Sam drove straight to the UT Dallas campus with the SUV’s windows rolled down. The afternoon humidity wasn’t as oppressive as the atmosphere had been in his father’s office—maybe the exhaust of trucks and cars on I-75 would wash away the stink of Magnus’s latest attempt at subjugation. He had Sam locked down in a tough place. Without his father’s monthly stipend, Sam had only his savings to fall back on, as Magnus well knew. Sam knew the day of reckoning would be soon. He’d have to choose a career path.
The Department of Physics at the University’s Arlington campus was housed in an impressive glass-walled building. Inside, in the entrance hall, the walls soared three stories to an airy windowed ceiling. His steps echoed on the tile floor.
The office of Dr. Peter Walker was hidden away in the basement, next to the boiler room, but the cement hallway was cold and featureless. Two doors down, a janitor’s cart with mops, brooms, and black plastic trash can poked out into the hall. A student, head bowed to peer into his smartphone, glided by on a kick scooter. Sam knocked on the gray metal door. After hearing what sounded like a grunt from inside, he opened it and entered.
The cement-walled cubicle was tiny. Walker was hunched over a desk piled high with papers, half-empty flasks of colored liquids, and coils of wire. He didn’t look up, but signaled his awareness of Sam’s presence with a wave.
“Pull up a chair.”
Sam looked for a chair, but finding only a gray, four-legged metal stool with one foot missing, decided to stand. Walker lifted his head from a searingly bright bench light and looked at Sam through the thick lenses of a magnifying hood. “Where the hell did you get this?”
On the bench, encased in a protective glass canister, lay the artifact Karl Satsky had given Sawyer. The portion of human femoral stem married to the round black prosthesis was brown with obvious age.
“Have you dated it?”
Walker scowled. “It wasn’t easy. The only AMS unit I could get any time on is at A&M.” He jerked his head in the direction of College Station.
“And . . . ?” asked Sam.
“And what you brought me doesn’t make sense. It’s 100,000 years old. It dates back to the Eemian.”
“So it’s true . . .” muttered Sam.
“‘True’? Come on, Sam. What gives? Is this a joke?”
Crazy Satsky had been right. The cave and burial site he’d trusted Sam enough to show him was real. And the artifact—
“What’s the black material it was machined from? Metal?”
Walker looked disgusted. “Seriously? You want me to believe this isn’t some high-tech hoax? You know exactly what it is.”
Sam shrugged, extended both hands palms up, and lifted his eyebrows: Tell me.
Walker sighed. “Okay. I’ll play along.” He pointed to where bone met prosthesis. “It’s graphene. The femoral stem is somehow seamlessly bonded to a femoral head of graphene.”
“What the hell is graphene?”
Walker closed one eye and squinted with the other.
“This must have been part of a hip replacement, or at least made to look that way. Normally the femur is shaped to fit a prosthetic ball of titanium, cobalt chromium, stainless steel, or polymer, and then attached with cement. Usually, it’s a pretty crude join. But whoever did this is way beyond our technology. It looks like a natural extension of the femoral stem . . . and yet it’s graphene.”
Sam again lifted his palms and eyebrows. “More.”
“Oh, sorry. Figured if you were in on the hoax, you’d know. But right, we’re still playing. Okay. Graphene is a type of carbon, in the form of a plane of sp2-bonded atoms stacked one on top of the other. It’s the thinnest, lightest, strongest compound known to man. Geim and Novoselov discovered it in 2004 and won the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics for it.”
“Yeah, buddy. A big but. Like I said, this dates back 100,000 years. Graphene wasn’t discovered until 2004, so who do you think you’re kidding?”