by Jamie Eyberg
Part 1 appears|
in this issue.
“Whatcha’ got there?” John asked, stopping so that they could admire the first find of the day. For all they knew it would be the only thing they would unearth the whole trip.
“Tell you in a minute,” Mike said, moving his head to his shoulder to wipe the mud from his mouth. The mud only smeared.
“Definitely a bone,“ Mike said. The knob on the end that Mike had grasped was gray with age.
“Hand it over,” John said, reaching out. As Mike ran his hand down it, muddy blobs plopped back to the earth. John took hold of the bone and examined it. “It’s a femur. Young, maybe seven, ten years old when this happened. Bone’s in pretty good shape.” He turned the bone over in his hands, feeling the weight. “There’s got to be more close by. The rest of the remains should have sunk at about the same rate.”
“Should have realized I’d be digging in a graveyard,” Mike said putting more mud in his basket.
“Just call me Dr. Frankenstein,” John said, emptying out his basket and placing the bone in by itself.
“Guess that makes me Igor.”
“Only if you want to be.” John tugged on the cable indicating that they needed the basket hauled up and another one dropped down.
Mike quickly attached his half-full bag to the cable and they instinctively held their hands over their heads, waiting for baskets to fall.
John was right and, by the end of the day, they had sent five baskets of bones up the shaft. The hammer and lantern they had set when they got there was nearly ten feet over John’s head when they left that day. They got back to camp that night, not really knowing how long they had been down in the hole. It was raining and John thought about walking out of the cave with all of his muddy clothes on and scrubbing himself clean. He ended up washing his hands and face in a bucket that had been filled with rainwater, and peeling his shoes and socks off his feet for the night. He fell asleep before finishing one of the military MRE’s they had packed.
The next morning he vaguely remembered his dreams of ritual sacrifice and dark secrets. By the time he was done with his breakfast of eggs and something that might have been lizard, he had completely forgotten about his dreams; instead his mind was on the weight of his hands at the ends of his arms.
For two weeks their routine was the same from day to day. Each of them getting more tired but at the same time becoming accustomed to it. Both Mike’s and John’s arms and legs had ceased to be sore by the end of day five and had slipped into a comfortably numb state.
Outside of the cave, a pile of mud and decay from the bottom of the hole built up each day only to be knocked down most nights by the rain, the slurry of thousands of years washing back into the jungle with each drop of added moisture.
The lantern hung on the shaft wall, dull with a haze of dried earth. The hammer it hung from was now several dozen feet below where they had started. The climb down every morning had gotten longer and the climb back up longer still. Each day they dredged up older and more primitive artifacts. Even Brett, the field archeologist, marveled at the richness of the dig.
John and Mike started day eighteen like they had the previous seventeen. They dug for what John thought must have been several hours and found nothing. “Slowing down,“ John said to Mike. He still didn’t know what he was looking for but, after the richness of the last couple of weeks — an almost constant barrage of bone and jewel, the slight piece of cloth and the shard of pottery — they now found nothing. The mud was starting to get thicker, as well. Today it had only buried his ankles.
John stuck his hand in the mud to shovel it into the basket. “Damn.”
“What?” Mike asked, using the diversion as an excuse to stretch his back out.
John pulled his arm to his body and examined his hand. “Don’t know,” John said. “It’s hard, whatever it was.”
John leaned back over to unearth what he had hit. Mud pried at his fingernails and strained his fingers. He kept scooping the mud slowly into his basket. What he had hit came to view. “No way!” he exclaimed. “Which one of you guys put this down here?”
“Put what down here?” Mike said, stopping and stretching again.
“It’s plastic,” John said tapping his finger on it.
“Can’t be. It’s probably just a calcified tree or some type of obsidian. That can look a lot like plastic,” Mike said, pulling his feet from the mud to get closer to John and his find.
“I’m pretty sure it’s plastic,” John said. He dug around it, trying to find its edges. “Whoever put this here last night did a hell of a job with it.”
“I really don’t think anyone was down here other than us. Brett would have had to step over me to get out of the tent and I know he was only gone long enough last night to take a leak. It would have taken at least an hour or two just to make it down here and back, let alone bury something.”
“I just about got it anyway.” John gave a final tug on it and nearly fell backward into the muck, the grey color of the thing showing through the mud.
“So what is it? Rock or plant?” Mike asked.
John looked at it closely, scraping mud from it. “Neither,” John concluded. “It is plastic.”
Mike trudged closer and tapped the piece himself. “I’ll be damned. What do you think it is?”
John turned it over in his hands. “It’s heavy, whatever it is.”
“Let’s send it up,” Mike said, grabbing the empty basket they reserved for artifacts.
“I’m going with it. This doesn’t seem right,” John said looking at the muddy hole the piece had come from. “You’re sure the guys had nothing to do with this?”
“Come on up with me. I don’t want to leave anyone alone down here.”
Mike looked around him and arched his back. “I won’t argue.”
John gave the winch line three stout tugs and the baskets started their ascent. They heard the rustle and thump of the bags as they made their way up the side of the shaft. Mike let John hook up first and watched him start climbing in front of him. Mud rained down on his goggles and obscured the light from his helmet lamp. He wiped it off and started to follow.
“Which one of you guys put this down there?” John said at the moment he made it to the top of the shaft.
They all just looked at each other. John could see, even in the lamplight, that no one knew what he was talking about. Mike came scurrying out of the hole soon afterwards. The only noise was the drip of the water from the stalactites and the rumble of the generator half a mile away.
Everyone followed John to the cave entrance in a solemn parade. The daylight seemed foreign and most of the men squinted and shielded their eyes as they gathered around John.
John motioned for the bucket of dirty rainwater and gently cleaned the grey plastic. GENE-X was embossed on the surface. Mud held fast in the corners of the letters.
“What’s that mean?” Mike asked over John’s shoulder.
“It’s a new project at the University,” John said slowly.
“What are they doing here?” asked Mike.
“They aren’t,” John said turning over the box in his hands. “They haven’t even been funded yet.”
“Maybe it’s a different project,” Brett said.
John pushed a button on the side. With a click the case cracked open. Stale air wafted out. John opened it wide; the people around him gathered closer. Inside was an instruction manual. He took the manual out and handed the box to Mike, who took it with some hesitation. The contents of the box looked foreign, even to the educated in the crew. Many of the natives looked at each other and occasionally at the box.
“This can’t be right,” John said. “The copyright is ten years from now.”
Mike sifted through the contents, “So the guy who wrote the manual screwed up. What is it for?”
John skimmed through the yellowing pages. “Cloning,” he said as he took the box back from Mike and examining the contents, still unsure of what he saw. “I think something else is still in that hole.”
“How do you know? All we were doing was plowing mud today. We haven’t found anything at all.” Mike paused as he looked at the box. “Well, nothing but that.”
“We’ll start again tomorrow morning,” John decided, looking at the dirty and tired crew that surrounded him.
Later in the tent, clean and having eaten their first decent meal since the airport bar, they all looked at the box.
“What else do you think we will find down there?” Mike began, putting the box back down in the middle of them. No one had opened it again since John had earlier that day.
John looked down from his journal. “I don’t know.” He clicked off the lantern, rolled over on his side and went to sleep.
The next morning, they got an earlier start than usual. Most everyone was feeling slightly more refreshed, but by no means caught up on sleep. They quickly made their way to the back of the cave. This time, John and Mike had camp shovels with them to help get through some of the harder earth. They had not been digging for long when John hit something.
“You get something again?” Mike asked as John dropped to his knees to get a little more leverage on his short-handled shovel.
John knew there was no way the crew had planted anything down there this time. The mud was packed tight.
Mike walked over to help and together they chipped around the find. John’s heart seemed to jump as it beat strong in the base of his throat. By the hollow thud, John could tell that this piece was plastic too.
They managed to free the pieces from the mud and didn’t know what to make of them: three large pieces of broken plastic along with fragments of what looked like glass or maybe a mirror. It cut at their hands and slashed under their fingernails. Quietly, and together, they carefully loaded the pieces into the baskets and sent them up only to fill more baskets with more pieces.
They stopped when the shovels started to spark on the cave floor. They loaded up their gear and made their way up the rope for the last time.
It was well after midnight when they reached the surface and the crescent moon shone dimly on the floor. The evening rains had already passed. The pieces, still covered with mud and drying dirt, had been laid out on several tarps in front of their tents.
One by one, John rubbed the pieces with water to reveal what lay underneath. The sun was rising when he had finished.
“Good morning, sunshine,” Mike yawned as he lifted the bug netting off the tent door. “Did you sleep at all last night?”
“Just want to get this figured out,” John said, stifling his own yawn.
“Not yet,” John said, “but look at this.” He was almost giddy. He handed Mike a piece of plastic. It was rounded but broken. There was a small rectangular box embossed on it that said “Warning: Time Coupler.”
“What the hell is a time coupler?”
John took the piece back, “I think it is the piece of the puzzle that we are looking for. This is the machine.”
“You never did tell me what Gene-X is supposed to do.”
“Gene coding. ‘Looking into the past to find out where we came from’. At least that‘s the slogan on the flyers they send me,” John said as he looked at all the pieces on the tarp in front of him.
A few days later John was back at the University, sitting in the same classroom as before, pouring over the same glyphs. He picked up the phone and dialed a number across campus.
“Hello,” came the voice at the other end. Computer keyboards clacked and the printers buzzed in the background.
“This is John O’Neal.”
“John. We thought we’d hear from you...”
“I’m in,” John interrupted.
“Good. Now the job calls for traveling. Are you up for it?”
“What kind of travel are you talking about?”
“We just need a liaison of sorts. Setting up base.”
John knew where the journey would end but still wanted some answers to questions he didn’t know yet. “Yeah I can travel,” John said and hung up the phone.
Copyright © 2008 by Jamie Eyberg