Three chairs were splayed out in a semicircle in the grand old office; two were occupied by old men, both with the same shock of silver hair parted from the right, both men comfortable in their age, like a worn suit, as though they had been old their whole lives. The third one was empty; one of the men, the University's chancellor, beckoned James to sit.
"First, I'd like to extend my personal congratulations on your having received the highest level of education at this fine institution.You have shown consistently high standards of scholarship, and you've been justly conferred the honours of a Ph.D in Classical Studies. I believe you have many years of academic excellence ahead of you". The second man sat still, looking at James, expressing no emotion.
James shifted in his chair, a little embarrassed by the plaudits. "Well, sir, thank you, um, well if I've been successful here, then it's the quality of education your institution provides." He looked at the second man and extended his hand. "I'm sorry sir I didn't introduce myself, I'm James Spaulding, nice to meet you". The man made no attempt to shake hands whatsoever, instead staring at James right in the eyes. "Ok, whatever" muttered James as he withdrew his hand.
The chancellor immediately intervened with an awkward laugh. "You'll excuse Mr. Gunn, he's rather old-fashioned." James nodded, and said nothing. The three men sat in silence for a minute, the Chancellor's eyes darting between Mr. Gunn and James. The vintage oak panelling in the office glowed warm and mellow in the afternoon sunlight, which reflected off of the Chancellor's crystal scotch glass; two fingers' worth, by the look of it. A small metal case sat beside the glass on Mr. Gunn's side of the table.
James broke the silence. "So if I may ask, sir, why was I asked to meet here?" He had received a note by courier delivered from the Chancellor's office the previous week, days after his graduation; written in immaculate calligraphy on thick, creamy paper was an invitation to meet with the Chancellor himself and a "person of interest" to discuss his "rich academic and personal future". He asked the courier if it was for real; well, he said, he picked it up from the Chancellor's personal secretary, and that he made about five or six of these kinds of deliveries a year. So it probably checked out.
"Well, Mr. Spaulding" started the Chancellor in an uneven voice. "Your Ph.D thesis on the Ravennese Parchment was, shall I say, exceptionally well received by an academic community of sorts, with whom Mr. Gunn is associated. In particular, your analysis of late Empire colloquialisms and syntax within the text were superb, and your assertion of authenticity, while disputable, is certainly...compelling."
James nodded. The Ravennese Parchment, also known as Herodicus, had been discovered ten years prior in a Roman ossuary near Ravenna, nestled among scrolls a plain clay jar. Three of the parchments were lists containing names & occupations of the deceased, but the fourth was a bizarre, seemingly inexplicable account of life circa 2200 CE, written in flawless colloquial Roman Latin and signed by one "Herodicus", after whom the document is named. Apart from the parchment's finder, Dr. Manolo Capri (who died in a car accident two years after the find), it was widely considered a hoax and not extensively reported, although carbon dating, once properly calibrated, placed its origins sometime during the troubled 5th century CE. James had looked at the writing's grammar, syntax, word choice and other linguistic attributes and concluded that it was either genuine, or the work of an inordinately gifted trickster. With the help of his fiancée, who achieved her Ph.D in biology the previous year, he had the University's biology lab examine a tiny chipping of the ink, which showed it being primarily carbon-based diluted with water, which was the chief ink used at the time; trace amounts of titanium, though, remained unexplained.
The Chancellor continued. "Your thesis certainly challenged a few notions in contemporary Classics, and as such came to the attention of Mr. Gunn." He glanced nervously at Mr. Gunn, moisture forming on his forehead. "Mr. Gunn?"
Mr. Gunn still said nothing. James was starting to get impatient with this silent treatment, and let it be known. "Well, no offense sir, but if I may say it's rather rude to invite someone to a meeting and then stare at them like they assaulted your kitten", he said to Gunn, leaning forward. "Now what's the whole point of this?"
Mr. Gunn sat still for a second, and then looked aside and chuckled. He sat forward, looked at James and his expression immediately turned to ice. "Is there anything you people take as sacred anymore? Now you need to listen to what the Chancellor is telling you. Mr Chancellor?"
The Chancellor glanced back at James. "Quite right. You see, the organization Mr. Gunn represents is very old, with roots dating back to 6th century French times. This organization, Brotherhood of the Majestic Twelve, is heavily invested in research spanning many fields; archaeological, historical, not to mention scientific and technological innovation. In fact, Mr. Gunn is one of the group’s leaders, an elder of high esteem, and is as such a major benefactor.”
James thought about this. “Well if it’s so prominent, why haven’t I heard about it?”
“Well”, started the Chancellor, “they prefer to keep a low profile. With such a wide variety of...investments, it’s difficult for the group to escape conflict-of-interest allegations.”
“Okay.” James looked at Mr. Gunn. “So why am I here?”
Gunn looked at the Chancellor and tented his fingers in contemplation. “A scholar of your aptitude, and particularly your interests, is both valuable and very dangerous to us. We pride ourselves on being the vanguard of human innovation across the globe, and for you to delve so deeply into the origins of the Ravennese Parchment, and claim it genuine, is quite outside our purview, and undermines our work.”
“It is genuine, though.” Protested James.
Mr. Gunn let out a laugh. “I know that. But not many people do, and given the unusual nature of the writing, it would cause us considerable trouble if it were. There are certain narratives within that would be better if it were not so widely distributed.”
James thought about this. The Herodicus was unusual writing, indeed. In it, the author claims of being trapped in late Roman times, having been banished there by "the Elders" for propagating an “anti-progressive” agenda. He evidently wrote it for Roman eyes; descriptions of things like “lightning through rope” and “dancing tablets” are thought to be synonymous with electricity and computer screens, as well as a few cryptic descriptions like “steel scaffolds which heat the sky” which no one is quite sure about. Herodicus evidently arrived by means of a “spinning metal egg”, and laments that he arrived right in the middle of some plague outbreak, apparently not helped by Ravenna’s marshy, fly-infested surroundings. He also recounts attempts to dig out a “tiny insect” lodged in his wrist, which he claims would kill him; a mite or flea, perhaps?
“Rest assured”, Gunn continued, “there are measures in place in case word of the Parchment’s authenticity becomes widespread.” The chancellor, silent, took a big gulp out of his scotch glass. “I hate doing this”, he muttered under his breath.
“So then, why am-"
“Let me be blunt”, Gunn interrupted. “What I’m offering you is a chance to be funded by an organization at the world vanguard of research and innovation, with virtually limitless resources at your disposal, and open lines of communication with illustrious researchers across the globe. Imagine, being financially secure the rest of your existence, able to do whatever you please in your field. Every loan paid. You understand that we only make this offer to the best and brightest in each institution, and it’s a chance most reach for.”
James’ eyes narrowed. “So what’s the catch?”
“Youth today”, Gunn chuckled, “always so skeptical. Good. Good for you, have a critical mind. Well, our organization enforces informational...exclusivity, so to speak. All findings are reported to the Organization first, who then disseminates it as needed through the general public. As well, you will disavow all knowledge of the Organization, and in your particular case the Ravennese Parchment’s authenticity, until such time it becomes expedient for us to do so.”
Anger flushed James’ face. “Do you have any idea how long I worked on that thesis? Sorry, bud, I’m not going to just throw it away for nothing. And in any case, it’s not going to seem believable for me to suddenly say, ‘oh, it was a hoax after all’. No, that’s ridiculous." James didn't deal well with intimidation. "Who the hell are you, anyways? 6th c. French, what is that, Merovingian? I suppose you’re going to tell me you’re a direct descendant of Jesus now.”
Gunn portrayed a face of extreme calm. “Now, Mr. Spaulding. I assure you the organization has thought well about this situation, and you will be cared for like one of our flock. This is the opportunity of a lifetime, do you have any idea how many academics would salivate at the thought of this?”
“It’s true” the Chancellor interjected, “this is a great honour”.
Mr. Gunn took out a folded letter from his coat pocket and handed it to James. Written in the same ornate script and creamy paper as the invitation was a letter of acceptance to the Brotherhood, with a place for him to sign near the bottom. Gunn handed him a beautifully carved fountain pen, with what looked like mahogany siding.
“You can keep it”, Gunn smiled. “Consider it your signing bonus”.
James sat in the chair, pen in hand, looking at the letter. “Can I have a little time to think about it?”
Gunn and the Chancellor looked at each other. “I’m afraid”, started the Chancellor, “this is a one-time offer. Your refusal would not be well-considered by the Organization.”
James weighed the pros and cons. Everyone wants to be an elite, everyone wants to be part of an organization like this. The opportunity to research and work, free of financial worries, debt – truly amazing for an academic. True, there was the small matter of censorship, but that was the tradeoff for research freedom; and in any case, the whole Organization would be enriched by the discoveries of one. And open access between members – being on the same plane as some of the globe’s most illustrious researchers – was incredible. He felt excited.
“Your colleagues will be toiling in dusty libraries while you jet to Troy first class” encouraged Gunn.
James took the pen and scrawled his signature on the bottom; his out-of-practice handwriting looked twisted and deformed next to the letter’s flowery script. Gunn’s face was a wide grin. “Congratulations, son”, he gushed, “you’re one of us now.” The chancellor looked similarly happy.
As James took the pen off the paper, he looked at the silvery tip, amazed at how smooth it wrote; written in tiny letters on the nib was the word TITANIUM.
Traces of titanium...
Gunn reached beside him to the small metallic case, and opened it up; inside was a small glass syringe. The smile on James’ face dropped immediately when he saw it.
“Oh, don’t worry” said Gunn. “This is something called the Insect, something we give to all new recruits. You understand that joining the Brotherhood is a lifetime commitment; we need to know that our investment is not going to waste.” He pushed the plunger on the syringe, and out fell a tiny mechanical bug onto the French walnut table. It darted about the table with extreme speed, until Gunn brought his hand down on it and crushed it. “It’s a simple, nearly painless procedure – injected into the side of your left wrist, it leaves a small mark like a freckle, which incidentally is also a means of identifying fellow members.” Gunn pulled back his left cuff and showed him a small brown mark on his wrist; the Chancellor rolled back his own cuff to reveal the same mark.
“What – what does it do?” James asked nervously.
“It’s multifunctional. It’s primarily a secure means of communication, as it relays messages from the Brotherhood directly into authorized cellphones or email accounts. It also acts as a homing device in case of emergency; as a worldwide organization, we can come to your assistance anywhere, at just about any time. It also serves as an identifier, among other...clerical uses. Now, give me your left wrist.” Mr. Gunn reached towards him with the syringe, ready to inject.
Insect in the wrist...
James slapped the syringe away; it shattered on the floor, dozens of tiny mechanical Insects skittering away. “This is a killswitch too, isn’t it? This is what Herodicus was talking about, the bug in his wrist? The titanium-tipped pen...banished by elders...he was running from you, wasn’t he? No, I’m not doing this! I’m not joining!”
The Chancellor jumped up from his chair. “James, please reconsider! It’s in your best interest, believe me!”
“No! It’s a death sentence.”
Gunn sat calmly in the chair, seemingly unnerved. “I think”, he said, “you’ll find the alternative to be very similar.” He stood up and took something out of his jacket pocket. “You will join us today, or I assure you you’ll meet a very similar fate to Dr. Capri, and much faster.” He immediately stepped forward towards James.
“James, listen to me” pleaded the Chancelllor. “You can`t outrun the Brotherhood. They`re everywhere. You have your whole life ahead of you...dont do this!”
But James’ mind was made. He wasn’t going to end up like Herodicus. He punched Gunn in the face, who fell backwards into his chair, grabbed his coat and ran out the door. As he left, he saw old Gunn talking weakly into the device in his hand.
“Full target status on Mr. Spaulding...I repeat full target status. I want him gone...”
James ran in a panic down the hallway, dress shoes clapping loudly on the marble floor. Professors coming out of their offices gave him quizzical looks – who knew how many of them were Brotherhood? He ran down the back flight of stairs in the DeLesseps building and burst out the back doors. He paused to catch his breath and gather his thoughts. What am I going to do? Where am I going to go? I have to run home and tell Mary...she has family up north...
A taxicab drove by which James frantically hailed; he clambered into the backseat and shut the door just as it screeched to a stop. The cabbie leaned back, with a slightly amused look on his face. “Where you off to in such a hurry?” James opened his mouth and was about to give his address when the cabbie’s left sleeve slid down a little, revealing a small brown dot on the side of his wrist.
“Ahh...uhh...sorry, wrong cab!” That was the best James could come up with, and he ran back out.
He arrived home wheezing and out of breath. He burst into the door. “Mary? Mary!”
“I’m in the kitchen...what’s up?”
Mary was sitting at the breakfast table, reading an article with a cup of tea.
“Mary”, he wheezed. “We have to go. Now”
“What are you talking about? Sit down, do you want some tea?”
“No. I mean, we have to leave, like leave town, right now. It’s important, like now!”
Mary got up and started massaging James’ shoulders. “Relax, why don’t you sit down, collect yourself? Tell me about your meeting.”
James sat down; it couldn’t hurt to take stock of the situation before making his next move. “Well, that’s the thing. The meeting. They wanted to ask me about me thesis and-"
“Would you like some tea?”
“Um, yeah, I guess. Anyway, they asked me about Herodicus and there was this guy from something called the Brotherhood and he wanted me to deny it and join his group and I wouldn’t and now they’re coming after me and...”
“Relax”, cooed Mary. She went to the counter to retrieve the kettle. “You’re not making sense, now I know you’ve had a tense day, why don’t you slow down and tell me exactly what happened. Tea?”
“Please.” James felt his panic start to ebb away. Mary always knew what to say; she understood him better than anyone else. She always knew how to make him feel better. She walked over with a cup and placed it on the table in front of him, and poured tea into it from the kettle. “Milk and sugar?” she asked, gently.
James’ heart immediately froze. “Uh, um, yeah, ah, sure...” he stammered.
As she was pouring his tea, the cuff of her blouse slid up a little. He had never noticed the small brown freckle on her wrist before.