Copyright ã 2004
Published by Unlimited Publishing
All Rights Reserved
The Director tugged off his pith helmet, releasing a river of foul sweat that etched a streak on his dusty neck. He tore off his wire-rimmed glasses with a jerk.
This isn’t possible!
The group of archeological conservators¾four students under Quinn’s directorship¾stared in silent agony at the strange symbol on the wall. Their rapid, heavy breathing dampened the already dangerously humid enclosure of Queen Nefertari’s tomb. Within the stone chamber that was barely large enough for five people to huddle elbow to elbow, the air temperature was rising from the fluorescent lamps at the doorway of the chamber and the morning sun burning over the Egyptian desert.
The French woman tugged a bandanna from her neck and rubbed it across her glistening forehead. “Dr. Quinn, look at the texture, the edges . . .” Her voice trembled. “It’s not drawn on the existing hieroglyphs, it’s incorporated into them . . . as if . . . the—” She broke off, her eyes blazing, arms crossed tightly over her chest.
The young Chinese artist opened his mouth several times before whispering, “Could someone have broken through the security systems last night and painted it?”
Quinn moved toward the wall. His eyes squinted to slits as he examined the symbol on the wall of reliefs that his students had been painstakingly restoring with limestone dust and laboratory watercolors.
He slowly raised his hand toward the wall, inching it higher until one fingertip touched the glyph as gently as if it possessed the power to destroy the world. The leathery creases in his face deepened as he frowned and shook his head stiffly.
He turned and looked the young man in the eye. In a hoarse voice, he said, “Only if one night can last three thousand years.”
I’m so damn close! What’s the bloody code breaker?
Gatsby Donovan stared into the humming computer monitor, frowning, entranced by the glyphs on the screen. A diskette containing image files of stone burial vessels, recently excavated and donated to the British Museum, had arrived on her desk two days ago. Clevis’s memo noted that it was up to her to decipher the Mayan inscriptions before the artifacts arrived from Guatemala.
What a shame that my vacation starts in two hours, she thought, smirking, in the hush of her small office. Actually, it was unfortunate¾she was eager to get the burial ritual legends on the vessels deciphered and had made it through most of them. One contained astronumerical references that she couldn’t quite place. Had she seen them in some dusty reference book in the museum library? Were they alphabetic or syllabic?
She closed her eyes, leaning back in her padded chair, and ran her hands through her long, chestnut brown hair. Too many hours at the computer; her retinas were jitterbugging behind the dark canvas of her eyelids.
I need a break . . . too much epigraphy makes Gatsby a dull . . .
The computer screen popped to black¾instead of Mesoamerican symbols, tiny stars now floated toward her like falling snowflakes, as if she’d just materialized on the bridge of a starship. A nice screensaver.
It was a few minutes past four o’clock¾some of the museum staff had already gone home, some remained to work late, and in just two hours, she would savor the act of closing up her office for her ten-week sabbatical. It was a well-earned vacation, and the Mayan vessels would have to wait for her until September.
She flashed on the fact that the museum director, Nelson Clevis, had mentioned that morning that he would stop by before she left¾if there were benevolent gods, his visit would be short. Gatsby genuinely respected Clevis’s commitment to the institution that kept her in linguistic magazines and thrift-store jeans. On the surface, however, he was to all who knew him an anal-retentive and officious prick.
The mental image made Gatsby laugh out loud, eyes still closed.
She’d made a stab at organizing but had only succeeded at rearranging the piles of books, notes, computer disks, catalogs, and files that constituted her office. It wasn’t the most aesthetically pleasing office at the museum, but it truly afforded the best view, overlooking a lush courtyard of exotic plants and gurgling Grecian fountains.
A thousand years from now, who’s going to care how tidy I kept my office? she thought, relaxing back in her chair and letting her mind wander as it did on the rare day like this when she felt mentally lazy, at long last detached from the intense focus of her work.
Her education at Blake University, Seattle, and then SUNY had given her a thorough background in linguistic systems. She considered herself very lucky that the British Museum’s internship program had accepted her and eventually offered her an associate position. And in the last six years, she’d received a fantastic education in translating the writings on ancient manuscripts and artifacts¾coming to love the challenges of the job and endure the stress.
Moving her wheeled chair so that the late spring sunlight drifting through her window bathed over her body, she listened to the quiet. The occasional whoosh of the air conditioning system. Muted footsteps in the hallway. The hum of her computer.
All these words, thoughts. So long ago. Did the people of Palenque ever imagine that thousands of years in the future, someone like me would pour over their scribblings? And be fascinated by what was there? Be driven to know how cultures of the ancient past lived, thought, spoke, perceived? . . . how much we know of ourselves by studying the writings of those who come before us . . . the process itself of comparing the words—the symbols of thought—of cultures millennia before your own makes you acutely aware of the mutable nature of perception. What I do here, translating these scribbles and fragments from the past, will any of this prove enlightening to some culture millennia from now? Who knows how future cultures will think and write . . . maybe they’ll be beyond writing their thoughts. She smiled a little, lost in the daydream. Maybe they’ll be beyond thought . . .
A jolt raced down her spine¾a tingling, electric spasm that shot from her neck down her left arm to her hand. The daydream shattered and she bolted, eyes wide at the shock of the sensation. She stared down at her left hand, resting on the cool surface of her desktop.
The finger muscles quivered¾her hand jittered on the laminate surface, as if something under it were about to erupt. Her heart moved into high gear and her lungs locked as she watched, terrified and helpless.
As if sentient, her hand jerked to eye level, palm away from her. The thumb dipped forward, then pulled back as the third and fourth fingers tipped down. The action repeated and repeated again, faster and faster, as if her arm were trying to flap invisible wings and fly away.
“Son of a bitch,” Gatsby hissed. Her heart thudded in her ears and with each thud, the movements repeated and it wouldn’t stop, there was nothing she could do to make it stop . . .
She swung her right hand and slapped the left down hard on the desktop.
Panting, Gatsby stared down at her hands, the right one smashing the left like the stronger of two wrestlers. A sick feeling cramped her stomach; nothing like this had ever happened to her
before . . .
What the fucking hell! Good god, some kind of stroke? Embolism? Tumor? Epilepsy? Oh christ . . . Other bad-to-worst-case suggestions tried to rise into her mind; she brutally shoved them out. If there were congenital illnesses in her family, they were unknown to her.
She opened her mouth to suck in a lungful of air, feeling her tongue rake over dry lips. She sat paralyzed in the chair, terrified that if she moved or breathed, it might happen again.
Waiting, watching. Barely breathing. Cautiously observing.
After two minutes¾nothing. A long, shuddering sigh helped her lungs to unlock.
Jesus H . . .
A knock at the door made her jerk and painfully nip the inside of her cheek. Whoever it was, their timing was terrible. She rolled her neck to pop out the kinks and pressed her hands against her Levi’s, trying to quickly think of an excuse scenario. A sudden phone call? An emergency sprint for the bathroom? Her body was still trembling; the cold stone in her stomach seemed to grind against her ribs.
The door opened. Nelson Clevis, short, bald, with tiny glasses and creases that screamed, appeared in his usual humor: constrained. A grey suit and burgundy tie had been his uniform since the day Gatsby had interviewed with him six years ago. He took one step into Gatsby’s office and stood rooted like a Paleolithic fossil embedded in the earth’s crust. She never knew exactly how it happened, but his grand efforts at reserve usually made Gatsby feel positively impish around him.
At the moment, all she wanted was to get rid of him.
“Nelson,” Gatsby said, knowing full well how he hated the informality of first names. She wondered when her shoulder muscles would loosen their death-grip on her spine.
Clevis merely raised his thin grey eyebrows and parted a set of lips as starched as his shirt. “Ms. Donovan. I dropped by to bid you well for your sabbatical. You generally holiday in the warmer climes, do you not? South of France this year? Italy?” His tiny eyes, behind the lenses, reflected only the smallest glint of warmth.
“Anywhere but London, I know that. Perhaps Tenerife. Whatever I end up doing, I know I’m going to be fretting over these vessels.” She managed, somehow, to keep her voice level.
Clevis blinked, one of his more subtle signals of understanding. “Yes, the Maya. One can only imagine what they did for their holidays.” His hands stole into the depths of his pants pockets and Gatsby recognized Clevis’s gruel-bland form of humor.
Before she could reply, her hand trembled. An involuntary gasp broke from her; she swept both arms up over her head, feigning a lazy stretch, and then clasped her hands behind her neck. “Hard to say,” she murmured, trying desperately to sound casual while adrenaline raced through her bloodstream.
Clevis’s reputation for wordiness was askew that day. He stared briefly and then said, monotone, “Well. Enjoy the time off. We shall see you in the fall.”
“You will. Thanks for dropping by, Nelson.”
An almost imperceptible stiffness drew the man up to his full height of five foot seven and a half inches. He nodded curtly and left the door ajar as he walked out.
Gatsby exhaled loud and long and pressed her hands to her cheeks, noting how hot they felt. What if Clevis had noticed? What if he had gotten the notion that she had contracted some appalling handicap and was unfit to work anymore?
Moving her hands out in front of her, as if resting them on an imaginary keyboard, she stared hard at them. Just two hands, firmly attached and seemingly once again in synch with the rest of her fit, thirty-four-year-old body. Two simple, unadorned hands; short smooth nails, a small birthstone ring on the middle finger of the right.
She breathed in deeply, thinking, Okay, best case scenario is simple stress. Overwork. Nothing that some warm salt water and a few friendly White Russians won’t fix in a hurry. But I’m calling Dr. Berger in the morning, just in c . . . The thought dissipated, dissolving into the darker alleys of her subconscious. She sniffed, rose, and gathered up the books and files that would necessarily accompany her for the summer.
A beep signaled a transmission on her fax machine. Gatsby glanced toward the machine, stared warily as a piece of paper began chugging out of it, almost convinced herself that she hadn’t seen it, and reluctantly walked to the filing cabinet on which it sat. The transmission completed and a single sheet of paper dropped.
Gatsby picked it up with a sigh and read:
Ms. Donovan, imperative that we speak immediately. An unknown glyph discovered in Egyptian tomb. Your urgent attention requested.
The sender’s identifying line at the top was blurred. At the bottom, there was a name and an address: University of Cambridge. Martin Traussbery? Where had she heard that name before?
“Martin, you’re just one minute too late,” she said, and stuffed the fax into the side pocket of her leather briefcase. She took one last look around at her office¾not to memorize it, god knew she spent enough time there to know every inch of it intimately, but with a kind of reverence. The work that went on inside her four walls gave her a great feeling of immensity. Timelessness. Synthesis with all human endeavor.
The conquests, the glories, the discoveries¾and the tragedies.
Standing beside her desk, she raised her hands, holding them at eye level. The sunlight and flora of the courtyard outside her window seemed to create a square picture frame around her outspread hands. A Still Life in Manualism, so to speak. Turning them over, then over again, she frowned and leaned to reach for her briefcase.
She flipped her PC’s switch to OFF, slung her overcoat over one arm, walked to the door, and turned out the overhead light. The monitor of her computer glowed eerily, like the eye of the monster that rose from her work¾the CyberBeast of Information. She stepped out into the hallway, ready to venture into a new world.