edge in Bryce’s voice. “Bryce, what’s this about?”
“I can’t discuss it over the phone. Bring old clothes. Your ticket’s waiting for you at the airport.”
“Are you in some kind of trouble?”
“No, not yet. I’m relying on you to keep me out of it. I know you’re never out of bed before ten, but a 6:30 a.m. flight was the best I could arrange. You’ll have to switch planes a couple of times, and there’re no in-flight meals. Best I could do. Sorry. I’ll meet you at the Plattsburgh airport late tomorrow afternoon.”
* * *
Bryce met him at Clinton County Airport wearing a khaki shirt and shorts. He wasn’t quite as lean as Jake remembered. His sun-bleached brown hair now touched his shoulders, and he’d learned how to use a comb. It was good to see him, but… “What the hell’s going on, Bryce?”
“Did you eat anything?”
“Only from the vending machines. Why am I here?”
“Well, I guarantee you a dinner to make up for it.”
During the fifteen-minute drive to Ausable Chasm, at the southern tip of Lake Champlain, Bryce refused to talk about why he’d asked Jake to come here. He wanted to know all about Jake’s research at Illinois.
They drove up to an RV nestled in the woods. “Whatever happened to roughing it?” Jake asked.
“It’s out of fashion.”
Bryce unloaded Jake’s overnight bag from the trunk and pointed to a woman standing next to a gas grill. “Diane and I live in Plattsburgh.”
“You got married and didn’t tell me?”
“Not yet. Next June. Will you be my best man?” They walked over to the grill.
“Bryce, I’d be honored to be your best man, and I’m glad to see you again, but what’s so urgent you had to bring me here?”
“Patience. We’ll get to that. Diane, this is Jake Kesten.”
She turned around: full dark hair, wonderfully prominent cheekbones on a tanned face, captivating brown eyes. “Bryce told me all about your times as roommates,” she said, tongs in hand, “and the wild parties.”
“We two geeks never got invited to any wild parties,” Jake said.
Bryce grinned. “Right. I met Diane a year ago. She was a journalism major and wanted to interview an archaeologist. As I recall, the interview lasted all night. How’s your situation at Illinois? Any serious relationships?”
“Just tension relief and sanity maintenance. That’s about all I can handle for now. Most of the unmarried women at U. of I. are either too studious to be interested in anything serious or were cursed with cruel genes.”
Bryce nodded. “Let’s get you settled.” He opened the door of the RV and Jake stepped up inside.
“God, do I smell peppers and onions? I’m salivating.”
“Oh, yeah. I remembered how much you like them. Throw your stuff on the bed in back. Bathroom’s here.”
Jake washed up and joined Bryce and Diane at the foldout table up front a few minutes later. Before Jake could ask him the question, Bryce said, “Eat and enjoy. We’ll take a walk afterward.”
Why was Bryce so calm today when he had sounded so nervous on the phone yesterday?
After they each ate a pound of medium-rare sirloin, Bryce took him outside—an hour or two of daylight was still left—to talk. “My boss, the esteemed Dr. Ferraro, has been pissed lately at his grad students who—through no fault of theirs—have not produced anything he can publish. He expected me, his postdoc, to remedy that situation. He knew my attention for detail, so he sent me here to re-survey this old Indian site for something useful. I didn’t argue. Given his foul mood, I was glad for the time away. Even though he’s tenured, he takes ‘publish or perish’ too seriously.”
“Bryce, I’m getting pissed off. You yank me here for something you said can’t wait another few days, then make it sound like it can.”
“I just wanted you to relax first.”
“I haven’t been able to relax since I got your call. Explain. Now. What does this have to do with me?”
“Language translation.” He gave Jake a sideways smile. “I think I forgot to mention that on the phone.”
Jake shook his head.
“I’d been digging here a few weeks, finding nothing. Then I got lucky. I’m not sure yet if it’s good luck or bad luck. In any case, I doubt that we’ll be able to publish my findings.”
They walked down a slope. A pair of lanterns hung next to a cliffside entrance. Bryce lit both and handed one to Jake. “I spotted a crack in the hillside behind the overgrowth. It took me two days to clear the debris and rocks. Duck. There’s a nasty protrusion.” Bryce rubbed the top of his head and faked a wince.
They entered a small cave about eight feet high and twenty feet in diameter. A uniformed body lay on the floor near the center. After Bryce brought his lantern close to it, the skeleton under the uniform became apparent.
“His skull was cracked,” Bryce said. “I cleared away a lot of loose rocks around him. I suspect a cave-in killed him and buried the entrance.”
“You flew me here to see a dead body?”
“Note the uniform is perfectly preserved despite the flesh having completely decayed away.”
Jake noted the coal-black shirt, tight-weave pants with an Oriental-appearing insignia on the leg, and dark green boots.
Bryce squatted and undid a press-seal on the shirt. “Not Velcro. It’s something I’ve never seen. The pants have a fly front with the same press-seal. Except for a bit of mustiness in the cave, there was no odor when I opened it. This fellow’s been here a long time. Tomorrow, I expect the military to be all over this place like fleas on the family pet. That’s why I needed you here today.”
“Military? You find a body and you call the military instead of the police?”
“Trust me, this isn’t a police matter, and I wasn’t the one who called the military. A few inches from the skeleton’s hand was a smooth, black stone. I work out of Stony Brook, too far from here for a quick trip, so I took it to the SUNY college in Plattsburgh, to a discreet technician I’ve worked with before. We measured the stone’s density at two point seven, same as granite. The fluorescence analysis equipment to determine mineral composition was down for maintenance, so we x-rayed it. Here, take a look.”
Bryce pulled out of his pocket an object the size and shape of a charcoal briquette. Jake ran his fingers over the surface—they dragged slightly against its matte finish—and handed it back.
“We would have been fine if his boss, an asshole who we thought had left for the day, hadn’t walked in and gotten a look over our shoulders before we could stop him. We knew we were screwed. He called his friends at the Plattsburgh Air Force Base.”
“Why would he notify the military?” Jake asked.
“Besides being an asshole, he got a nice research grant from the Air Force, so he sucks up to them every chance he gets.”
“So, what did he see?”
Bryce grinned evilly. “The x-ray showed what we think is a microchip embedded in it. There’s another twist, though. I sent a bone sample for carbon dating. It came back with a carbon-14 content one point three times greater than what a living specimen should contain.”
“I don’t understand.”
“While an organism is alive, the carbon-14 ratio in its body maintains an equilibrium with the environment. After it dies, the radioactive decay takes over. Every 5700 years, half of the C-14 decays.”
“I think I remember some of that from a freshman chem course, but what do you mean that the carbon-14 content was too high?”
“Any organic material should have a C-14 content equal to or less than what’s in the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. If it’s greater, then either the lab screwed up—but they said they ran it three times to be sure they hadn’t—or else the sample was exposed to radiation. The black stone was not radioactive, and my Geiger counter picked up no radiation around the area.”
“There’s no other explanation?”
“Just one. After the C-14 results, I took a second bone sample to a biochemist at Stony Brook who works with ancient DNA. To cover my ass, I told him I thought it might belong to a Pleistocene mammal. He said it was more human than anything, but it matched nothing in the databases. He was curious about where I’d gotten it. I said I’d get back to him. Meanwhile, I had given a small piece of the uniform and the scroll to a forensic chemist I know.”
Bryce reached into a crevice and pulled out what resembled a six-inch-long roll of paper an inch in diameter. “Feel.”
Jake rubbed his fingers over it. “Plastic?”
“Protein. Similar in composition to spider silk, but with a couple of unusual amino acids. It’s highly stable, which explains why it didn’t decay. The chemist said it was similar to stuff he knew the military’s working on. He’s still analyzing the uniform. It’s a polymer he’s not familiar with.”
“So exactly what are you suggesting?”
“This guy is not from Earth. And this is where you come in.” Bryce unrolled the scroll. “I need you to decipher these.”
Jake examined the scrawls. “They look Oriental, like the insignia on the uniform.”
“They’re nothing I recognize, and my research came up negative. I called you because you’re the expert in this area.”
“I don’t know anything about ancient languages.”
“That paper you wrote on language decoding algorithms from your PhD research was brilliant. This is a new language. Here’s where you test your work in the real world.”
“Bryce, I wouldn’t know where to start.”
“Remember, I know what your grad school GPA was, genius. You’ll figure out something. Meanwhile, I’ll try to keep your name out of it. Here’s how I see it happening: I lie and tell them I found the black stone outside the cave. Then, I say this may be an Indian burial site and they’ll need permission from Indian Affairs to move the skeleton or anything inside the cave. They’ll cordon off the area, and no one will get in or out. An Indian Affairs rep will come out and, seeing the uniform, agree that it’s not an Indian skeleton and let them take it away. At that point, they will strap me to a chair, aim nasty bright lights at me, inject me with turn-your-brain-to-mush drugs, and threaten to dissect my nuts for good measure if I don’t spill my guts.”
“That’d dampen your wedding plans.”
“I’m glad one of us finds this amusing.”
“You’re exaggerating, Bryce.”
“Yeah. There are stories about what happens to archaeologists who find certain stuff and fail to report it to the proper authorities in a timely manner. I made photo enlargements of the scroll for you. I’ll put it back and pretend surprise when they find it.” He gave Jake a serious look. “Diane is the only other person who knows you’re here. I paid for your plane ticket with cash. I won’t mention you until I have no other choice. You should be safe for a few days.”
Jake picked up his lantern. “Safe from what?”
“A government incursion into your private life.”
“Shit, Bryce. There goes my government grant.”
“If you can decipher that writing, we’ll be heroes. They might offer us cushy government jobs.”
“Or your imagined interrogation session might become a reality. Why didn’t you report it right away?”
“Because last year I made an important find near an Indian burial ground. I reported it, waited for permission to proceed, and got it. Know what happened? Someone along the way, who knew for sure it was not on a burial ground, got there first, and took the credit! That skeleton isn’t Indian, and this cave is not on Indian land. It’s public land, no permission needed. But I guess we still get screwed.”
Jake took a deep breath. “Maybe not.”
The next day, Bryce drove him to the airport, after a much shorter vacation than Jake had counted on. He got on the commuter plane, not sure what Bryce had really discovered but determined as hell to find out.
* * *
Jake got back to his apartment around nine that night. He dropped his overnight bag on the floor and flopped onto the couch, facing a black TV screen. Two days ago he’d been comfortably entrenched in near academic anonymity. What the hell was he supposed to do now? Sure, his language translation program worked. His thesis proved how it could break down a language into its basic linguistic elements, but he’d only tried it on known Earth languages. Bryce’s mystery language defied description, other than a vague Oriental appearance. If Jake was certain that no way could he decipher even the smallest part of it in a few days, he was more certain that, as beat as he was from the last two days, no way could he sleep now. He closed his eyes anyway.
He had finally relaxed and slowed his breathing enough that he felt sleep might be possible when his body began to vibrate. A shiver shot through him. A moment later he landed on a hard floor, not on a carpeted one, and his eyes flew open.
Where the hell was he? Candles, in sconces evenly spaced around the dark-wood-paneled walls, lit the room. Lightly fragrant spice scented the air.
“Please forgive the abrupt transference.”
In front of him stood a humanoid figure in a dark red robe. Behind this person were a desk and bookcase.
“Who the hell are you, and where the hell am I?”
“I am Arion, an Elfaeden Mage. You are in my keep because I need you to prepare a young man named Scott Madison for his future.”
Jake pushed himself to a seated position on the floor. “I don’t know anyone by that name.”
“I will show you where to find him.”
Two Years Ago, Spring 2002: Planet Earth
My senior year in college had ended. On this Thursday morning, the day after finals, two things kept me on campus: a graduation ceremony on Sunday and my job. As dorm resident advisor, I had to stay until the dorm was empty. They gave me free room and board in exchange for babysitting undergraduates. In the past year I had learned to be tolerant; I had learned to counsel; I had learned when to shut my door—all valuable, real-world skills.
The RA’s room had a coveted location near the front door, although making it easy to sneak women in and out of the room undetected surely was not the designer’s original intent. However, this coming Sunday I, J. Scott Madison, was graduating at my virginal best, having been scared spermless by the do-it-and-watch-it-rot Army training films thrust upon an impressionable, pubescent child of twelve. At least, that’s where I had convinced myself the blame lay.
UCSD sits above a gorgeous beach along North Torrey Pines Road in San Diego, where the students surf at lunch. I didn’t surf, and I didn’t worship the Great Yellow Ball. Scholarships aside, at those tuition prices I was there to study, as the Colonel frequently reminded me.
With nothing else to do until graduation, I caught up on my TV viewing. During the commercials I alternately considered grad school in marine biology and a real job. The Colonel still hoped I’d choose career military, as my brother had.
I’d gone on a few job interviews, mostly for the experience, and had papered my dorm door with the rejection letters. For sure I wanted to get away from La Jolla, second only to Beverly Hills with its pretentious inhabitants.
When TV soap opera time arrived, I grabbed my wallet, locked my door, and went hunting for lunch. An ad on the dorm bulletin board outside my room caught my eye:
WANTED: College graduate with no outstanding obligations interested in fieldwork in a warlike atmosphere. If you are a marine biologist looking for that last hurrah before undertaking grad school, this job is for you. No experience necessary. Must like to travel. Excellent pay. No résumé required. Leave message at the number below.
A phone number followed.
No résumé required? Was this a prank, aimed at me, a last dig from those under my care? The monetary reference piqued my interest, though. I needed money for the summer, and I didn’t want to live at home if I could avoid it.
During lunch at the all-you-can-eat buffet at Pizza Hut, the ad played games with my mind. If I went to grad school, I was still fair game for my father’s career suggestions. What if the ad wasn’t a prank? What if it was my chance at autonomous, Colonel-free living? When I got back to the dorm, I wrote down the number and went into my room to call.
A machine identified itself as Jake. It asked for my name, phone number, and the date and time I was calling. It thanked me and promised to get back to me. I gave my dorm phone number, not my cell. If he was legit, he’d call right away. If not, my phone would be disconnected Monday with no forwarding number. I’d already exchanged email addresses with any friends I wanted to stay in touch with.
Why had I called? The ad said “Travel.” I hated to travel. Life as an Army brat had dragged me through six different grade schools and five different high schools.
“Field work in a warlike atmosphere.” That chimed military and reinforced the prank aspect.
And how many job applications are made by leaving a message on an answering machine?
* * *
Nine a.m. the following Monday morning, with a BS officially appended to my name, I packed the last of my college memorabilia, a senescent toothbrush, and my beloved, face-scouring razor that had faithfully brought me to attention for numerous early-morning exams.
Only two other students were still in the dorm: a sophomore who had stayed to see his brother graduate—he was leaving shortly—and a junior who had taken an on-campus summer job and was moving into off-campus housing today. Where was I going?
Someone knocked on my door. “It’s open.” Probably one of the two dorm stragglers coming to wish me luck with my life, although I couldn’t imagine either of them awake yet.
“Do you normally invite men into your room this early in the morning?”
I came to attention—force of habit—and stared at the body behind the unfamiliar voice. “Excuse me?”
“You wanted a job.” He made it a statement.
How did he know? “The bulletin board ad? I figured that was a prank.”
“So why did you call?”
“Then you’re Jake?”
“Yep. I’ve been called a prick, but never a prank. Is that modern college slang for the same thing?” He stepped forward and proffered his hand over the bed.
I shrugged and shook it. He was about six feet tall and well acquainted with the gym. Short, kinky, black hair came to a point on his forehead, and inch-long sideburns framed a square jaw with a shaved-last-night stubble. I guessed him late twenties.
“Ready for the interview?” he said.
“I’m not exactly dressed for an interview.”
He smiled. “Neither am I.” His barely ironed, button-down white shirt, jeans, and deck shoes were still better than my denim shorts and tan, pocket T-shirt. And he was wearing a nouveau-formal, black leather tie.
“I have a flight at twelve forty-five,” I said.
“We’ll be done long before that.”
This had to be a joke, but since I’d finished packing and had nothing better to do for the moment, it might prove amusing to hear what he had to say. I offered him my chair and sat on the bed. “Sorry, my résumés are packed away.”
“My ad said none required.” He pointed to my suitcase. “I appreciate my employees being ready to go on a moment’s notice.” He pulled a tattered, spiral notebook from his shirt pocket and flipped it open. He read, “Name: Jefferson Scott Madison.”
“Scott. I don’t use my first name.”
But he continued. “Place of residence: Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Age: Twenty-two. Height: Six-four. Weight: One-ninety. Major: Biology, marine concentration. Minors: Art and Literature. Marital status: …Single.” He raised his head. “Any kids?”
“You said I was single.”
His eyes drilled into mine. “Marriage is not a prerequisite to procreation, as I’m sure your biology classes adequately taught you.” He grinned, displaying perfect, white teeth. “You’re still a virgin.”
Warmth rose in my neck. “That’s a rather personal question.” But it wasn’t a question.
He dropped the smile. “This is a personal interview.”
“I think the question is considered discriminatory.”
“That’s only for EOEs.”
I tilted my head at him.
“Equal Opportunity Employer. I’m not, so I don’t give a shit.”
Keep cool, Scott. “Unless you’re recruiting male prostitutes, what would my sexual activity have to do with the job?”
Above his blue eyes, thick eyebrows came within a quarter inch of joining. He raised one. “What I don’t need is someone whose first priority in life is getting laid. You’re the Colonel’s boy, all right. Evasive.”
“You know my father? Did he send you?”
“Yes, I do, and no, he didn’t.” He pushed back the chair and stood. “Let’s go get some breakfast.”
“I have a plane to catch.”
“Plenty of time. I’m hungry, I’m buying, and I guarantee you won’t miss your flight because I’m leaving at the same time. And I’ll drive you to the airport to save you cab fare. Besides, you must have questions about the job.”
“I’m not interested.”
“Not even in free food? College students—”
“—never turn down free food. It’s a law of the universe.”
He drove us in his rental car to a nearby café frequented by the college crowd. Today most of the tables were empty. After we sat and ordered, he asked, “Questions about the job?”
“Was that ad meant for me?”
“What if I hadn’t called?”
“I’d have come anyway.”
“You must have had other inquiries.”
“Two. I told them the job was already filled.”
“Even military recruiters aren’t that cocky,” I said. “It must be nice.”
“Living in fantasyland. Do you work for my father?”
“Not directly. I’m a civilian consultant at Fort Bragg.”
“Finally, a straight answer?”
“I told him I was headed this way and asked if he wanted me to say hi to you.”
“What did he say to that?”
“‘Keep the hell away from my son!’” He did a good imitation of the Colonel’s resonant, authoritative voice.
“That makes sense. He tries to keep unsavory, civilian influences out of my life.”
“I don’t consider myself unsavory.”
Our food arrived. “Okay, what’s the job involve?” I finally asked.
“Do you like computer hackers?”
“It depends on whether they’re my friends.”
He cut a piece of sausage, put it in his mouth, chewed, and swallowed. “The first prerequisite is willingness to do the job.”
“You haven’t told me what the job is yet.”
“Classified. I can’t tell you until you accept.”
This guy seemed to be doing his best to make me not want the job. He knew who I was and knew my father, but this wasn’t my father’s style, unless my father had gotten more desperate than I thought.
I looked at my watch, then at him. “Yes, sir; no, sir; anything you say, sir; no fucking way, sir. Military is not my favorite color. Clear enough? Thank you for breakfast. Now, if that offer of a ride to the airport is still open, I would appreciate it. If not, please drive me back to the dorm and I’ll call a cab.”
He raised an eyebrow. “‘Military is not my favorite color?’ I like that.”