“Wait until you have confirmation from Mr French, then secure the disc at any cost. We cannot let them have it. Further orders given after.” said a voice through the Chauffeur’s satellite phone.
He was eavesdropping on the conversation inside the barracks building. The Chauffeur had set up a rudimentary listening post a few weeks earlier to a nearby tool shed, the microphone wire disguised with the overhead power cable.
“Use of lethal force confirmed?” he asked.
“Confirmed. At any means necessary, just make sure the Artefact stays undamaged.” the voice said. “The information is too volatile to be let out to the public.”
“Understood. In servitio veritas.” the Chauffeur said.
“In servitio veritas, Brother.”
“What is this, Sebastian?” Mehmet asked, slowly receding from the computer towards the central table where the disc lied.
“I don’t answer to you. Give me the disc, and you all walk away from here,” Sebastian said in his german accent, slowly scanning the three with his Glock pistol.
He was a man in his mid thirties and seemed purposefully designed for undercover work: average build, average height, unassuming facial features with a five-o-clock-shadow. Tan hair that hadn’t been cut for a few weeks poked under a flat dark grey cap and a pair of dirty, dark blue mechanic’s overalls concealed his heavily tattooed body.
“Just… Calm down, take it easy now,” Mehmet continued, gesturing downwards with raised hands while inching towards the disc.
Max was frozen in place. A life in academia gives a man very little preparation for being pointed a gun at; he at least had raised his hands up. Nadja backed away a few slow steps while holding her hands up, placing her near the corner of her desk.
“Stop, don’t move!” Sebastian said, as he noticed the turk moving closer to the disc. Mehmet froze in place, keeping his hands open near his chest. The chauffeur took a few determined steps towards the central table, his eyes kept jumping from the disc to the turk.
“Shush!” he said, motioning Mehmet to step backwards with his pistol.
Mehmet took two small steps back, giving Sebastian more room to step up to the table. After a few deliberate steps, he was within arm’s reach of the golden disc and gave it a quick, but greedy glance. This was the moment Mehmet was waiting for.
His body tensed up, adrenaline pumping through his veins, pupils narrowed and he leapt towards Sebastian. Mehmet’s hands aimed for the gun and once he made contact, he twisted the pistol down and to the left, away from Max and Nadja to his right.
Sebastian had no time to think. He acted – reacted – purely on instinct. He pulled the trigger immediately after his synapses had processed he was under attack. The loudness of the shot startled Max more than he could have ever expected.
Mehmet grunted. He won the arm-wrestle with Sebastian and locked his strong hands around the pistol pointing it away. After a few moments, however, Sebastian seemed to gain the edge on the arms-wrestle, as if he had suddenly gained more strength. Mehmet looked down and saw a red blotch on his left side, just under his ribs. He looked at the gunman, bewildered look in his eyes.
“…Why…?” Mehmet fell to the floor first on his knees, then to his side.
Sebastian didn’t freeze, adrenaline granting him near superhuman clarity and speed. He grabbed the heavy golden disc on the table, stumbled at it’s weight for an instant and dashed towards the door, relying on shock for the other two to stay put.
Nadja didn’t stay put. Once she saw the chauffeur grab the artefact, she slid open the top drawer of her desk and pulled out a small wood carver’s knife. She took it by the handle, eyed Sebastian for a split second and threw the knife at the chauffeur the moment he ran for the door. The knife spun in the air, Max followed it’s trajectory towards the gunman.
The knife hit Sebastian just below the shoulder blade on his right, cutting through the threadbare overalls and slicing a gash in the flesh. Sebastian grunted as he dodged through the doorway. He jumped in a four-by-four he had left just outside the building with the driver’s door open and keys in ignition, and sped off towards the gate.
Inside, Max noticed his ears ringing from the gunshot and his hands trembling. Both his ailments seemed to subside as his brain registered Mehmet lying on the floor, his white robes blotched in blood. Max ran to him and noticed Mehmet was conscious.
“Orospu çocuğu… Bastard! Sonova… Biscuit! Goddamn that hurts,” Mehmet grumbled.
Nadja kneeled down beside Max. She grabbed the robe where the bullet had gone through and tore the fabric open, exposing the wound. Max felt squeamish, but kept his cool.
“Pizdets…” she said, alarmed.
Max saw a nasty-looking gash at Mehmet’s side. The bullet had torn skin and some flesh and he was losing blood.
“Need to tie up. Do this.” Nadja grabbed Max’s hands, placed them directly on the wound and pressed down through Max’s hands. Once she was satisfied Max was keeping enough pressure on the wound, she ran to her bedroom at the end of the barracks, came back in a seeming instant with a bed sheet and a bottle of vodka.
“This will hurt,” she said, as she poured the drink over the wound. Mehmet grunted and swore through his teeth.
“Help me lift up,” she said to Max, and together they got Mehmet to a sitting position, allowing Nadja to tie a makeshift bandage around Mehmet’s body that kept compression on the wound.
“Call 112,” Nadja said, while tying up the bedsheet. Max stood up, hands dripping with blood, and stumbled to the nearby desk and picked up the receiver on the landline.
“Wait!” Mehmet said, snarling with pain. “We have a private medical emergency service. See the number on the phone?” he continued after catching his breath. Max saw the sticker above the keypad on the phone, dialled the number, and after a few rings an answer came in accented English.
A few moments of exchanging information passed, and a medical helicopter was dispatched from the nearest major hospital. Nadja had managed to slow down the bleeding, and for the longest time, the room felt quiet apart from occasional Turkish curse. The three sitting on the floor side by side, Mehmet leaning against the desk.
After a while of catching her breath, Nadja took the bottle, took a quick pull of vodka and offered Max and Mehmet a swig. Neither refused, both grimaced.
Nadja got up from the floor, walked to the door, and after a quick search, she found the knife. She picked it up and walked back to the desk.
“Wait! Don’t wipe it clean!” Max said, his head finally clearing up from the excitement. “It has his blood on it. The police can use that to trace the guy.”
“Da,” Nadja acknowledged, thought for a moment, walked to a filing cabinet and took a large Ziploc bag, put the knife in, and sealed the bag up.
“That was fast thinking, by the way,” Max said to Nadja as she sat down with the two again. “I froze over, but you at least got a shot at the guy!” He continued.
“I grow up in Soviet Russia. Not first time I see gun,” she shrugged and took another swig of vodka.
“Do you have it?” The voice asked.
“Yes. I have the artefact. I’m injured, though. Ms Novikova threw a knife at me and hit my shoulder during my exit. Had to shoot Mr Özturk prior, he went for my gun,” Sebastian said to his satellite phone while driving away from the site; his voice came through a speaker-phone in a lavishly decorated office.
“Do you have confirmation of the Artefact?”
“Outstanding. Dispose of the weapon, standard procedure. Report at Safehouse Gamma for medical treatment and debriefing. Hand off the Artefact there,” The voice said.
“Gamma? That’s over a hundred klicks away.”
“Is the knife-wound serious?”
“I will survive.”
“Then do as you are instructed.”
“Yes, brother. In Servitio Veritas.”
“In Servitio Veritas.” The voice concluded and hung up the phone with a button press.
He leaned back on his reclining leather seat. After a moment of thought, he leaned up again and pressed another button the on phone. A buzzer went on in his secretary’s room.
“Yes, sir?” A female voice came in through the speaker-phone.
“We have the Artefact. Call in the Deciphers. All of them.”
“All of them? It’s the middle of the ni-“
“Yes, all of them. Now,” the voice snapped, frustrated.
Finally they had confirmation, a year had gone by from the discovery of the Artefact until now. Another piece for the puzzle that will bring them closer to The Truth. And the Truth must be secured.
He stood up from the enormous, immaculately polished, gold trimmed dark mahogany desk.
The office was as opulent as the desk; matching bookshelves covered two opposite walls, polished marble flooring, several Persian rugs underneath the quilted dark green leather upholstered seats and sofa. Massive windows behind the desk opened to a magnificent skyscraper vista, the office looking down on most of them. A small chewed up rattan basket laid in a corner next to the row of windows; a small white poodle slept in his dark red velvet lined bed.
He walked to a display case with front-lit glass-shelves filled with artefacts from aeons ago; they all had engravings that resembled the markings on the Artefact from Göbekli Tepe.
“Isn’t it weird?” he asked himself, “How the ultimate truth has evaded us? Even with all the knowledge and technology at our disposal, we still can’t piece it together. Until now. The disc must be the final piece to the puzzle. We must have the truth now.”
The poodle roused for a moment, gave a weary glance at him, yawned, and fell asleep again.
Max and Nadja were shivering in the suddenly cold, arid air just outside the barracks door. The sun had set some time ago, and they watched as the paramedics strapped Mehmet onto a stretcher and hoisted him onboard the helicopter.
“He survive?” Nadja asked.
“Yes. At least that’s what the paramedics told me.”
The police had arrived soon after. The emergency service company had alerted them as standard procedure. They took testimonies from Max and Nadja, description of Sebastian, the knife as evidence, and told Max they would question Mehmet later.
“Do not leave the country until you hear from us, Mr French. We might have questions for you later,” the junior officer said, the only one who spoke decent, or any, English. He gave Max and Nadja both a calling card with a direct number to him. “If you remember anything else, call me.”
The police left after giving the site and barracks a quick scan through. They found the discarded shell from the pistol and located the bullet hole in the drywall. It needed to be dug out later.
“One thing I can’t figure out,” Max said, once he was alone with Nadja, “is what would make the disc worth killing for?”
“No. It’s gotta be more than that. How long has Sebastian worked for you? Why would he turn against you like that?”
“I think a year. He come and replace another.”
“Replace? What happened to the previous guy?”
“Do not know. Just not come work. Sebastian come next day and say he replace him.”
“You hired him on the spot?”
“Njet. We use company through Museum, not ask question.”
“That’s convenient…” Max walked back inside. He looked around. “Do you see anything else missing? Or did you notice anything going missing the past weeks?”
“So, it seems he just wanted the disc. But why attack us now, and not just steal it later?”
“He scared you take it with you?” Nadja suggested. “You say is your signal. Sebastian hear from window?”
“If he heard that, he heard me claiming it’s a message from the extra-terrestrial.” Max knew from personal experience how ‘enthusiastic’ some alien conspiracy theorists could be, as he liked to put it. “Did he ever strike you as… crazy? Weird?”
“Njet… He seem… Normal.”
“Harumph,” Max breathed out, unsatisfied. “Well, nothing we can do about it now. He has the disc, and we have nothing.”
“Njet. We have second disc,” Nadja said.
“Da. Is small,” Nadja said with a hint of a grin. ”We plan on show you later. Is not here. Safe in Istanbul, museum archive. We have photo of stolen large disc there.”
“Well, that’s something at least,” Max said, quickly feeling tired, hungry, and in a desperate need of a shower.
“Look, we don’t wanna stay here for the night. He might return for something. Let’s get to the town, take a hotel and sleep the night. Figure out tomorrow what to do,” he continued.
“Is good. Help me take computer,” Nadja said, as she started packing up all the research data she had on hand. “We give him no data.”
Within half an hour they had scrambled together most of the archival data, photos, maps, and Nadjas computer, and packed it all into another four-by-four. They drove into the night, locking the gate behind them.
The nearby town of Sanliurfa was another half hour’s drive away. Nadja knew little Turkish, so she did the talking at the hotel. Max insisted on paying cash, as a feeling of being watched came over him during the drive; he had read that credit cards could be traced.
“Morning we go to Istanbul?” Asked Nadja, as Max handed her a room key.
“I need to go there anyway for my flight back home, so sounds like a plan to me.” Any other time, Max would have been delighted to be invited to join a charming lady to a popular tourist destination.
Nadja looked disappointed, took on a veneer of professionalism and just nodded before disappearing into her room. Max shrugged and went into his. He felt way off his comfort zone, yearning for his modest office back home, all sense of adventure and discovery vanishing from his body.
He showered and fell asleep immediately after laying down on the bed.
Before the early car ride to Istanbul, Nadja called the hospital to check on Mehmet. She was told that he had been in surgery during the night and was now resting, and that the doctors are expecting a full recovery. Relieved, she relayed the good news to Max.
The journey to the historic and cultural capital of Turkey was as boring as Max remembered; at least the rough countryside roads eventually smoothed out to highways. There was not much to see, and even less to do as Max was the passenger. The two spoke very little during the drive, both lost in thought.
“You believe in alien?” Nadja asked suddenly after noon, causing Max to snap out of a trance-like state.
“Whuh? What do you mean?”
“Alien from another planet. Come visit,” Nadja said.
“Umm… Well, there’s no way Earth is the only planet in the universe with life. That would be just preposterously unlikely.” Max said. “Even in our Milky Way galaxy there’s several hundred billion stars, each most likely with several planets.” he emphasised the B in billion.
“Da, da. We not alone. But can they visit?”
“Now, that is a different story,” Max said. “For starters, there’s the vast – and I mean vast – distances that would take centuries, if not millennia, to travel with the fastest rockets we have. Easily hopping from start system to star system would take some sci-fi level tech to pull off.”
“Take thousand year? We find disc from ten thousand years ago,” Nadja said.
“Generational ships, that would have a whole society of people travelling through empty space have been proposed since the early Space Race, which we won, by the way,” Max jabbed at Nadja with a snicker. She looked back at him with faux grimace and made a ‘Nggh-gh’ sound.
“So it’s not totally out of the question, but extremely unlikely. But why leave a small plaque on the planets they visit?” Max said.
As the endless rolling hills of central Turkey streamed by on the highway, the air-conditioning on the old car did its best, but inevitably failed in the battle against the scorching mid-day sun.
“You know, there are two even more important questions about alien civilisations, if you’re interested.” he continued.
“Tell me.” Nadja seemed genuinely interested.
“First of all, there’s the famous Drake Equation, which reduces the probability of contacting an intelligent species to a math puzzle. How many stars in a galaxy, how many planets to each star, how many planets form life, how often life becomes intelligent, and so on.”
“We not know. We only have know Earth.”
“Exactly. We basically have no data, and only one tiny reference sample: our solar system.” Max was impressed Nadja got the point immediately correct.
“It doesn’t end there,” he contined. “For the Signal I found, the Drake Equation includes the percentage of intelligent life that uses radiocommunications currently. We use radio communications for pretty much everything, and have done so only for a hundred years at most now. That’s a blink of an eye, compared to how long Earth has existed.”
“Alien use better technology. We don’t listen use Morse Code anymore,” Nadja suggested.
“Precisely,” Max said. “Then there’s the second part I find more fascinating: How many extra-terrestrial civilisations are even interested in space?”
“Of course they are!” Nadja said, as if Max had asked if grass is green.
“Are you sure about that? Think of a planet that has a constant cloud coverage so stars are obscured. Or a lifeform that has no eyes like ours, or even a life that’s fully subterranean; why would they be interested in something they can’t observe?”
Nadja went silent for a moment, contemplating.
“And even if they could see the stars, and wanted to reach other planets, simple physics most likely would prevent it and the civilisation would lose interest in space exploration.”
“Well, assuming a similar rocky planet like ours that has just a slightly larger diameter, the surface gravity would be considerably stronger, making conventional rockets exponentially more impractical. Twice the planet’s diameter to Earth, and you’d need thirty times larger rocket to reach orbit.”
“Physics always ruin anything fun,” Nadja said with a grin. “I need stop, I’m hungry.”
“And just how hungry are you?” Max asked out of habit.
“…Very…?” Said Nadja baffled.
“No-no-no, you’re supposed to say ‘I could eat a horse.’”
“Why? I like horse. Ride, not eat.”
“It’s a joke. Kinda. An American thing. Uh, just forget about it,” Max said defeated.
Nadja seemed more amused by his awkward explanation, than the joke it self. She took the next interchange off the highway and drove to a truck stop.
They arrived in Istanbul late in the afternoon, just in time before the museum closed up.
The Archaeological Museum of Istanbul was a grand two-storey neoclassical limestone building on prime estate at a peninsula looking to the Bosporus strait. The medival Topkapi Palace of an ottoman sultan looked down on the museum building from higher up the hill. Forests and park enclosed the two area, providing much needed peace and quiet from the hustle of a modern metropolis.
As they drove past the museum, Max saw that the wide, U-shaped building had a grand inner courtyard with a well kept garden, several more of less broken statues and, curiously, several stone sargofagi lining the front wall. An inscription in Ottoman Turkish overhead the main entrance dubbed the building as The Museum of Antiquities, Nadja told him.
She took the car behind the building and parked in the employee’s area. They walked up the stairs to the employee’s entrance carrying the folders and cardboard boxes from the dig site; the air-conditioned interior was a welcome relief from the Mediterranean sun. They stopped at a modest security check inside, Nadja showed her employee’s card and Max signed in as her quest.
“Mr French?” The security guard asked, looking at the name on the clipboard where Max had signed.
“Yes, that’s me…” Max replied hesitantly.
“We have a message for you,” The security guard continued and handed Max a white envelope. It had ‘MAXWELL FRENCH, PH.D’ written on it.
“Thank you…” Max said, bewildered. He took a few steps away from the desk, opened the envelope, and found a typed message and two plane tickets. The message said:
You do not know me, but please consider me an interested party on your side. I have attached two open plane tickets to London. We need to have a talk in person; the three of us, including Ms Novikova. Please, contact me at the phone number attached as soon as you have reached Heathrow.