12 - The Archaeologist

The Professor of Archeology at Academy Spuria was speaking to Archie and Austera in his cramped, slightly musty office.

Meanwhile, Archie's factorial compatriots were Laying Low, keeping an ear to the streets. This was Au’s suggestion. She was wary of the attention a nervous fumble of workers might attract at the venerated institution of Spuria. She knew how revered Alden was among the public. They would demand answers that she did not yet have.

Anxious to take a break from the dustiness of his regular work, Gus agreed to see Archie and Au immediately.

The professor of Archeology was called Dr. Gus Edgewise, or amusingly, Sarcopha-Gus to his close friends.

“Alden was one of my favourite students, you know. He took my archeology course as an elective”, He narrowed his eyes, “as everyone seems to. Anyway, completely different than on that show. Old Jardinians with No Money, or whatever.”

(The professor was playing dumb, he had eagerly awaited the most recent season finale among with most of Old Jardinian.)

“I’m saddened to hear about his unfortunate passing. He was undeniably, in these last few years, a troubled man.“ Archie and Au nodded, having brought the sad and worrying news to the Professor in his office.

“Now, this is the first I’ve heard of a secret partner,” he winked profusely, rubbed his eye, coughed and nodded knowingly at an art on the wall.

The image, rendered in exquisite detail, depicted a graduation ceremony of extreme pomp, and definite circumstance. Several students were receiving diplomas, and shaking hands with what appeared to be distinguished faculty members, racing to outdo one-another with celebratory hats. The academy’s colors, blue, cream and gold were prominently displayed, draped over the columns and grand facades of the convocatorium.

The eery thing about the painting was that, despite the joyous occasion, all characters in the scene were subtly gazing at a black box, in the hand of a graciously stylized dean.

“Walk with me” the professor walked out of his office, and down the wide, arched balcony over the hallowed Academy grounds and prerequisite water features. Robes-a-flowin, he stepped with haste. He did not wait for the two to follow, and they raced to keep up.

“Let me tell you about my time in the Academy, before I became tenured and sleepy. I was young and wild once. Me and my classmates, boy did we Tear It Up. All night games of Diamond Monkey (a board game like Backgammon) and Cylindrical Fear (much like Checkers).“ The kids these days, they could not keep up, impossible. Anyone who wasn’t a part of our crowd had to Look Out, ooo yes they did. ”

He looked left and right, and added in a proud whisper, “My year is the reason they lock the pies and Acropolis Brand Chips away at night, we used to steal a bite or two, yes we did.”

Austera Ditt and Archie did their best to look impressed.

“Anyway, I toned it down a bit in my senior year. It was time to get serious and do my dissertation. I was a curious lad back then. I had seen these symbols around the city, I’m sure you’ve noticed them but never really thought twice?”

Au nodded, Archie hmmed, trying his best to Follow Along.

“I wanted to get to the bottom of those. Why couldn’t I find any information on them? Nobody I’d met had ever thought about it either. Was I missing something? Was I the village idiot, and everyone pitying me? Never-the-less, I outlined my research proposal, and began to pursue funding from the usual avenues.“

He stopped suddenly and Au stumbled into his back. Archie's workboots squeaked as his non-slips yanked him to a stop on the stones. Unfazed, he turned to them and said. “Crickets. Nothing. Nobody was interested in my project! I couldn’t believe it! Nobody wanted to know about these symbols. It was bizarre. Of course, I understand why now.”

He sighed. “Things are dire here, I admit. Things have gotten too far. I accepted it at first, but I fear. I fear.“

He motioned them toward a lookout tower with a set of magnificent steps leading toward it.

At the top, with Archie huffing and puffing, they had a magnificent view of Old Jardinian, and the falls that so gently moistened it.

It was also nicely out of earshot for most people.

“I accepted a student posting out in the ancient jungles outside of Sodden. I fought mosquitoes as big as an eggplant, or maybe a ham, and generally annoyed the locals. I still longed to research the strange symbols that had plagued my imagination. There I was, slaving away, brushing off an ancient column with a certifiable moss problem, professors toothbrush in hand.

Now, normally, I wouldn't be telling you this, but I’ve heard that the Dean is very, ah, preoccupied right now. “ He leaned in, conspiratorially. “I remember that night like my wedding night, er, not that I’ve ever been married.”

“I saw a strange artifact. It was beautiful, it was profound. It was smooth, it was round, and it had that special physical nature, of say, an egg. It was floating. I mean, I didn’t uncover it personally, per say, regrettably, there was a flamethrower involved and some general punishment of greenery. “ He shook his head at the memory of a complete disregard for archaeological decorum.

“I had first discovered some of the symbols on the floor of the ruin, out there in the jungle, the symbols that I’d been yearning to study. I was elated. I logged the discovery, and bedded down for the night, away from the Night Jaguars.

Then, after seeing my discovery, on the central expedition repository I assume, the Dean came along to the dig site. She met my old professor there, may he turn profusely in his grave, who together I had thought were there to absolve me of my discovery. I wish it were only that. They were with a character with a sing-song voice and a high-tech wetsuit.”

Au looked sceptical.

“The dean was much younger than she is now, but still seemed to command the utmost respect (read here, fear) from all those who worked under her.

They had an airship, although not like the construction lifters I’d seen, this one was a real beauty.

They cruised in, and squished my tent. That would have been a tremendous problem for my bodily integrity, had I not been sleeping in a tree, away from the Night Jaguars.”

Archie nodded knowingly, he’d heard a thing or two about Night Jaguars.

“I couldn’t see much after that, just that the hooded figure seemed to do all the work with strange machines, and then they all left again quickly in their airship. The floating artifact had gone. And then, I was nearly brained by a coconut, and rescued by an adventuring, good natured scout troop. As tends to happen in those parts. “

He gazed off towards the top of the falls. Archie was startled. Those were the days. Yes, he’d gotten a pretty good badge for that one. The professor spoke again, bringing Archie back to the conversation.

“I did not know what else to do, see, I had been an academic all my life. I wanted to continue my studies, and it’s not like there was another academy of this repute to take my er, talents.

The Dean and I reached an understanding, once she got over the shock of seeing me alive, and regained her general placid composure.

I was helped to understand, see, it was much more convenient to ignore those ancient symbols. The Dean insisted our language was so much more efficient now. And anyway, as students, we didn’t question where the funding was coming from. From up top, was all we knew. So I stayed the course, didn’t annoy anyone, and was allowed to graduate, with some honours.

Likely, in light of what I’d seen, and the Dean wasn’t sure the extent of it, I was given a good posting in exchange for my general co-operation. I am not proud of it, but one must do what they can to survive.

No mark of excellence for me though,” he added a touch bitterly.

“Mark of Excellence?” Archie questioned.

He sighed. “Officially, the most deserving students are recognized by a committee of faculty, and receive a mark of excellence”

He looked upward in a gesture of defeat.

“Unofficially, the Dean tells us exactly who will get the mark. And, more importantly, a gift, something contained in a black box, like in the painting above my desk. I keep it there as a sort of a silent thumbing-of-the-nose to the Dean, one must if they get the chance, you know.

The students have a day less one hour to accept, but most do within a single hour. Even we, as faculty, don’t know what it is, or even if it’s the same for everyone, but we do know that almost every student who is given the gift, eventually becomes a leader in their chosen sphere, a shoe-in to the industrialist caste. It makes us at the academy look good, but we’re much less influential than we’d appear. Of course, Alden received one”

This was a lot for the pair. Archie tried to unpack this. “Where can we find out more about this mark?”

If you don’t already know about it, then you can’t,” he said pointedly. “The Dean won’t tell us, even as faculty. The Industrialists keep it amongst themselves. If it is somehow the secret to their success, I could see why they might avoid letting slip their grip upon it.

“Ah.” Au ceded. “You said almost every - then has someone refused the mark?”

The Professor looked pained. “One. To great threat to personal health and hygiene. And general exile. We probably won’t hear from him again. He was sent to the Great Expanse, as an Observer for the M&G Conglomerate. The Dean made it so, I would think, perhaps too big of a talent to waste, too dangerous to keep close to home. She told us, I think, because we faculty knew he’d turned down the gift. I ask you don’t mention this to the Dean, she’ll know it was me, and she already tried to end me once.”

He stepped closer to the edge of the old lookout tower, completely ornamental since the advent immemorial of digital security.

“Again, I’d normally be loath to tell you all this, but several other prominent industrialists, academy alumnus have disappeared in the past few hours. Times are dire, new friends, make no mistake. I don’t know what has conspired, but mark my words the city will roil, once it gets wind.

This is all I know, I’m sorry. Maybe some clue to the nature of the mark, and as such, a clue to the nature of your predicament, and the larger event system we seem to find ourselves in, can be found in enquiring after the expanse-bound student at the M&G Conglomerate. I worry things are a bit unorganized over there right now, I’ve sent over a few requests for some data for dig sites, and haven’t heard anything back in a few months. I’d half a mind to go over there myself. If you can get an audience with the director, and impress upon her the gravity of the events we find ourselves experiencing, you might be able to find out more. “

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