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ARLINGTON NATIONAL CEMETERY ARLINGTON, VIRGINIA
Conrad Yeats kept a good three steps behind the flag-draped coffin. Six horses pulled the caisson toward the gravesite, their hooves clomping like a cosmic metronome in the heavy air. Each resounding clap proclaimed the march of time, the brevity of life. In the distance lightning flickered across the dark sky. But still no rain.
Conrad looked over at Marshall Packard. The secretary of defense walked beside him, his Secret Service agents a few paces behind with the other mourners from all branches of America's armed forces, umbrellas at the ready.
Conrad said, "It's not often you bury a soldier four years after his death."
"No, it's not," said Packard, a fireplug of a former pilot known for his unflagging intensity. "I wish it hadn't taken this long. But you're the only one who knows the extraordinary way in which your father met his end."
Packard had delivered a stirring eulogy for his old wingman "the Griffter" back at the military chapel up the hill. What Packard had failed to mention, Conrad knew, was that he hated the Griffter's guts. The two men had had a falling out over Conrad's unusual role at the Pentagon years ago, which involved identifying secret targets for bunker-busting cruise missiles: underground military installations and nuclear facilities in the Middle East that America's enemies were building beneath archaeological sites for protection. Packard couldn't believe that Conrad, the world's foremost expert on megalithic architecture, would risk destroying civilization's most ancient treasures. The Griffter couldn't believe that Packard would risk American lives to preserve a few unturned stones that had already yielded all the information that archaeologists like Conrad needed to know about the dead culture that built them. The clash ended with an aborted air strike on the pyramid at Ur in Iraq and the revocation of Conrad's Top Secret security clearance from the Department of Defense.
"He wasn't my biological father," Conrad reminded Packard. "I was adopted."
There was a lot more Conrad could say, none of it helpful right now. Especially about how he had nothing to do with the planning of this funeral, how the Pentagon wouldn't even let him see the tombstone his father had picked out for himself before he had died, and, most of all, how Conrad was certain that the man they were burying today could not possibly be his father.
"Level with me, son." Packard glanced to his left and right. "Did you kill him?"
Conrad locked eyes with Packard, the man he called "Uncle MP" as a child and feared more than anybody else except his father. "Your people performed the autopsy, Mr. Secretary. Why don't you tell me?"
The two men said nothing more on the way down the hill to the gravesite.
Conrad suspected that the DOD had spent tens of millions of American taxpayer dollars over the past four years to locate the remains of USAF Gen. Griffin Yeats. It was all in the vain hope of finding out what happened to the billions more his father had squandered in a black ops mission to Antarctica during which dozens of soldiers from various countries had perished.
What Conrad and his father had found was none other than the lost civilization of Atlantis. And just when they were about to uncover its secrets, that ancient world was destroyed in a massive explosion that purportedly killed his father, sank an ice shelf the size of California, and sent a catastrophic tsunami to Indonesia that killed thousands.
The only other survivor of the ill-fated Antarctica expedition besides Conrad was Sister Serena Serghetti, the famed Vatican linguist and environmental activist. But the impossibly beautiful Sister Serghetti, or "Mother Earth" as she was dubbed by the media, wasn't talking to the United States or U.N. about Antarctica or lost civilizations. Nor was she talking to Conrad.
The long, bitter road ended here, at a belated funeral ceremony for a general more feared than revered, and a corpse that finally allowed the Pentagon to save face and bury the whole affair with full military honors.
For Conrad it was a homecoming of sorts to the only family he had left: the U.S. Armed Forces, even if he was its black sheep.
At the gravesite stood a gray-haired U.S. Air Force chaplain, an open Bible in hand. "I am the resurrection and the life," he said, quoting Jesus and gazing straight at Conrad. "He who believes in me, though he dies, yet shall he live."
Six Blue Angel fighter jets streaked overhead in a missing-man formation. As they peeled up into the dark skies, the thunder from their rainbow-colored vapor trails faded and an unearthly silence descended upon the gravesite.
As Conrad watched the flag being lifted off the coffin and folded, he remembered his school days as a military brat when his dad was a test pilot, like many of the other dads at the base. The sound of jets had filled the base playground. But every now and then there'd be a sputter or pop and all the kids would stop playing and listen to the long whistle, waiting to hear the poof of an ejector lid blowing. You knew who was flying that day just by looking at the faces. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred he would look up and see a chute open. But if it didn't, two days later he would be standing at a funeral just like this one, watching a friend's mom receive the flag and disappear from his life.
The miracle, he thought, was that it took this long for his turn to come.
Packard presented Conrad with his father's Legion of Merit award, his Purple Heart medal, some obscure medal from the Society of Cincinnati, and the flag from the coffin. The flag was folded neatly into a triangle of stars. The stars, so crisp and white against the dark navy blue, seemed to glow.
"On behalf of a grateful America," Packard told him, "our condolences."
The oppressive air was suddenly and violently broken by the crack of gunfire as the seven member rifle team shot the first of three volleys.
A lone bugler played Taps, and Conrad looked on as the casket was lowered into the earth. He felt angry, empty and lost. Despite his doubts that his father was in that casket and his feeling that this whole charade was yet another attempt by the military to bring closure to a mission gone bad, the full weight of his father's death sank in, a sense of loss more profound than Conrad expected.
His father often spoke of fellow Apollo astronauts who had "been to the moon" and then came back to Earth only to find civilian life wanting. Now Conrad knew what his father had been talking about. Everything Conrad had been searching for his entire life he had discovered in Antarctica, including Serena. Now it was all lost.
Gone were the days when Conrad was a world class archaeologist whose deconstructionist philosophy -- namely, that ancient monuments weren't nearly so important as the information they yielded about their builders -- led to mayhem and media coverage in many of the world's hot spots.
Gone, too, was his academic reputation after disastrous digs in Luxor and later Antarctica, where he had returned only to find that any traces of Atlantis had vanished.
Gone, last of all, was his relationship with Serena, the one ruin in his life he actually cared about.
Someone coughed and Conrad looked up in time to see the chaplain step aside from the grave, the sweep of his vestment parting like a curtain to unveil the tombstone behind him.
The sight sucked the air from Conrad's lungs.
Like some of the older stones in the cemetery, his father's tombstone was in the shape of an obelisk, just like the 555-foot-tall Washington Monument in the distance. This obelisk was a little over three feet tall. Inscribed in a circle near the top was a Christian cross. Beneath the cross were the words:
US AIR FORCE
MAY 4 1945
KILLED IN ACTION
SEPT 21 2004
Unlike any other obelisk at Arlington, however, this one had three constellations engraved on one side, and on the other a strange sequence of numbers he couldn't quite make out from where he was standing. The markings were bizarre by any measure, and yet familiar all the same. Four years ago in Antarctica Conrad had come across a similar obelisk.
Conrad stared at the tombstone, an uneasy feeling creeping up his spine.
It had to be a message from his father.
Conrad's heart pounded as he caught Packard watching him. Other mourners were staring, too, watching him. Belatedly, Conrad recognized the faces of five senior Pentagon code breakers and two hostage negotiators among the gathering. Then it dawned on him: This burial service wasn't meant for his father. And it wasn't meant for the DOD, to save face. It was meant for him. It was all some kind of setup.
They're gauging my reaction.
Conrad felt a surge of fight-or-flight in his veins, but he kept a poker face for the rest of the service. Afterward, the funeral party dispersed, and a few tourists drifted down the hillside from the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier to watch from a distance as the horses clomped away with the empty caisson. Only he and Packard were left at the grave, along with a younger man who looked vaguely familiar to Conrad.
"Conrad, I'd like you to meet Max Seavers," Packard said. "He's your father's acting replacement at DARPA."
DARPA stood for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and was the Pentagon's research and development organization. Among other things, DARPA took credit for inventing stealth technology, the global positioning system, and the Internet. DARPA's mission was to maintain America's technological superiority and to prevent any other power on earth from challenging that superiority. That mission is what sent his father and, ultimately, Conrad to Antarctica four years ago.
Conrad looked at Seavers and remembered now where he had seen the sandy locks, the dimpled jaw, and the piercing blue eyes before. Seavers, barely 30, was the Bill Gates of biotech and a fixture in business magazines. A few years ago Seavers had turned over his day job running his big pharma company, SeaGen, in order to devote himself to "a higher calling" by developing and distributing vaccines to fight disease in Third World countries. Now, it appeared, he had been called to public service.
"A younger and, hopefully, wiser DARPA, I see," Conrad said, offering his hand.
Seavers's iron grip as they shook hands felt like ice. And his gaze conveyed all the warmth of a scientist in a white lab coat studying a microscopic specimen of bacteria at the bottom of a petri dish.
"We still take America's technological superiority seriously, Dr. Yeats." Seavers spoke in a baritone voice that sounded too deep for his age. "And we could always use a man with your unique skills."
"And what skills would those be?"
"Cut the bullshit, Yeats." Packard glanced both ways to see if anybody was within earshot, leaned over and rasped. "Tell us the meaning of this."
"Meaning of what?"
"This." Packard pointed to the obelisk. "What's the deal?"
"I'm supposed to know?"
"Damn right you're supposed to know. Those astrological signs. The numbers. You're the world's foremost astro-archaeologist."
It sounded funny coming out of Packard's mouth: astro-archaeologist. But that's what he was these days, an archaeologist who used the astronomical alignments of pyramids, temples, and other ancient landmarks to date their construction and the civilizations that erected them. His specialty hadn't made him rich yet. But over the years it had given him his own now-canceled reality TV show called Ancient Riddles, exotic adventures with young female fans, and the expertise to spend an obscene amount of other people's money -- mostly Uncle Packard's.
"Hey, your people handled all the funeral arrangements," Conrad said. "Couldn't your brilliant cryptologists at the Pentagon crack it?"
Seavers steamed but said nothing.
Conrad sighed. "For all we know, Mr. Secretary, this obelisk is probably another sick joke to send us around the world looking for clues that ultimately lead to a statue of Dad giving us all the finger."
"You know him better than that, son."
"Obviously a lot better than you did, sir, if you and your code breakers can't figure it out. Why do you even care?"
Packard glowered at him. "Your father was a test pilot, an astronaut, and the head of DARPA. If it involves him, it's vital to national security."
"Dr. Serghetti is the real expert on this sort of thing," Conrad said. "But I'm looking around and don't see any sign of her."
"And see that you don't, son," Packard said. "This is a state secret. And Sister Serghetti is an agent of a foreign power."
Conrad blinked. "So now the Vatican is a foreign power?"
"I don't see the pope taking orders from the president, do you?" Packard said. "You are to share nothing with that girl. And I expect you to report any attempt by her to reestablish contact with you."
If only, Conrad thought, as Packard walked away with Max Seavers.
It had started to drizzle, and Conrad watched the pair march down the hill to the secret service detail, which welcomed them with two open umbrellas and escorted them to the convoy of limousines, town cars, and SUVs. Conrad counted nine vehicles parked on the narrow road. Before the funeral procession he had counted eight.
One by one the cars left, until a single black limousine remained. He was certain it wasn't the cab he called for. He'd give it another two minutes to show up before he walked down to the main gate and hailed another.
Conrad studied the obelisk in the rain.
"Now what have you gotten me into, Dad?"
Whatever answers he was looking for, however, had apparently died with his father four years ago.
He turned again toward the road and splashed toward the limousine to tell Packard's boys to take the day off.
Conrad felt a strange electricity in the air even before he recognized beefy Benito behind the wheel. Then the window came down and he saw Serena Serghetti sitting in back. His blood jumped.
"Don't just stand there, mate," she told him in her bold Australian accent. "Get in."
Copyright © 2008 by Thomas Greanias