July 16, 2010
At around 5 AM a magnitude 3.5 seismic event with an epicenter located halfway between Washington, DC and Frederick, MD shook the East Coast. The earthquake in Maryland was all over the news in New York, though, if memory serves, when it hit, I was grabbing a very early morning coffee at Artopolis Cafe and heard and felt nothing at all over the bustle that is part and parcel of my adopted hometown, even that early. Still, considering the way that moment when the earth’s crust twitched has completely changed my perspective on the past, you would think I would have felt something.
Of course, my students were completely unmanageable, babbling about what they were doing the at the exact moment the quake occurred. They should have been sleeping. Maybe it would have helped with their attention spans. It was a Friday, and while my undergraduate students’ faces were still pointed in my general direction, I would have had better luck lecturing to the pigeons. Even my top graduate student was so distractible that he twice miss identified a Hisatsinom clay pot as Hohokam.
By the time I collapsed into the chair behind my desk in the office I shared with two other adjunct professors of Anthropology, I was annoyed and ready to call it a day. My office phone beeped at me with its message button blinking like an angry red eye until I pushed it. Eight messages waited. And they wonder why I won’t share out my mobile number with the Office of Academic Affairs.
The first was from my mother in Scotland. The second was from one of my grad students, telling me that there had been an earthquake. The third message was from a man who said he represented S.T.E.A.M. and he had a job offer for me with a starting salary that made my Adjunct Professor of Archaeology annual wages look like a barista tip. What I knew about S.T.E.A.M. you could fit in a tea cup. They are a kind of think tank, big, big movers in the field of Archeology and, well, shadowy. Nothing exactly illegal, just, S.T.E.A.M. is rumored to have been around for a long time, tracing its roots to Nazi Germany, maybe even before. We all know what the Nazis were like, and that taint, justified or not, still clings to S.T.E.A.M. They fund digs all over the world, mostly in places no one has heard of, looking for things no one else thinks is worth looking for and they generally keep quiet about it.
In truth, I only knew of S.T.E.A.M. because, as a graduate student myself, one of my classmates was hired by them before the ink had dried on his diploma. A prig named Lafontaine Mulroney-Ratham. Yes. He had a hyphenated last name. Yes, we were all supposed to know who the Mulroney was and who the Ratham was and that both of them together were worth more than a straight flush. I guess I always resented his connections got him hired without the trouble of interviewing or interning that the rest of us had to endure. Imagine my surprise when Rogers, the man from S.T.E.A.M., said that it was Lafontaine who had recommended me for a position on a new project. A very new project. A project that had just been opened that day.
I paused the messages and considered. While I was trying to decide if I should be flattered, annoyed, or just overcome my fundamental inertia and call Rogers back, a bicycle messenger swaggered through the door on a pungent, Pepé Le Pew waft of sweat and Gatorade and shoved a clip board under my nose.
“Sign for it, sister,” he shouted over the music of his iPhone, and dropped a string tied parcel on my desk when I complied. Deliveries like this were fairly common from the sites our university ran, and from various people looking for verification of materials they had discovered. We had piles of odd knick knacks from metal detector enthusiasts from all over the city and the great state of New York. I had jokingly told one of my fellow professors the day before that we should just cut through the formalities and call ourselves the Archeology Road Show. I don’t remember if he laughed.
I pulled some shears from the desk drawer and cut the strings on the package. The wrappings fell open. Inside was some sort of heavy object wrapped in old newspapers. Scrolled writing across the banner of the newspaper proclaimed it the Maryland Gazette, January 16, 1872. Intrigued, I pulled the fragile paper away from the object it concealed and gasped. Nested in the inky ads for washday mangles, seed providers and purveyors of inoculations against pernicious disease causing sin, lay the most extraordinary fossil I have ever seen.
It was clearly a fossil, though just as clearly metallic, being of a bronze color and heavy as bronze as well. Smooth in places, and rough in others, its tentacles curled in the air, frozen in the act of breathing it’s last. Petals grew below the tentacles, jagged and fleshy. The whole horrid flower bloomed from a sack-like body supported on four grotesque claws.
I hurriedly pulled on some latex gloves from the shelf behind me and pulled in gently from the wrappings. With some difficulty, I stood it on three of its legs, the fourth waved toward me threateningly. I could not help but be grateful that where ever and whenever this creature had lived, we had not shared the same breath. I doubt a human would have survived an encounter with something like this.
My mobile chimed. Absently, I pressed the screen and held it to my ear.
“Dr. Catherine Fury Kingston, I presume?” asked a man’s voice.
“How did you get this number?” I demanded, recognizing the voice as belonging to Rogers of S.T.E.A.M.
“I fear that our mutual acquaintance, Dr. Mulroney-Ratham, may have over stepped his authority in his eagerness to interest you in the Maryland Project,” his voice sounded as acidic as pickled kippers, “Have you received a package from S.T.E.A.M?”
I rummaged around the wrapping debris to find a return address. There it was: S.T.E.A.M.
“Yes,” I breathed, excited as a schoolgirl.
“May we have your answer, then, Dr. Kingston?”
“Yes,” I said, “I will. I will accept your offer.”