The Fo’dekai Artifact

J.D. Moyer


Darren looked at the red dirt encrusting his jeans. It didn’t matter. He could buy new jeans with what the old man was paying him. And new shoes, and maybe a car. Though he would still feel dirty, like a traitor, at least to his Hopi great-grandfather. But old man Coover’s cash paid the bills. TA’ing at UA wasn’t even covering the ascetic life he was accustomed to.

He stepped carefully out of the grid, climbed the dirt ramp, and poured a glass of warm water. It had been ice cold an hour ago. Today was a boiler, even for Arizona in the summer.

The dig site was rich with bone tools, arrowheads, beads, and pottery shards. Rich as Scrooge McDuck, the old man would once again make a killing. The San Juan Paiute and the Hopi despised him, called him a thief and grave robber. But it was the old man’s private land, and so far he’d won in court.

Darren told himself that what he dug up was just centuries old junk. What someone might find in the ruins of his own place after civilization collapsed and forests took over and an Ice Age or two scraped everything flat.

And in a way, the artifacts weren’t important. But the stories they told were.

He looked over the day’s finds: a pair of slender bone tools — maybe sewing needles, some shells that were probably the remains of a necklace, a single obsidian arrowhead. He’d handled the arrowhead carefully, remembering that the Southern Paiute had sometimes coated their weapons with poison. Plant-based toxins would have long degraded, but still …

He looked up and saw the old man’s assistant approaching. Milagro. In Spanish, miracle, or surprise. She was fortyish, skin a shade darker than his. She reached for the pitcher. “I’ll refill this for you.”

“Thanks. It’s a hot one.”

She peered at the collecting table, regarding each item intently. “He’ll be pleased.”

“I think so. It’s a rich site. He sure can pick ’em.”

Back to the pit. He worked dexterously, alternating between small shovel, hand pick, and brush. The pick hit something with a muted clang, like a bell filled with dirt. Iron ore? This wasn’t gold country, and there shouldn’t be any man-made metallic objects this deep.

Delicately, with a small pick and brush, he extracted the object, a slender tube, rounded on each end like a vitamin capsule. Slightly longer than his index finger, but heavy, like gold or lead. He rubbed off a patch of red dirt to reveal a gleaming dark surface, perfectly smooth, without a spot of corrosion. A non-ferrous alloy, or ceramic, or polished stone.

Without a thought he slipped the object into the pocket of his jeans. Whatever it was, it wasn’t a Paiute artifact. The old man wouldn’t miss it.



Back in his rented room, Darren took out the object and examined it closely under the desk lamp. No openings. He tried to twist it. He shook it and listened. Nothing. He’d assumed a modern origin due to the thing’s precise, machined look, but he couldn’t rule out the possibility that some master Paiute artisan had carved and polished it, perhaps from a chunk of onyx. Maybe he shouldn’t have taken it.

He took pictures, drafted an email to his thesis advisor, attached the images, but held off sending them. He didn’t want to explain where he’d found it, why he was in Fredonia for the summer. The other grad students might understand, but the faculty would frown on the mercenary nature of his employment.

He rinsed it off, the water turning orange from the dust. Wet, it was slippery to the touch, trying to leap out of his hand. He wanted to show it to someone.

Helena, one of his two landlady/housemates, was watching TV in the common room. Sarah, who had an early training run the next day, had already gone to bed.

“Helena — what do you think this is?”

Helena stared at the artifact and extended her hand. He placed the dark cylinder in her palm, then instantly wished he hadn’t.

“I found it at the dig.”

Helena hunched over the object. Darren suppressed an impulse to grab it back. 

She looked at her fingers, rubbed them against her thumb. “Weird. It feels moist, but it isn’t.”

He extended his hand, awkwardly. “I have to bring it back tomorrow.”

“It doesn’t seem modern or ancient. Strange.” She shrugged and gave it back.

His hand closed around it with relief and he returned to his room.



Darren sat in Eliot H. Von Coover’s study, staring up at a resentful-looking fox. The walls were filled with books and the heads of dead animals, Coover’s trophies. Medals, degrees, and honors filled the gaps between the bookshelves and his victim’s heads. Casually, the old man had mentioned a dizzying array of previous occupations: Air Force pilot, elephant trainer, Wall Street analyst, voice actor, boxing promoter, and student of Native American prehistory.

“I found it, yesterday, at the site.” He’d decided to come clean, turn over the artifact first thing.

The black capsule sat in the center of Eliot’s wide walnut desk. The old man eyed it warily. “Did you wash it?” he asked.

“I gave it a rinse.” Darren checked his neck glands. Still a little swollen, and his throat was scratchy, though whatever bug he’d woken up with was already receding. “I thought it was modern.”

“Why did you think that?”

“It seemed too symmetrical to be handmade.”

“You found it when?”

“End of the day.”

“You should have turned it in with the other objects. And you shouldn’t have washed it.”

“Sorry. I didn’t think it was old at the time.”

“Anything you find on my property is mine. I’ll determine what’s important.”

“Yes sir.”

“We have an understanding then. Let’s see about this.” With a silk handkerchief, Eliot gingerly picked up the artifact.

“I thought it might be black onyx.”

The old man shook his head. “Don’t think so. No silica banding … color is too consistent. And the weight would indicate a heavy metal.”

“So it’s not ancient then?”

“Modern, I would guess. You found it on the same level as the relics? Anything else nearby? Old beer cans? Pull tabs? Nails?”

“No. And it was too deep for a trash hole.”

The old man deliberately transferred the object from the handkerchief to his open palm, then looked surprised. “Interesting texture.”

There was a knock on the door and Milagro came in with the old man’s mail. Her eyes lingered on the artifact before she left.

“I’m pleased with your work,” said Eliot. He’d managed to make the compliment sound like a warning. Don’t make me unpleased, by stealing my relics.



Darren worked the site for three more weeks, recovering dozens of San Juan Southern Paiute artifacts. Each day the old man handed him crisp one hundred dollar bills, at least fifteen of them, sometimes a few more according to some complicated formula that existed only in Coover’s head. Darren didn’t need to know. It was already the richest summer of his life.



The first dreams were absent of plot or events. Just scenic visions of a strange world, flying over blood-red deserts, black oceans, purple forests. Darren sensed a planet being constructed, layer-by-layer, in his mind. No animals or people, just terrain and flora. He mentioned the dreams to Helena.

“Purple trees. Like Japanese maples?” asked Helena.

Darren nodded.

“That’s weird. Almost like we’re having the same dreams.”

“What if it was the object? We both touched it.”

“It plants dream seeds?” She laughed. “That’s a crazy idea.”



“How long have you been experiencing the night sweats and fevers?”

“About a month. They go away for a few days, then come back.”

“No other symptoms? Coughing? Congestion? Upset stomach?”

“No. Just the night sweats, and the dreams.” He wanted to talk about the dreams, but the doctor didn’t seem interested. And Helena wouldn’t talk about them either, even though she’d been coming to breakfast with dark circles under her eyes, picking at her food. Sarah was worried, and wanted Helena to go to the doctor.

“Probably a virus. But it could be a blood parasite, something mosquito-borne.  Have you been traveling?”

“I haven’t left Arizona in three years.”

“Then a tropical disease is extremely unlikely. I’ll run some tests, but it’s most likely a virus, and you’ll probably feel better in a few weeks. If not, come back and see me.”

“These dreams I’ve been having …”

The doctor fake-smiled. “Don’t read too much into dreams.”

“They’re so real.”

“I dreamt I was pinned by a fallen tree. Woke up to my Rottweiler fast asleep on my leg. So no reason to be alarmed.”

No reason? In his most recent dream, Darren had literally dived into a dark ocean and plummeted down into a black chasm, past craggy cliffs. He could see, monochromatically but with precise resolution.  He could feel his short undulating tentacles, and his skin rapidly oscillating through a kaleidoscope of patterns.



Milagro brought in a tray. She poured coffee for Eliot and Darren. Then to Darren’s surprise she poured a third cup, pulled up a chair, and sat down.

“Milagro will be joining us,” said Eliot.

She looked at him. “It was sitting on his desk and I touched it.”

“You’ve had the dreams?”

“Yes — ocean dreams. The Fo’dekai people.”

Darren recognized the name of the squid people, though he’d never thought to say it aloud. He knew hundreds of names now: their heroes, gods, beloved leaders. He knew their old stories, tribes fighting beak to beak, slaughtering each other with flesh-eating poison and ecological warfare. And their newer stories of building a peaceful civilization, mastering the ability to store information in their blood, to write with molecules, to share knowledge and history with a touch.

“We’re all in the same boat now,” said Eliot.

“Did we get some kind of illness from the stone?” asked Darren.

Eliot shook his head. “I don’t think so. I’ve had symptoms similar to yours — intermittent fevers and night sweats. Nothing threatening.”

“I was a little achy the first few days,” Milagro said, “but I feel fine now.”

“It could affect women differently,” said Eliot.

“It could be that I’m not resisting,” said Milagro.

Darren had been resisting the dreams. It was terrifying, to accept the entire history of a people into one’s mind. But despite the fear, he dove deeper into the dark trench each night, hungry to learn more, feeling on the verge of new revelations. Willing to take in a vast reservoir of knowledge.

“My housemate — she’s been sick too. I don’t think it’s related to gender.”

“Your housemate touched the relic?” said Eliot, incredulous.

“Yes, before I gave it back to you,” said Darren, looking the old man in the eye. This was not a matter of employment now, it was something much bigger. The old man leaned back in his chair, scowling.

“She’s had the dreams, trouble sleeping,” said Darren. “But she won’t talk about it.”

“She might if she came and stayed with us,” said Milagro.

“She wants nothing to do with it.”

Eliot furrowed his considerable brow. “If resisting the … process … if that has something to do with the immune reaction, your housemate could be in danger.”

“How do you think the artifact got here?” asked Darren.

“Maybe a small probe,” said the old man. “Something very light. The Fo’dekai might have sent out thousands, in the hope a few would reach and seed new worlds. Or maybe it was a huge craft. Something that formed the Barringer crater, for all we know.”

“But why?” asked Milagro.

“To tell their stories,” said Eliot, definitively. “A universal impulse.”

Darren’s dreams had not revealed a why. History, and vivid images, but no motive. But he didn’t want to argue with the old man. “Should we tell someone? The government? NASA?”

Milagro nodded in agreement.

“Why, so they can declare eminent domain on my property? No thank you. It’s my land, my site, my Paiute relic — even if it does have an extraterrestrial origin.”

“I’ve been rereading Southern Paiute stories and legends. There’s no mention of squid people.”

“Paiute lore speaks of dangerous water spirits,” said Eliot. “Or perhaps a single individual kept the relic. A medicine man, safeguarding it as sacred knowledge.”

“Maybe it was never activated, until now,” said Milagro. They both looked at her. “Mr. Von Coover said you washed it. Maybe water … turned it on.”

Eliot grunted, dismissively. “I’m flying in a specialist from Las Vegas. He’ll do extensive blood work on myself and Milagro. I’m hoping he can isolate whatever organism or molecular machine has infected us. You are welcome to participate, at my expense. Please extend the offer to your housemate.”

Darren wanted to talk more, about the dreams, about the Fo’dekai, the millennia of history he was struggling to absorb, but the meeting was over.



He came home to an empty Peccary Palace and a scrawled note from Sarah.

@ Kane County Hospital w/Helena. Very sick

            He had the impression Sarah blamed him for Helena’s illness. She’d be right in a way. Part of him wished he had never taken this job. He’d still be in Tucson, working on his thesis, Hopi Art: Modern and Ancient, trying to find new meaning in old artifacts, looking for a continuous narrative in the artistic history of some of his ancestors, instead of betraying them by helping to sell off their artifacts. All the people who’d roamed the planet over time, on different continents, improbably coming together to create the fact of his own flesh-and-blood. What were their stories? They lived on in his body, in a way, yet were complete strangers.

But the Fo’dekai could write in blood, and now he had their stories in him. Thousands of them, crowding his dreams, bleeding into his waking consciousness, his mind groaning from their weight. I’m not resisting, Milagro had said. What if he let the stories flood over him, drown him? Milagro seemed fine, but Helena was in the hospital.

The old Accord had gotten him from Tucson to here — it could make it the few miles to Kane Count Hospital.

The drive there was a waking dream. After the Fo’dekai stopped poisoning each other and learned to blood-write, they emerged from their deep trench and spread across the sea floor, building cities, transport tubes, assemblers. Their wisest scholars were nomadic, sharing and gaining knowledge with the intermingling of tentacles. Their artists worked in the medium of life itself, designing light-pulse jellies, towering reef spirals, vast canvases of undulating sea-grass, each blade-tip a phosphorescent pixel. Their explorers broke the surface waters and explored the purple forests and red deserts in rolling bubble ships. These curious wanderers were the first to see clear starlight, to wonder if other swimmers lived in the galaxy.



Helena was coughing when he entered the hospital room. He stood awkwardly, ignored by Sarah.

“I’m fine,” Helena finally said. “Water went down the wrong pipe. Sarah — can you give us a minute?”

Sarah whispered something in protest, squeezed Helena’s hand, but Helena whispered something to reassure her lover, who elbowed past Darren in a way that made him realize he should be looking for a new place to live.

“Sorry, she’s just being protective. My fever spiked … I guess I passed out. But I’m okay now.” Helena smiled weakly, face pale, eyes red-rimmed. But not at death’s door.

“I’m sorry,” Darren said. “That I gave it to you, let you touch it.”

“Come here.”

He did, held her hand when she extended it.

“Swim up. That’s all you have to do. Up and away, in the dreams. They’re asking you a question. You have to say no. Then it will leave your body. It’ll be gone. I can feel it. I’m clear.”

“Did you … what did you learn?”

“It preys on your curiosity, but it won’t force you to do anything. Say no, Darren. Decline the offer. Swim up.” She squeezed his hand hard. “And destroy that thing, before anyone else touches it.”



Back at the Peccary Palace, Darren packed his few possessions. Helena was going to be fine, but Sarah had decided he was the enemy.

Return to Tucson, finish the thesis. That’s what half his brain said — the half trying to maintain some grip on normalcy. The other half wanted to race his Accord west until he hit Vegas. Maybe keep swimming, driving, all the way to the ocean.

The doorbell rang. It was Milagro. She looked upset, but also flushed, invigorated.

“Mr. Von Coover is ill. He had a headache yesterday evening, and he wasn’t in his study when I got there this morning. He’s in bed, pale and weak.”

“Does he need to go to the hospital? Does he have family?”

“He said he’d be fine. No children, never married. No brothers or sisters. He told me I need to … resist. He ordered me.” Milagro’s jaw clenched.

Darren imagined Eliot, pale and weak in his air-conditioned bedroom, issuing commands. A brilliant man, but careless of others in the face of his own obsessions.

“My cousin has worked for him. She’s taking over. I don’t want to go back.”

They were the only two left. The only ones who hadn’t said no. “What will you do now?”

“I’ve been thinking about the ocean.”

“So have I.”



They decided to take her car; it was better suited for the long trip to California. He left the Accord unlocked in front of the Peccary Palace, key in the ignition. He left a note for Helena and Sarah, saying goodbye and thanks.

Milagro drove west on 389, through the Kaibab reservation. They filled up the tank in Colorado City, Darren getting suspicious looks as he smiled at everyone he saw, half lost in a waking dream, swimming through a living sculpture of phosphorescent kelp towers.

They drove in silence. Darren didn’t know what the future held, but his past, his academic life, was fading. It didn’t matter what his thesis advisor thought. It didn’t even matter if he finished his thesis. He no longer wanted to create words — those static, carefully ordered symbols. He wanted to create something dynamic, mobile, living. He felt an awakening, an impulse to reinvent himself.

They stopped for dinner in St. George, ordering enough food to feed a large family. In the restaurant bathroom Darren peered at his face in the mirror. Was he still the same person?

Back on the road, Milagro asked him if he’s seen the giant orange star.

“Now that you ask, yes. A reddish-orange giant. It was receding, as if I was moving away from it.”

“It must be their star,” said Milagro.

“These memories might include the voyage itself. Maybe their starship was … aware.”

“Alive,” said Milagro.

“Did you bring it?” asked Darren. “The artifact?”

“I looked for it. But he hid it. He might have locked it in his safe.”

Would others find it, touch it? How many more? He wondered how else the Fo’dekai memories might be transferred. By touch? The transfer had required moisture. Sexual contact? Sexually-transmitted alien culture. Or genetically — if he had children someday, would they carry the collective memories of the squid people? Would the history and legacy of the Fo’dekai slowly spread across the whole world, become part of human culture and history?

“We’ll be in Vegas soon.”

“Let’s drive through. I’m not tired — I can drive if you want.”

“Sure,” said Milagro. “Though I don’t feel tired either.”



He drove though the night. Milagro dozed off, and woke up as they approached Los Angeles. The early dawn light illuminated the city smog in brilliant shades of pink and peach.

They followed the road toward the coast. They had decided that their arrival should be inaugurated with a dip in the Pacific.

“I wish Mr. Von Coover had joined us,” said Milagro. “Even if he is self-absorbed, he’s a decent man. But he was too scared.”

Was Darren scared? Yes, but he had surrendered, to whatever it was. Even as he drove, he also shot towards the ocean’s surface with a forceful jet from his mantle. In the shallows, lit by flickering rays from the planet’s giant orange sun, his multitudinous eyes were bombarded with millions of colliding colors, so unlike the monochromatic patterns of the trench.

They crested a hill and saw the vast, indigo-black Pacific Ocean, stretching north and south with the slightest curve. Darren felt for the first time, really understood, that life on land was an afterthought. The ocean was evolution’s main event.

Milagro gripped the wheel tightly. The tension in his own body mirrored her excitement. She looked powerful, flushed, younger. And somehow larger, even taller. He held his arms out, palms up, and examined his forearms. The weeks of digging had strengthened his limbs, but there was new definition and vascularity, as if his blood was independently alive, coursing through his veins with agency.

Milagro parked the car on the side of the road. Together they descended a narrow trail to the beach, at times grabbing onto rocks and roots to steady themselves.

The sun was up, but hadn’t yet warmed the sand. “It’s cold.”

“Do you feel cold?” Milagro asked.

He didn’t, and imagining the cold saltwater against his bare skin gave him a delirious feeling of anticipation.

At the base of the slope they took off their shoes. As they walked to the shore they left their clothing behind, dropped piece by piece.

Naked, they approached the water. A bright, powerful heat radiated from Darren’s core to the surface of his skin, though he didn’t feel feverish. He felt excited, hopeful. Everything was new. Anything was possible.

Milagro laughed, giddy, manic. Together they ran into the water.

The cold felt distant, a mere counterweight to his internal heat.

It happened to him first. The process was painless. His skin began to itch, not unpleasantly, and when he scratched his arms his own flesh felt slippery, viscous. His vision blurred, so that the dissolution of Milagro’s body was abstract and colorful.

“Your eyes,” said Milagro. “They’re bleeding.”

He understood what was happening, and hoped that she could still hear him, understand his slurred, disjointed speech.

“We are the messengers,” he said, as his slippery tongue dissolved inside his mouth. “We said yes. We chose this.” He tried to savor the moment, and its meaning, but his thoughts were fuzzy and distant. His vision, and his mind, dimmed, his body dissolving into the ocean, giving birth to millions of miniscule Fo’dekai, infant swimmers, each carrying the entire history of their kind, written in eloquent molecular language. Ready to venture out, grow, explore, and build.

“The Fo’dekai Artifact” © J.D. Moyer
J.D. Moyer lives in Oakland, California, with his wife and daughter and dog. He writes science fiction, produces electronic music, and blogs at His first published story “The Beef” appeared in Strange Horizons in 2016. J.D. recently completed his first (not yet published) novel, The Sky Woman.


“Ocean Dream” digital painting by Fran Eisemann
Reference photo used: “Underwater Dance” the Russian photographer Willyam Bradbury
Stock used: “Octopus” by Kayla Ascencio
Tentacles 2” by Guyang
Octo ll” and “Octopus Stock” by Pamela

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