Chapter 6: A Spectacular Find

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Science Fiction  |  House: Review Chain

Reads: 102

 

Most surface dwellers find archeology offensive. Archeologists record, photograph, tabulate, dig, disrupt and worst of all they loot.


But so much of old New York is sealed under layers of hot sand, snapshots of a pre-catastrophe past. Whole apartments-- packed with dust-fine sand, natural mummies, the proverbial coffee cup still sitting where it was left when the apartment door closed for the last time. Promised answers to questions that history books did not cover. And, for all the data we have on the past, often the stories we know about history are simply wrong. And so there were many dig sites in the surface city. And just as many people, old enough to remember aspects of the world being excavated to make it all feel a bit like grave robbing.


Jamie knew enough to generally keep her profession a secret, except of course from others at the university.


But their basement apartment was a dead give away. It was on its way to becoming an archeology site itself as their brownstone was slowly buried under the advancing sands.


She and Kevin lived surrounded by the objects of the past. This was not uncommon for archeologists. At modern-era digs there was simply so much... stuff! The people of near history built everything from their clothing to coffee cups of materials that lasted practically forever. This made them unlike the archeological sites of any previous era. One could simply not afford to box and number and study every item that was found. While archeologists of the deep past had struggled to find anything to study at all, (a single fragment of Saxon pottery might bring such researchers to weeping) those like Jamie who studied the early 2000s drowned in mountains of samples and data and testimony of the stubbornly still living. The challenge was not to find any evidence of the past but rather to select which artifacts mattered and which did not, to strive to reconcile what seemed like an endless stream of often contradictory evidence. And then there were the multi-centenarians. People who ostensibly had been alive in that age. But, most people over 180 years of age or so are the worst sort of historical witnesses. Their memories of the past are often distorted in a struggle to create a history that they could live with or even simply understand. 


So, you could stand in untouched rooms from the past, watch media from the past and even talk to a person who was there (in person!) and still not really understand exactly what happened! The other effect of this abundance of stuff was that everyone who worked in preservation at sites like those at Surface New York took things home. It was that or let the less relevant snaps of history be destroyed. There just wasn't anywhere to put it all. This, of course, didn't help with their reputation of grave robbers. But, that same public who was disgusted with the excavations would happily turn a blind eye and bid on auctions for knick knacks of the recent past. Jamie and Kevin had amassed quite a collection. And, eventually, they began to sell a few items. Was it blasphemy ...or recycling? Was it simply about making enough money for the extreme expenses associated with surface living?  These questions continued to nag at Jamie even though they had both been digging, and collecting and selling for a long long time.


But for all her confidence that saving these items was the right thing to do when Jamie entered the apartment she simply couldn't shake that tomb-like feeling: being below ground with no natural light, surrounded by stacks of treasures, like Pharaohs with their worldly goods, hoarders lost in junk and irrelevances from the past, waiting for the afterlife.


The stairway down was lined with books, some in museum boxes to keep the paper from crumbling, most just on over-stuffed shelves, filled to past all natural capacity on both sides of the stairs. The books stood in rows and wedged at angles, even under the runners of the steps where rows and rows of the less valuable "modern" (less than two centuries old) books stack two rows deep. But, the book shelves near the entrance were for the junk books. Other shelves, deeper in the apartment, glass cases, held volumes that dated back to the 1900s and just a few rare fragile specimens from the late 1800s.


There was a bad period in history when most publishers started using acid paper for books, so from the 1960s to the 2030s many of the books had to be soaked to stop the crumbling using a cellulose addition process that left the pages slightly thicker. These books were easy to identify by their puffy appearance, often rebound if the binding had been simple paste. After e-books took over, the quality of physical volumes improved greatly even if they became much more rare. The practice of printing on a titanium-based metallic paper didn't catch on until 2130 or so, books after that date were near indestructible. They could survive on the bottom of the ocean. But with implants, and mind loading the act of creating a physical book was even more rare.


Despite all this, books never died. The electrical storms of 2250 taught people that digital data was ephemeral. There are best-sellers from the early 2200s that are only known by rumor or because they are mentioned in an author's discography in the back of a physical book. The years after the electrical storms brought a renaissance of printing. And a great panic. It was easy to print a book but how could the holos and games be saved? How could one preserve an augmented reality game? The advent of storage crystals immune to solar storms solved some of this, and put an end to the publishing renaissance.


Still, every year, in a constant trickle new books were published, and Jamie always ordered prints of her own works on the slick titanium paper with print that appeared at first black, but on deeper inspection proved to be the deepest shade of blue.


Deeper in the apartment were other treasures. A collection of subway tokens and "metrocards" the later persisting almost into the era of digital currencies. Scientific instruments calipers, compasses, parallel rulers from her excavation of the nautical academy in the Bronx (now moved some 80 miles east, so as to remain on the coast) Ordinary looking candle sticks that, at first, seemed contemporary but only her and Kevin knew they were from the buried blocks of the upper west side and dated back to the 1950s. So, many treasures that brought that dead world back to life.


But, today Jamie had found something that she didn't understand. She suspected it was a 1990s art object, perhaps something sold at the infamous "Pottery Barn" she would have to check the old catalogs-- it was like the carved wooden "decorative balls" she found from time to time on dining room tables. The height of old America uselessness and excess.


It was an oblong object about twice the size of two apples, a luminous shade of coppery brown, pointed like a football with ridges and grooves that reminded her of underground tunnels where bundles of pipes and and wires ran, keeping the old city alive. It also reminded her of the armor of a Samurai, one end almost looked like a helmet as if it were some highly abstract small sculpture of a tumescent armor-clad warrior. She had fingered the object after finding it, because it seemed like a puzzle box. There ought to be a way to open it. But, it remained inert.


Kevin, to her delight, was standing up when she got home. He'd been in a bad cave-in a few months ago and so first confined to a healing tank (which was thankfully gone now) then to active support braces that helped him to walk. But, ever since that horrible day he'd been a bit different, more cautious, more of a homebody, spending most days cataloging small objects and running black market actions.


But, today he seemed lively.


"whatcha got? whatcha got?" he said cheerfully. "Not for you to sell, something that might need to go to the museum, unless we can show it's just pottery barn junk. A kind of old table decoration. Like those carved wooden balls from last year."


She took the foot-ball-shaped object out of her bag and handed it to him. She went back to rummaging in her bag as he examined the object.


"I also have more buttons, those always sell well... and several classic plastic bins. Do you think the thing with the bins is a fad? Maybe people just like old-"
She stopped. Kevin was staring at the object she'd handed to him with a look of confusion and fascination. Even he didn't know what it was! This could be good!
"Did you date this?" he asked
"No, I don't even know if it's even wood it might be cellulose, it's so smooth almost waxy."
Kevin produced a bladed sample ampule to remove a small scraping for his carbon dating machine. He turned the object over looking for an inconspicuous spot... The craftsmanship was incredible, it was clearly not mass produced, it had no seams. He settled on taking a scraping from the broad spot near the tip. Kevin was thinking about how well the object had retained the desert heat. Normally objects were a bit cool by the time Jamie got them home. Maybe, it was metal inside. It was, after all, very heavy, perhaps 2 or 3 pounds. He scraped.


And the object convulsed.


They screamed.


Ever the preservationist, Kevin did not drop it but now alarmed he placed it on the couch quickly and wiped the hand that felt the sudden motion on his pants. It had been a feeling of plated armor sliding against itself, mechanical and yet at a deeper level organic. Wiping his was difficult since the active support braces on his legs were in the way. But, he still desperately needed to wipe his hand. This wasn't a man-made art object. It was something alive.
"Oh god I think I know what it is" said Jamie. “It must be some kind of insect egg!” "Who has ever heard of insects in the ruins! where did you find this?" he asked "That's the thing... its was deep, Kevin. It can't be a part of the surface fauna. And I don’t think egg is the right word either, this is a cocoon or pupa, for something like a butterfly-”


Still getting over her scare Jamie felt foolish. It was a pupa, she'd seen them in books, studied a fly pupa in biology years ago. But they were all tiny! This baroque object? It wasn't a fly... and the size. Jamie didn't know much about insects but it seemed to her that a pupa wouldn't be much larger than the insect that would hatch from it. This implied an insect that would have to be one of the largest in the world and easily the largest on the surface.
On the couch the pupa thrashed again.


"What should we do with it?" said Kevin, wincing a little "Put it outside?" "No. We can put it in a box for the night, I'll take it to the biology department tomorrow. I just hope it won't make them want to show up on my site"


Kevin wondered if the insect was mutant. Biologists were always saying the radiation didn't make giant insects in real life, but the dig site Jamie had been at was known for being not too far from an exclusion zone. Perhaps this is what was growing out in that forbidden desert.


Even as he was staring wide-eyed with horror Jamie was using a piece of paper to gently urge the pupa into one of her conservation boxes.


"Maybe we should put it outside anyway... inside of the box" said Kevin. "You're not scared of it are you?"  Jamie teased, but in truth she was uneasy too. As far as giant bugs went it wasn't *that* big, but it was... unnatural. She placed the conservation box inside of an old picnic basket that Kevin was cleaning up for sale. Then she started taping the basket closed for good measure.


It was probably excessive.


"There. Feel safe now?" she said. "You're the one who's using up all the tape.” Said Kevin.
Jamie realized that in her panic she'd used much more tape than was strictly necessary.
"It just gave us both a scare. I'll try to look it up.” She said but now they were both laughing, both at and to banish their own panic. It was just an insect, nothing to have a heart attack about.


But after searching online for two hours and even pulling out some old books she had about insects she had determined nothing… except for the fact that it was likely "some kind of beetle" -- and that it was abnormally large. The grub it came from was likely a foot long.
"The biology department it is" she said.


Soon dinner had begun and they were pouring wine forgetting about the strange pupa. But inside of the box, in the darkness of the classic 2110 styled picnic basket, if you listened carefully you could hear the sound of something... struggling to be born.


Submitted: October 17, 2020

© Copyright 2021 Susan Donovan. All rights reserved.

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