Time’s Cruel Sands

“Looks like scratches to me”

I grabbed the magnifying glass from Tank’s hand and dragged him closer to the light in the hallway. “Come over here where the light is better.”

He took the black handled lens back and peered closely at the pocket watch I’d picked up at a nearby pawn shop. Tank said he still couldn’t see any treasure map, making me scowl and demand he give the watch back.

“I never said there was a map,” I snapped, “but some letters along the rim. Greek, perhaps.”

“Greek?”

“Or Phoenician, but who in the world would write in Phoenician on the case of a watch?” My roommate turned the timepiece this way and that, trying to gain a better view through the glass. “Let me borrow that ancient languages textbook of yours from last semester. With any luck, I can decipher this and be on my way before Mandy stops by.”

Amanda McIntyre was a gorgeous sophomore he’d been tutoring for close to a month and definitely worth some alone-time, if you know what I mean. Dorm rooms were far too tiny for much: two beds, a table, lamp, and fold-up chair I brought from home, as well as a banged up mini fridge where leftover pizza went to die. Hell, we were freshmen living on campus and couldn’t afford much else.

“Yeah, sure. Secret writing on a crappy old watch. Kind of like last week, when you found that rare first edition comic?”

I winced, remembering how crushed I was when the dealer at the mall told me how much my ‘find’ was worth. “So can I use the book or not?” I shot back.

Tank dug around in his closet and extracted a thick textbook, which he dropped into my outstretched hand. I immediately flipped through the pages to identify the writing I’d seen.

“Am I interrupting something,”

Tank and I spun around to see Amanda standing in the doorway, holding her World History books provocatively across her chest.

“Umm…sorry, Tank. I need to get going.” I said, grabbing the book along with some paper and a pen. “If you need me, I’ll be down at the break area studying.”

Tank looked at Amanda, who shrugged as if to say ‘humor the dope’ and he whispered to me as I edged past, “Take your time, Rick.”

I settled into an empty chair where the light was brightest and used the magnifying glass to sketch the tiny letters. They were Greek according to the textbook, from the classical period about a hundred years before Christ, and a chart in the back of the text made translation easy. It read:

/ A device out of time lost at sea for ages /
/ marks a message well hid in a sea of pages /
/ Trust only the holder of time’s cruel sands /
/ and unlock with the key from Zimmerman’s hands. /

“What is that supposed to mean?” said Tank, when I showed him my work. In the background, I could see Amanda sitting on his bed looking quite annoyed at the interruption.

“Think about it,” I said. “A ‘sea of pages’. Where can somebody find lots of pages? At the library, of course.” Tank shrugged and pushed me away to close the door. “Why don’t you go and check out the library?”

Hours later, I finally admitted to myself that the library was a dead end. I found some interesting books on ancient Greece, even a mention of some encrusted gears found that seemed too advanced for their age, but nothing resembling a clue. No writing on pages, inserted slips of paper, nothing. So much for my finding the message in a sea of papers, I thought.

The reading lounge was pretty empty for a Sunday afternoon, so I sprawled out across the couch, put some tunes on my MP3 player, and nodded off. In my dreams, I was stranded with the cast of Gilligan’s Island and the Professor needed my help making a computer out of coconut shells and bamboo. We got a picture, but it was all jumbled up and no matter how hard I clicked with a poor tethered crab for a mouse, I couldn’t get the text on the screen to make sense.

I awoke with a start, realizing that what I had missed. “Wrong sea,” I said as I looked at the banks of public computers and sat down at the first one with a lit screen. Maybe the inscription wasn’t talking about pages in a book. What if it meant web pages?

“What were those gears called? Anti…something. Here it is. Anthikythera mechanism.”

There were over 84,000 matching pages, so I tried to narrow the search to something manageable. I tried words and phrases from the inscription with either too many or too few results to help. When I added “cruel sands” to the search, one item on the results page leaped out at me. In the summary below the link was a name – H.R. Glass. Hourglass. Holder of time’s cruel sands.

I clicked on the link which led to an old publicly-edited encyclopedia that fell out of favor after Wikipedia exploded onto the internet. The entry duplicated the same old facts I’d seen on other sites right down to the stock photograph of encrusted gears.

“Crap. Just another dead end, Ricky, old boy. So where would you hide a message on a web page?”

“In the source code,” answered a voice behind me. A pretty blonde stood there tapping something into her sequined cell phone, looking quite annoyed at its tiny screen. “Damn it, Kim. You were supposed to be here an hour ago.”

I grinned and thanked my beautiful savior. “If she doesn’t answer, I’ll give you a ride just as soon as I check on one more thing.”

She smiled, grabbed an empty spot beside mine, and introduced herself. “Gina.”

“Rick.”

It took me a couple of tries to figure out how to view the source code behind the web page, then Gina took pity on me and helped navigate the patchwork of tags and text used to display the article.

“There’s your message,” she said, scrolling the cursor over rows filled with five digit numbers that weren’t visible on the regular page. “So what is it supposed to mean?”

“It is some sort of code,” I said and briefly explained what I had found so far. “I’m betting Zimmerman could tell us how to read it if we only knew who Zimmerman was.”

I ran a quick search for ‘Zimmerman’ and ‘code’, which revealed references to a cryptic WWI telegram sent to entice Mexico into joining Germany’s side, which helped turn the U.S. against Germany. Another article described the process they used to decipher the code, and after pages of scribbled notes and crumpled attempts littered the floor, we succeeded in reconstructing the hidden message.

TO MY DAUGHTER

IT PAINS ME TO KNOW THAT I WILL NOT SEE YOU GROW INTO A BEAUTIFUL WOMAN LIKE YOUR MOTHER, BUT WE OFTEN DO NOT GET TO CHOOSE HOW LIFE UNFOLDS. DEATH WILL ROB ME OF THE CHANCE TO MEET YOU, SO I CAREFULLY SEEDED MESSAGES SUCH AS THIS ACROSS THE NETWORKS IN HOPES THAT YOU WILL FIND THEM IN TIME AND HEAR THE ECHOES OF A FATHER WHO LOVED YOU DEARLY. LET MY FATHER’S WATCH CONTINUE TO GUIDE YOU AS IT ONCE GUIDED ME.

WITH LOVE, DAD

“Do you think she knows?”

I sat back and took my glasses off, resting them near the tarnished gold watch that started everything. “I don’t know. Someone should find out, though. I guess that someone is me.”

Gina’s ride arrived and she hesitated, unsure if she should go. She placed a hand on my shoulder, then stooped to give me a kiss on the cheek. “I’m glad I met you, Rick. Call me if you want some help?”

“I will. And, Gina?”

“Yes?”

“Thanks.”

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