"It wasn't a cash payment," she said. "I'm not sure you understand what we're doing here."

"Running around wasting our budget, it seems."

"Clearly no one's filled you in on the details." Her grip tightened around her pen. "How much has command told you so far?" She lowered her glasses.

"Only that I needed to examine your expenses. Make sure what your department is doing is all above board."

"I don't think you're ready for this," she said. "You'll have to check with them again after getting more clearance."

"Are you dodging my investigation?"

"No," she sighed. "Show me your level of clearance, and then we'll talk."

I was back two weeks later.

"Well," she said, "did you get more information about what we're attempting here?"

"You're going to have to explain it to me. I'm not sure I can believe what they told me."

She brought out a suitcase and placed it on the table. Inside was about five random objects, nested in foam. A scrap of paper. Plastic toys. A shred of cardboard. It looked like junk.

"This is what you've been wasting your money on?"

"Like I said, we weren't paid in cash."

"You were paid in junk."

She sighed. "Not junk. Well yes, it looks like junk on the surface."

"And you can prove to me this isn't also junk beneath the surface?"

"Not all of it," she said. "Not yet. Some take a while before we can determine their true value."

"Alright, let's assume I give you the benefit of the doubt. What is it that you can prove today, right here? That I shouldn't shut down your project right now?"

"Follow me," she beckoned.

The suitcase was left on the table, still open.

She walked briskly down a hallway. Its walls were made of polished stone, black and reflecting the two of us as we passed.

"This was one of the first examples." She motioned to a glass case embedded in the side of the wall. 

Inside was what looked like a restaurant bill. It was dimly lit. There was handwriting on it. A list of names. First names.

"Who are these people?"

"We don't know," she said.

"And that's supposed to mean something?"

She touched a panel on the wall. It slid open to reveal a stone tablet, also encased behind glass.

"This is over four thousand years old according to carbon dating. It's been in our archives for as long as we know, never displayed in public. The phonetic translations match exactly what was written on the bill."

"And that proves what?"

"Nobody alive, besides insiders, has seen the tablet. As far as we know. Even the tablet itself was half-forgotten until this came in."

"Proving nothing. Someone who worked in the archives played a joke on you, or was leaking what they saw."

"We considered that possibility," she said, "until the next message came in, a few days after this one." She rotated the glass case until the tablet was replaced by a stone coffer. "We would have never been able to tie these two together if the messages didn't come in when they did."

"And how are they related?"

"As far as we know, these artifacts come from vastly different locations and time periods. Yet the markings on one serve as a kind of password or activation sequence for the other."

She touched a part of the wall again. Patterns on the coffer began to glow, while others faded into the background. They were the same shape as the symbols from the tablet.

The coffer opened.

"It's empty."

"Yes, we know that. We've already removed the contents for analysis."

"You couldn't open it any other way?"

"We could," she said, "but it was just a normal box. We believe these codes allow it to access some other pocket of space beyond our normal reality."

"So what did you guys find inside?"

"You don't have the clearance for that yet. Besides, that's not our department's charter."

"What is your charter then?"

"We gather the artifacts. Other departments analyze them."

"And when did these messages start coming in?"

"About ten years ago," she said.

"What about now?"

"We are still getting artifacts off and on. Many we do not fully understand yet."

"What is something that came in more recently?"

"You saw the examples on the table."

"That looked like trash to me."

"We've yet to complete our analysis."

She took me to a room also lined with black rock. There was a typewriter under a glass case. "We have to be careful about this one," she said. "We don't know how fragile it is."

"Are you saying it's some kind of magical or futuristic typewriter?"

"Try it," she said, "you'll see."

A mechanism lifted the casing from the typewriter, and I sat down in front of it. "What am I supposed to do now?"

"Type the first thing that comes to mind," she said.

I tentatively touched the keys. Then a conversation flowed from my mind to the page. It was the last conversation I ever had with my grandmother, and as far as I could tell, repeated exactly word for word.

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