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                                             All the Time in the World
                                                                                                           John Lake
 
The object was located with ultrasound scanning deep beneath the site of the new mall, before construction began. Dozens of such artificial items were discovered to be down there, as before most new builds on what little reusable land still remained.
 
The chief archaeologist, a young woman sent up by the national authorities, brought in an outsourced team to analyse all of it then unearth and remove everything of potential value to the depth required by law. Anything deeper than that, the agreed stratum limit of the digital era, belonged to future historians with more time and better technology.
 
Historically, green belts tended to yield pre-industrial artefacts from many hundreds of years ago, but very little so-called green land nowadays was unreclaimed – and the once-paved layers below were likely to contain the kinds of remains they were looking for. The past had always been a rich source of inferred information – the possible truths of buried architectures and designs, and what the evidence suggested about practices and customs – but now the human race could also retrieve recorded information, on trashed hard drives and any manner of discarded digital devices from ages gone by that science could now restore. In such a fashion, much that wasn't previously online was being recovered, processed and continually inputted to the creation of a virtual history, the world's greatest ever simulacrum of itself.
 
Dr Grady never gave her first name to the construction crew, already on site, with whom she had to liaise. 'Call me Grady,' was all she said, and none of them overheard any of her own team address her by any other name or term. 'Grady, I've got those stats ready.' 'Grady, take a look at this.' 'Something interesting in sector K, Grady.' It was all business with her. Grady remained not detached but certainly impersonal throughout the dig. Whether squinting at diagrams on a screen or getting dirt under her fingernails, her focus on the work was mechanistic and obsessively thorough, to the point where the construction crew wondered if she was as human as she looked.
 
The depth of the interesting object in sector K suggested it dated back to the turn of the millennium. The scans showed a chaotic mosaic of hundreds of bits and pieces of detritus, abandoned layer on layer through the ages, within the footprint of the new build, but the work of Grady's analysts, to isolate any elements indicating the presence of microchips, was restricted to above the limit of the digital stratum, where only a couple of handfuls of items seemed to deserve their attention. One of the elements they were tracking for, gold, had been detected inside the object in sector K.
 
'The interesting thing about this is that it's buried inside a stainless-steel container, and if you look at the striation patterns in the ground around it, it looks like it was placed there deliberately,' said the analyst over Grady's shoulder, leaving her to draw the obvious conclusion.
'Is it a capsule?' she said, looking up from the screen.
 
'We'll know if we bring it up.'
 
Grady wasted no time deciding. 'Add it to the list.'
 
The next stage, the digging and recovery, was a slow process. The team initially worked manually to a depth of six feet, labouring the old-fashioned way, hunched in the dirt with trowels and brushes. During this phase the team carefully unearthed and removed all items of potential academic, commercial or cultural value. The work took a full month and gave Grady that loamy whiff of proper archaeology that she secretly loved, while beyond the tape the builders tinkered with their schematics and got on with the shipping in and stacking of construction materials in readiness for the go-ahead to lay the foundations.
 
The next stage of the dig was much shorter, just a few days, as the robotic arm drilled deeper into the earth for the rest of the targeted items on the list. The true archaeologist in Grady hated this, as the arm ground its way through who knew what lost treasures of the past en route towards its specified goals, and she thought of those far future historians, if any were left, in a time ahead when the as yet unbuilt mall would be long gone.
 
When the arm brought up the object in sector K, Grady had it sent straight to the lab where it could be investigated under appropriate conditions. She oversaw the job herself, working alongside two of her best analysts. What they were looking at was a snub-nosed-bullet-shaped canister some twenty centimeters in height and seven in diameter. A check of the database confirmed it to be a vacuum-flask, of late-twentieth-century manufacture by the design.
 
'Open it,' said Grady.
 
After centuries in compacted ground, the flask would take some force to open. The operation was done remotely in an incubation pod, against risk of contamination. The cap shrieked as the robotic arm unscrewed it, then tipped out the contents gently onto the floor of the chamber. A yellowed sheet of stationery paper, a square of photographic paper, two gold rings and two locks of human hair – one a virulent black, the other, withered and grey.
 
'Nothing digital,' said one of the analysts.
 
'No matter,' said Grady. 'Gather up the items and put them into isolation storage for now. Scan those texts, first, and send them to my screen as soon as the results come through.'
 
Grady waited in her site office for the information to arrive from the lab, pacing the small space deep in thought. Time capsules were rare, but still numerous, and had been known to open up new areas of knowledge about the past, knowledge vital to the construction of the simulacrum. Illustrious careers had been built on their discovery. Depending on what was on that paper, this could be her route into pure academia. When the data package pinged up ten minutes later she was mentally listing the living luminaries in her field and the various chairs they occupied in prestigious institutes across the globe.
 
Grady took a deep breath, sat down calmly at her desk and opened the files.
The first text was a handwritten letter – a message in a bottle that had sailed all the way from the distant past to the distant future.
 
'To Whoever Might Find This,
 
This was my son David's idea. You see, when my husband Frank and I first
wed we thought we had all the time in the world together. But Frank was a
soldier and he went and died young, long before his time, killed in a war he
didn't even support. That was many years ago, and all I have left of him now
are his wedding ring and a lock of his hair. I never remarried. Frank was the
love of my life, except I've had to live most of it without him. I don't believe in
God or any kind of afterlife so I never thought Frank and I could ever be
reunited until David told me about DNA. He said that in the future they might
be able to clone people back to life, and that the clones could retain
memories from their former lives. If you're reading this, I don't know whether
that's true or not, but if it is, I wonder if you could you find it in your heart to
bring me and my Frank back together again, so that we can have the precious
time that was taken from us.
 
Yours in hope and faith,
 
Mrs Caroline Williams.'
 
Grady examined the photograph. Time had faded it beyond any unaided distinction but the guys in the lab had managed to recapture a milky image of a handsome young couple, smiling for the camera, arm in arm, at the seaside of a coastline that no longer existed.
The seaside. A needle of nostalgia pinned down a butterfly of memory in Grady's head. In the photograph, the boy's black hair and the girl's blonde hair fluttered in the sea breeze. They looked windswept and happy and in love.
 
Grady was touched, though it was hardly going to bring her the academic credence she was after. But as she looked at the girl in the photo, she pictured a veined, twisted, shaky hand taking scissors to a thin, white wisp and placing it next to Frank's hair inside the flask. After several minutes' thought, she contacted the lab.
 
'Were any contaminants found on the objects from sector K?'
 
'Negative,' said her colleague.
 
Grady kept him hanging on in silence while she studied the photograph for another moment.
 
'OK, prep those locks of hair for removal to the bio lab. In fact, send them the rings and the letter and the picture as well. Tell them, for what it's worth, I'm recommending these two for culture and rehabilitation.' 
 
'I'll get right on it, Grady,' said the analyst at the lab.

 

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