Johnson County Library is pleased to announce that Jack Vandeleuv has won our writing contest on the theme of The Unknown with his piece "Exhibit."
Jack Vandeleuv is a longtime Kansas City resident and former employee of Johnson County Library. He has not yet published any works of fiction.
Natalie was uncharacteristically quiet. Her classmates stomped their feet in anticipation, but she was careful with each step, almost reverent. The hall was simply designed, with black marble walls and a high ceiling. Spherical chandeliers cast light on the sea of craning heads above her. Billy jostled her with his elbow and she scowled at him. Normally she would elbow back, but today was a special day. She’d heard about this place her whole life, from teachers and textbooks, in movies, everywhere. Above the hum of the crowd, she could hear something coming into earshot: a documentary was playing down the hall.
"In a way, the object is ordinary. It is composed of an alloy that is common in industrial applications—95 percent tungsten, with small portions of nickel and iron. It’s very heavy, and a crew of more than twenty was required to transport it from the dig site in Wyoming where it was discovered. Based on the age of the surrounding rock, the object is estimated to be about 55 million years old, placing it right at the Paleocene-Eocene epochal boundary. Because of its distinctive oblong shape, it has become known around the world as “the Egg.”
The line moved and suddenly the Egg was in front of Natalie. She exhaled. It was just the way she had pictured it. In some sections the metal was smooth, as if it had been brushed, but mostly the surface was cratered with scars. It was surrounded by lights, which refracted off its imperfections and scattered around the hall in every direction.
"Natural tungsten contains a mix of different isotopes, which occur in predictable ratios established by the death throes of ancient stars. The tungsten comprising the Egg, however, exhibits an absolutely unique composition. To the initial disbelief of the scientific community, over 90 percent of the Egg is Tungsten-182, an isotope that is not believed to exist in such concentrated abundance anywhere else in the solar system. This result has been confirmed repeatedly over the years by core samples and spectrographic analysis. Not only is such enriched tungsten not found naturally, it has never been manufactured by humans. The process of doing so, analogous to the process for enriching uranium, requires an enormous industrial operation that could not have taken place in secret."
The attendant at the front of the line motioned Natalie’s group onward. They could spend three minutes with the Egg. Her stomach jumped as she stepped forward. She could hear her classmates following behind with hesitation. Even the least knowledgeable students knew some of the stories that had started and ended in this room, the brilliant minds who had encountered the Egg and went on to dedicate their lives to astronomy, philosophy, or art. When adults asked Natalie what she wanted to be when she grew up, she always said “teacher,” but in her heart she nurtured a secret ambition—she wanted to be the one who finally solved archeology’s greatest mystery.
"After a period of disbelief and debate, the scientific community came with surprising alacrity to accept the inevitable. The object could not have occurred naturally, and it could not have been made by humans. The facts pointed towards one conclusion: the object was manufactured, but not by human hands."
She reached out to touch the Egg. Her classmates did the same, mimicking the pose they had seen in so many movies. Billy pressed his ear against it, as if listening to a seashell. Natalie closed her eyes and strained her senses as she ran both hands along the cold surface, half-expecting to push through and fall inside. She imagined heat radiating out from deep inside.
“If the Egg is a manufactured object, what purpose was it created to serve? One comparison is difficult to avoid. Since at least the 1950s, humans have proposed the use of tungsten as a weapon. Because of its high density—tungsten is more than twice as heavy as steel for the same volume—a rod of tungsten dropped from orbit will reach astonishing speeds, hitting a ground target with the force of a small nuclear weapon. If such a kinetic bombardment occurred today, the impact would leave noticeable geological evidence, blast craters similar to those made by asteroid strikes. However, by the time the first humans roamed the Earth, any such features could have already been dragged underground by forces of subduction and compacted into bedrock.”
Despite Natalie's yearning, the object was completely, infuriating inert. It just sat there, heavy and defiant. She pressed her hands harder, closed her eyes tighter. She felt tears on her face, she realized. There was nothing, no flash of inspiration, no special energy. She thought back to all the photos she had seen, the hundreds of hands reaching up to touch the Egg as if drawn to it by magnetic force. Her time was almost up.
“At first, many were made uneasy by the prospect that our only relic from the primordial past might be a tool of destruction. However, we must not jump to conclusions. Imagine if the whole history of humanity were to be judged, a hundred million years hence, by a single surviving artifact. We might leave behind a deposit of radioactive waste, a thigh bone, or a soup spoon.
"Many have entertained the possibility that the Egg is a message out of deep time, sent directionless into the void like the gold-plated records on Voyager 2. If there were once inscriptions on the surface of the Egg, no signs have been detected, even under the most powerful electron microscopes.”
Natalie opened her eyes. Her hands were still there in front of her. And beyond them, a ghost image of her face, reflected and distorted by jagged metal.