Professor Corin Donaldon liked to ration his working-late sessions in order to avoid being portrayed as a sad loser with nothing in his life but his work. But he saw his unmarried and unattached status as an advantage for a man in his middle thirties, who was consolidating his reputation and in need of the freedom to work the hours necessary to work something new through to a satisfactory conclusion.
On a wet September Tuesday night, it had been very easy not to find a reason to leave the museum after he had grabbed a quick meal in the snack bar. One significant advantage of night work was that getting through the security levels behind the scenes was less of a pain when the Security staff had fewer potential thieves to watch. Even so, getting into the Secure Store still involved swiping his card three times and offering up his right eye for a retinal scan along the way.
A lot of research and searching in the library, delving into volumes which were not available electronically, had led him to draw some conclusions which were startling rather than revolutionary, but still worthy of a paper which would attract gratifying attention. A movement caught his eye as Donaldon was following a pool of light to his workspace.
The museum had fitted all of the behind-the scenes areas with high-tech, light-emitting diode lamps, which consumed minute amounts of electricity and switched themselves on automatically only when they detected the infra-red glow of a human-size object and the local light level was below a pre-set threshold. Donaldon had become accustomed to walking in a moving pond of light fringed with darkness. He was used to spotting ponds of light which marked the positions of his co-workers. What he was not used to was seeing the dim outline of a human shape in an area lit only by light leaking in from a corridor.
Donaldon pressed his Security button automatically. Former colonel Alex Standing, the head of the museum's Security unit, had drilled into everyone that they had to press the Security button on their ID badge when they spotted something out of the ordinary. Standing was prepared to tolerate a reasonable number of false alarms to be as sure as possible that a security breach would be reported and contained.
"You must be Professor Donaldon," the intruder threw back over his shoulder. "I was half
hoping to meet you."
"And you are?" Donaldon invited as he stepped closer to the intruder; close enough to put both
of them in his pool of light but not too close. When he could see the intruder properly, he found
himself looking at a man who was around six feet tall, of unimpressive build, allowing for the
bulky clothing, and smiling in a contented fashion.
"No one you know," the intruder returned.
"Okay, Mr. X, do you want to tell me what you're doing here, or should I just call Security?"
Donaldon knew better than to warn the intruder that he had already alerted the security staff.
"I'm retrieving a piece of my personal property, which you seem to have misappropriated.
Artefact Kay six two two dash eleven?"
"That's a good story," the professor scoffed, "given that the artefact in question was found in
context indicating that it was buried for thousands of years before I found it."
"And your point is . . . ?" The intruder put on a mild frown. He was wearing what looked like
a dark anorak and dark trousers, but nothing that looked like a disguise, such as a ski mask of the
sort favoured for the bank robbers in TV series.
"For one thing, you don't look a day over thirty-five."
"Looks can be deceiving," the intruder returned.
"And for another," Donaldon added, "I dug this artefact out myself, personally, on Crown
Property land, so you can't have any sort of claim to it."
"You don't know what it is, do you?"
"Some sort of ritual object, that's obvious. But from a culture we haven't come across before.
Which is why it, and the pieces found with it, are housed in our top level of security."
"A ritual object, eh? Which is what you guys say when you don't have a clue."
"And you do?"
"I know it's a communicator. Like one of your mobile phones plus lots of millennia of technical
"Yeah, right," laughed the archaeologist.
"And I also know it's my communicator because it responds to my access codes."
The intruder lifted his hand to display one of the longer faces of the artefact. Professor
Donaldon's mouth fell open as the device took on a brighter, bronzen glow and grew a screen
about a foot square at the end projecting up from the stranger's hand.
"Another thing I know is my communicator is pretty much of an ornament until I can recharge
it, but there's probably enough power left to show you a few pictures of my estates before your
kind started hacking down all the trees and putting up your ratty little buildings."
Professor Donaldon watched in amazement as the screen showed him what looked like a
landscape of the sort created in computers to depict the generally unspoilt appearance of Iron Age
Britain. The pictures tended to ghost at the edges of the screen but they had a solid, three-dimensional quality in the middle. Then he was standing outdoors on a warm, summery afternoon
on a riverside plain flanked by medium-size, wooded hills. He was just starting to appreciate the
full flavour of the illusion when it disappeared and he was back in a pool of almost-daylight in
a storage room, looking at the same scene on the communicator's screen.
"It's better with a full charge," said the intruder. "That was just a brief taster."
"It was still pretty amazing," Professor Donaldon told him.
"Oh, by the way," the intruder added when the screen vanished and the communicator became
again a dead lump of sparsely decorated metal, "that line about calling Security? I think you'll find
I can pass through your alarms like they weren't there and you can press your Security button
until your finger drops off, but it won't do you any good."
Professor Donaldon glanced at his watch automatically. They were a long way past Security's
longest permitted response time. "So what are you planning to do now?" he asked.
The intruder dropped Artefact K622-11 into a side pocket of his anorak. "Having got what I
came for, I'm basically out of here."
"And what about me?"
"I'll leave you with the problem of explaining what happened to my communicator. You might
consider putting something that looks similar in the empty space. I'm sure you're not short of
uncatalogued objects. Or are you worried in case I wipe you out for knowing too much?"
"That had crossed my mind."
"Who's going to believe you, though, Professor? Some guy just strolls in here off the street,
through layer after layer of Colonel Standing's security, and strolls out with one of the artefacts
without setting off any of his alarms? Or leaving behind any trace of his presence on the security
videos? Or fingerprints? Or DNA? Like that's going to happen. If anything, if you go running to
Security after I leave, they'll assume you stole the artefact and sold it. And you're reporting an
intruder as some sort of double bluff."
"I suppose the fact that we're standing here, having this conversation, proves you're right."
"But . . . ?"
"But it bothers me that you look so suspiciously like a 21st century human being for an ancient
member of an ancient race, which has to be tens of thousands of years ahead of us."
"Well, it could be that the human race was built from the same broad design template, so we
look broadly similar when we're fully clothed under artificial light in the same room. But about
ten minutes with an MRI machine and half a day in a medical laboratory would confirm that the
broad general appearance is about all we have in common."
"Okay. And is that communicator all you want out of our inventory? Only, the site where I
found it was pretty productive."
"Well, you see, the thing is, Prof., a guy goes to sleep for a couple of thousand years to recoup
and get himself ready for another period of existence . . ."
"Actually, as I said, it's more like five thousand years."
". . . and when he wakes up," the intruder ploughed on over the correction, "all his stuff has
gone and these inferior freakin' beings have built their crappy towns and cities all over his estates.
What used to be forest and rolling plains and quite pleasant places to be in the good old days has
just . . . gone. Vanish. Been vandalized. Has it really been five thousand years? No wonder
everything's so fukt up. And our guy really has to hunt around for his stuff, which has become
well scattered. So all the other things you found are nothing to do with me."
"Just as a matter of curiosity, what are you hoping to do now? After you leave here?"
"Number one, find all my stuff. And when I get it back, number two, evict the inferior beings
and start putting my estates back the way they should be."
"You're not planning to take over the world, or anything like that? Because you could, if you're
as powerful as you make out."
"Nope, just my part of this world. I'm not too bothered about the rest."
"How big are your estates, by the way?"
"Most of what you lot call England."
"So fifty million squatters are likely to have a pretty thin time of it, when you get started."
"Point number one, who invited them to wreck my estates? Point number two, from what your
news media are saying, half of them are infiltrators from even crappier human countries and
evicting them would be a good thing."
"Point number one point one, I don't suppose you had any signs up to tell the squatters they
were on your property when they arrived here?"
"What, you think the average infiltrator could read five thousand years ago? Their leaders were
told who this land belonged to. Obviously, not forcefully enough."
"And the message got diluted over several millennia? So anyway, how long do the humans in
Britain have before you start reconstructing the landscape?"
"The time it takes me to get my stuff back plus about five months."
"And where are these people supposed to go, just for the sake of argument?"
"Well, most of them wandered over from what you lot call Europe, which will be going into its
own restoration programmes shortly as the rightful owners of that continental landmass reassert
themselves. I gather the human race is supposed to have come from Africa, right? So they can
bugger off back there again. There's plenty of room."
"Again, as a matter of interest, how many more of your kind are there?"
"When I went to sleep, it was about eleven or twelve hundred. Not so many compared to a lot
of other planets as there were much better options available. Earth has always been a bit of
dumping ground for younger sons and people who offended the hierarchy."
"I take it you're a younger son?"
"Flattery will get you everywhere, Prof.," the intruder said with a laugh. "But yes, I have, or had,
three brothers and two sisters ahead of me in the family inheritance chain."
"And there are a thousand or so of you on Earth? And what? You all went to sleep five thousand
"Only most of us. No everyone is in tune with the common rest cycle."
"And you were expecting to sleep for only two thousand years?"
"You humans don't experience the passage of time the same way we do. So one of our deep
sleep periods could easily last five thousand years, your time."
"But there have been some of your kind around all the time over the last five millennia?"
"There, but taking about as little interest in humanity as you do in, say, ants."
"But there are lots like you awake now, or about to wake up, who will be looking for their stuff
then reclaiming their estates?"
"Which will still leave a lot of territory available to humanity. We're not greedy."
"You're not likely to take it out on humanity for wrecking your planet? The ozone layer, global
warming, all that?"
"The human race exaggerates its capacity to change the planet. Okay, you did do some damage
to the ozone layer, but you stopped doing it and nothing disastrous happened. As for all this
global warming crap, that's just a major league scam by crooked scientists, politicians on the make
and their hangers on. I'm not worried and I doubt any of my lot are or will be."
"Before you go, what did your colleagues, the ones who stayed awake, do about human
intruders on their estates?"
"They discouraged them. This is a large planet and we have a wide range of tastes. Up to two
or three thousand years ago, humanity was spread thinly enough not to be a serious problem. But
we're up to the challenge."
"And there's going to be trouble for humanity when you've got all your stuff and you take back your personal bits of England?"
"Right. We don't believe in squatters' rights. Or the human rights your government applies so selectively."
"And you'll evict all the squatters?"
"Well, I might let some of them stay as long as they don't make nuisances of themselves. But most of them would be well advised to get out of the property market and keep their personal possessions portable. Okay." The intruder patted the pocket containing his communicator in an entirely human gesture of confirmation. "The shortest way out would be that way." He pointed to his left and followed the direction of his finger.
Professor Donaldon watched with a combination of amazement and expectation as the intruder walked straight at a wall and through it. It was the sort of exit expected of an advanced being with a prior claim to the planet and the means to assert it; once he had recovered all of his scattered stuff. ■