Four Years Ago: Monday, July 15, 1996
Jake hadnít expected the phone call from Bryce Duncan.
He recognized the slight Australian accent. "Bryce?"
"Your one and only grad school roommate."
"Itís good to hear from you. Whatíve 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 hadnít seen him in over two years because theyíd 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...
"Canít do it. Iím in the middle of a project. How about next weekend?"
"Thatíll be too late."
Jake heard a nervous edge in Bryceís voice. "Bryce, whatís this about?"
"I canít discuss it over the phone. Bring old clothes. Your ticketís waiting for you at the airport."
"Are you in some kind of trouble?"
"No, not yet. Iím relying on you to keep me out of it. I know youíre never out of bed before ten, but a 6:30 a.m. flight was the best I could arrange. Youíll have to switch planes a couple of times, and thereíre no in-flight meals. Best I could do. Sorry. Iíll meet you at the Plattsburgh airport late tomorrow afternoon."
Bryce met him at Clinton County Airportwearing a khaki shirt and shorts. He wasnít quite as lean as Jake remembered. His sun-bleached brown hair now touched his shoulders, and heíd learned how to use a comb. It was good to see him, but... "What the hellís 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 heíd asked Jake to come here. He wanted to know all about Jakeís research at Illinois.
They drove up to an RV nestled in the woods. "Whatever happened to roughing it?" Jake asked.
"Itís out of fashion."
Bryce unloaded Jakeís 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 didnít tell me?"
"Not yet. Next June. Will you be my best man?" They walked over to the grill.
"Bryce, Iíd be honored to be your best man, and Iím glad to see you again, but whatís so urgent you had to bring me here?"
"Patience. Weíll 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. Howís your situation at Illinois? Any serious relationships?"
"Just tension relief and sanity maintenance. Thatís about all I can handle for now. Most of the unmarried women at the U. of I. are either too studious to be interested in anything serious or were cursed with cruel genes."
Bryce nodded. "Letís get you settled." He opened the door of the RV, and Jake stepped up inside.
"God, do I smell peppers and onions? Iím salivating."
"Oh, yeah. I remembered how much you like them. Throw your stuff on the bed in back. Bathroomís here."
Jake washed up and joined Bryce and Diane at the foldout table up front. Before Jake could ask him the question, Bryce said, "Eat and enjoy. Weíll 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 didnít argue. With his foul mood, I was glad for the time away. Even though heís tenured, he takes ípublish or perishí too seriously."
"Bryce, Iím getting pissed off. You yank me here for something that canít wait another few days, then make it sound like it can."
"I just wanted you to relax first."
"I havenít been able to relax since I got your call. Explain. Now. What does this have to do with me?"
"Language translation." He looked at Jake. "I think I forgot to mention that on the phone."
Jake shook his head.
"Iíd been digging here a few weeks, finding nothing. Then I got lucky. Iím not sure yet if itís good luck or bad luck. In any case, I doubt that weíll 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, thereís 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. Jake saw it was a skeleton under the uniform once Bryce brought his lantern close to it. "His skull was cracked. I cleared away a lot of loose rocks around him. I suspect a cave-in killed him and buried the entrance," Bryce said.
"You flew me here to see a dead body?"
"Note the uniform is perfectly intact despite the flesh having completely decayed away."
Jake looked at the coal black shirt, tight-weave pants with an Oriental-looking insignia on the leg, and dark green boots.
Bryce squatted and undid a press seal on the shirt. "Not Velcro. Itís something Iíve 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 fellowís been here a long time. Tomorrow I expect the military to be all over this place like fleas on the family pet. Thatís why I needed you here today."
"Military? You find a body and you call the military instead of the police?"
"Trust me, this isnít a police matter, and I wasnít the one who called the military. A few inches from the skeletonís hand was a smooth, black stone. I work out of Stony Brook, which is too far from here for a quick trip, so I took it to the SUNY college in Plattsburgh, to a discreet technician Iíve worked with before. We measured the stoneís 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, feeling them drag slightly against its matte finish. He handed it back.
"We would have been fine if his boss-an asshole who we thought had left for the day-hadnít 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. Thereís another twist. 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 donít 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 whatís in the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. If itís greater, then either the lab screwed up-but they said they ran it three times to be sure they hadnít-or the sample was exposed to radiation. The black stone was not radioactive, and my Geiger counter picked up no radiation around the area."
"Thereís 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 Iíd gotten it. I said Iíd 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 a cylinder six inches long. "Feel."
Jake rubbed his fingers over it. "Plastic?"
"Protein. Similar in composition to spider silk, but with a couple of unusual amino acids. Itís highly stable, which explains why it didnít decay. The chemist said it was similar to stuff he knew the militaryís working on. Heís still analyzing the uniform. Itís a polymer heís not familiar with."
"So exactly what are you suggesting?"
"This skeleton-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 almost look Oriental."
"Theyíre nothing I recognize, and my research came up negative. I called you because youíre the expert in this area."
"I donít know anything about ancient languages."
"That paper you wrote on language decoding algorithms from your PhD research was brilliant. This is a new language. Hereís where you test your work in the real world."
"I wouldnít know where to start."
"Remember, I know what your grad school GPA was, genius. Youíll figure out something. Meanwhile, Iíll try to keep your name out of it. Hereís 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-even though Iím sure itís not-and that theyíll need permission from Indian Affairs to move the skeleton or anything inside the cave. Theyíll 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 itís 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 donít spill my guts."
"Thatíd dampen your wedding plans too."
"Iím glad one of us finds this amusing."
"Youíre 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. Iíll put it back and pretend surprise when they find it." He gave Jake a serious look. "Diane is the only other person who knows youíre here. I paid for your plane ticket with cash. I wonít 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, weíll be heroes. They might offer us cushy government jobs."
"Or your imagined interrogation session might become a reality. Why didnít 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 isnít Indian, and this cave is not on Indian land. Itís public land, no permission needed. But I guess we still get screwed."
The next day, Bryce took 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 heíd 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 heíd only tried it on known Earth languages. Bryceís mystery language wasnít from Earth. It defied description, despite him saying it looked Oriental. 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 was slowly convincing his body to relax when he felt a buzzing inside him and a slight shiver. When his body suddenly struck the floor, he opened his eyes.
"Please forgive the abrupt transference."
Where the hell was he? The room was lit by candles evenly spaced in sconces around the dark wood paneling. The air was lightly fragrant with spice. In front of him stood a... humanoid 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."
"I donít know anyone by that name."
"I will show you where to find him."