Looking very efficient with her lab coat, glasses and concentrated expression, Sue stood hunched over the Peruvian tablet laid out on a large table. A microscope, several magnifying glasses and stacks of research material clogged up the remaining space.
The rest of Sue's office bore testimony to her preference for unobstructed surfaces. A tall bookcase spanning the wall behind her tidy desk was nearly empty; only a small collection of scientific books occupied the deep shelves, looking entirely lost. The remaining walls were bare except for a large whiteboard with several symbols and cryptic annotations drawn in black marker pen.
A small wastepaper basket under the desk and an umbrella stand by the door were the only items on the floor. The complete lack of personal items underlined the overall impression of the austere room: this was a place to work without distraction.
Sue straightened and arched her back, though only in part to counter the mounting pain caused by constant bending. Which, as she well new, could easily be avoided by working with computer images instead of hunkering over the table. But Sue preferred the look and feel of the real thing.
The inspiration it gave her more than compensated
the discomfort. No, she admitted to herself. The main reason she had stopped looking at the tablet was her growing frustration. After several days spent on interpreting the symbols, she was not an iota further.
Sue went over to the small window.
It overlooked a pitiful park complete with murky pond and unenthusiastic fountain. Although not much of a vista, Sue still appreciated the proximity to nature of sorts. It beat being enshrouded in exhaust fumes, listening to metal avalanches roll by. At least the park, pathetic though it was, always held reminders of life beyond work; from trees to foraging squirrels or a mother playing with her toddler child.
Today, Sue looked out unseeing. The dog chasing a mallard into the pond did not even register. Instead, her mind's eye viewed the strange tablet from all angles over and over. Still no answer.
What she had at first glance thought to be just runes, had in fact turned out to be a complex jumble of signs of apparently diverse origin.
Interspersed with strange symbols completely unknown to Sue, a seemingly random mix of runes and glyphs seemed to follow the outlines of several interlocking circles, each with an ancient glyph at its centre.
The glyphs looked Mayan in appearance, although something about them struck Sue as odd. Not an expert on the subject matter, she had sent copies to a renowned Mayan linguist. Hopefully, he would be able to shed some light on it and get back to her soon.
Of the runes, only very few were known to Sue, and those she did recognise were from the ancient Etruscan alphabet. The rest she had not been able to associate with any known language, but judging by their style they were closely related to the Etruscan runes. Those, too, had been sent to an expert.
If her assessment was correct, then the combination of glyphs and runes in itself was puzzling: what were Latin American and European ciphers from different eras doing on the same slab? And what were the strange intermittent symbols about?
Some seemed to contain elements also found in Egyptian hieroglyphs, others didn’t contain anything familiar. None of the scientific literature had shed any light on any of it so far, nor had any of the experts she had contacted come up with ideas yet.
Sue wandered over to the whiteboard, wiped it clear and started drawing some of the mysterious symbols again. Maybe the physical action of tracing their lines would
give her some new inspiration. Clutching at straws. But what else is there?
The sudden ring of the phone startled Sue. To her surprise it was Nick It was unusual for him to phone her at the office. In fact, thinking back, the only occasion she could recall was when their mum had died eighteen months ago.
For a brief moment Sue was worried. Had anything bad happened?
Her fear was quickly dispersed.
Nick enquired how she was, and they soon enjoyed their usual relaxed banter. Sue assured him that yes, she'd had a great time at the party, and at least he had not tried to hook her up with someone short fat and ugly like his previous idea of her perfect boyfriend. Sue realised there had been a particular reason for Nick’s call after all when he abruptly came to the point.
“Look, Sue, I need to ask you a favour.” His next words came out in fast succession, as if to ensure he didn’t change his mind. “You know I told you last night about the stats not making sense? I really need to find out what’s at the bottom of it. I’m convinced someone’s falsifying some of the data. Since I’ve had no joy with the IT department, I decided to investigate anyway, you know, by myself. So I made a copy of the log files and –”
Sue wasn’t sure she’d heard right. “You what?”
“It’s not as bad as it sounds,” Nick’s tone had taken on a defensive note, but Sue wasn’t having any of it.
“Nick, that’s plain crazy,” she hissed into the phone. “You know what they’re like when it comes to security. You told me yourself they fired people for less. This could cost you your job!”
An audible, dispirited sigh travelled down the line, and suddenly Sue felt guilty. In a calmer voice she said, “I’m sorry, I guess I’m just concerned.” Repeating herself, she added, “But it could cost you your job.”
“I know,” Nick answered. “But this is too important, and no one else seems interested or believes me.”
“So what is it you want me to do?”
“Do you think Mark could check those log files and try to decrypt them? Would you ask him for me?”
Sue frowned. Her brother was surprising her more by the second. “Mark? You don’t even like him!”
“You know that’s not true. It’s just… he’s a nice bloke, he just appears a bit shallow at times. But when it comes to computing, I think he’s a real whiz. So do you think you could perhaps ask?”
Before Sue got a chance to answer, their exchange was interrupted by the energetic entrance of Henrik, a brilliant scientist from Denmark who had got stuck in England after meeting his future wife during a brief assignment. He noticed Sue on the phone and started to retreat, but she motioned him to wait.
Henrik wandered over to the window and casually let his eyes roam the park.
Sue continued her conversation with Nick. “I could, and I will, but he won’t be back until tomorrow night. I can’t do it before then.”
What Sue did not add in Henrik’s presence was that Mark had gone away for a few days following Sue’s announcement that she needed time apart to think things over. She had told him right after her release from hospital, and when Mark realised how entirely serious she was, he had left in a huff. An SMS two hours later had informed Sue of his stay in Paris until Saturday. An ill-disguised attempt to make her jealous, but she could not have cared less.
Sue and Nick exchanged a few more words, and when
she hung up, Henrik turned to address her in his typical straight-to-the point-manner.
“Hi, Sue, just wondering if I could tap your brains for a mo. You know this book I’m working on, I had this idea that maybe we could –“ his glance caught on the whiteboard behind Sue. “Hey, what's that, Sue? Don’t tell me you’re into cults now.”
Sue arched her left eyebrow and threw him a puzzled look. “Pardon? What the devil are you talking about?”
“Well, you know, those two symbols there? The one on the right is the logo of the ‘Friends of the Apocalypse’.
At least I'm pretty sure it is.”
He pointed to a circle radiating five spirally arms, almost like an abstract galaxy. Inside the circle was an inverted triangle bisected by a wavy line with an arrow at the bottom.
“Friends of the Apocalypse?”
Noticing Sue's wide stare of complete incomprehension,
“It's one of those doomsday cults, you know, like David Koresh, the world's gonna end type stuff.” He spat out the words, leaving no doubt as to his opinion of such organisations. “Apparently, people from all over the world are joining but no one seems to know whether its just hundreds, or hundreds of thousands.”
“If they're so popular, how come I've never heard of them?” Sue looked at him questioningly.
“They keep a very low profile, and I think they're well connected. There's hardly any news coverage, despite the surrounding controversy. Some bloggers have caught on to them, but you probably need to know what you’re looking for before you find their posts.
“The only reason I know of the FOA is because a friend of mine joined, and his wife came to me for help. Not that I was any use. He just left, never to be seen or heard of again.”
“And you’re sure this is their logo?”
Sue frowned. “If this is the case, it would have to be a complete coincidence. These symbols are at least 1,900 years old, in a language no one knows. None of the literature I've come across mentions this one. In fact, I would have thought no one's ever seen it before.”
Henrik rubbed the bristles on his chin and studied the symbol again. “Well,” he finally said amiably. “Maybe I’m mistaken after all. They may just look very similar. Although I could’ve sworn they’re identical.”
“I’ll check it out anyway, it wouldn’t be the first surprise. For instance, would you believe many of these symbols most likely came from different continents? Long before it was thought possible that people could cross the oceans. Anyway, lets go back to why you–“
Interrupted by the phone, Sue impatiently picked up the receiver. After listening for a few moments, she thanked the caller and gently replaced it. A confused look on her face she stared at the tablet.
“The mystery deepens,” she said more to herself than to Henrik. “That was the lab. According to their analyses, these carvings are nearly 12,000 years old.”