A/N: Posting my NaNoWriMo to keep myself honest. Not that it's worked this far, but... _ I would also love your input. Please r/r ^_^


Chapter 1

"Here you go!" the mousy woman squeaked, handing Sylvan a small, rectangular piece of plastic.

He smiled as he took it from her, its white surface sending a bright reflection of the overhead fluorescent lights directly into Sylvan's eyes. His glasses offishly reflected the light back at the unsuspecting badge. Stepping away from the receptionist's desk, Sylvan clipped the badge to his immaculate, powder blue shirt.

"Feeling official?" asked his supervisor, a shorter black woman with a well-built frame, which Sylvan idly suspected was more the result of bench-pressing employees who failed to meet her expectations than a mark of sloth. She smoothed her own badge ("Dr. Kristen Evelyn: Director of Research, Special Collections") as Sylvan finished clipping his own on. The title made him sound more important than he was, he thought: Research and Restoration Expert, Special Collections. Then again, any title he held under the Smithsonian Institution was bound to be prestigious-sounding.

Sylvan smiled nervously in response to Dr. Evelyn, who glanced at her clipboard and watch before asking, "Do you want a cup of coffee before we get to your first project?" She laughed as Sylvan's smile faded at the thought of caffeine further agitating his already jittery state. "All right. Let's get to the back, then. It's down this hallway."

Dr. Evelyn nodded at the receptionist before striding off down the hallway, clipboard clutched to her chest. Black briefcase in hand, Sylvan did his best to imitate her confident gait before convincing himself he was only making himself appear even more of a fool. The fact that the hallway was both empty and windowless hardly mitigated Sylvan's feeling that everyone in the building could see him, as though he were glowing with a huge sign above his head that read, "NEWBIE!"

"Oh, wait," he thought wryly, "I'm in a building full of geeks. It would read, 'n00b.' Of course." Blushing, as though the tiled floors and fluorescent lights could read his pathetically distressed thoughts, Sylvan idiosyncratically smoothed down his hair, even though he knew it was lying perfectly flat and straight, as always.

At last, the two reached a pair of double-doors with no handles. A thumb print reader and keypad to the right of the door served as the sentry, Sylvan assumed. Dr. Evelyn said, "Go ahead," motioning to the reader and keypad. Sylvan straightened his glasses, delicate and rectangular, before approaching the device stuck to the wall. He pressed his thumb to the thumb print reader, and two seconds later, a small LCD screen above the reader notified him that his print did, in fact, match the one he had come to give three days earlier. The screen then prompted him for his passcode. His finger hovered over the keypad like a deer caught in headlights.

"Fuck."

"Yes?" Dr. Evelyn asked, looking up from her clipboard.

"I..." Sylvan turned crimson, desperately searching his memory for what he could possibly have submitted to them as his personal passcode. It was three days ago! How was he supposed to remember? And it was his first day, and he was so nervous, and... Okay, they said no birthdays or anything like that. Had he done something alphabetical, like typing a text message on a cell phone? That did sound like the kind of thing he'd do. But it wouldn't be as simple as his name. No, Sylvan figured he'd remember if he'd encoded a message into his passcode. It must have been something numerical, then. Something like—

"Oh! Nothing." Sylvan pressed the first six digits of pi into the keypad. A soft metallic "click" sounded from the doors, and they swung gently toward Sylvan and Dr. Evelyn.

The room beyond looked like little more than a large warehouse. Nearest the doors were two rows of large, glass-topped desks extending further back into the room, most of them occupied by men and women ranging from maybe ten years older than Sylvan to almost three times his age. All were hunched over books and scrolls on their examination tables, gloved hands alternately inspecting pages and taking notes.

Beyond the tables were rows and rows of metal shelves draped with plastic sheets to protect the neatly-arranged books, scrolls, and Sylvan could only guess what else. There were Asian foldout manuscripts decorated with scenes of courtly life in a thousand shades of gray across from handwritten Renaissance tomes hundreds of pages thick. Sylvan couldn't even imagine the wealth of historical information contained in one of those shelves, much less the entire warehouse. The plastic coverings over the shelves obscured the nature of most of the items, a thin layer of hazy dust guarding against light, while allowing just enough air to circulate and prevent stagnation.

Sylvan immediately felt a change in the air as he stepped into the room. The air was still here; the filtration and circulation was taken care of discreetly so as not to disturb the room's precious contents. It was a few degrees cooler to discourage the growth and metabolism of any microorganisms hungry for antique paper. He could also feel in his nostrils a change in the air's composition: slightly more nitrogen, probably to the same end. It smelled crisp, almost to the point of being odorless, due to the extensive filtering of the air in this room.

Dr. Evelyn took a deep breath of the clean air and said, "Welcome to the Cavern, Sylvan." A few of the researchers looked up from their work, two of them pausing to smile and wave at the newcomer, as the rest dutifully continued to plumb the depths of the mysteries before them. "Those doors in the back," she said, pointing to another set of windowless double-doors, "lead to the clean room. There are more books back there, but nothing like what's in here. This environment is safe enough for them, and as you can tell, it's secure and selective. The twenty or so of us are the only ones who come in here. We've all been trained in treatment of these kinds of materials."

She led Sylvan to one of the tables that had been recently cleaned off, as Sylvan could tell from the lack of the dusty film that glazed some of the other vacant examination tables. "This will be your station. Let's see..." Dr. Evelyn flipped a page on her clipboard and scanned its contents. "You're already familiar with protocol, you know where the cafeteria and restrooms are..." Sylvan placed his briefcase on the floor next to his station and turned on the lamp. The familiar glow of the filtered fluorescent bulb calmed him somewhat. It flickered for a moment as it came on, mimicking the slight palpitation Sylvan still felt.

"Nervous?" Dr. Evelyn asked.

"Of course not," Sylvan lied, trying to make his fingers stop fidgeting against his thigh.

Dr. Evelyn only laughed briefly, her brown eyes lighting up at her new employee. "Then let's pick out your first project." Nodding, Sylvan stood and followed her toward the stacks at the back of the Cavern. "We just put out an exhibit last week, so there's isn't much of a to-do list at the moment. You came at a good time," she said over her shoulder with a smile. "That means you can pick out whatever interests you. You've got a good month or so before we have to really get down to business on the next exhibit."

Sylvan's eyes wandered shelf after shelf in an awestruck daze. He loved the Chinese epic poems just as much as the illuminated Bibles, but the Nepalese sutras and Austrian storybooks drew his eyes just as firmly and quickly. Still, that corner of Sylvan's mind that he condemned as a sentimental idiot wanted something he'd always remember as his First Project at the Smithsonian. It had to be epic, and it had to be true love. He progressed hopelessly down the main aisle, making occasional forays down aisles that seemed promising but always returning with the anxious, unsettled feeling of a child in an ice cream shop being told he had to choose the last flavor of ice cream he'd ever eat in his life.

Dr. Evelyn was starting to laugh at him. "Do you always have this much trouble making decisions?"

"Shut up..." he muttered. Dr. Evelyn laughed even more.

One of the researchers came down the aisle toward Dr. Evelyn and Sylvan. Smiling at Sylvan, the woman pushed a strand of graying black hair behind her ear before turning to Dr. Evelyn. "Dr. Wood asked for you. He said he's been having temperature fluctuations in one of the displays for the Copland exhibit, and he's not sure what a safe tolerance level is." Sylvan swore he saw muscles ripple under Dr. Evelyn's blazer and heard her growl deep in her throat.

"Those are crucial pieces of American musical history. Thanks for telling me, Erica. Sylvan," she sighed, "I'm sorry. Please look around until I get back. I shouldn't be long." Striding off toward the main building like a firefighter into a blaze, she vanished through the double-doors at the far end of the Cavern and left Sylvan with Erica.

"Hey," she said simply, pulling off her gloves and extending a hand toward Sylvan. "My name's Erica."

Sylvan shook Erica's hand with a polite smile. "I'm Sylvan. I'm...new here..." he added stupidly. Erica didn't laugh at him but gave him a warm smile instead.

"I'll introduce you to the rest of us. Did you find a project yet?" She correctly interpreted Sylvan's heavy sigh as a "no." "Here, I'll help you out. God knows I'm an indecisive geek, too. What kind of stuff are you into? What's your background in?"

"Well," Sylvan said, trying to assemble words accurately, "My undergrad was in linguistics and computer science. My passion is in—"

"Constructed languages!" Erica finished for him. Sylvan nodded, a little surprised. "That's so neat! Most of us were history or anthropology majors."

"Constructed languages and cryptography. Those are my reasons for existence." Sylvan's chocolate-brown eyes flashed in joy as he imagined doing cryptanalysis work for the Smithsonian Libraries. "But constructed languages are too new to be in anything here."

Erica paused in thought for a moment, turning to glance up and down the rows of bookshelves. "True, but I think we have a few encrypted documents in here. Spanish Inquisition and all that." She turned to walk down one of the aisles behind her but stopped short after a few steps. Sylvan almost fell backward trying not to bump into her as he followed excitedly. "Or..."

She turned and looked at Sylvan with a devious expression. "Or what?" he asked reluctantly.

"Follow me."

Once again, Erica turned and hustled off down an aisle. She was headed toward one of the back corners of the room, and she was moving so quickly that Sylvan was getting winded following her, even with his long legs. They passed progressively older manuscripts, some of which Sylvan suspected belonged in the clean room beyond the next wall but were being dangerously left out here in the semi-clean chamber. A few paces in front of him, Erica turned the corner of the bookshelf and followed the side wall toward the back corner. By this point, Sylvan's poor lungs were burning and screaming for oxygen. As Sylvan rounded the corner, though, he almost bumped into her again.

"Dammit!" he hissed. Erica smiled and laughed as she scanned the shelf before them.

Sylvan gazed up and down the twenty feet of shelves above him. Sylvan ran a finger across the yellowing plastic covering these shelves and over a sign affixed to the shelf in front of him that read, "Uncatalogued Acquisitions."

"It doesn't look like you guys do a lot of work out of these stacks back here," Sylvan noted.

"Nope," Erica confirmed. "None of the works back here are 'important,'" she said, making finger-quotes, "and we're not even sure what some of them are. Most of them are donations from private collections and are cool to have but weren't deemed to have any real significance when they were first brought in. I've always meant to go through these shelves because you never know what kinds of gems someone might have missed!" Sylvan could hear in Erica's voice a passion for these books that matched his own. "But I never have time. I always have to work on the next exhibit or whatever. You're lucky Dr. Evelyn's being extra-nice to you, since you're new."

"I'd love to go through these..." Sylvan said in awe.

"I'd love to help you. But we don't have enough overtime funding, and you can't come in here without clocking in." Sylvan remembered Dr. Evelyn telling him over the phone that the thumbprint reader on the door doubled as his timecard. "I hope no one took it out," Erica said, still searching for whatever book had struck her. "HAH!" she shouted suddenly. Sylvan heard a thump and a "FUCK!" from the other side of the room and hoped Erica hadn't disturbed anyone's research too badly. Erica ignored the outburst and put her gloves back on. "Here it is!"

It was apparent from the way the book sat slightly apart from its neighbors that it had been handled somewhat more recently. Its spot on the shelf was labeled "UA 2211," which Sylvan assumed meant it was the 2211th uncatalogued acquisition. Its tattered leather cover concealed weathered brown pages. There was no writing on the cover. There were no markings at all, for that matter. The detective in Sylvan's brain immediately started ruling out possibilities: an unmarked book was never meant for sale, and it wasn't meant to be picked up by curious hands. It could be a diary or some other volume intended only for private eyes.

"Is it a diary?" he asked, voicing his train of thought.

Erica smiled knowingly, having followed the same train of logic previously. "That was fast. It took me a few minutes to make even THAT deduction." She ran a hand over the leather binding as Sylvan lamented the fact that he'd left his gloves in his briefcase. "But honestly, I don't know what it is," she said with thinly veiled frustration. "None of us do." Sylvan cocked his head as he gazed at the book curiously. "We've all looked at it. Some give up after a few minutes and move on to another project. I was at it for about three days before I decided my time would be better spent on something I knew I could make progress with. Not this thing. It's become a hazing ritual for us almost," she continued with a chuckle.

"Great," Sylvan said with a sigh.

"But," Erica said excitedly, "we've never had a linguist with a cryptanalysis background in here before! Maybe you'll be able to make heads or tails of it."

"Is it really that bad?"

"Take a look for yourself," Erica said. With a jerk of her head toward the front of the Cavern, she and Sylvan took the book to his work station. The rest of the researchers looked up briefly at their approach. About half did double-takes when they saw what Erica was carrying, and of those, a few chuckled or rolled their eyes. Sylvan felt extremely self-conscious and smoothed his hair down again.

He sat down at the cold metal table and reached into his briefcase for his gloves. They were thin, white, linen gloves, but they blocked any oil and perspiration from his skin getting onto the page and didn't shed lint, which could carry contaminants. Erica set the book down in front of him and stood at his side, looking on eagerly.

Sylvan tried to remind himself that the book didn't actually pose a threat to him. The brown leather cover was unassuming enough, and beyond it, the pages couldn't even give him paper cuts through his gloves. A deep breath settled him enough to open the cover.

The researcher in front of Sylvan, a balding blond man of about fifty or so, had turned around to watch. Sylvan wasn't sure what the other man and Erica were expecting. He wasn't sure what he was expecting, for that matter. As the cover lifted and the first page was revealed, Sylvan found himself releasing a breath he'd been holding.

It was plain enough but still nothing Sylvan had ever seen. He adjusted the lamp's extending arm to shine light indirectly onto the page, as he'd been taught to do in school. Symbols on the page stared back up at him. "Yeah? Well, fuck you, too," he thought defensively at the writing. The glpyhs were foreign to any writing system Sylvan had studied, and he'd studied rather extensively. They were simple, none requiring more than two or three strokes, and none requiring a writer to lift the pen from the page. The characters sat in sharp, black relief against the aged off-white paper.

Strangest of all was their alignment. The characters, of varying heights and widths, were almost perfectly arranged in a grid formation. Though occasional gaps suggested line breaks and perhaps sentence structure, the overall presentation was even more meticulous and geometric than most of the religious texts Sylvan had encountered.

A few intense minutes later, Sylvan straightened up. Erica and the handful of researchers who had gathered around Sylvan's desk looked at him expectantly.

"What?" he asked shortly. The onlookers shrugged and returned to their work.

Erica, however, stayed by his side. "Interesting, isn't it?"

"Very," Sylvan agreed. "It's obvious what it is," he said with a devilish grin. His coworker looked at him in shock.

"It... It is?" she stammered. "What is it?"

Sylvan blinked at her incredulously. "Oh, come on. Don't you read xkcd? xkcd 593?" Erica's blank stare was enough of an answer for Sylvan, who sighed in defeat. "Never mind." He uncomfortably returned his attention to the book as Erica watched him. Sylvan flipped through pages, noting the layout and the structure it suggested about the language, and began making mental notes about character frequency.

He was startled and jumped slightly when Erica spoke again. "So what is it?" He glanced at her over the top of his glasses.

"It was a joke," he said flatly.

"Oh..." Erica stood there for a few more seconds before silently returning to her desk and leaving Sylvan with Uncatalogued Acquisition 2211.