"What do you think it is?"
I waited for professor Darvnell's reaction but he just stared quietly at the fossils in the drawer I had pulled out. He poked at one, the piece of jawbone, with a pen then quickly resheathed the pen in his inside coat pocket.
"Close it up," he said. There was irration in his voice.
I closed the drawer with shhink. He looked at me sternly, then walked back down the aisle of fossil storage cases.
"Professor? What is your opinion?"
He turned and looked at me, then turned back and kept walking.
"Forget about it. Don't pursue it," he said. Then he pushed through the double doors at the end of the room and was gone.
I looked at the closed cabinet. Why would he say something like that? Surely this was an important find, and why nobody ever made note of it before was a mystery. I slid the drawer open again and examined the pieces, picking them up in gloved hands.
They were recovered sometime in the 1890s, in the Amazon basin, and dated to five hundred thousand years ago--they were undoubtedly anachronistic for a human skeleton. There was the jawbone with the notched canine. The scapula with bore holes, the rib fragments, the tibia, and the assorted metatarsals. Then there was the vertebra made of metal. Even stranger. There were no casting or tool marks.
I took the vertebra out of the drawer and slipped it into my pocket then closed the drawer shut again. I walked back to my office on the other side of the department. Everyone was on they're way out the door, eager for the long weekend to begin. I shared an office with a paleobotanist. He was cleaning our mutual coffee pot and humming to himself as I sat down at my desk. I fondled the vertebra in my pocket.
"It's a nice evening," he said to me smiling.
"Sure. You going home?"
He sighed and looked at a stack of papers on his desk.
"I've got grading," he said.
I was getting impatient.
"Take them home," I said. "Enjoy the evening, then grade them tomorrow."
"My wife doesn't like it when I bring work home," he said, then sat heavily at his desk.
"Come on," I said. "Wouldn't she rather have you there than here?"
"No, haha," he laughed. Good grief.
"What class is it?" I asked. "Maybe I can help you out."
"I don't want to owe you," he said. "You're up to something."
"In that case, I don't want to get involved. It never ends well."
He stood and packed up the stack of papers and gave me a dirty look. Finally. Sometimes it was good to have a mousey office mate. When he was gone I locked the door and got out my tools. I placed the vertebra on the workbench behind my desk. I waited a few minutes longer to allow more stragglers to leave the building, and watched out the window to make sure the parking lot was empty before plugging in the saw.
If Darvnell said to forget about the find, that meant that no one would notice what I was about to do for a very long time. I held the vertebra steady and sliced into it. The work went quickly, as I suspected it would--since the piece was so light. I cut it in half down the midline then turned off the saw. I pulled apart the halves, and inside was the crisscross lattice that was nearly identical to bone. There was no way this was manufactured. It was grown.
I sliced off a tiny sliver, then put it under my microscope. The structure may have looked like bone at first look, but magnified, it was clearly geometrical. It looked to be an alloy of aluminum, iron, and probably a few other things. I'm not a chemical engineer so I don't really know. As I left the specimen under the light, I noticed that it began to change. It was imperceptible at first, but some of the struts started to move, changing their length, then the ones near the top squashed themselves. All I could think of was that they were doing it to absorb the light.
Then I made the big mistake. I took off one of my gloves and touched the sliver with a bare finger. It stuck to me like velcro. I immediately tried to pull it off, but it started to press into my skin. There were little droplets of blood, and this seemed to encourage it. I panicked and thrashed about the room trying to get it off and out of me, but within a minute it was gone, completely inside my finger. I felt nauseated.
I put my glove back on and packed up the halves of the vertebra and any shard of it that the saw had left behind. I ferried them back to the other side of the department and put them back in the drawer. Then I went and sat in my car, now the only one in the parking lot.
I started to shiver, and my finger started to swell. There was a dark bruise where the metal came into me. I tried not to think about it, and drove home. I spent the weekend in bed. All my bones ached, and there was no over the counter pain killer that could get rid of it. My mouth tasted sour and brushing did nothing to help. I made it to my Monday afternoon class, but could do nothing but give a pop quiz. The pain persisted for another week, and then, it was gone. Forever. I felt fantastic.
"You look better," said my office made.
"I am," I said. "You wouldn't believe."
"Huh," he said skeptically.
A few days later Darvnell called me into his office. I thought it might be about the new grant money being parcelled out but it wasn't.
"You've changed," he said.
"I have," I said, smiling.
"I know what you did," he said.
"What did I do?" I looked at him with innocent puppy eyes.
He stood and came around to my side of his desk.
"You're going to learn the magnitude of what you've done," he said. "Give me your hand."
"Give me your hand." He held out his.
I reluctantly put mine in his and then--it was electric, and we were connected. My hand fused with his and there was a slick layer of blood squeezed out from between our hands, but more than that, I could see what he could see. I could hear through his ears. I could access his memories, and he mine. I pulled my hand away, and pink threads of flesh stretched between us, but it wasn't painful. We separated completely, and the connection was gone.
He walked back to his side of the desk and took a tissue from a lower drawer. He pressed it to his bleeding hand then gave me one to do the same.
"I don't know precisely what it is," said Darvnell, "but you're not the first person who was curious about it."
"There are twelve of us so far," he said. "And you can't die now. Not from natural causes, and not from trauma. You'll have to live your life carefully. I'll introduce you to the others soon. We have quarterly meetings. We discuss theories and such."
"What, a little secret society..."
"Sort of. You can't...pass this on. Think of what could happen if it got into the wrong hands. We'd all be part of an immortal hive organism in no time."
"You can't be serious. Why not just destroy it?"
"I can't be. So we let it be, and put it a place where forgotten things go. It's worked reasonably well so far."
"It's a dangerous strategy. And I can't help but think you want people to stumble across it--"
"The right people."
I stood up, nodding. My throat felt a little dry. So. Immortality among a group of dusty academics. How dull. I left Darvnell's office and made plans for a very long vacation.