The Father Shepherd Stories: Nothing Besides Remains
By John Reiher
Father Shepherd rode the lift down into the lowest levels of the archaeological dig, ancient remains from 500 years deep into the past. This was the first he had heard of the South Park Urban Landfill Archaeological Project. To him South Park was a collection of various residential and commercial properties, buildings that were nearly a hundred or more years old.
To find out that underneath them was a landfill site that had been in operation between the years 1948 and 1978 boggled his mind. That the region also used to be an industrial site… well, there were a few ancient buildings that looked like they were once warehouses, but as he later found out, those buildings were only 200 years old.
With him in the small lift car was the head of the dig, Dr. Hiram Fleischer. “They turned this place into an industrial complex in 2005 or 2010, as best we can tell,” said Dr. Fleischer. “But the body we found was in the lowest layers of the dump. We were able to positively date her death to exactly 500 years ago, in 1948.”
The body. It was reason the Father Shepherd was here. He had gotten a request to perform last rites on a murdered woman. What he hadn’t known at the time was that she had died over 500 years ago. He asked about who she was and found out about the project.
“How did you date her time of death again?” he asked.
“Newspapers,” replied the archaeologist. “The papers she was under were dated May, 1948 and later, so we definitely think she was killed in late April or early May and then wrapped up a canvas tarpaulin and dumped into the landfill.”
Father Shepherd shook his head. “So sad. Anyway, what’s a ‘newspaper’? Is that like the news feeds on Hypernet or Zerocom?”
“Basically, yes,” answered Fleischer. “They would print news and information on hundreds of thousands of sheets of low grade paper made from wood pulp and sell them for, what, 5 decicreds apiece. All your daily news in a bundle of about hundred or so sheets, not individual sheets mind you. Each newspaper consisted of several sections of of 16 or 24 pages each. Each section covered a set selection of topics, like editorials or sports. And we’re glad that they did all that printing. Otherwise we’d have almost no information about the 20th and early 21st centuries.”
“So how did all these newspapers survive?” asked Father Shepherd.
Dr. Fleischer tapped his nose and said, “Anaerobic conditions Father. No oxygen and everything was packed tight. In addition, everything here was just newspapers the local news printers didn’t sell. They dumped them here intact and in orderly bundles. Compressed down and they are still readable… with some work.”
The lift reached the bottom of the shaft and the two entered a warren of yellow walls of compressed newsprint and garbage. They coated these walls of pulp paper with yellow a sealant material. Some of walls were open to the air and junior archaeologists and students busily disassembled them.
Lite Stripes™ ran across a ceiling sealed with a composite carbon material that kept the roof from collapsing. The yellow green glow lit everything in the same sallow color. Only around the worktables were white lights illuminating the recovered material spread out over the laminated surface of the table.
“This is where we restore the newspapers that we pull from the stacks,” said Fleischer. “It’s a tedious process of nano-bonding a microdiamond surface to both sides of a page, but once that’s done, the paper is virtually impervious to casual harm or tearing.”
“You do this for all these newspapers?” Father Shepherd asked incredulously.
“Pardon me for saying this, but good God no,” laugh Fleischer. “We restore five complete copies for the same day and the rest… well, it’s wood pulp and there’s no market for wood pulp. Petrochemicals, now that’s a market. At the Cedar Hills site, they are pulling out a metric tonne of petrochemical plastics a day! That site pays for our work here.”
Father Shepherd’s eyebrows went up. “There is that much petroplastic in these landfills? Didn’t they recycle it?” he asked.
“No, not really,” replied Dr. Fleischer. “That was the era of cheap oil. They used oil to make just about everything they used, from paints to plastics to food additives. They even made medicines from oil. It was so plentiful. They never thought it would run out. Now we mine landfills for the stuff or pump it from moons like Titan.”
Looking about, Father Shepherd remembered something the archaeologist had said. “You mention that there is almost no information about 21st century, why?” he asked.
“The Digital age,” replied the other, “they digitized everything, and when the Lawless Years happened, all that information was lost. Only their garbage is left to tell us how they lived.”
“But what about the music, movies, and vid serials that we have from that time?” asked a puzzled Father.
“We have that because they used optical storage mediums called DVDs and CDs for all that,” replied Dr. Fleischer. “Of course, neither of those manufactured items had a lifespan beyond thirty to forty years, but it was how they were made that gave us access to this information. They made both of these storage media from metal dies. They would stamp out thousands of DVDs faster than one could burn them. Moreover, the master dies were carefully stored and held in climate-controlled vaults. We found vaults in Hong Kong, Singapore, Los Angeles, New York, all over Europe, and from these metal dies, were able to recover important vid serials like Gilligan’s Island, The Sopranos, Star Trek, Three’s Company and Doctor Who. We got movies like Some like it Hot, The Good, The Bad, The Ugly, and Laserblast. It’s a cultural heritage we would never have had, if it hadn’t been for those vaults.”
“They just held a showing of the stage play adaptation of Gilligan’s Island: Hamlet the Musical a month ago,” said the Father. “A four-hour musical adaptation, and it had such catchy tunes: ‘Ne’er a borrower, nor a lender be. Do not forget, stay out of debt!'”
Both men chuckled, and Dr. Fleischer said, “Yes, I saw that on the big stage on Staten Island in New York. Did you know that Broadway Avenue used to be the theater district in New York?”
Father Shepherd raised a disbelieving eyebrow, “Really? I went to seminary there, and Broadway was… well, they didn’t want us divinity students going anywhere near it.” He gave a sheepish grin, and said, “I took my wife there, we just walked around, and people watched. Let us say that at least three of the Ten Commandments were not being obeyed on that avenue.”
“Just three?” asked Dr. Fleischer with a grin.
“Well,” admitted the Father, “four, if you count the alien religions. I didn’t see any children disrespecting the parents, or people not observing the Sabbath, but you could make a case for coveting.” They both laughed.
“So, will we leave this much information behind?” Father Shepherd asked.
“Probably not, we recycle everything,” said Dr. Fleischer. “We’ll be lucky to leave behind good looking corpses. Sad, isn’t it?”
“Hmm, ‘nothing besides remains’?” quoted the Father, “That’s not too much ask for.” He sighed, then continued, “So, where is this unfortunate person?”
“This way Father,” said Dr. Fleischer and lead the other man down through more twisting tunnels and deeper underground.
They finally arrived in a large room the archaeologists had excavated. Support beams held the ceiling up and more of the Lite Stripes ran up the walls. In the center was a human-shaped indentation in the newsprint bundles. Against one wall of the excavation, was a large thermobox holding the deceased.
“Can you do this without seeing the body?” the archaeologist asked. “She’s… a bit squashed. She was under 50 meters of old newspapers and soil.”
“No sorry,” said Father Shepherd, “I’ll have to see and touch the body. The rites require it.”
Dr. Fleischer nodded and called over an assistant who first sprayed ISO-Glove compound on the men’s hands. It formed a thin blue layer of polymer plastic, protecting the wearer from any form of contamination. Another offered them facemasks as well as safety glasses.
Then the assistants unsealed the thermobox, cold fog forming as the chilled air hit the warmer air of the room. Father Shepherd looked inside and saw the body of a very flat young woman, her skin turned black from mummification. “I never did ask, but why did you ask for a priest?”
Dr. Fleischer pointed to the small gold chain around her neck, from which hung a small gold cross. “Someone hid her here. She never got a proper burial and she never had her last rites. I belong to the Church of Jesus Christ the Protector, so I thought, well, it wouldn’t hurt to make sure she’s at rest, and who better than a priest of my own religion?”
Father Shepherd nodded, and laid out items for the rite. “Is it alright for me to anoint her with holy water? It’s distilled.”
Thinking for a second, Dr. Fleischer shrugged, and said, “I don’t think a couple of drops will do any irreparable harm. Sure thing Father.”
“Thank you,” said Father Shepherd. He put on his stole, and then lifted up his facemask. He kissed his cross, then took the proffered sanitized wipe and cleaned it. Pulling down the facemask he stepped over to the body anointed it with a few drops of holy water.
He then prayed, “Almighty Father, eternal God, Ruler of the Universe, hear our prayers for Your daughter, whose name we do not know, but who has passed from this life to the afterlife unjustly. Grant her light, happiness, and peace. Let her pass in safety through the gates of death, and live forever with all Your saints in the light You promised to Abraham and to all his descendants in faith. Your son died for her sins and gave her eternal life in Your kingdom. We ask this through your son, Jesus Christ our Protector. Amen.”
The others in the room echoed the “Amen”.
The thermobox was resealed and the assistants went back to work. Father Shepherd put his vestments back into his shoulder bag. “So, do you think you’ll ever know who she was?”
Dr. Fleischer peeled off the ISO-Glove polymer and said, “Well, we might. Whoever hid her here moved those bundles to bury her. So we know she was alive before she was put here. So we’re hoping that in the strata layers above her there will be a news report of her disappearance. We know her hair color, her height, and approximate weight. We might be able to deduce her eye color. Knock on wood.” He rapped the newspapers with his knuckles. “However, I’m not sure what more we could do. All the records are gone, so if she has living relatives…” he shrugged again.
“Chances are that’s a no,” replied Father Shepherd scrubbing the polymer from the hair on the back of his hands. “This area saw at least three population migrations in the past five hundred years. Chances are slim. But you’re going to sequence her DNA and hopefully find a match anyway, aren’t you?”
That got an eyebrow rise from the other. “Yes,” he said slowly, “are you an amateur archaeologist by chance?”
“No,” said Father Shepherd, “not really. I just studied some of that in the seminary: The history of the great migrations during the Lawless Years through DNA analysis. A big eye opener at how much mixing went on in the supposedly ‘genetically pure’ enclaves. We’re all mongrels on this world.”
Dr. Fleischer nodded.
“So, pardon my morbid curiosity, but…” started Father Fletcher.
“‘…How did she die?’” finished Dr. Fleischer. “She wasn’t shot, but her neck…” he paused while he considered his reply. “Her neck was broken. Sadly we can’t tell yet if it was an accident or on purpose. However, the fact that she was wrapped up in a tarpaulin and buried in a landfill site… It looks like murder.”
It was Father Shepherd’s turn to consider what he was going to say next. “Doctor, do you plan to give her a proper burial after you’re done examining her?”
Dr. Fleischer nodded, “Yes, but after we’ve had time to exam her. We’ll do a ‘preservation’ burial, encasing her body in compounds that will retard her from decaying. Though her current mummified state will help in that. Do you want to be the one to bury her?”
Father Shepherd nodded, “Yes please…”
It was two years later that Father Shepherd got the call to officiate at the burial of the mystery woman. Only she wasn’t a mystery anymore.
“Adeline Margaret Johansson,” read Father Shepherd on his reader. “Mother of two, married to Seth Alan Johansson.”
“They couldn’t prove it was her husband who did it,” said Dr. Fleischer. “The paper covered this story for four months, while the police investigated him. They dropped it when he got a postcard from her in Quincy, Indiana. But the face…”
The reader showed the reconstructed photograph of her next to the restored face of the body. It was the same face. “He must have had someone he knew send him a postcard,” he continued. “It was good enough to convince the police that she was still alive. However, what happened after that is a mystery. Once there was no longer a story…”
“They dropped it and went on to the next tragedy,” said Father Shepherd. “Sad, her children never saw her again or knew what happened to her. What drives a man to murder the woman he loves? If we knew that…” He shrugged.
The two men walked to the mausoleum, “So this is where you inter people for future study?” he asked.
Smiling, Dr. Fleischer nodded, “It’s sanctified ground, but it’s entirely for use by us archaeologists and anthropologists. There’s several bodies in there that we are saving for future researchers.”
“Who sanctified it?” asked Father Shepherd.
“A Jesuit about fifty years ago,” replied Dr. Fleischer. “He was very flamboyant and I think he rather like creating a mausoleum for science.”
They entered the crypt through a pair of automatic doors. Inside the walls were tastefully covered in marble and granite, each vault had a granite blank waiting for a name or identification to be added to it.
“Most of our residents here are from between 1720 and 2210,” said the archaeologist, “some are from the early settlements in the region, the majority were from the west coast of this province. They were Victims of the Great Tsunami of 2034. And this one…” he pointed at a name plate, “Is a man killed by the eruption of Mount Rainer days later. The lahar that swept down the side of the volcano and buried Tacoma also buried him. That’s a place I would love to dig, but it’s protected. Getting permission is like trying to marry your sister… err, something really hard to do.” He grinned sheepishly.
Father Shepherd waved it off, and then focused on the vault waiting on the two of them. The casket shelf was fully extended and a utilitarian metal coffin was resting on it. Several students and a couple of reporters were waiting.
The ceremony was brief but heartfelt. Dr. Fleischer said a few words about Mrs. Johansson and the cause of her demise. A few questions were asked, and then the coffin was retracted into its vault, a hiss sealing it tight.
“So Father, any hope of finding any descendants?” asked a reporter.
Father Shepherd sadly shook his head, “There’s not much chance of that. Dr. Fleischer told me that her DNA has spread far and wide in the population, it’s a good chance that even you might be related to her.”
That perked up the reporter, who then went over to Dr. Fleischer for more information.
Father Shepherd walked over to the vault seal and read the plaque attached to it. “I’m sorry Adeline that your murderer wasn’t caught. He or she has met justice with God. Go my child, and find peace. Your children are waiting for you…”
Father Shepherd 2008©John H. Reiher Jr.
The Father Shepherd Stories are a series of tales I wrote about the good father. They are set in the FTL:2448 game universe on Earth. The Father Shepherd stories are parables about different aspects of life and living in a future where there are aliens and multiple beliefs and gods. Belief has changed over the centuries, including a period where the Northern Hemisphere slid back to barbarism and only with the help of Brazil, South Africa and Australia did man claw back and go to the stars. This version is an expansion of a earlier version, adding more of the world and issues faced by the good father. It’s also a story about impermanence like the famous Ozymandius, what we leave behind is only remains…