Adam picked up the mail and closed the door to his one-family two-story colonial. He lived just outside the Schill campus in a small suburban community on the outskirts of Scranton. Settling into his favorite easy chair, he sifted through magazines and letters. A voice from an upstairs bedroom made him jump.
"Adam. Is that you?"
It was Helen, his mother. She was visiting for a few weeks, and although she arrived a week ago, her voice still startled Adam. His dad had passed away a few years before, and the visit had become an annual ritual.
"Just me, mom."
Creaking stairs and a soft shuffle announced her arrival in the foyer outside the living room. She gave Adam a wide grin. Her silver gray hair was wrapped in a bun and wire-rimmed spectacles hung low on her nose as she peered over them.
"Your dinner’s ready. It's so late, and you didn't call."
It was indeed late.
Adam had spent most of the day setting up the computer equipment and software necessary to handle billions of bits of information. Pattern recognition techniques were well known, but not many such approaches could handle the enormous input represented by the human genome sequence data. He had set up the required processors on the university's extended network, which included the use of idle desktop computers scattered throughout the campus, as well as several sister campuses elsewhere in the state. Now that it was in motion, all he had to do was to monitor the process, and that he could do from anywhere along the network, even from his laptop at home.
He looked up at his mother and blew her a kiss. Just seeing her standing there, chiding him, gave him a warm feeling.
There was nothing like a mom.
"Sorry, mom. I'm involved in a new project and needed the time to set up a few things. Is that pot roast I smell? Be there in a minute."
Pot roast was his favorite dinner and sorely reminded him of simpler times long ago. His mother mumbled under her breath and glided off to the kitchen while Adam returned his attention to the mail. Among the usual bills and junk mail, he came across an item of singular interest. It was a letter from his home town, Maplewood, a small suburban community along the northeast corridor of New Jersey. It was from Dr. Ben Wujciak. The last time he saw his family doctor was just before he went to prep school. All at once Adam felt a pang of guilt as he recalled his childhood promise to follow-up the mystery they shared together during an office visit two decades ago. Soon afterwards he had relegated the medallion to a night stand drawer as the excitement and challenge of prep school drew his attention away from the enigma. University and graduate school provided further distraction. Finally, when he secured a faculty position at Schill, he came across the medallion in a shoebox. He decided to re-adopt it as a good luck charm, something he really could use in the academically competitive world of grants and tenure. His fingers walked across his shirtfront, reassuring him of the medallion's presence. He tore open the envelope. A short note was attached to a folded piece of paper. Hand-written, it had the look of a hasty scrawl, like the scribbling on a prescription.
"Dear Adam. I trust you are doing well at Schill. I thought you might be interested in the enclosed article. Best wishes to you and Helen. Don't be a stranger when back in town. Please feel free to drop by."
Adam's family had moved out of the old neighborhood while he was at prep school. A letter from Wujciak after so many years seemed a bit odd even though the two had developed a kinship when Adam was a child. His curiosity piqued and he quickly unfolded the paper. It was a photocopy of what appeared to be an old newspaper clipping. On the upper edge of the page, printed by hand, he made out 'Morrisonville Times, June 11, 1891.' The hair on the back of his neck bristled as he read the column's title, 'Gold Chain Found Inside Coal.' The article went on to describe how a Mrs. S. W. Culp was shoveling coal into her kitchen stove when a large lump broke in two and out from the center of it fell a gold chain. The chain was about ten inches long and was described as being of 'antique and quaint workmanship.' Investigators were convinced that the chain had not been accidentally dropped into the coal since one portion of the broken lump still clung to the chain while the separated part bore the impression of where the chain had been encased. The article went on to discuss the ramifications of such a find, especially as the coal was said to have been from the Pennsylvania era, which suggested that it could have been over one hundred million years old.
As he slumped back into his easy chair, Adam's mind began racing. He read and re-read the article, oblivious to everything, including his mom's incessant call to come for dinner.
A gold chain in a piece of coal. Why did Wujciak send me this information? Was there anything else on the chain? Where was the chain now?
His mom raised her voice, prompting Adam to refold the clipping. He tossed it on the coffee table and resigned himself to a delicious pot roast dinner.
The next morning, after his mandatory cup of java and sugar-frosted donut, Adam checked up on the progress of the DNA analysis using his laptop. It appeared to be proceeding as expected—slowly and without any result as yet. He then ran a few searches on the internet to see if there was anything he might dig up on the 1891 article. To his surprise he came across hundreds of references to Mrs. Culp and her gold chain. However, his elation waned as he found himself wading through a vast electronic heap of equally curious archeological oddities. There were articles offering proof of a conspiratorial theory involving government cover-ups, ancient human civilizations, catastrophe theory, creationist dogma, and even indisputable proofs of time travel and teleportation. Aliens, mostly the gray, stringy kind, were in the mix as well—a possibility for which he felt an odd attraction.
Schill University had a small, but well-equipped, chemistry department situated on the first floor of the science building, McArdle Hall. The newspaper article had both re-awakened Adam's curiosity regarding his secret little artifact and given him a mental kick in the butt, prompting him finally, after so many years, to do a little investigating of his own. As a child, he had always thought that the medallion had simply been an old coin. Now, he had to admit that such a thing was very unlikely.
Adam wandered along the central hallway guided only by the touch of his fingers along the wall, much as he feared he might be doing eventually as 'The Absent-minded Professor of Schill University.' He bumped into one of the senior denizens of the analytical labs, Dr. George Freedman, a good friend.
"George, got a moment?"
"Hey, Adam. Anything for you, son."
Adam only knew George for a couple of years, however, George knew everyone in the building, and the campus for that matter. He was at least a decade past mandatory retirement age, slightly eccentric, entirely bald, with a prominent pair of geeky black-rimmed bifocals. A pure white triangle of a goatee punctuated his permanent red-cheeked cherubic complexion.
"What can I do ya fer?" he drawled.
"Does your lab have a way to analyze metals?"
"Why, of course. Anything in particular you have in mind?"
Adam struggled with a way to describe the item without sounding too mysterious.
"Well, some time back I came across something that looks like an old coin, and I was wondering if you could figure out what it was made of. I assume you have access to non-destructive ways to do this?"
Adam's basic knowledge of analytical chemistry was spotty and relied on his recollections from sophomore days in college, at a time when everything got dissolved in acids and was subjected to a variety of tests which invariably resulted in noxious vapors and bright colors. In fact, his impressions of it all were not far removed from the age old theme surrounding the conversion of lead into gold.
"What kind of metal do you think it's made of?"
Adam reached down his shirtfront and pulled out the medallion. Even in the dim hallway light the object had an enticing sparkle to it, changing as it moved. Pulling it over his head, he handed it to George and asked, "Well, what do you think?"
Hefting the piece to gauge its weight, George gave it a long stare through his coke bottle lenses and replied, "Golden in color, but based on the weight, I don't think it's pure gold. It seems just a bit light to me. Could be an alloy of some sort."
He removed the chain, gave it back to Adam, and while staring at him through the hole in the disk's middle, he asked, "What kind of coin is this?"
"I really don't know. In fact, it may not be a coin."
George continued his visual inspection and spoke to himself. "A metal disk with a hole in the middle. Odd surface, reflects light in different ways. Funny little symbols running along the edge … on both sides. Where did you come across this weird little piece?"
"If I told you, you wouldn't believe me. Let's just go on the assumption that it may be quite old."
George gave Adam an odd look, one which he might reserve for clueless administrative staff and visiting dignitaries. "Adam. You're killin' me here. You're sayin' it's a coin that's not a coin. It looks like gold, but might not be gold. It’s engraved with symbols that may not be symbols. And I guess I'm expected to put on my blindfold and whistle a merry tune while pondering no more than what's fer dinner tonight?"
Clearly the object had excited old George. Adam felt a bit guilty and decided to trust him, at least to the point of keeping the results of the analysis confidential.
"Oh, all right then."
Adam spent the next few minutes relating the discovery that took place twenty years ago. When he finished, George's eyes acquired a distinct squint and his head tilted to one side as he asked, "So, this coin came out of a solid piece of coal?
"That's what I'm saying."
"Do you realize how old it might be?"
"I'm not sure. A few thousand years?"
George tilted his head back and blew out a gust of air. "Adam, as I understand it coal takes a long time to form. All coal owes its origin to vegetation, compressed and decaying. Softer coals could be tens of thousands of years old, but if it was anthracite, then that would be very old. Hard coals like that could take anywhere from one to a couple of hundred million years to form. Are you sure it was inside the coal?"
"That's how I found it."
George gazed at the shiny little disk in his hand with a new-found wonder and respect. A fine bead of sweat began to form about Adam's brow as he soaked in the potential ramifications. George waved at Adam to follow and they both marched down the hallway.
"I agree we should try and figure out what it's made of, and then go from there. Trace metals analysis can pinpoint the type of process used to make it, and even suggest the where and when of it … of course, assuming it was made by some conventional means."
When they reached the end of the hallway, George swung open a set of metal firedoors and they entered the main analytical laboratory. It was a modestly sized lab with four bench areas, two along the walls and two running down the middle in parallel. An instrument of some kind occupied every available square inch. Two ventilation hoods faced each other from opposite walls. Four and five foot gas cylinders stood alongside the equipment, connected by metal tubing to a host of liquid and gas chromatographs, mass spectrographs, and other instruments Adam could only guess at. The room hummed as automated injectors and collectors processed samples and data. Cabling dangled from the drop ceiling, connecting most analytical instruments to a central data collection system.
They made their way to a corner where a monolithic blue-gray apparatus resembled one of the sheet metal movie robots of the nineteen fifties—a silent sentinel overseeing its lesser metallic minions. A smattering of yellow and black radiation hazard placards surrounded the brooding metal giant, while faded post-it notes scrawled with added warnings and illegible instructions clung to its sides. Some lay on the benchtop, fallen years ago, judging from their faded colors and the thickness of accumulated dust.
"This is the beastie that will tell us what we want to know. It's an EDXRF unit we inherited from Penn State some years ago. The acronym stands for energy-dispersive x-ray fluorescence … basically a device which will blast your sample with x-rays and then provide a readout of the radiation that's emitted back. Each element has a characteristic emission spectrum, so we can find out what's in there and how much."
"Won't that damage the medallion?"
"Don't worry. The x-rays barely penetrate the metal surface and the emitted radiation dies out quickly. The only problem is that I'll need some time to resuscitate my old colleague here and prepare the sample. Why don't you leave this with me, and I'll give you a call either tonight or first thing tomorrow morning."
Adam agreed, though reluctantly. He was leaving behind an old friend. As he left the lab he saw George donning a frayed and discolored lab coat with one hand and clearing off some bench space with the other. When he reached his upstairs office, Adam sequestered himself in the rear of his lab, preparing for the next day's lectures, feeling all the while a bit naked and anxious as thoughts of his good luck charm being pummeled with huge amounts of radiation ran through his mind.
The phone rang. A glowing red LCD display announced to Adam's bleary eyes that it was 2:30 a.m. He rolled toward the night stand and answered the phone. "Huh?"
"Adam. Adam, I couldn't wait. You've got to come down here and see this. It's incredible."
Adam's muddled mind digested the message. He guessed it must be George. "George? Do you know what time it is?"
"Adam, that artifact of yours is very special. I've got a fix on its composition, and I ran some other analyses. It's like nothing I've ever seen. Like nothing anyone's ever seen."
Adam rubbed his eyes open, threw his bed covers aside and practically leaped out of bed. "I'll be right there."
It was about three in the morning when Adam arrived at McArdle Hall. The only lights he saw came from the analytical lab on the first floor. As he ascended the granite steps, the front doors flew open, and there stood George, beaming with an ear-to-ear smile.
"Come on, Adam. I've got lots to show you," George panted, nearly out of breath.
"I can't believe you've been up all night."
Adam struggled to keep up with George who was fast-walking down the hallway to his lab. George either didn't hear the implied question or it failed to engender any interest in a response. When they reached the lab, Adam followed him to the corner, home to the x-ray apparatus, whereupon George turned to him. "Like we discussed yesterday, I ran the x-ray fluorescence analysis."
In a totally unnecessary attempt to heighten the drama, George paused for a moment to gauge Adam's reaction. "And, the data suggest the disk is made of gold."
"But, I thought you said it felt too light."
"I'll explain. Aside from some debris one would naturally find on an old piece like this, the surface is definitely gold, pure gold, that is, one hundred percent pure 24-karat gold."
"Isn't that a bit unusual? Aren't there usually some impurities in gold?"
"Well, that's the thing, or more precisely, that's just one of the things. The gold on the surface has no impurities aside from normal microscopic debris, as far as we can detect."
"Is that possible?"
"Well, it's damned unusual. If it was made long ago, I'd say it was actually … impossible. But if it was made using modern technology, then that's a different matter. Besides, pure gold like that doesn't do well as a coin. Gold coins are usually minted as a mixture with other metals. Gold alone is too soft to stand up to the wear and tear of handling."
Maybe it wasn't made to be handled.
By the look of George's open mouth, Adam could tell there was more to come.
"Because the artifact seemed a little light for gold, I decided to run a few more checks. Specifically, some high intensity x-ray microanalysis. This way we could see if there was some other metal within the disk. Wait 'til you see what I found."
Adam followed George as he jogged to another corner of the lab. He grabbed a few black and white photos from the bench and handed them to Adam.
"What does this look like?"
Adam stared at what could easily have been a cross-section of the interior of a beehive's hexagonal storage chambers.
"A honeycomb of some sort."
"You got it. But instead of wax, this honeycomb is gold. There's stuff inside each chamber. The scans I made say it's carbon. I scanned other parts of the medallion, and it's much the same. The honeycomb structure exists throughout the whole piece. I was able to make photos of the x-ray using our EM. What you're actually looking at is a section that's a couple of hundred nanometers wide."
Adam was familiar with an EM, an electron microscope, but was surprised to find out it could use x-rays to see through specimens. He looked at George in astonishment and replied, "How many of these chambers are there?"
"I've estimated the number to be at least several billion. It's like a solid gold sponge, but at a microscopic level."
Adam leaned back against a wall as George continued, "If you're having trouble getting your mind around this, join the club. There's no way this could be manufactured, just no way. It could not be constructed with any technology with which we are familiar, as well as any technology we could conceive of."
George smirked as he added, "Or should that be 'any technology of which we could conceive'?"
After a long pause, Adam's eyes refocused and he looked up.
George piled on. "Hey, there's a bit more. Using the EM, I made some careful geometrical measurements of the disk. First of all, it's perfectly round. Taking into account a bit of wear, the edge transcribes a perfect circle. There's no deviation even within the limits of EM resolution. And to top it off, the hole in the middle."
"Let me guess. It's perfectly centered as well."
To which George nodded and smiled back at Adam.
"Is that it? Is there more?" Adam prodded.
As if George needed prodding.
He winked and said, "I know I promised to only use non-destructive analyses, but these findings got me so crazy, that I just had to check one more thing."
George noted the frown on Adam's face. "Hey, don't worry. Using a focused laser source, I managed to remove a microscopic amount of the gold from one edge of the disk, just enough to get a measurable amount of sample using a special device on the EM. Then I ran a mass spectrogram on the sample."
The frown receded a bit, and Adam now raised his own eyebrows, prompting George to continue.
"Well the mass ions from the gold are dead on. It's gold for sure." George looked down at a paper towel on which he had scribbled some numbers. "Atomic number 79. Mass 196.967 amu. The same gold we are all familiar with, that is, it looks like our gold, the stuff we have here on earth. But the carbon—," George paused, winked again, and went on. "—well, it's pure carbon. But its atomic number is 13, not the carbon-12 isotope we would expect …"
"Here on Earth?" Adam finished.
He's going to start ranting about aliens any moment now.
Unflustered, George continued. "Well, as you know, carbon-13 does exist 'here on Earth'. Basically, our carbon consists of two stable isotopes, ninety-nine percent carbon-12 and about one percent carbon-13. Although we have the technology to isolate it, how it got into that medallion in such a pure form, and why it's there, is a mystery to me."
Along with a litany of other mysteries.
Adam braced himself against a bench edge. They both stood in the corner of the lab in silence for several minutes, when Adam asked without thinking it through, "Can you date the piece? There's carbon in it."
George was quick to respond with Adam already nodding. "No can do, as I can see by the look on your face, you know that carbon dating relies on measuring the amount of carbon-14, and this piece has no carbon-14. Remember, the carbon is pure carbon-13. And, of course, gold is gold, only one stable isotope."
And, as afterthought George added, "Anyway, using carbon-14 dating relies on some assumptions—the primary assumption being that the object is from Earth."
Adam ran his fingers through his hair and shook his head. He asked George for the disk. Reaching into the EM sample compartment, George suggested, "You could leave it with me, you know. Just in case I think of something else we might want to check out."
"You've outdone yourself tonight, George. Get some rest. I'll be back in the morning, and with a chance to clear our heads I'm sure we'll come up with some more ideas by then."
George gave the medallion a long look and handed it over. Cradling it in his hands, Adam stared at it with a new found respect bordering on reverence.
So, what we have here is an unnatural object found in coal which means it's incredibly old, machined to perfection which means we probably didn't make it, made of a wafer of pure gold containing zillions of bits of carbon-13, which means we definitely didn't make it.
He turned to George just as he was leaving the lab and said, "Maybe the symbols running around the edge translate to something like 'In God We Trust'."
George chuckled. "Or, 'Not to be Used for Legal Tender'?" whereupon they both laughed.
The two men bade each other goodnight and agreed to keep the evening's discoveries to themselves. They would meet again sometime later in the day as it was unclear how much sleep either would get tonight. Adam restrung the medallion around his neck and walked back to his car in the half-light of pre-dawn. He barely noticed the sheaf of photos he still held in one hand. The electric smell rising from the asphalt presaged a muffled thunder clap in the distance.
The cylinder positioned itself neatly behind Earth's moon. Final adjustments made by the conscious portion of the crew assured a secure location, well-screened from direct view by Earth's inhabitants. Moments later an opening appeared on the side, through which a small, canister-like object emerged. As the opening behind it slid shut, the small object accelerated away. Several of the crew took up designated posts within a small circular room having a wide viewing screen along one side which played and re-played a receding view of that small canister as it swept beyond the moon's horizon. Before long, the same opening appeared on the outer skin of the cylinder, and a second canister flew out following an identical trajectory to the first.