Eve of Destruction
And you tell me, over and over and over again my friend...
By and large, I hate airports. They're always loud and crowded, the security people always manage to select me for their random pat-downs, the food is always atrocious--and the price of a newspaper is enough to make a man weep. And yet here I was. I don't choose to travel by plane, but I'd been lead to believe I didn't have a whole lot of choice--it's hard to take a train across the ocean.
It was raining in Storelvsby when I boarded the plane for Assuli. I had with me only what I could throw together in the six hours I'd been given--a suitcase full of clothes and my journals, a notebook, a toothbrush. I had no idea what I was heading into.
Fourth-period history ("Civilisations of the East Tropics") had been a bear. The short essay I had assigned not twenty-four hours before had apparently slipped my students minds, and this made them upset. I'd run myself out of chalk, which made me upset, and to top it off I remembered as I began my lecture that I had an administrative meeting that afternoon. I hate administrative meetings, too. Compounding everything was that it was July, and while I hold that school should never be held in the summer, we were "experimenting" with a new concept. A pilot; doubtless they wanted to make sure that it would fail on a small scale before widening their scope to watch it fail on a large one.
When the bell rang to end class the students folded their binders and began to gather their belongings, evidently unaware that I was still talking. I gave up. I could almost see the knowledge draining from their heads--quite disheartening. In my second year of teaching history I'd already lost almost all of the blind idealistic enthusiasm I had started with. That's life for you.
I slipped my own papers into my briefcase and prepared to go to lunch. As soon as my hand touched the handle of the door I felt it turn beneath my fingers, and the door swung open. I stood face-to-face with an imposing man in a black suit with the seal of the Defence Division printed on his breast.
I nodded dumbly.
The suited figure was dark, with rugged features--an Alsatian, maybe. His face was covered with a deep brown fur that matched the colour of his eyes so well they seemed to disappear. One hand grasped a black leather briefcase; he motioned with the other towards my desk. "You'll kindly sit down, will you not?" He had an authoritative voice-- harsh and incontestable. Once more I nodded.
My desk has two chairs--one for me, and one for the student assistant who frequently helps me out. This chair I shoved towards the man and indicated that he might sit. He did. I still hadn't said anything.
"Mr. Cameron, my name is Joshua Rivers. I work for your country's government." Feeling still dumbstruck, although increasingly alarmed, I merely nodded a third time, and shook the hand he offered. "Specifically I'm in charge of the surveys the Union Geological Service conducts," he continued. "I've come seeking your help, sir."
I looked at him curiously. "Um," I managed to say. "With what, exactly?"
"You're Richard Cameron, aren't you?" I nodded. "You have some background in eastern archaeology, I understand."
It struck me that he was joking. I have a master's degree in archaeology, it's true, but there was a reason I was teaching Western Civ to ingrates at a public high school and I guarantee you it wasn't because of the fame I'd garnered in my little corner of academia. I laughed as genially as possible, under the circumstances. "Who put you up to this, Mr. Rivers?"
He frowned. "I assure you I'm quite serious, sir." He reached down for the attaché case he had brought and pulled out a blue folder, also marked with Defence's seal. "You might want to look at this."
The folder was labelled as being 'Top Secret.' Some fine print I scanned with growing unease informed me of frightening penalties for redistributing it, allowing it to fall into the hands of 'unauthorised personnel,' or--if I was myself unauthorised--even daring to crack the folder open. I looked up at him, and he gave me permission with a nod of his head.
I opened the folder. On the right side was a brief site report. It looked incomplete and I guessed that it was either preliminary or being written by amateurs, maybe both. I riffled through the pages, caught mentions of hieroglyphs, plant remains, and 'bizarre artefacts,' whatever those were. The left side of the folder contained a letter, addressed to me. I noticed that the title of the letter-writer was 'General' and started to gain some appreciation of the magnitude of what was going on.
The letter was a cover for some more documents, in a small type I had to squint to read. "That's your contract," the man with the deep voice told me. "It outlines your pay, and the terms of your service."
I set the folder on my desk. "Look, Mr. Rivers. I'm flattered. But I'm not an archaeologist. I was one, yeah, but I did a piss-poor job of it and I'm out of the profession, ok? I don't know what kind of use I can be to you."
"Mr. Cameron, sir, I don't know who you are. I don't know what you've done and haven't done. General McPherson specifically tapped you for this. He thinks you're valuable. I don't even know what your profession is, but the General does and that's good enough for me."
I looked at my desk, marred only by this blue folder, this sudden intrusion into my life. I thought hard about what I was being shown. A chance to work on a real site--sure, run by the government, but you can't always afford to be elitist. Not three years before I would've leapt at the chance I was being offered. It was still a bit compelling...
On the other hand it meant reopening a chapter of my life I had closed quite deliberately. I wasn't sure I wanted to go back--really you have so few big choices in your life, it isn't easy to want to undo the biggest one. I read the cover letter. It gave no clue as to what the site was but, sure enough, the General said I was valuable. I tapped my finger against the table.
"When do you need me to leave by?"
The plane ride over the Eastern Sea was torturous. We hit turbulence, near as I can tell, while we were still sitting at the gate; and where my quailing stomach and inner ears were concerned it didn't stop until long after we were safely on the ground again. The pilot cheerily informed us as the plane pushed back from the airport that the temperature in Storelvsby was a balmy sixty-three degrees, overcast and lightly drizzling, with a chance for thunderstorms. The city needn't have worried; those storms gave up quickly and decided to follow my flight instead.
In comparison the weather at Midbar Ramady was a balmy eighty-eight degrees (understandable; it was only ten in the morning), and the clouds had left on vacation. The sky was that horrid shade of blue that looks so beautiful in the postcards, although when people start being able to get heatstroke from postcards I'm sure it will fall out of favour. I worked at a little site near the ancient city of Babylon for a few summers and had concluded that I had no great desire to return to the area. And yet here I was, still vaguely airsick and not a bit disoriented.
The airport at Midbar Ramady was gorgeous in that style of Eastern architecture that also looks beautiful in postcards. The buildings were a dazzling white, and where they were not white they were gilded. There were fountains in the terminal where I had been sent to meet my party; the temperature was pleasant everywhere, and leafy potted plants clustered about the pools of water like refugees. The lovely strains of Die Fledermaus played softly over speakers, underscoring the atmosphere with a hint of North-Western culture. Indeed overall the effect was of a subdued pretension: ethnic, yet cosmopolitan; refined, while still reassuringly garish--I could see the harsh glow of neon signs through the palm trees in the terminal.
Of course, the city of Midbar Ramady is a tourist spot. Airports tend to be little oases where tourists can experience the 'culture' of their destinations without ever being too far from an interpreter and a soft drink. I know of some people who have travelled the world--these are their words, mind you--never leaving the safety of the airport without a tour guide.
I don't know that I agree with this method; I figure regardless of these peoples' mileage they still aren't doing much they couldn't be experiencing at a public library or a movie theatre. Live a little, I say. Foreign cultures are generally interesting, when they don't want to eat you or take your head as a trophy, and I assure you the doctors will be able to treat what you pick up from the water--antibiotics really are marvellous things. Tour guides, then, I don't care for.
"Mr. Cameron!" Somebody shouted my name as I took in the sights of the airport. "Mr. Richard Cameron!"
The shouter was a casually attired fellow; he wore shorts and a shirt with sleeves that only barely counted. I admit to being taken aback--I'd been expecting another Joshua Rivers type. The man spoke with a Union accent, but his manner of dress suggested to me that he wasn't a newcomer to the area either: only people who don't know better wear double-breasted black suits when they travel to the east. People who don't know better and businessmen, I suppose; in the interests of not offending people I won't make the obvious comment.
"That's me," I told him, and he shook my hand warmly.
"Carl Grahmann," he said to me. "I'm your pilot today." He looked young--my age or maybe a few years less--and it was tough not to like him. Despite my apprehensions about flying, and about my location, my day was beginning to look up. I grinned.
"Glad to hear it."
My fur started sucking up heat the moment we stepped outside of the air-conditioned terminal. There's something about that pure, unfiltered light you find out in Assuli that makes you half-wonder if the sun has a personal vendetta against you. I felt uncomfortable--and I was dressed not much differently than Carl was.
The windows inside Midbar Ramady's airport were heavily tinted, as behoves windows in the eastern summer. Walking outside, on the tarmac of the airport, that shield was gone. Everything radiated heat; it came in waves off the ground, the buildings, the planes parked outside. There was only a light wind, and it blew hot--a phenomenon I must confess I find quite distasteful. The air I breathed tasted of the temperature, and left arid, sandy heat lingering on my tongue.
I stopped for a moment to put on my sunglasses. Carl must've seen the look on my face, for he said, "it's a bit warm, isn't it?"
I growled a few choice words under my breath. Carl clapped my back in the manner of a person who does not understand the mechanisms of deference our culture generally promotes. "You ever been out here before?"
I nodded. "I'm an archaeologist," I said--and God, I realised, those words hadn't left my mouth for nearly four years. An eternity when you're only twenty-seven. "I worked out at Jarmo for awhile, and then at Babylon." He whistled appreciatively.
"Pretty cool," he said. After having given up on our nation's youth I was pleased to find someone telling me that. And one of the neat things about Eastern archaeology is that when somebody tells you that it's 'pretty cool,' you know they aren't talking about the weather.
Grahmann's plane was a small, high-winged little thing--I'd had to get over my fear of them when I was travelling to remote sites and they weren't really anything new, although I still would not describe myself as a fan of them, noisy dangerous uncomfortable beasts that they are. It had two engines, which I appreciated; the most charismatic pilot I'd ever endured had told me that this was a good thing because, in her words, 'if you screw up and one falls off you aren't completely dead.'
The paint was peeling in a few places, but the airplane seemed relatively fit. As we walked around it and Carl ran through the checks on his pre-flight notepad I noticed that while the plane itself looked civilian, the tail was neatly stencilled, 'Union of Free States' and both of the doors had the seal of the Union Army. Grahmann saw me looking at the seal, and I asked him whether he was in the military.
"Nah," he told me. "I'm just a contractor. The only guy they have out here. Pays good, though," he said, meditatively. "All right. Looks like the fuel's topped off and we aren't missing too many pieces." With this reassurance, he then opened the door. "Hop right in."
I threw my only bag over the seat and clambered up into the cabin. It was painfully apparent that the plane had sat out in the morning sun for several hours--I won't say it was hot enough to fry an egg because it wasn't; it would've vaporised instead. But I resisted the urge to clamber back out of the cabin--instead I shut the door, and took my seat.
Carl didn't tell me what the weather was like at Midbar Ramady, nor what it was like at my destination. He didn't tell me what our cruising altitude was going to be or that I should make sure my seatbelt was fastened. That's one thing I sort of appreciate when I'm flying with bush pilots, they tend to be pragmatic.
There was a headset in front of me and I put it on as Carl flipped switches and turned dials on the instrument panel. The engines coughed, reluctantly fired a few times, then caught and began to hum reassuringly. Carl gave me a thumbs-up. He conversed briefly with the air traffic controllers, then the plane jerked forwards and began to taxi.
I haven't felt thrilled by the feeling of inertia as an airplane takes off since I was much younger. Even so I admit to feeling my spirits lift along with the little plane as we rolled down the runway and then up, and off, into a sky becoming yet more offensively azure. Cool air began to blow from vents on the panel in front of me and I relished it. I relished the sights outside of my plexiglass cage too, honestly. It's been awhile since I was out in the East, but it's sort of captivating. I wished I had a camera. I don't quite love it like some archaeologists, but for all I've said it does have a warm place in my heart, and that's only half because of the lingering temperature.
We had been airborne for maybe half an hour when the plane shuddered in such a way that I knew in an instant it wasn't just turbulence. I looked about nervously. I had just completed my second brief check when I noticed thick blue smoke pouring from the engine nacelle on my side of the plane. I did a double-take, blinked, found that the smoke was still there.
"Carl!" I shouted. "Carl, the engine's on fire!" He turned at me and cocked his head, a puzzled look on his face. My microphone was off. I flipped it on and shouted again. "Carl!" He winced. I toned my voice down a notch and told him, in still-excited tones, about the engine.
"Oh, yeah, that," he said. "That's normal."
"That's normal?" I refrained from swearing at him.
"Oh, yeah," he reassured me. "Happens all the time." He didn't show much concern as he fiddled with something on the control panel. I glanced back at the engine, and saw that the smoke was thinning. "See, nothing to worry about." Carl laughed, a noise that was mostly lost in the static of the headset and the roar of the engines.
I decided then that I did indeed hate small planes.
In five minutes the engine had stopped smoking entirely and I could again see the scenery spread below us. You have to admit it's breathtaking, even when you're as jaded as I am. We were crossing a vast stretch of desert but from where we were I could see the little features etched into the earth below. Underground water and rivers that ran dry in the summer were framed in what passes for verdure in the Assuli Expanse. Still-flowing rivers were clusters of activity, little dots that moved around, came together, split apart. You couldn't tell what they were--probably people, but maybe wildlife. Boats left lazy wakes in the slow-moving current.
Everything below was still filtered through the heavy heat of the desert midday. Trees and stretches of road wavered surreally. The sand seemed to glow a white heat. Sun glinted off the roofs of houses and the ripples of the water below. I was taking this all in when I caught a few more glints sparkling below.
I dismissed it, but Carl didn't. The airplane dropped quickly; my stomach didn't. Over my headset I heard Carl talking to whoever was on the radio channel--I hadn't been paying proper attention, so I wasn't sure. I caught the words "taking fire" and something about artillery and forgot about the dizzying fall to concentrate on my own mortality.
The plane snapped out of its descent abruptly and at a significantly lower altitude. Carl looked at me, and for the first time betrayed an emotion that wasn't cheer.
"What the hell?" I asked him before he could say anything.
"Oh... nothing." His voice crackled in my ears. I wish the damned headphones didn't make it so tough to read the feeling in a man's voice.
"Nothing?" I asked, gesturing to the ground, which we were just barely skimming over. Details were much clearer now; individual cars easy to pick out on the road. Much, much too close for comfort.
"Well," Carl admitted. "Sometimes people don't like us."
He shrugged. "Sometimes people with guns don't like us, too."
I groaned inwardly. You see, of all the pleasurable things I've experienced in my life being shot at had not--up until that point--been one. "How long until we land?"
"A little bit soon," he said, and I realised I didn't want him to clarify any more.
"A little bit soon" is a technical term that means, "about forty minutes." I watched the time pass on my wristwatch and feared for my life through agonising every second of it. I don't know if we were shot at again, since Carl didn't tell me. But the aircraft suddenly pitched, floating up into the sky with an ease people who fly exclusively on commercial jets just don't understand and which almost mitigates my feelings towards light aviation. Carl scanned the land below him. "Ah, there we go," he told me. "That's our destination, right over there." He pointed to some dots and what I guessed was an improvised airstrip. I nodded gratefully.
The landing was much smoother than the flight had been. The little plane came to a stop at the end of the dirt field and swung its nose towards a cluster of tents. Carl killed the engines and as someone came out to the airplane he indicated that I should disembark. I did so quickly--I hadn't many belongings. As I opened the door I shook his hand, left in it a fifty-dollar note for a tip. He winked and gave me a salute; whereupon I swung myself out of the cabin and landed softly on the ground below.
I could hear Carl talking with someone on the other side of the airplane; as for me I was lost. The scenery was unfamiliar. It wasn't featureless, as the uneducated sometimes describe deserts as being. It was full of features--I just didn't know any of them. Not that I could've expected to, from the ground. As I took it in, I heard the plane start again behind me. I turned, and watched it taxi briefly; then I heard the throttles open wide and it gained speed quickly, lifted off, and rapidly grew smaller. I followed it intently.
When I could no longer see the airplane I returned my eyes to my surroundings and again began to take stock. I turned and found that I was not alone.
Standing next to me was a man dressed in the desert fatigues of the Union Army, wearing a sand-coloured helmet. He was himself not spectacularly unique--a dusky sort of brown that could be any one of a dozen ethnicities; although intriguingly it seemed to discriminate itself into little blocks of colour like his uniform. Not nearly so varied, though.
"Richard Cameron, I'm Captain Mike Ellis." I shook his hand, told him I was happy to meet him although in fairness I didn't really care about him any more than I did anyone else. I keep telling myself that someday I'll say what I really mean when engaging in small talk but that would probably make me even less popular than I am now.
Well... actually to tell the truth I was interested in seeing him; entirely because of the uniform he wore. None of the papers I'd pored endlessly over on the plane had mentioned who was running the operation--certainly not that it was Union Army. I suppose I might've guessed, but they're not known for a keen interest in archaeology--it'd figured it was maybe State, or the Foreign Service. So that was a little curious, if he himself was not. At that time.
Captain Ellis nodded his head towards the tents, made an encompassing gesture with a wave of his hand. "Welcome to Tell Nahar Kibeera, Mr. Cameron."
What I imagined was the site at Tell Nahar Kibeera consisted of about twenty-five people, myself included. There were a few tents, some boxes scattered here and there, and an open-top four-wheel drive vehicle. Everything was the same light-brown camouflage, and as I looked at it more and more I could discern little patterns--we archaeologists are good at finding things like that. The site seemed less random to me. It was organised. It was military.
Captain Ellis took my bag and pointed me towards a tent near the parked car. "You'll want to go there, sir. Colonel Jameson is waiting for you."
Colonel James Jameson--what a name, really--was in fact waiting for me. Literally, in that he was sitting behind a folding table in the tent and seemed to be anticipating my presence; but also figuratively, in that talking to him was really, looking back on it, the kind of right of passage Greek mythic figures endure, a feat to be performed just after snaring the Cretan bull and just before chasing the mares of Diomedes. You only think I'm exaggerating.
Jameson--whom I heard almost-exclusively called "The Colonel,"--was a frightening man. He was jet black, a pure sort of darkness that masked his features and seemed to obscure the objects around him. He was a black that your vision seemed less to perceive than to fall into. His short fur would have been glossy were light not so afraid to come near it. He was wearing a beret, also black and nearly indistinguishable from the rest of his head as a result; later I would see him without it and his large, sharply-pointed ears were of course black as well.
In short he was a shadow of a man. When he opened his mouth, though--or worse, smiled--his teeth were a glittering, flawless white. It was the closest to a contrast his body offered; even his eyes were so dark as to be nearly black, and one was never certain whether he even had them open. I suspect the opposite, in fact--that he never closed them--but the one was as likely as the other. Jameson was dressed in the same sort of fatigues as Captain Ellis, but a change of clothes and he would have fit perfectly on a pharaoh's tomb, weighing the souls of the dead on some ancient frieze.
The Colonel spoke and it was like music. A fugue, I should say, but deep and rich nonetheless. It was melodic and powerful, the only sort of voice a man of Jameson's nature can have. It resonated in every part of your body and seemed significant even when it was not, as when he first greeted me.
"Good afternoon, Mr. Cameron," he said--'said' is the best word I can use for it, but it's entirely inadequate. English doesn't have the words to describe his speech. When he was in one of his moods--as he was when I first met him--one did not hear his words nearly so much as one felt them.
"My name is Colonel James Jameson, and this is Nahar Kibeera." Listening to the words roll from his tongue I suddenly knew precisely what people who are spoken to by God must hear. Mind you, Jameson is not God. He's not the devil, either--I think I'm fairly confident on that count. He's sort of like a walking nightmare, except you're awake and you don't always notice until afterwards the depths of the character Jameson is. Oh, and unlike in your nightmares you're perfectly able to scream; I know this well. But it matters just as little.
I was entranced by his voice, but I managed to collect my thoughts enough to say, "hello, Mr. Jameson"--it's poor form to address people by rank when you're a civilian, I've been told--and offer him a hand he either didn't notice or couldn't be bothered by. Probably the latter, since when I withdrew it he spoke again.
"Welcome to the site, Mr. Cameron. We're pleased to have you hear." He spoke slowly, deliberately, so that you could absorb his words. "You're the last one to arrive, you know." I marvelled at the way he didn't seem to move at all when he spoke.
"What is this site?" I asked him.
He made a sound that was suspiciously like laughter, although I hesitate to call it such. "That's what we're counting on you to tell us, Mr. Cameron."
"You can't tell me anything?"
"Of course I can. Your tent is out with the other living quarters, I trust you'll be able to find it. They are only temporary, as we will leave tomorrow." I'm writing these words now, and they seem so very simple--but I can feel his voice in my head even so, and they still sound quite profound even though I know they aren't. The impressions one is left by men such as Jameson are deep.
He said nothing more, and I gathered, from the heavy silence he somehow brought around him like a cloak, that I was to be done talking too. I bowed a little, then ducked out of the tent and back into the open.
I had been so mesmerised by the Colonel that I failed to take note of the heat for the few minutes I had experienced him, so for all I know he frightened away that as well. Outside, however, it was still bright and I thought I could feel each individual ray of light pummel my body. I trudged towards the collection of tents; it seemed to take much longer than it actually did but when I arrived I realised that the Colonel had been right; my tent was easy to find. It had my bag in front of it, which was as sure a marker as you could wish for. I discovered that in perhaps the five or ten minutes that had passed since I had handed it to Ellis it was already painful to touch. I grimaced as I braved the searing heat and tossed the beaten suitcase into my tent.
I sat down cross-legged in the open fabric door for a few minutes, collecting my thoughts. I was starting to get a headache from the reflected sunlight that my sunglasses were apparently incapable of coping with. It made me a little upset, and I fished in the side pocket of my suitcase for some aspirin tablets. Six years of college taught me well that you can never go far without those things.
Eventually I decided that it was important to acquaint myself with my surroundings and my comrades--the letters I'd read way back in Storelvsby implied I wasn't the lone civilian on the project, but Rivers hadn't elaborated and I'd entirely forgotten to ask the Colonel. I stood and felt the pain in my skull suddenly become amplified. I almost sat back down but decided not to; instead I shook my head a few times to clear it, then closed the flaps on my tent and set out.
At about two in the afternoon on a July day in the Assuli Expanse it becomes kind of difficult to think straight, which I personally feel is quite understandable. It also becomes difficult to see properly, not only because of mirages and the horrible pain of the sunshine but because there's this sort of vibe, an aura about the desert that has this effect. I know I'm not the only one who thinks this way. I don't know how people who live in the desert permanently cope with it. Personally I'd resort to drink, but the civilisations of Assuli haven't all collapsed so I presume there's some better way I haven't learned yet.
When I saw the woman sitting on a crate outside of one of the myriad tents, then, she looked a little fuzzy, and I accepted this. Of course as I drew closer she didn't markedly clarify, which I found troubling until I got close enough to see that it was only half-illusion--the mild wind was ruffling her fur just enough to blur her outlines. It compounded my headache.
"Richard Cameron," I said to the figure when I got close enough that it was obvious I was directing the comment at her. "I'm the new guy here."
"Naomi Kennard," she said in reply. She spoke with obvious inflexion, one of those rich Northland accents soaked thoroughly in dignity and culture. "Nice to meet you." Her voice was attractive and drew ones ear almost as readily as Jameson's, though for different reasons.
Kennard was a collie, a striking creature with that gorgeous coat of deep red and soft white--long, thick fur that as I focused on I realised was entirely unsuited for Assulian archaeology. She extended a hand, which I shook warmly--she had a cultured handshake too, it was amazing--and I noticed as we exchanged this greeting that her other hand held a stranglehold on a bottle of water, half-full. A number of empty bottles were standing upright at her feet like faithful guardians of the crate she sat on.
She let her head roll back loosely, gave a sigh tinged with the sort of resigned antipathy for her present environment I knew very, very well. Then she looked at me. "Good Lord yes, water. You want some?"
I gave a little laugh. "If you've got water to spare I'll marry you on the spot."
Naomi grinned and twisted her body back into the tent with a remarkably easy athleticism. She returned with a bottle that I noticed appreciatively was cold. I commented on this; she told me that the Union Army had provided her with a cooler as well as water to put in it. "That's one thing they're nice about," she declared firmly.
I nodded, and took a drink. Being myself no stranger to the desert I understood, of course, why she grasped her bottle with the same desperate need as an alcoholic. And her thick coat exacerbated the problem of the heat, it was obvious. She wasn't extensively clothed--not much more than I was--so I could see a fair amount of her fur. From the way it looked matted in places I guessed she'd poured water on herself at some time in the recent past--although the fact that she was using water in bottles, not kegs, told me she hadn't made a habit of it.
The collie motioned to a crate some yards from her tent and suggested that I could sit there if I desired; an offer I took her up on gladly. I felt less and less like standing. I dragged the crate--it was surprisingly light, probably empty, but I didn't have the energy or desire to lift it up--so that it faced her and sat down. The two of us were quiet for a minute, lost in our thought and our water.
Naomi sighed. "I hate this place," she told me.
I nodded in sympathy. "I understand, believe me." She rewarded me with a weary smile.
"Why would anyone live here?" she asked. I shrugged, said I wasn't sure. She drained her bottle of water in one long draught. "Well, neither am I."
I took another sip. "You know," I told her, "I left my tent looking to find the other archaeologists here. But you seem like a nice person, and you've got water, so I think I may not leave, if that's all right..."
She laughed--a pleasant, easy laugh. "I know what you mean. You're welcome to stay."
I thanked her. "Who else is here, anyway?" I asked.
Naomi thought about the question for a minute. "I don't know. I just got here this morning. When I had the inclination I didn't have the time to find people, and since I've had the time I really haven't felt like moving." I said I understood.
"It's strange though," she said. "I don't know about you but I'm drawing a pretty good paycheque for this." I nodded--I was too, much more than I was receiving as a teacher. "So it's not like money is an object to whoever's funding this but I don't remember offhand that any names struck me as being very big in their field--no offence, Mr. Cameron."
"None taken," I said. "And call me Richard."
"All right. But it's a pretty standard Eastern site from the report I got, and yet the real big names in Eastern archaeology aren't on the list. White, Arterrand, Henriksen, Sharon..." She thought. "And I know Sharon is on sabbatical now, and he's worked for Defence before."
I considered this. "Maybe he just couldn't make it. I had a very small window of opportunity, I know, and I almost didn't take them up on it," I recalled.
"Yeah, me too," Naomi agreed. "Really it's quite strange all 'round."
"I have to admit I don't disagree," I said with a sigh. Really, any trip where the Union government sends you on an archaeological expedition on six hours notice and you get shot at on the way in is quite strange, although I didn't use those exact words with Kennard. In fact the whole set-up was bizarre, from the clandestine way I'd been taken to the site to the apparent inexperience of the work they've hired. And the more I thought about it, the more strange it had become.
"You were asking who's here..." she began. "I've met one person before, Dr. Blackman... it's sort of odd, I guess, he's a Mariner anthropologist, works out in the islands. I can't imagine what he's doing at an Eastern site." I shrugged. "We met when I was doing my graduate work with Dr. Ron Deckard," she explained.
"You worked with Deckard?" I asked, a bit incredulous.
She laughed, a little guiltily. "Well, it's not something I advertise." I chuckled along with her. "If you can keep a secret," she said, "I still keep in touch with him. He's not the fool everyone thinks he is."
I nodded. Then I stopped in mid-movement, and something clicked. "Oh, my God..." I breathed.
"What's wrong?" Naomi asked, a sudden, worried expression on her face.
"I have to talk to Jameson," I said, and stood up, the heat and my headache forgotten. Because I suddenly knew what they had found, and what I, a reserved, nameless schoolteacher, was doing in the godforsaken desert, half a world from my home.
Dr. Ronald Deckard was my second-favourite archaeologist when I was in high school and college, and the one I most admired. He was an outspoken man who worked in the always-controversial field of physical anthropology. Deckard, however, was more unique than most physical anthropologists, and he had the misfortune of being an iconoclast, and irredeemably unorthodox--of course, that was why I identified with him.
You know the depictions on many ancient sites--cave paintings and hieroglyphs and the like--show creatures that aren't really like us, and have no counterpart on our world. They're bipedal, as we are, but quite hairless, with longer limbs and a very flat face. They show up everywhere, from the Assuli Expanse to sites near my hometown, and what they're supposed to be has been a question facing historians and anthropologists for time immemorial.
They become less common in art and the literature we have starting at around five thousand years ago, and they fade from the collective memory of civilisation quite rapidly, all things considered. Because they're found exclusively in very old sites we call them the 'progenitor archetype,' and in common parlance they're known as the 'Ancients.' But we've never found any fossils, really, and the consensus has been that they were an invention of the primitive mind. Indeed, analysis of the myths where they figure prominently has become a popular field of study.
Not everyone was in agreement that they were simply an invention, however. A few people, clerics and the like, viewed and still view them as gods or near-gods. Some of the crazier folks insist that we were visited by aliens long, long ago and that they're responsible for the rise of our own civilisations. Nobody believes that.
On the vaguely more logical end, Dr. Deckard made a name for himself about ten years ago arguing very passionately that the Ancients were in fact a real species, closely related to ours; that they went extinct around five thousand years ago; that they may in fact, have had an important--if not critical--role in the shaping of our prehistoric cultures. He pointed out that the progenitor archetype is universal, found in all civilisations within that time frame, with almost no variation.
He had no real answer for some of the important questions--such as why we'd not found any fossils, any evidence that could be documented and catalogued--save that we hadn't looked hard enough. He said he believed that a site containing precisely what we were looking for might be waiting for discovery, lurking somewhere beneath the sea or under the desert or buried in a jungle, far from our prying eyes.
What he said made sense to me. But it went against every major theory and the convictions of all the respected archaeologists, for whom regarding the Ancients as simply a myth was a much easier answer. Deckard was ridiculed and disgraced. He lost his teaching position and has largely retired from archaeology--when last I heard of him he was a little-known author living in a small town in the mountains. He had accumulated a small following, but when Deckard was forced into premature obscurity they quickly dispersed, and his name became a black mark on one's curriculum vitae; Kennard knew this, as did I.
Unlike her and Dr. Blackman, I never worked with Deckard. But I was a strong adherent to his beliefs and he was very important to me as a graduate student. For the brief period of time that it was acceptable to challenge the mainstream beliefs in archaeology I extensively studied prehistoric sites on the east coast, worked with leading underwater archaeologists on then-promising submarine sites that have now been forgotten.
I became convinced that the evidence lurking beneath the waves pointed to a completely different species of bipeds cohabiting with us early in our history. Most persuasive--to me--was what appeared to be a shipwreck in the Karelian Sea, well preserved in the cold waters. Clay vessels in the ship's hold depicted Ancients almost indistinguishable from those found anywhere else in the world, which was not that unusual--but they showed none of us, and the wood at the site was a full five hundred years earlier than the first recorded naval excursions in our archaeological records.
The result of my studies was a book I titled Mysteries of the Ancient Fisherpeople. I felt that it lent important and credible evidence to the Deckard Hypothesis. In general it was well-received; it did well on the lists the newspapers print, I even had a few television interviews.
And I was blacklisted by the archaeological community. As a doctoral student in a field most people passed over, I was left suddenly stranded, found that no one in power would listen to me and I had no recourse. The cold reaction of my fellow scientists was disheartening in a way I'd failed to appreciate beforehand, and the fact that my book was liked by the public made no difference at all. When Deckard was disgraced, so was I. Partly because I was hopelessly disillusioned and partly because it was impossible for me to continue, I quit the profession, got my teacher's certificate, and went to work in East Kavettia's capital, Storelvsby.
Now I was in the Assuli Expanse and I knew beyond a doubt why. They'd found something, something that threatened to radically upset the precious stability of the anthropological world and, I guessed based on the speed at which I was moved, possibly the rest of us mortals as well. They were pulling people like Kennard, people like Blackman--people like me. Obscure scientists with diverse fields of study linked by only one common thread: an affiliation with the dead-and-buried Deckard Hypothesis.
I strode into Jameson's tent. "All right." I said--almost angrily--any fear temporarily gone from my mind. "What the hell have you found out there?"
He had been writing something in a binder that he closed slowly and deliberately before raising his head to--I presume--look at me. "What did you say?" he asked me. His voice had changed from before--it was still commanding, but it lacked the flowing musical quality he'd had when I'd talked earlier.
"Your site. What have you got out there? How old is it?" I didn't ask politely--I demanded answers.
He stared at me and did not move. "I've already told you that we don't know," he said.
"No, that's bullshit." I said by way of reply. "If you don't know exactly what the hell's out there you've got a damn good idea. How much of the goddamn site report I was given back home was a lie?" I harshly articulated my profanities.
Colonel Jameson betrayed no emotion. "Mr. Cameron, I assure you..."
I cut him off. "I don't want to hear your assurances. I want to hear you tell me what's going on."
For the first time, he raised his voice. "Mr. Cameron," he said loudly, his voice clipped. "You will learn what we know in good time."
"That's not good enough," I said. My voice was firm, although the Colonel's tone of voice was beginning to chip away at my courage.
"Yes, Mr. Cameron, I assure you it is." I opened my mouth to say something but he didn't allow this--went so far as to raise a hand to still me. "Now Mr. Cameron, I'd love to continue this conversation with you but I'm sorry to say that if you open your muzzle one more time I will remove it." Although I couldn't see his eyes, exactly, I felt them on me. I swallowed nervously and found that my throat had gone dry. "If you have any problems with this operation, you will direct your queries to Captain Ellis. He will put up with you; I will not. And now, Mr. Cameron, you are going to leave."
And without another word, I did.
Ellis was a little kinder. I approached him as he stood bent over the parked truck, apparently looking for something in its bed. When he heard my footfalls he looked up. "Mr. Cameron!" he said. "Can I help you?"
I tried to think of what to say. After leaving Jameson's tent I felt drained, and a little bit weak. I gathered my thoughts quickly. "Yes, I think you can."
He may have noticed my agitation, because his head tilted curiously. "What's going on?"
"Mr. Ellis, I've just had a conversation with your commander."
He smiled thinly. "I gather it went well?"
"He threatened to remove my muzzle." Captain Ellis raised his eyebrows.
I explained to him what had happened, and he nodded. "The Colonel is like that. He doesn't take kindly to people making demands of him." I had gained a very powerful appreciation of this fact, and I said as much to Ellis.
"But perhaps you can understand why I might be seeking you out?"
Ellis sighed. "Care to walk a little?"
He handed me a canteen from the back of the truck and we began to walk slowly. I explained to him again what I suspected, and the reasons for that suspicion. I told him that I knew roughly what the government had found; I asked for more information.
"This is confidential," Ellis began--it's my belief that this isn't a good way to start a conversation, but I suppose you have to put up with certain things when you work for the government. "Do you understand?" I nodded. He sighed heavily again. "All right, Mr. Cameron. You've guessed mostly right. We've found something that's clearly not supposed to be here. We don't know exactly what it is, of course, but we've got our suspicions, like you do. That's the honest truth. Cameron, you know that you wouldn't get called to just any site, not with your reputation. The Colonel happens to have read your book. You're his idea."
"How secret is all of this?"
Ellis shrugged. "Secret enough. We don't know what's at the site, but there's no reason to draw undue attention to it either." He stopped walking. "Mr. Cameron, I know that you think full disclosure of things like this is very important. You may be thinking that you're going to tell people what you know." I didn't answer him. "What Jameson probably didn't tell you, because he's got a bit of respect, is this, sir: you're in our employ. You do what we tell you to. If you don't, we'll shut you up, sir--one way or the other." He said these words quietly, though of course the implicit threat on my life reverberated in my head.
"I understand," I told him, and he nodded slowly.
"I suppose that's good enough."
"So the site report was a lie?" I asked, as we started walking again.
"Yes, entirely a fabrication. We made up something we thought was plausible, but tried to leave it as vague as possible. We hoped it would be interesting to all the people we... wanted to come along. We toyed with sending, ah, tailored site reports but figured it wouldn't be worth it if you all started talking to each other. You'd ask too many questions."
"Like me." I said.
Captain Ellis shrugged at me. "I guess."
I nodded, changed the subject. "Who all is here?"
"As you said a few minutes ago, not many big names. Yourself, for instance." I didn't respond to the thinly-veiled insult. "But everyone is acquainted in some capacity with the fairly controversial theories of Dr. Ronald Deckard, as you also guessed. You, for instance, are a published author who claimed that Ancients were sailing fishing vessels in the Karelian Sea. Marcus Blackman and Naomi Kennard both worked with Deckard when he was excavating in the Talhac Desert. Significantly, they both harbour lingering support for Deckard's theories, unlike most of his other associates. Dr. Marit Johansen has worked on the ancient Assulian pyramids and co-wrote three papers with Deckard. She escaped the fallout because within her narrow field of study she is highly respected. She has also continued to quietly defend Dr. Deckard's hypothesis, as you may or may not be aware."
I was not, although I for one knew very well who Dr. Johansen was. I idolised her as a young undergraduate student; once drove nearly twenty hours straight to hear her give a talk on her work. It fascinated me, and I couldn't believe she was at the very same site as I was--it was like a dream come true; although it didn't really surprise me that she was a Deckard supporter, and if the government was expecting the site to be Assulian she was probably a good choice.
"Anyone else?" I asked Ellis.
"Dr. Peter Clark," he said. "He's quite talented with radiocarbon dating, I hear."
"He is," I confirmed. "He's very well-known, highly respected. I'm surprised you got him, actually."
My walking companion looked at me and shrugged. "He's a contract worker. We offered a good contract."
"That's it, though. Just you five." It struck me that on the totem pole of the civilian team, I stood on the bottom--though I suppose that was to be expected. I looked up and discovered that we had come full circle and were standing back at the truck. "Mr. Cameron, what I've said is still classified. You'll be briefed tomorrow morning--you're not to say anything to anyone until that time. Is that clear?" I said it was. I started to walk off, but he said something else. "Richard. We don't know what's down there yet, but whatever it is, it's metal--and if the early reports are to be believed, it's clicking hot." Our eyes met. I nodded thoughtfully, and then we parted ways.
I found Dr. Johansen by accident, at what passed for the site's mess--a tent with a cooler and a box of vacuum-sealed meals. She was sitting on a crate, poking curiously at her food with a plastic fork. I sat across from her, and she looked up at me. "I don't know what this is," she said. "But I think it's the same stuff they put in flak jackets."
"Nah," I reassured her. "Flak jackets taste better."
She smiled. "It's not that bad, actually. They're self-heating if you don't quite feel warm enough."
"That's not much of a problem at the moment," I noted.
She shook her head. "No, but I found that they're pretty unpalatable when you don't cook 'em."
"Oh." I was suddenly struck by a question. "What is that, anyway?"
She prodded it again. "Gumbo."
I cocked my head and stared at the blob she worried with her fork. "Right," I said, a little hesitantly.
"I don't know that I want to eat it," she said. "But I don't want to dispose of it anywhere else, because some innocent creature might stumble upon it." I nodded. She pulled a lighter from her pocket. "I'd try incinerating it but curiously enough it doesn't burn."
I laughed. "I admit I'm intrigued," I said. "Let me see if I can find one of those things." It was easy enough; there weren't many flavours and the chicken gumbo seemed especially unpopular. I took a packet and a bottle of water and sat back down.
"I'm Marit Johansen, by the way," she said as I did so.
I nodded earnestly. "I know. My name's Richard Cameron... I'm a pretty big fan of yours." She furrowed her brow and raised a quizzical eyebrow. "You probably don't remember but about ten years ago I had you sign a poster of a book of yours. You were at a conference; gave a speech at Cliff Auditorium."
Her expression changed, and she covered her mouth with a hand that didn't well disguise her recognition of me. "I remember you," she said, laughing. "You had blown the cover of some book up three or four times and turned it into a poster... you said that you were my biggest fan and had hitchhiked to see me."
"All true," I confessed. "It was a good book."
"You were a little scary," she admitted. "I guess you stuck in my head though."
I grinned. "I have that effect on people."
"So what have you been up to since then--I mean, other than stalking me?"
I hesitated a bit. "I, uh, published a book and then went to teach history at a public high school."
She nodded, took a bite of her food. "What book?"
"It's not very well-known," I said. "Just a little bit on some underwater studies I did up in Karelia."
"What was it called?" She was persistent.
I sighed. "It was called Mysteries of the Ancient--"
She finished the title. "Fisherpeople." She looked askance at me and with some effort I held her gaze. "You wrote that, huh?"
"Guilty as charged," I said.
"It was pretty good," Johansen told me. "I liked it. I didn't resize the cover and have you sign it or anything but it was credible work. And it made the Sentinel's best-seller list."
I shrugged my shoulders. "It was too close to what Deckard was saying. I think I'm the only one here who doesn't have a doctorate in their field--I couldn't finish after my book was published. My advisor apologised, but... he didn't really mean it. You might be surprised how difficult the community at large can make your life."
"Not at all. You may be the only one here at this site, but you're not the only one out in the wide world by far," she said. "A lot of people got dropped from their studies, their jobs... it's a shame," Johansen sympathised. "People passed Deckard over too quickly, I think. A lot of people got burned when they took him down."
"Yeah," I agreed. "I seem to have been one of them."
I shrugged again. "There's not much you can do. I don't think archaeology was for me anyway."
"You're here, though?"
"Teaching history isn't for me either." And it wasn't, as I've explained. It's unsatisfactory work--maybe one student in fifteen actually cares; the rest act like caged animals. The classroom's like a prison for a lot of the students--hell, it's like one for me. There's too much apathy when you're standing in front of your class and too much random nonsense to deal with when you're not. I wouldn't wish the profession on anyone.
There was a bit of silence. I read the instructions on my gumbo--be wary of food that comes with instructions--and followed the directions. Some kind of compartment in the bottom of the square plastic cup was a chemical heater; you were supposed to press down in the centre. I did and was rewarded with an instantaneous heat I could feel through my fingertips. The instructions also said to stir the food; this was a fruitless task, I discovered, since the stuff didn't really separate enough to be stirred, but I pushed it around until steam began to rise from it.
"Neat," I commented.
"It's amazing what they can do these days."
The gumbo wasn't bad, surprisingly--tasteless, but warm and not wholly disagreeable. Johansen finished her own meal, and when she was done she cleared her throat.
"What do you suppose is out there?" she asked.
I looked up from my gumbo. "I don't know."
"Neither do I," she said. "But I bet it's something important."
"You think?" I said, around a bite of food.
"They've got guys with guns, and the plane I came out in was flown by a man in uniform," she told me. "They've got a pretty good amount of firepower for just any old dig."
I nodded. "True enough."
"You know," she said. "I bet they've found something they think they can use somehow. Maybe a crashed Gaarderriken plane they want to recover, or something."
"That takes archaeologists?"
"Maybe they wanted people who know how to handle sensitive sites," she suggested.
Johansen continued. "Anyway I bet they're looking for an object of military utility. Maybe a weapon." She nodded, apparently pleased with herself for coming to this conclusion. I stared at her. "Well it makes sense," she said, almost defensively.
And although I didn't say it to her, it did make sense. But then I thought about Ellis's parting words, and in the heat of the desert evening I suddenly felt very, very cold.
Naomi Kennard was still sitting outside her tent when I went looking for her after eating. The sun was beginning to get quite low in the sky and the oppressive, spiteful heat was fading away, bit by bit. Fortunately out in the Expanse it gets much cooler at night--one of the things that makes living there bearable, if only slightly.
"How did your meeting with Jameson go?" she asked as I approached.
"He threatened to break my nose."
She laughed, although I had not really intended the statement to be humorous. "He didn't, though?"
I pretended to feel for my muzzle carefully. "No, I suppose not." This time we laughed together.
"What did you have to talk to him about?"
I frowned. "Nothing, really." I cast about for an excuse. "I wanted to know who was on the team with us."
"Oh, yeah?" she asked, curious. "Who's here?"
I explained and she nodded periodically as I listed the names. She was as enthused as I by Peter Clark's presence, and she too recognised Marit Johansen. She said again that with the exception of Clark nobody was really outstanding in their field and I nodded, agreeing. For obvious reasons I didn't explain to her the reality of the situation, and for her part she was content to not care much. The conversation drifted.
"So where are you from?" I asked eventually.
"Northland," she said. "Well, specifically the Transnarrows." I'd guessed she was from Northland by her accent, of course--it's quite unmistakable. The Transnarrows was a Northland colony that bordered the Union; it expanded across a number of straits and navigable rivers, hence the name. "I mean, I was born in the Transnarrows but I grew up in Lancaster and I've spent the last decade in Audleyshire."
"Really?" I said. "You work with henges, then?"
She shook her head. "No, no, not anymore. The big sites in the north are all burials, not monuments." I nodded. "I leave the megaliths to people who care about them more." The big stone structures were charismatic and popular among tourists, but it was understandable that a dedicated student of Northland archaeology would look beyond them.
"How are the burials?"
Her eyes lit up the way folks' eyes tend to when you engage them on subjects they're passionate about. "Fascinating!" she cried, and I smiled at her enthusiasm. "I'm working full time with Jim Reed at the moment, on a site in far, far north Audleyshire. It's quite old."
"At least four thousand years. There's exceptional evidence of quite valuable grave goods… it looks like whoever was there was of some importance. More interesting, though, is there's no ochre to be found at all. Completely unlike other Northland sites. We've looked… it's quite puzzling."
"You think they just didn't have any on hand?"
"No, I think that's doubtful. I think it was conscious choice personally. You know what they used instead?" she asked. I shook my head. "Charcoal. We've found it very, very precisely outlined--we're positive the fellow was anointed with it before they interred him." It struck me that he probably would've looked very much like Colonel Jameson, then, although I didn't say this. "Actually that's even better, because we've been able to get pretty solid dates off it." I nodded.
"Four thousand years."
"Or maybe even a little bit more," she confirmed.
"If they hold that could change our theories of global settlement patterns," I pointed out.
Naomi grinned. "Don't I know it? It's very exciting."
I understood this feeling, although I hadn't experienced it myself for some years. "Good luck," I said.
"Thanks." She stared at the ground and then, seeming to find a new topic written there, looked up at me. "So what about you, what do you do?"
Twice in one night. I hated answering this question, although it was a matter of course that it would be asked by the anthropologists at Nahar Kibeera. "I'm an instructor," I said, as nonchalantly as possible.
And then came the reason why I hated answering. "Oh," I said. "A public high school in Storelvsby."
"Really." It wasn't a question, more a statement of curiosity.
"Sure, sure. It keeps me busy."
"Do you enjoy your work?"
I shook my head. "No, not at all. It saps my will to live," I said. She looked concerned. "The thing is, Naomi, I'm the only civilian here who's not some professional or working on some site that's gonna tell us more about the ancient world than we ever knew before or... or..." I couldn't think of anything to finish my statement.
"There's nothing wrong with that."
"No, there isn't," I said. I was, however, losing the battle to pretend that I didn't care. "Makes me the odd man out, though. I listen to Johansen talking about working on the Pyramids, and you with your burial mound..." I laughed a dispirited laugh. "I teach freshmen about Ancient Rome. I stand up at a chalkboard and talk at them while they pass notes to each other and ignore me. I grade papers written by people who think Khufu was made from soybeans." I sighed. "One kid last year kept turning papers in that were half burnt. I don't even want to know why. I have to say it's not very rewarding, I think."
Naomi looked sympathetic. "You've got a good reason for thinking that I suppose." I shrugged. "So why are you a teacher? I mean... you'll excuse me but you don't sound like an amateur."
"I'm not, not exactly." I related briefly my life story, and she understood exactly what I meant. She said the same thing Johansen had, that it was a shame what had happened to Deckard, that many of his adherents had been unfairly disgraced.
"And you know," she said. "I worked with him closely." She shook her head. "There but for the grace of God..."
And we talked until the sun had sunk below the horizon.
"Last Monday, July fourteenth, an EC-7 reconnaissance aircraft disappeared off Siedal Bluff radar screens," Captain Ellis told us at our briefing the following morning. The sun was still very low and it was cool enough to be pleasant as we sat outside Colonel Jameson's tent and listened attentively. Ellis had set up a projector and was casting still images onto the side of the tent.
"The aircraft had departed Bellomont Aerodrome at zero seven hundred hours with a crew of eleven, on a mission of general reconnaissance over the Naffis Sea, especially foreign shipping departing from ports in north Assuli. By sixteen hundred, with no response from the flight, a squadron of search aircraft was dispatched from that airbase, and found no trace of the EC-7, or her crew." Ellis displayed a familiar map--the Naffis Sea, with the République to its north and Assuli on its south. He drew out the airplane's flight path with an outstretched finger.
"We obtained permission from the Assuli to conduct a search and rescue operation, as specified under the 1969 treaty. Air resources from Bellomont and a carrier group in the Eastern Sea cooperated in the search. The EC-7 carries... delicate material, and it is the policy of the Union government to undertake all necessary measures to recover it. Hence the expense."
"Wednesday afternoon the crew of a Northland R-4 running a magnetometer sweep of the Assuli desert watched their readouts go off the charts. They came around for another pass, and found..." Ellis fished for a slide, clicked it into place. "This." The photograph showed what appeared to be a large sandy mound, seen from some distance up.
"The hill describes an area of approximately fifty acres, completely covered over, and somewhat resembles a sand dune. It rises to around two hundred feet in elevation, or around eighty feet taller than the ground around it. It should be obvious that the discovery does not represent an EC-7," Ellis said, and there were some quiet chuckles. "Nonetheless, since we were in the area it seemed prudent to investigate."
Another photograph, this one taken from ground level. "A joint Union-Northland science team arrived the following morning, and were able to complete a preliminary sonar scan of the area we are now calling Tell Nahar Kibeera. They determined that it was once a canyon which collapsed in on itself at some point in the past. The sonar also indicates that the hill is much more hollow than one might have expected, a consequence of the walls falling into each other as an arch." He pantomimed this with his hands. "We were told that there are high quantities of steel and other metal alloys in these walls, the implication being of course that they are artificial." Murmurs ran through Ellis's audience. "Sand has shifted to cover a... sort of entrance to this cavern, to a depth of just over thirty feet."
Ellis stopped talking and looked at the audience for a second. He seemed to be thinking about what to say. Then he gave up, and directed a nod towards Colonel Jameson, who had been standing some feet away but now moved to take Ellis's place.
"Information on this site has gone straight to the top," Jameson said, in his richest, most beautiful voice. "I was ordered specifically by General McPherson himself to organise a small expedition to complete an initial analysis of the site. I hope you all appreciate the extremely delicate conditions we are currently operating under. With the current geopolitical climate, we are running on borrowed time. We located our EC-7 on the third day of the search, but Assuli doesn't know that yet. We've got maybe a week before they start asking questions, and I hope you're up to the task."
A week was nothing. A week gave you just about enough time to dig a latrine pit. There was of course no way that any practical, substantial archaeology could be done in a week--Jameson had to have known that. I knew that; judging from the reaction his orders got the rest of the group knew that. The Colonel ignored all of this.
"By the time we reach the site this afternoon we hope to have finished an entrance to the cavern. We'll be clearing as much sand off the mound as possible, to expose the bare rock underneath. That'll take time of course, and as our crews are working on that we'll be engaging in a preliminary overview of the site.
"Your assignment is going to be to conduct as thorough a survey as you can. I can't say how long we'll have, but don't plan on one of your decade-long excavations, because you just don't have the time. We don't know what's down there, what we're going to find. Maybe it'll be nothing, and you'll all be back home the day after tomorrow. Or maybe it won't be nothing." He paused dramatically. "Do your best, that's what I hear you're good at."
As we gathered together our possessions for yet another move I could hear the distant thumping of rotorblades and in a few minutes a helicopter appeared. It landed quickly, and the engines didn't even shut off. As Jameson commanded his men and the civilian scientists aboard, I felt strangely exhilarated--it's not every day you can pretend like you're preparing for some dangerous mission from an action movie. The Union troops were even outfitted in full military regalia--so it was all very atmospheric.
As we stepped inside the vehicle I noticed immediately that all of the windows had been taped over and there was no way of seeing the outside world. I nudged Naomi, gestured to the windows. "They don't want us to know where we're going." She cocked her head, then nodded.
"High stakes," she said, "if they can't afford to let us know that."
The helicopter lifted off perhaps only five minutes after it landed. Since I couldn't see outside I began to feel myself grow increasingly uncomfortable--the pilot was as far as I know very capable but there was still movement, and it still wreaked havoc on my body. I don't like to think of myself as being very sensitive--everyone of course wants to see themselves as a macho man--but motion-sickness can overcome the strongest souls. That's what I tell myself.
Dr. Clark, a well-dressed fox--I'd seen his picture before in more than one journal; he looked very professional--was sitting next to me in the helicopter. He had sat down, then without a word rested his head against the metal of the helicopter's fuselage and closed his eyes. Twenty minutes into the flight he sat up and said something under his breath.
"What's that?" I asked.
He looked at me. "We're going in circles," he said softly.
He nodded, quite slowly. "I'm sure of it. Can't you feel it in your ears?" I shook my head. "Well it's there. We're not turning fast but we've been going in circles for at least ten minutes now, maybe fifteen. Just a little bit of a bank and a little bit of tail rotor."
"Maybe they're just making a wide turn," I suggested.
He thought. "No, I think we've been doing this for too long. They don't need to turn so gently we don't notice it." As if to punctuate his words the helicopter dipped and adopted a pronounced list. It straightened out quickly, and Peter shook his head. "They figure if we knew about the direction and the travelling time we could estimate where the site actually was. The desert's so big that if we're off by more than ten or twenty minutes you could spend a year searching and not find it again." I nodded. "And maybe they're trying to throw us off anyway."
"Must be pretty important."
"Archaeology meets national security," Clark said, and laughed. "Maybe."
By my wristwatch the helicopter flight took a little over an hour and a half--if Clark were to be believed, around forty minutes was taken up in circling. The landing was as abrupt as the takeoff--the aircraft dropped quickly; there was a thump as it hit the ground, and then the ramp dropped open and we disembarked quickly. The helicopter was on-site no more than two or three minutes.
When the sandstorm its rotors created dissipated I was able to see the real Nahar Kibeera site. The hill was prominent, and clustered a short distance away were a handful of trailers and two armoured vehicles that looked very military. They both had turrets. Some trucks had also been parked near the trailers, and a small number of tents had been erected. It looked vaguely more serious than the improvised base Carl had flown me into.
"All right," Captain Ellis said. "Two trailers have been set aside as civilian barracks, the third is our makeshift laboratory. Get yourselves set up and we'll see if we can't move out to the site by this afternoon."
We worked quickly. Clark had instruments he needed to unpack and set up, and I helped him with these. I had nothing but my notepad and my suitcase, which I set inside the trailer and thought no more of. By mid-morning we were gathered around a truck, waiting instructions.
There were fifteen of us. Colonel Jameson and Captain Ellis were accompanied by eight soldiers; and then there were the five civilian scientists. It was not a particularly large project. I've worked on much bigger sites--and ones where nobody carried rifles.
The five of us talked between ourselves for a few minutes, made final preparations. A handful of Union soldiers stood near us, mostly looking confused. Jameson appeared from behind one of the armoured personnel carriers. "How are we doing?" he asked, fairly pleasantly for him.
"Pretty good," Clark said. "What happens now?"
Jameson ignored him--we were evidently not the object of his questioning--and spoke to the soldiers. "Morris, I want you to work with Ellis and Primachenko setting up a perimeter. Tell the Lieutenant we need an uplink and I'd like a second opinion on the defensibility of this damn place." One of the men nodded and left. "Andrews, set up the M-8s. Don't arm them yet, that's ok." A second man gave a brief salute and started off. "Taylor, Handley, assist him."
The Union presence having been dispersed, the Colonel turned to us. "All right, folks, apologies for that. We're just getting the last bit of the camp set up. We should move out within the hour."
I was beginning to wonder about the operation. "You need a perimeter?"
"Yes," the Colonel told me. "It's standard operating procedure. You don't want to be left without a perimeter, just in case."
"What are M-8s?" Naomi asked.
The Colonel sighed. "Fifty-calibre machine guns. We can set them up quickly, it gives the camp some degree of protection."
"Look, Dr. Kennard. It's just not worth taking risks. This is the way things work. I'm going by the book, and I'd appreciate you allowing me to do my work." He looked us over. "This is a military site, we follow military protocol, use military equipment, draw military funding. That's why we've got APCs--ah, armoured personnel carriers--instead of Land Rovers. It's why I'm here. We'll try not to be too intrusive. Now, ah, Dr. Clark--how's your laboratory?"
Clark shrugged. "It's pretty good considering you managed to get it inside a trailer. Not quite what I'm used to, but I can't see any ways that it'd be inadequate."
Jameson nodded. "Excellent. All right. Keep yourselves busy," he said, and left.
"He didn't answer my question, did he?" Naomi asked us. I shook my head.
"Well, in a roundabout way," Marit Johansen replied. "He didn't say who he thought was likely to attack if that's what you mean?"
"They're rather worried about security," Johansen said. "I think the Colonel has made that pretty clear."
"Why?" Clark asked.
And none of us had an answer--or if we had one, nobody said anything. I for one suspected highly that the Union was worried about interference from the Assuli, who were not our allies. The newspaper I'd read on the plane coming across the Eastern Sea talked about the rising tensions between the Gaarderrike People's Republic and the Union of Free States, spoke of military exercises being carried out in theoretically neutral waters and suggested that a dangerous game of brinksmanship was starting. I didn't know what to think of that--I'm not a political scientist.
This conflict was all over the news, however--impossible to avoid, really--and one didn't have to know about politics to understand that reasonable men could suggest the world was in a time of trial. Well, who knows? But the Assuli were Gaarderriken allies, not ours, and if the notion that they were simply pawns to the People's Republic hadn't crossed my mind extensively, it almost certainly found a home in the military brain of James Jameson.
About thirty minutes after Jameson left, we were shepherded onto a five-ton truck for the trip to the Nahar Kibeera site itself. Myself and the four other scientists were joined by the Colonel, Ellis, and three soldiers, one of whom was wearing the insignia of the Union Medical Corps.
The site itself was not far away, but we were bringing fairly heavy equipment and Jameson had suggested that it made sense to drive rather than walk. It took only ten minutes travelling the sandy Assuli Expanse to reach the mound of earth; still, I was grateful that I didn't have to walk the same distance.
An excavation of sorts had been attempted earlier--a corridor had been cut into the sand and the desert was being held back through plastic barricades. Metallic boxes were scattered about the site; Dr. Clark tapped me on the shoulder and gestured to them. "Deep-scanning gear," he said, and I nodded by way of reply. Ellis had explained that the site was being extensively mapped without any of us being present at all, and the Union sonar was undoubtedly only a part of this. Technology was beginning to replace the traditional archaeologist in some of their fieldwork--I minded this only a little, and only out of a sense of nostalgia.
"Considering what we started with, we've made good progress," Ellis told us as the truck rumbled to a halt. "We've got maybe another four feet of sand to clear, and that'll go quick today. We're also getting pretty good results from our sonar." At this he indicated the boxes as well. "So we're going in well-prepared."
Peter Clark wanted to know what they knew of the internal structure, and by way of reply Ellis shoved towards him a computer, one of the new lap-held ones. I caught a glimpse of some wire-frame illustrations--probably interpreted from the sonar. "This looks almost like there's a solid structure down there," the fox mused. "I wouldn't be surprised if you're looking at an enclosed complex of some kind."
"That's our guess," Ellis said. "We're trying to clear out most of the sand that's covered this cavern. We'll start with that as soon as we know what's actually inside."
Marcus Blackman interjected. "So when you're done you hope to have exposed all of the old compound?"
"That's the plan. It all appears to be fairly loose--just drifts, in places. We don't know what the old cavern was--maybe a caldera, some old mountain was excavated or something. But it's clearing nicely."
"What precautions are being taken against irreparably damaging the context of the site, then?"
"Dr. Blackman, we're doing what we can, I assure you."
Blackman seemed to be on the verge of replying, but bit his lip and said nothing.
The little pathway that had been excavated down into what we were being told was a cavern was clearly defined and it sunk a good twenty or twenty-five feet into the desert sand, with improvised cofferdams having been erected all around. Two men were already on site, working with machines to blow the sand away yet further and expose the underlying rock. I would've thought that this would be something like trying to clear the Eastern Sea with a bucket brigade, but they were making quite good progress.
As we stood around watching them, Ellis passed out masks for us to wear. "It's not so important now," he said, "but it's been suggested that we take precautions once we're actually inside the cavern. We don't know what's down there in terms of, ah, pathogens."
It was a reasonable precaution, even if the respirators themselves--which had masks that fit rather tightly over one's muzzle--were somewhat uncomfortable, so we accepted them without demur. And presently--it seemed like only ten minutes and may have been less--one of the two soldiers working on the corridor stepped back, and quietly said something to the Colonel. He nodded.
"All right," he told us. "Check your respirators." We did. "Let's go," he said, and he led the way down the hallway of sand.
At the end of this long stretch was something that looked depressingly black. There was no light whatsoever coming from within, and the bright midday sun only served to illuminate more sand from within what I assumed was the cavern. It was, in a word, foreboding--I'm used to working on sites where the sun touches everything you do. Jameson switched on a powerful torch and shone it into the blackness ahead of us.
"Huh," he said. "You can't see anything down there." He turned around. "Lieutenant, you're quite certain there's a cavern?"
A heavily accented voice from behind me replied. "Yes sir, the sonar is very much in agreement. The cavern extends for at least two hundred metres beyond this point."
"How much is that in feet?" Jameson asked.
"About two hundred and twenty yards," Peter Clark said. "Say, six hundred and fifty feet."
The Colonel shone the light down into the blackness again. "Well, if you say so." Then he ducked under a low entrance and was inside the cavern. We couldn't see him, but then, the blackness was oddly fitting for Jameson anyway.
"All right," he said, his voice booming. It echoed so much he was almost hard to hear. "Come on in, it's quite nice in here."
One by one, we did. I like to think I was very brave, although really I had little choice but to enter the cavern. And I wanted to see what was on the other side.
There was not much. The walls were rock, although I thought I could see little gleaming bits of metal in the swinging arcs of our lamplights. They were close to being featureless, and they stretched far up over us so that a torch's glow was pallid and lifeless by the time it touched them.
We walked softly, listening to the crunching sound of our footfalls, and cast our lights about mostly randomly. Suddenly I heard someone shout, "hey! Look at this!" and there was a small commotion near what as far as I could tell was a small boulder. "Is that a body?" Ellis wanted to know. Nobody answered for long enough that I suspected that was exactly what it was, and ran towards the source of the noises.
"My God!" I heard Kennard cry as I reached what had quickly become a tight circle around the object.
There was a jumble of voices all running together.
"--post-cranial looks identical to ours--"
"--but the head--"
"--it's completely unprognathic--"
"--look at the shape of the--"
"--incredibly gracile, no signs of--"
"--what the hell is going on?" This last was from the Colonel, and everyone stopped talking. "What is this thing?"
"It's a dead body, sir." This came from Ellis.
"It's more than just a dead body," Naomi countered.
"What is it then?" Jameson asked.
"Revolutionary," Dr. Johansen breathed.
"What does that mean?"
"It's fascinating," Peter Clark said.
"God damn it, will somebody tell me what's going on?" the Colonel thundered.
We were all quiet. Dr. Clark spoke first. "The skeleton probably isn't much newer than the site, which I'd guess is a couple thousand years old at least. The post-crani... ah, the part of the body below the skull... is very much like ours. But the head looks completely different."
"It's one of your Ancients?" Jameson asked.
"If it's not," I said. "It's as close to one as we've ever seen before. And it doesn't look like anything you'll find on Earth today."
Jameson nodded. "What do we do with it?"
"Probably people are going to want it documented extensively. This one discovery alone will revolutionise physical anthropology."
Jameson nodded again. "Ok. Leave this alone. Ellis, mark the site. Everyone else, don't disturb it until we can get more people here." It was a prudent suggestion. "All right, back to the survey," Jameson ordered. I had barely managed to take a single step, though, when the Colonel stopped me. "Cameron."
"Yes?" There was suddenly no one around, and I became acutely aware of how much I disliked being so alone with him.
"We're coming up on the interior structure the sonar appears to have detected. What do you suppose we can expect to find inside it?"
"I'm not sure. Judging from that skeleton, we're not dealing with anything I've ever seen before. It might just be a simple old castle, or... or there might be killer robots lurking there, for instance."
"How likely are the robots?"
I stared into the darkness ahead as though I could see deeper into the cavern. "I would say probably not very likely--but I could be wrong."
"We'll hope that you're not. Ellis told you about the radiation. Outside, it's only just noticeably above the local background, but they tell me there might well be something glowing inside..." For the first time, his voice trailed off rather than ending decisively.
I nodded. "There might. We'll just have to see."
The outside wall of "the interior structure" was smooth, grey, and unbroken. We five scientists, plus Jameson, Ellis and two other Union soldiers, walked slowly down its length until abruptly we came upon what was unmistakably a great door, tall and made of some type of metal. It looked very strong, and as our torches revealed this edifice, inscribed here and there with alien symbols, my heart caught and a thrill ran through me. It was in a word indescribable--the flickering, for the first time in four years, of passion.
"The structure's integrity seems to have held," one of the soldiers said--Primachenko, I think, the one who had spoken before. "I'd imagine the rest of the complex is similarly preserved."
"That's good," Jameson said. "Now... how do we open it?" Marcus Blackman--a rather dour person, in general--rapped at the door and pretended to listen for a reply. There was a bit of nervous laughter, of which the Colonel did not take part. "All right, that doesn't work. Primachenko, we have plastique back at the base camp, right?"
Johansen responded before the Lieutenant could. "Sir, I have to say that's a rather poor idea."
I nodded. "She's right--blowing that door up could be very dangerous..."
The Colonel looked--turned his head, at least--towards the door, then back to us. "This thing has stood intact for thousands upon thousands of years. Used carefully, explosives aren't going to do it much harm. It's very solid."
"Maybe," Marit admitted, "but what about what's behind it? We could be doing grave damage to God alone knows what... I don't think that's a risk you should be willing to take."
"Or we could be damaging nothing at all. Either way we're stalled here. We can't just stand around forever."
"There are practical concerns, too," Captain Ellis pointed out. "Even if we didn't take out a support or something like that, the explosion could collapse the excavation up there... we'd be trapped, and nowhere to go."
This, evidently, dissuaded the Colonel. "All right, then we're back at square one."
"Sir. I've got a laser welder back at the truck," Primachenko suggested. "I think we could probably use that to cut a hole."
Jameson nodded and dispatched Primachenko and his companion--Harkins--to fetch the necessary equipment. They were gone only fifteen minutes--then, in a flurry of sparks and white heat, a portal melted its way into the compound. Angular shapes caught torchlight as we cast about from the outside; when the metal had cooled, Jameson motioned us in with a wave of his hand. If I had found the door alone thrilling, I was completely unprepared for what we found.
It did not look old. Most sites that I've worked on are eroded, dusty, worn and faded from hundreds of years of use--and many more of neglect. This, though... this was almost clean. It was not, I should say, eerie--just surprising. In two- or three-feet wide circles of light we examined what lay inside, I--and everyone else, no doubt--trying to figure out what we had found.
There were buildings--this, I didn't doubt. They looked very normal, with doors and even windows. They had been clearly planned, lying in straight rows and columns, grouped here and there in neat clusters. They looked rather modern, masonry and metal as opposed to adobe or wattle. Because of the concrete shell that surrounded everything I rather doubted it was a village, but it did look rather townlike.
I tried to imagine what it would've looked like a thousand or more years ago, when the strange apparitions whose skeletons lay outside bustled back and forth, gossiped, went about their daily lives. Could they have known that we curious souls would be peering from our present into theirs? Would they have imagined our prying eyes? It was indeed a mystery--we did not even appear to be dealing with our own species, after all, and who knows what the Ancients thought?
It was Ellis who found the "car"--it looked, at least, something like one, down to the wheels, plastic-looking objects that were evidently not pneumatic and had not deflated during their long slumber. There were more of them, scattered about--all built on the exact same pattern, which looked something like a dune buggy. There were seats on the inside, but no steering wheel--in fact no controls were visible at all. This too was a mystery--and not one I could even begin to consider in the short time we spent there before moving on.
Presently we came across another cluster of four presumably-mobile objects, in a bit of a clearing. These, shaped something like a large flattened teardrop, had no wheels and sat heavily upon the ground. They appeared to have windows, of a sort, and looked conventional enough that when Jameson suggested that they were flying machines, nobody disagreed, although as to how they functioned we were mute.
Lieutenant Primachenko provided us with our first clue. He was holding an unwieldy box and a wand which he waved over the closest teardrop. Fiddling with a switch on the box, he waved the wand and then tilted the box, which had a dial on the top, towards Jameson, who shrugged. "Thirteen millirems per hour, sir," Primachenko explained. I noticed Clark look rather warily at the object and take a step back.
"Is that bad?" the Colonel asked.
The Lieutenant examined the box again. "I don't believe so, sir."
"How about we try again with a 'yes,' or maybe a 'no'?" Jameson's voice was dangerously calm
"Radiation is not my specialty, sir, I... I can't say."
"It's a great deal higher than normal," Peter interjected. "But I wouldn't think it's particularly dangerous."
Ignoring the chagrined Lieutenant, Jameson now turned to the fox. "Are we going to start glowing, Dr. Clark?"
To me, Peter looked suddenly absurd in his blazer and tie, facing the dark form of the Colonel, but he shook his head nonchalantly. "That wouldn't happen in any case, but... I'd guess the reason Primachenko has the Geiger counter is because you picked up radiation from the outside, am I right?" There was no response that I could see, but as Clark proceeded he evidently had discerned one. "This is almost certainly what's causing it. I'm not a physicist, per se, but... I'd guess this isn't too dangerous unless you make your permanent home here."
"Well we won't be staying long. We should give it a wide berth, then?"
"That might be prudent," Clark agreed, and I realised we had been edging away from the craft as the two spoke. Hearing Clark's explanation was reassuring, although as a child of the 1960s radiation scares the living hell out of me.
"All right, then. Keep clear of these things unless you don't have a choice. Let's split up--this place isn't too big." With hand movements he split us into groups. "Dr. Johansen, Dr. Kennard, why don't you go that way? Dr. Blackman and Clark, how about this area?" I began to get a sinking feeling at this point, which was confirmed when he dispatched Primachenko, Ellis, and Harkins in yet a third way and left me with him. Why exactly he had taken a fancy to me--instead of Clark, who was more intelligent, or Kennard, who was more personable (and lovely besides)--I had no clue, but I rather wished that he hadn't. To no avail.
I followed him down one of the causeways, walking slowly, taking as much in as I could. It was a few minutes before the Colonel broke the silence. "So what do you think, Mr. Cameron?"
"It's certainly interesting. Very different from any other site I've worked on."
"No robots, though, just the radioactive flying saucers."
I shook my head, which I don't suppose he saw. "No, no robots. All the same I guess I'm surprised by how modern this all looks."
"Our level of technology?"
I thought a little about this. There was nothing outright that would seem to prove they were more advanced than we, and I told him this. "Still, I can't shake the feeling that these folks were a little further along. Not by much, necessarily--or maybe by centuries. We can't just assume they'd develop like us."
"Even though we shared a planet."
"Even though. I was reading an article in the newspaper about what people think life will be like in the year 2000. It's different now than what we thought even twenty years ago, so our perceptions of the future change a lot."
"But we won't have things like those airplanes in fourteen years."
"Probably not," I agreed. "If that's what they are, of course. I mean, that's your first guess, and mine too, but we can't know what these people were thinking, all these years ago. Maybe they're just altars, or tractors, or something we don't even have an equivalent of and can't imagine."
"I would think," he observed, "that the hardest task of an archaeologist like yourself would be doing just that." And this was true--in part at least. In my thoughts I stopped and turned the thought over. "Like myself"--was I one, then?
From further discussion as we crisscrossed the Nahar Kibeera site, I began to get a grip on Jameson's interest in archaeology, and other things that he spoke not quite at length, but certainly more than in passing, about. He was, if frightening, an intelligent soul and, while not truly liking him any more, I began to nurture a respect for the Colonel that I still have, long after the fact. Among other anecdotes one that has stuck in my mind illustrating his perception and wisdom was a scene that took place about an hour later, after we had all regrouped at the entrance and he asked for preliminary results.
Naomi--who, I noted subconsciously, had drifted from Johansen to stand happily close to me--spoke first. "I'd say it's rather too early to make any rash judgments. We just don't know enough at the moment--but of course, that's the nature of history. It's a process."
I perceived Jameson's nod, and then shortly thereafter was shaken from the distraction of Kennard's voice by his own. "Certainly. For now we see as through a glass, darkly; but then face to face. Now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known."
"One Corinthians," Clark said then, either a response or a completely unhelpful explanation.
Jameson nodded to him, offering also a rather cryptic, "thirteen twelve."
I looked from one to the other. "What's that, now?" Clark combined what he and Jameson had said, and I shrugged. "All right..."
The Colonel, who never actually lost his temper, did favour me with an exasperated sigh. "It is from a little-known book called the Bible, Mr. Cameron--a tome your familiarity with which you might, for my sake, consider increasing." He was, of course, chastising me, and his words were rather harsh--but for all that I don't think he was truly very angry. Disappointed, perhaps.
And while at first I was surprised that a man like Jameson would've read the Bible, in retrospect it made perfect sense. So, too, did his providing me with a slightly worn King James edition several days later--he was a riddle, Jameson, wrapped in an enigma, wearing a cloak of absolute darkness.
After we returned to base camp, the Colonel disappeared, with his men, leaving the civilians to fend for ourselves. We made our way to the mess--this time staged out of a trailer, but offering no more palatable fare--and ate a fairly quick dinner. Perhaps half an hour of discussion--less spirited than you might've guessed, considering what we had stumbled across--occurred between us after this before Johansen and Marcus Blackman announced their intentions to begin drawing up a site map and retired for the night. No sooner had they left then Clark--still wearing a tie, although his jacket had gone away at some point--intimated that he should begin work on radiocarbon analysis of the body we had found (technically what he said was, "well, I've got a skeleton to be dating--imagine, we haven't even kissed yet and I'm putting him through a spectrometer!") and departed as well.
Naomi looked in the direction he had gone, then to me. "Well, we're rather popular."
"Evidently," I said. "Still--if I had to be alone with only one other person here, I think it'd be hard to come up with someone I'd rather spend time with."
At this she laughed, face crinkling into the glow of a smile. Absolutely wonderful. "I see." I shrugged. "Well I would be remiss, I suppose, if I didn't echo the sentiment." Then it was my turn to smile. Even if you are, like me, a dour and cynical man, there is something contagious about the emotion of happiness--especially around certain people. My feelings--which I hope are obvious enough--for Kennard aside, she was one of them anyway, and we did nothing but smile for a few seconds before she straightened her face. "Now." She gestured to the looming tell. "What is that?"
I shook my head and whistled. "Ya got me. A town of some sort is my guess--a settlement, at least. What those... vehicles are, what it all was for, I haven't a clue. What do you say?"
"Well... we didn't see anything that stood out as a monument, or a temple... no town centre. It's hard to say, of course--who knows what kind of strange organisation they might've used. But, whether it's Buckingham Palace or a junkyard, I will say one thing... " she tapped at my shoulder with an outstretched finger. "This is fascinating, indescribable!"
I nodded. "I've kind of given up on archaeology, as I said to you, but there's just something about this place. It's like I'm a junior in college all over again."
"It feels like the first time," Naomi said, and I thought about the Foreigner song that had come out the year I started college, when I was still throwing myself into anthropology like a fanatic. Had it been that long? I supposed so.
"It feels like the very first time," I countered, almost singing, with a laugh.
She didn't get the reference or didn't care. "Well, I think you're right. Everything's new again. I think you're right, though, I... I remember the first site I was on. I grew up in the Northland, but it was actually a Columbian village, in the eastern Transnarrows. Mind you, I'm not very keen on North Columbian archaeology--no offence."
"None taken. I did all my work in the Middle East and Karelia. Oh, and just a little Mesocolumbian stuff--I don't know a thing about the Hadenosanee or the Wendat or..." even those two names I pulled from my memory with difficulty, and I gave up--North Columbia lacks the charismatic civilisations of the Yucatan.
She understood. "Well, neither did I. It was an old Wendat village, anyway, that the tribe had asked us to examine. The great thing about archaeology is how it makes you realise that you're not alone, you're part of something much larger--that was the first time I really realised that, looking at these hearths that had been abandoned four hundred years earlier. It's like that now, though."
"It's like that now," I agreed.
"What was your first time?"
"Jarmo, it's a site out this way. I was a sophomore and I got accepted into a field school out of Gleneden. Fantastic site, excellent preservation in a little tell maybe half a mile outside of the city proper. Six weeks out in the summer heat, though--I swore I'd never come back. But then the summer after that I was at Babylon... then I promised to never come back. Then I showed up here."
She grinned, then ran her fingers through the luxuriant fur of her neck and chest. "You think you've got it bad? I don't understand how you people live south of the fiftieth parallel." She gave a rueful laugh. "Crazy Yanks."
At this point there was the sound of drums. From a speaker somewhere a shouting man entreated us to "come on, feel the noise." Naomi's ears twitched and I gave her a look of pity. "Not a fan of heavy metal?"
She made a face. "I was raised on classical music. This is neither classical--nor music."
I laughed. "I'm sorry. I don't care for it much either." The song stopped abruptly, then started again. "Actually, I didn't even know we had a turntable. But... you'd think they could put it to better use."
Naomi shrugged, looking towards the source of the noise--but not, evidently, feeling it. "It's not a turntable, by the way. It's a 'compact disc' player."
"Oh," I said. "I've never really had much experience with those."
"There's one in the department where I work. It's actually really interesting--they're much smaller than a record, you know. More fragile, I'd think. I don't know what they're made of... one of the chaps I work with, though, was telling me... so a record's got these little, you know, pits it reads." I nodded. "Well they've got these on compact discs too, now... imagine you blow up one of these things to the size of Wembley stadium--how large do you suppose your little pit is?"
I shrugged. "Bottle-cap."
She shook her head. "Smaller."
"Fingernail." I raised my index finger to indicate my own--somewhat short, from biting, I admit.
"Smaller," she prodded.
Another shake. "The size of a flea, maybe a little bit larger."
I scoffed. "That's absurd. You're lying to me."
Her eyes widened. "I would never do that! Now, this is technology for you. Don't be such a sore loser," she admonished.
She had, I suddenly discovered, been moving progressively closer to me, and when she cautioned me against being a sore loser my mind, I admit, was elsewhere. "That's fascinating," I said.
"And did you know..." she said, and proceeded to tell me a vast quantity of things that I did not, in fact, know. By the time she finally allowed that she had probably, at least, be retiring to the trailer she shared with Johansen it was quite dark outside. I nodded and bid her goodnight, followed her departure with my eyes, and thoughts. I whistled a swing tune happily to myself as I walked back to the trailer I was billeted in, almost dancing. Then I happened to steal a glance upwards at the heavens, stopped whistling, and hastened to the trailer with sudden purpose.
Maybe five minutes later--I doubt it was even that--I knocked softly on the door of Naomi's trailer. It opened and her head poked out. "Oh! Hello there!"
"Hello," I said back, and beckoned her to come out. Presently she did, wearing a nightgown against the deepening chill of the Expanse's night.
"What's this now?"
"I want to show you something. Close your eyes..." she did, commenting that it was hard for me to show her something with her eyes shut--this was true--and allowed me to lead her up and to the far side of a shallow dune that was just enough to dampen the lights from the base camp. "Careful now. All right..." I positioned her gently. "Now lay down... there's a blanket at your feet, so you won't get sand anywhere"--not that it was possible to avoid this problem, of course, in the desert.
"What's going on?" she asked again, as she first sat down, and then lay flat on her back.
"One second..." I sat down next to her. "Now... open your eyes."
A gasp, and then stunned silence--precisely what I had been expecting, considering that this was--as I had hoped--her first glimpse of the night sky above Assuli. "My good Lord..." she breathed. "Is it always like this?"
"Not quite always, but mostly. Hell of a lot better than it is in Storelvsby--probably Britannia too, I'd guess."
"I've never seen anything like it, if that's what you mean." Her head moved in a wide circle, taking everything in. "There's no light at all besides the stars... I bet if you gave me a pair of opera glasses I could follow a football match on Mars... my God in heaven..."
"Well... Mars is a bit far..."
She shook her head. "It's close enough. Now what are you doing sitting up like that--you're blocking my view." I laughed quietly and obliged her by reclining. "That's better." She turned her attention back to the heavens. "They... they look like little jewels."
"Well they are," I pointed out. "There, for instance..." I pointed. "Those are the seven stones of the necklace of King Atekadde's bride... he gave it to her upon their marriage as a sign of the covenant between their families, who had warred before that for hundreds of years. When she died, an old woman, he cast them up into the night sky so that no one else would ever wear them, and we would always have a sign of the everlasting peace between the clans." I was, all of a sudden, immensely grateful that the university had made me take a comparative mythologies course. "And that there is the heart of the very first man, a great warrior and hero of his people. We were cast from stone, you see, and when he was at last defeated the god Parrakahina plucked his heart out and set it above us so we'd never forget we are forged from the ground and are destined for the stars."
It wasn't especially cold, and I doubted Naomi was bothered at all by the temperature, but she snuggled up against me nonetheless. "I see."
"And... hmm. Not a jewel, but that's Seddhik, the faithful. She brings the rains and allows the crops to flourish. Over there is quiet little Tembel, her mate, the lazy one. He only shows up for a few weeks out of every year, and then goes back to sleep. And that--" a flash across the sky interrupted me.
"Ooh..." Naomi said--kind of a word, but not really. "A shooting star! Did you make a wish, Richard?"
She lay her head half on my chest. "You mustn't tell anyone, now, or else it won't come true."
"Then I assure you--no one will ever hear it."
Now I can't say, precisely, that I was allowed to spend the rest of the night like that, talking with her, because I hadn't revealed my wish. Maybe even if I had told her midnight would've found us in an embrace, her explaining a Celtic myth, me listening raptly. Maybe--but I figured, why tempt fate?
When we all arrived on-site the second day we discovered that a great quantity of sand had been cleared from the canyon leading to the concrete structure itself, and sunlight streamed down upon us as we walked back into Nahar Kibeera. Johansen passed around photocopies of the site map she and Blackman had completed the night before. Naomi turned hers sideways, then upside down. "Have you any thoughts of what this is?"
"Actually... Marcus and I were thinking it almost looks like a military installation--something heavily regimented, at least."
"How do you figure?" Jameson boomed.
Naomi tilted her map so that he could see it. "Well... I don't know what they were thinking, but you've got... barracks here, maybe a headquarters building of some sort there..."
"Guard post over there, next to the gate we came through," Blackman offered.
"Right," Johansen said.
I could see (feel? Something) Jameson's eyes move across us. "All right, I'll take that. Good work, people."
"The problem," Marit proposed, "is that we can't read any of this. I don't know whether this is related to any kind of ancient scripts--it's a pity we don't have a linguist with us."
"We'll make do with what we have," Jameson said. "And a little bit of ingenuity. For instance... here, Dr. Johansen, take a look at our aircraft here..." he indicated one of them, which we were standing perhaps fifty feet from, and led us over to it. "There are symbols all up and down here."
"Yes," Johansen said. "It's hard to say what they mean."
He shook his head. "Not really. This one here says 'Warning,' and this one says 'Danger.' And... this one says 'Don't stand in front of this, you dumb fuck.'"
I saw Johansen's face catch suddenly. "I... I doubt that, sir."
"You doubt it?" There was never much emotion in the Colonel's voice, but I gathered that now he wished to appear as though he had been slighted.
"I do. At best that's probably rather... ah, simplistic, I'd say."
The dark man nodded. "On the other hand, of course, you wouldn't want to dismiss all parallels as simplification, would you? Of course not--how else would you even begin to understand the past?" He let that sink in, neither expecting nor receiving an answer. He finally began again. "No matter, I'm just a simple warrior. Now that we've assessed the basic situation here, and ensured your security, we're stepping out. It's your job, now." He looked us over again. "Mr. Cameron, why don't you take over? I'd like a report at the end of the day."
I blinked as though stepping into sunlight. "Me, sir?"
"That's right. I'm putting my men at your disposal, in case you need them. Otherwise, we'll be back at the entrance overseeing the sand removal. Good day," he finished, brooking no disagreement, and left, taking the two soldiers who had accompanied us with him.
Marcus stared at me, his head cocked. "Right, then. So what's the plan--oberarchaeologist?"
I shrugged, defensive. "I don't know. I don't know what the Colonel's up to, I mean, I have no clue why he..."
Blackman raised an eyebrow. "Doubtless it's because of your extensive experience leading excavations. I hear there's some very important work coming out of PS 24."
"Come off it," Naomi said--a little too hastily.
"Oh what's your deal with the good professor?" Now Blackman faced her. I happened to catch Clark's eye; an amused smile crossed his face and he winked at me before shrugging sympathetically.
"Marcus," I began, and was largely cut off by Kennard angrily asking what, specifically, in the hell was Blackman suggesting?
"I'm sure you can guess," he replied, almost sneering.
"Marcus!" I shouted, which got both his attention and the collie's, before she could spring for his throat. "Can we be calm?" I tried to imagine how the Colonel would've handled the situation. "Every moment we spend arguing is another moment that we're not getting any work done here. We don't have an eternity... I'd think we're going to have to make the best of what we've got. Including me, Dr. Blackman."
He looked at me warily before deflating. "Right. I'm just... confused, is all. By why he would appoint you--when Johansen and I both have experience leading these kind of projects."
"Not as confused as I am," I confessed.
"To be fair," Johansen said--speaking for the first time since her almost-argument with the Colonel. "Nobody really has any experience with this kind of project--myself included. He's really as qualified as anyone else." I tried to make sure I would remember to thank her for the vote of confidence. "And he's right, at any rate. The longer we take here, the less we have elsewhere."
A sigh from Blackman, and nothing at all from Naomi, who was still glaring at him. I decided to make do, as I'd proposed, with what I had. "Ok, so who has any suggestions?"
"Let's get a record of the site down," Blackman said. "Do we have a darkroom?"
Clark shook his head. "No, that was one of the things I asked Jameson about yesterday."
"Polaroids, then," Blackman said. "I have a couple of cameras and some film..." Better than I--who just had a 35 millimetre. So that was a start. This I said aloud:
"That's a start. Fortunately it doesn't look like there's a lot of cover, so documenting context should be fairly easy. And it's a bit large, but I'd say the roads going through here give us a workable grid system."
"So let's split up. Two groups, say, a camera with each... canvas the site, inventory what's here. Get a handle on where we should head from there." As he finished he was reaching into his pack, and retrieved a pair of old Polaroid cameras, a few packs of film. "With a group of two and one of three... let's start at opposite ends, lawnmowing pattern... we'll meet up in the middle?" He was effectively usurping control from me, I gathered, although realistically I didn't mind--he was more experienced. It made him happy, too.
"Two groups of two," Clark said. "Especially if you want to do a photosurvey and you've only got two cameras, I'd like to head back to camp and get back to my date. Dating," he corrected. "It needs some oversight."
The surveying was tedious--made slightly less so by my partner, but tedious nonetheless. Structure by structure, metre by metre, we made our way through the Nahar Kibeera site, accumulating page after page of data, taking photographs until the camera's battery died. For being as boring as it was, the job was strangely fulfilling. I hadn't done anything of the sort for better than four years, had told myself throughout that I didn't mind this. I think I might've been lying.
Blackman and Johansen evidently had more to do than we, so we met them quite a bit further than halfway. That was fine, of course; I was a bit dismayed, though, to find that it was already well into the evening and we were quickly losing the sunlight. There was nothing else that could be done; we walked back through the canyon--now nearly completely clear of loose sand--and met up with Jameson, who appeared to be poring over a map.
At our approach, he looked up. "Ah! The intrepid crew returns. How does the work go?"
"Fairly well, sir," I said. "We've got the site surveyed and we'll compile that tonight... Johansen and I both discovered that you can get into the buildings--they're unlocked. I'd say we'll begin a door-to-door search tomorrow."
"Splendid. Why don't you all get to that, then, when we're back at camp." He seemed--for him--positively cheerful. I was too, if tired. But as we disembarked after the brief truck ride, the Colonel said perhaps the one thing that could kill my mood: "Mr. Cameron, I'd like to talk to you. Mind taking a walk?"
I neither swore, nor sighed, nor let my shoulders droop--just said "sure," and we set off.
"So how do you feel about the burden of command?" he asked.
I had to think about that for a few moments--partly because I wasn't sure, partly because I was thinking about how Jameson in the twilight was much, much worse than Jameson in the day--because at least then you knew where he was. "It's not as bad as it could be. I've got... competent subordinates."
He... well, in my journal it's written "laughed (?!!!?!)," though to give him the benefit of the doubt that's what I'll say he was doing and won't qualify it. Depending on my mood, I may explain a little about the Colonel's 'laughter' later. "Those are hard to come by. Trust me, I know."
"Now... sir, a question of my own..."
"Of course." It was, strangely, a situation where he might almost have seemed fatherly, except the idea of Jameson being a father is enough to give me nightmares.
"Why me, sir?"
A sigh, perceived next to me. "Well... you'd like the truth, I presume?"
"Then it's cliché and not a little stupid, but you remind me a lot of myself at your age. I feel an affinity, you might say."
I stopped dead for a second and almost tripped--neither sure then nor now of his sincerity. "I... remind you of you, huh?"
"You do. You're a cynical intellectual. You think you're smart, and you resent the way, as you see it, you've been condemned because of blind fortune, not your actual failings." He didn't bother to ask if he was right--he was, and I guess he knew that. "I was that way too. Fresh out of college--oh yes, Mr. Cameron, I went to college."
"What did you study? Archaeology?" I guessed.
"No. Molecular biology, actually." Although I couldn't see him, he found some way to make out the expression on my face. "You should understand it was fairly soon after Watson and Crick--everyone was thinking genetics was the way of the future, so I was going to be a scientist. Unfortunately for that aspiration, Lyndon Johnson had other plans."
"I'm sorry to hear that."
"Don't be! The military provides a wonderful experience. That war was easily the best seven years of my life. I had a lot of fun." Because of the way he spoke, it was difficult to tell whether or not he was being sarcastic--though, given who he was, I rather suspected he was not. It made me wonder what kind of circumstances would produce a fellow like the Colonel. Rather boldly, I asked:
"Best years of your life? I hope you don't my saying that that sounds... rather bizarre."
"I do mind your saying that, Mr. Cameron! I do. Fortunately, there is nothing I can do about it. What else is there, though, to life? I had a very interesting childhood."
"Sir, you just described the New Italian Campaign as the best years of your life. I'll grant that I had hippie parents, but I spent my entire childhood dreading Indochina. What..." I shook my head and Jameson came to an abrupt halt.
"Stop." I did. Stars dropped out of sight as Jameson's shadow moved--he was raising his muzzle to the skies, looking at something. Then the stars reappeared and I felt eyes on me. "Mr. Cameron, let me tell you something. A story! I do like a story. Won't you sit, Mr. Cameron?" Somewhat awkwardly, I did, crossing my legs one over the other. The silhouette sat silently down opposite me. "You're wondering--because you're curious, not just because you can see how it might affect you... you are wondering what on earth--or Hell--could produce a man such as I--are ye not?" (I swear to God he said "ye.")
"Good enough!" With more animation than I'd ever seen before in his voice--not emotion, just movement--he began with a flourish. "I came from a large family, I'd say--I had four sisters and a brother, you see. My mother was a policeman, as was my father, and they had a very martial order of things. It's important to imbue children with discipline, which is what they did. Now: my father is a very black man, Mr. Cameron. You don't think it's possible of course but he makes me look like a neon sign all aglow. My other siblings were more... normally coloured. Brown and grey and tan and so on. And so forth. So I had that special favour, but! My brother Michael was my father's right-hand man. He turned to him for every decision--consulted him for every plan. They were as one.
"In his junior year of high school, when I was still but twelve, he fell into a crowd of men the likes of whom did not agree very well with the hierarchy of the Jameson home life. He began to hang out with strange crowds, and to talk back at home, and to listen to very loud music and stay out late at night. What do you think of all this, Mr. Cameron?"
"It sounds like... normal teenage growth, sir. Typical rebellion." I had read Margaret Mead and felt rather assured of this--Jameson disagreed.
"Wrong! It was a breakdown at the most grave level! Now... one day my father happened to spy him on a seedy corner dealing from the pockets of his jacket a street substance, taking in return to those self-same pockets money of the deepest green. Drug dealing, in short, Mr. Cameron. A most abominable sin. The next day was a Saturday and my father called us all out back to the yard. He had us stand in our line and then he split my brother away and asked him to his face if he had been doing this horrible thing, to which my brother lied and said that he had not.
"Then my father drew his sidearm, levelled it at my brother's head and asked again--receiving this time the truth, and grinning fearfully as he told my brother that honesty fitted him well. Then quoth the father, "hath ye made thy peace with God, my son?" To which my brother began to plead most pityingly for his life assuring my father that he had reformed and all these things and my father now fairly bellowed the question. So my brother said that no, he had not--whereupon my father said in a roar that he had expected more of the boy--and pulled the trigger."
I waited here for the denouement, the recognition that this had been an elaborate bluff of some kind. No, for Jameson's next words were: "there was nothing but silence in the great world as my brother fell dead on the ground, enriching it then with what passed for the brains in his skull. Nothing but silence--dead quiet. Not even any birds, Mr. Cameron. Then suddenly the second youngest, who was seven then and whose name was Caroline... she began to cry. We all--myself too--thought that she was next, and my father slowly swung about to face her... then he turned the safety back on, holstered the gun, and hugged the little girl tightly until her tears ceased. And my oldest sister became the new second in command."
I could do almost nothing but sit, stunned. "What. What. What did you do?"
"Oh well that is an interesting story," Jameson said, as though what he had just related was not. "That evening my father gathered us into the living room all in a row and said that we must understand what had happened--that he was now retiring to the upstairs and that it was all our decision. The phone was right there waiting for the police to be dialled. This terrible burden lay upon our shoulders as we heard him tread up the flight, leaving us in parting this: that he would be roused only by the word of Christina, my sister, or by sirens, and then the door closed. Christina looked at me, and I at her... then we gathered the shovels and dug the burial pit for my poor, foolish sibling."
"That's horrible," I managed. "I can't believe you'd be forced to--"
"--We were forced by no man, Mr. Cameron. The choice was ours--I hold to it. If one lets discipline fall by the wayside, it's but a short march to barbarism. We were well-served by our father--I hope one day to have a family as understanding as were we."
I shivered--against the cold, no doubt. "Have you ever read anything by a man named Joseph Conrad, sir?"
"Ah, an author. Never mind. I was just thinking about something." Mostly, I was attempting to figure out how sane Jameson actually was--whereas before I had considered him odd and frightening, I looked to have to face him being quite mad as well.
"Of course. Well, Mr. Cameron, sit upon my words and think, then. Every bit of the story I told you was true, including my commentary on discipline. Don't shoot Dr. Blackman, now..." he chuckled conspiratorially at this. "But watch out. And keep up the good work."
Then he stood and left, leaving me alone--and, for all that, not really wanting to move.
Coming back to the site was a fairly sizable shock; I was still trying to figure out what to make of the Colonel when Naomi bounced up, gave me a hug, and asked jokingly how my conversation with Jameson had gone. I could only shake my head, but that evidently was satisfactory.
There was something else she cared more about: "Peter says he has preliminary dates on the skeleton."
"He says seven thousand years, plus or minus a few hundred..."
I nodded. "That's a couple hundred years later than the Karelia dates, but within the margins. Interesting."
We had made our way back to the mess by this time, which was--as custom, evidently--deserted. We sat down and the collie laid her head upon my shoulder. "You don't sound very excited."
I had to think about that a bit. I guess I didn't--the day, for one, had left me drained; secondly, I was beginning to have doubts about the whole deal. "What's the context like? There isn't any, and... Christ, how much of what we found inside is datable? Nothing."
"That's true," she agreed. "For the moment. Still, you've got to admit this... confirms everything that Deckard ever said. It'll be completely revolutionary."
I coughed. "No, no, no. I staked pretty much everything once, Naomi--on something I couldn't prove definitively. I thought I could, of course. My mistake. When this gets published, they'll eat us alive. Not the least of which because it sounds exactly like something Ron would've latched on to!"
"No. I mean... what have we got here? Some stuff we can't explain and we can't date, and some kind of deformed skeletal freak-show. That's it. We've got nothing. I signed onto this, and I'm going to get shut down again." My voice was rising in intensity. "We have to be very careful about this. You... you have to keep that degree of scepticism."
"Richard." This time she was more firm. Naomi sighed and turned to look me in the eyes. "I understand that you're coming from a different position than the rest of us--that's very understandable, of course. But... you can't let your fears about what's going to happen get in the way of objectivity... and that's what you're letting happen. I had a professor once, Dr. Frank Henriksen, when I was studying here. Hell of a man, and he told me once when I was just... questioning everything he said about the site we were working on... he said, "Kennard, scepticism has to be used like a flashlight--for illumination, not for keeping what you don't want to see hidden." Richard, there are great things in that site. There are great things, believe it or not, in you too. Scepticism or not."
I sighed too, now, and finally let myself give up. "Maybe." I swallowed. "Thank you," I said, and hugged her tightly. She didn't say anything, but I could feel her smile.
Jameson held us up outside the main entrance with a hand outstretched. "My children. I have news for you." Murmurs ran through the group and then Jameson smiled, bright white cutting across the jet of his mouth in an alien, unnatural way. "This site is now being run as a military operation. Under orders from General McPherson, no less. We are going to analyse objects of potential military utility first and foremost before we get around to cataloguing crucifixes and ploughs and soccer balls and whatever else you find." A moment of silence, during which Johansen's words echoed over and over in my head.
"Sir," I pointed out. "We know so little about this that it's going to be very difficult to try to determine what is of 'military utility.'"
"You will try, Mr. Cameron. I have great faith in your ability to succeed."
"Thanks," I said, not entirely meaning this.
He laughed--this was not a sound that put one at ease, far from it, and I don't know why he insisted on using it as though it did. "Now that we have that resolved, one more note. You all have a fair degree of autonomy--Mr. Cameron has suggested that we should begin entering structures today, and that is then what ye shall do, but... beyond this, I want every action you take run by either myself or Captain Ellis first. Is that clear? Good, I believed it would be. Have fun, boys and girls."
The first building we stepped into was neatly-arranged, with things stacked here and there and all about, and not a one was identifiable as anything in particular. We had chosen it at random, a small building perhaps fifteen feet on a side, and now Naomi and I stood facing each other, and I shrugged. She looked at a pile of square plates and picked one up. "This is a ceremonial object," she said solemnly. I laughed--there is an old joke in archaeology that if you find something you can't identify, it was something of religious significance.
A stack of cylinders lay on the floor and I nodded at them. "So are these..." I pronounced, mystically.
"And this," Naomi said, pointing to something that was about the size and shape of a loaf of bread. "We're standing in a temple, you know."
"A temple of military utility?"
She giggled and set the square plate back down. "No doubt. What the hell do we do with this, Richard? We've got, what, a week?"
"I have great faith in our ability to succeed," I said, and picked up a cylinder. There was something etched into it--writing, probably, that I stared at as though I would presently be able to understand what was inscribed therein. And failed to be able to do so.
The next three buildings we tried yielded entirely the same results--more religious artefacts and more temples, which lead Naomi to begin referring to the site as 'Vatican City.' For all the joking, though, this was a serious and ever-present problem. Imagine if someone ten thousand years from now were to enter your house--what can you name whose function would be immediately obvious? A vacuum cleaner? A throw rug? Mirrors could be symbolic portals to some other world; knives either implements of cooking or war. Jameson was writing in one of his binders when we approached him.
"Sir," I said, and he closed what we was working on to look at me. "We've got a bit of a problem here. There's no way at all to know what's useful or what's not, here, I mean... nearly every building has a long... pole thing... propped up against the wall. What's that about? We don't know. Is it a weapon? A tool?" I shrugged, exasperated.
"You can at least do your best," Jameson suggested. "Surely some things must suggest themselves as being important."
"Everything's important equally," Kennard said. "We can't tell the difference between any objects that are functionally differently here, so they might as well be the same. And even so... of course in an archaeological sense everything is important here, too."
"The archaeological sense, as you put it, doesn't apply here." He looked back down at his binder.
"I beg to differ. Not to harp on a point, but this has the potential to be by far the most significant site in our history. Even if you are looking for something practical, you can't dismiss the archaeological relevance."
He peered up at her and set his muzzle on folded hands. "Dr. Kennard. While I respect your opinion, of course, you seem to be missing something. This site, and everything that happens here, is being overseen and funded by the Defence Division. I understand that you consider this of archaeological importance, but James Smithson didn't fly you halfway around the world here, and National Geographic isn't paying for your food and your equipment. This is a military site, with a military goal. Unfortunately, any archaeological benefit at this point is ancillary."
"Good God, you've got to be kidding me." She seemed to rethink her rashness and backed away a bit. "I mean--sir--I understand what you're saying, but why in the hell would ask for archaeologists when a team of military engineers could have stripped down to parts in no time, flat?"
He shrugged. "I don't make the decisions, Dr. Kennard. I chose you--all of you--because I am aware of your work and hold it in high regard. I don't mean to make you slaves to a military-archaeological complex, of course, but you are not living in a vacuum. Science doesn't live apart from the real world--do either of you read the newspapers, by the way?"
"I do," I said, and Naomi made some gesture or other next to me that he took similarly.
"Last week I was back in the Union, in my office, preparing to come out here, and someone tossed a story on my desk. The gist of the article is that the politburo, the Gaarderrike Soviet, is becoming unstable, and looking to the outside to rectify the internal problems of the People's Republic. Do you know what that means? They have a larger army than all of the rest of the continent added together. Who's going to stop them? The Karelians?"
"I'm not sure I see the relevance," the collie said quietly.
"Then you're a fool. The evidence is all out there, Dr. Kennard. The world is going to hell in a very large hand-basket if it doesn't tear itself apart first. An old sergeant of mine once said, "we are the keepers of the light; we are the guardians of freedom; we do not sleep." I do not sleep. When it comes to it, you two, iron--cold iron--is master of it all. I will not be headed off at the pass by the Communists. I don't know Russian, Kennard, and I don't intend to learn." He set the binder down, hard, and stared at us. "We are on a precipice of fate, my friends, the eve of destruction. I am the catcher in the rye. That is my agenda. I know how important this site is to you scientists, but it's more important to me. If either of you have a problem with that, I can charter you a plane right the hell out of this desert by nightfall. Just say the word."
Silence. "We'll do what we can, sir," I said, finally.
He grinned and I almost had to shut my eyes. "I knew you would."
The day's big development came that afternoon. We were to meet at four--"sixteen hundred"--at the main gate, and when we did Johansen was practically glowing. Next to her was the engineer, who looked rather pleased with himself. I would almost have worried, were the two of them not so happy with whatever had happened.
"Reports?" Jameson said, and there was very little at all from myself and Kennard, or Clark and Blackman.
"We think we've finally identified something," said Johansen, and deferred to the burly fellow standing beside her.
"I believe we have found the power centre of this site. Looking at it, it's rather complex, but... there are some essential similarities. I think I can find a way to reactive some of the old grid."
Captain Ellis's head canted so quickly I was afraid his neck was going to break. "Jesus Christ, Lieutenant, you've got to be kidding us. This place is what, seven thousand years old?"
"What's the likelihood you'd be able to succeed?" asked Jameson.
Primachenko grinned. "I did a preliminary test on one of the buildings. I don't have enough voltage in my gear here to start this up, but the circuits at least are... they seem to be still intact. I'd give it better than even odds."
Jameson glanced at Ellis. "Now this is what we're looking for." The Captain nodded.
"Well... to be fair," Johansen offered, "and not to just be a wet blanket, but I don't know that this is such a wise course of action. I agree that it's possible, but God only knows what you're going to wind up turning on."
Naomi nodded. "We ought to do what we can to leave this site fairly undisturbed."
"Your concerns are noted," Ellis said. "But I don't think we ought to pass up this opportunity."
"I don't either," the Colonel agreed, and looked at me expectantly.
Attempting to steer away from scepticism, I spoke. "It's not just disturbing the context of the site. I agree that it's exciting, but it could also be very dangerous. What if you wind up creating shorts somewhere you can't even see that start fires, or... hell, this place might have some kind of defence system that's been dormant for seven millennia. Wind up killing us all."
"Reasonable point. Can you guarantee that won't happen, Lieutenant?"
Primachenko's enthusiasm wasn't dampened much. "I can't guarantee it, Colonel, but I think I can make it pretty unlikely."
"Good enough. Take what you need and get to work. Report back to me periodically, so that we know how things are going." Primachenko saluted and sprinted back towards camp. "The rest of you, back to work, I'd think. We've got plenty of daylight left." Except for me, whom of course he wished to discuss something with, everyone dispersed.
"Sir," I said, before he could even ask my opinion. "This is what we might call rather rash, don't you think?"
"It's a Jameson hallmark," he confirmed. "The road to where I am today has been paved with risk-taking."
I threw my hands up. "But you're not just talking about any old risk, sir. These people had nuclear-powered aircraft of some kind and you want to just pump a couple zillion volts into a power system that's been unused for seven thousand years. For all you know, it was abandoned because the power system was unstable!"
"I rather doubt that, don't you?"
Sighing, I agreed that it was unlikely. "But it definitely begs the question of why exactly you'd do that. Are you trying to prove something, or are you just insane, I mean..."
"Insane?" I started to backpedal, but he would have none of it. "Insane! Are you an idiot, Cameron, or just a good actor? I told you about my childhood; now, I think it was a good one but I can certainly see how that might've done something to a young lad. I served seven years in New Italy and lost more men under me than I can count; came back to find out it was all for nothing. Then the only woman I've ever loved died in my arms. Figuratively. Mostly."
"Figuratively, sir? Mostly?"
He shrugged. "Well, not in my arms. Close to them. Automobile accident, you see. A hit, actually, if you can believe that; I have enemies in high places. The worst part of it, of course, was that she regained consciousness for a few minutes and was fairly self-aware--that's a rarity in the case of trauma like that, I learned very well in Indochina. Mixed blessing."
I closed the jaw that had fallen open and tried to decide whether he was telling the truth. I don't believe Jameson is the sort to lie, though. "I'm sorry, sir."
He looked at me peculiarly. "Don't be. It was an important experience; everyone should have it happen to them at least once. Builds character. Of course..." It seemed to me that he caught his breath then and almost seemed--for a fleeting moment--human. "I tend to think that once was more than enough for me. As to your question, yes, I'd say that could drive a man a little mad. At least, I'm completely off my rocker, you know. But I like to think that I have it where it counts--here."
I smiled disarmingly, unnerved. "I think, more and more, we should start calling you 'Kurtz,'" I said, trying to lighten the mood.
The reference flew over his head, but he shrugged. "If you see fit, Mr. Cameron. For the time being, though: yes I'm crazy, yes I'm dangerous, but I'm also in control, and that's the most important thing."
"He's a lunatic," I said to Naomi that evening as we sat on the steps of a trailer. "I don't even know what to make of him." I set my head on my hands and she patted me on the shoulder.
"Neither does anyone else, I assure you."
I looked up. "The man is decidedly off-balance, but... stable, is the thing, I think. And brilliant--God, you should listen to him sometime."
She nodded, laughing. "I would--if I ever got the chance. You monopolise him."
"Not by choice."
"Even so. I can't get a word in edgewise, what with you both chatting it up like a sewing circle. Why, just yesterday I wanted to have a word with him--"
"--No you didn't. You're lying again."
Taking umbrage, the collie stared at me severely. "Are you contesting my victimisation?"
"Yeah, damn straight I am. You want to do something about it? Make my day."
She put her hands on her hips. "Well," she huffed. "Then I think I shall have to... to... ah, all right, you've called my bluff." Naomi sighed, and then sank into me so abruptly she nearly knocked me over. "I hope you're happy. Punk."
"More than you can possibly imagine."
"Mm." She lifted herself away for a second. "What do you think about the site, now?"
I grinned. "It's developing nicely."
"Context? Dating?" She gave me a wry smile.
"That's the spirit." She kissed me lightly. "We'll make a Howard Carter out of you in no time."
The hell of it was that Naomi had a way of making me not care very much about the context of the site or the insanity of its director. We set Howard Carter and James Jameson and everything else aside and spent another night amongst the stars instead.
In four days I had: boldly re-entered the field I had consciously left, and with a bang, befriended (apparently) a madman, met in person the woman I'd admired since high school, been given control of the most revolutionary archaeological site in modern times, and fallen head over heels in love with someone whom I could no longer take a breath without thinking about. It served to reason, therefore, that Day Five ("thumb day," Naomi called it, since she counted it there), would be the most interesting yet.
Of course I could not have foreseen this.
Naomi and I had been working in a building that was otherwise nondescript when we came across a stack of hermetically-sealed cases. Entirely by accident she managed to find the levers that opened it, and gasped in shock. I looked at the contents and blinked in surprise.
"This is a gun," Naomi said.
It was. My breathing grew inexplicably rapid. "Well... it could be..."
"No, no," she shook her head. "No, it is."
"Suppose that's an object of military utility?"
She looked at me, and then back to the stack of cases. "Hell. We're in a bloody armoury. Your friend Kurtz is going to go through the roof. Look at this, it's still wrapped in whatever this... plastic stuff is." She snapped the lid closed as though that was likely to make the offending object disappear.
"We have to report this," I said. When in doubt, said a law school friend of mine once, state the obvious.
"I know, I know. I wouldn't do anything else--I don't even think that's a bad thing. But I wish I knew what the Colonel was going to make of it."
So did I. She gently took the case and we left the building like it was cursed
Finding something that could be adapted to the purpose of killing was not out of the question, of course--despite the unfamiliarity of the technology. That it had arrived in such blatant form was unsettling, to say the least; and I, like Naomi, had no idea what was going to be done with it.
We approached the Colonel with some trepidation only to discover that he was already engaged with the engineer, and the remainder of the team had gathered around him. He nodded to us as we approached. "Glad you could make it. Lieutenant Primachenko here is evidently going to have something of a demonstration."
A generator had been wheeled in from the outside, and now the Lieutenant turned it on; over its purring he explained what he had done, at length--a great deal of technical information I didn't understand at the time and had no way of recording. Presently, though, he finished, and took a pair of wires up from the ground, looking up at Jameson. The Colonel dipped his head and touched two fingers to his temple. Primachenko said a quick prayer, then connected the leads.
Nothing happened--we are talking about something that had lain dead through the lives of all our great civilisations. This was no surprise, then; he shrugged apologetically and we all let out the embarrassingly-hopeful breaths we had drawn, and were joking a little about the experiment when our quarter of the complex suddenly turned as bright as noon on the outside.
The light had no apparent source--that is, there was no bulb or tube or sun that could be perceived. We were all simply standing in light that had not existed before. Nobody spoke, though we frantically looked at each other, trying to find what had happened, until suddenly something clicked. I found myself staring at Primachenko at the same time as everyone else--and he as bewildered as any. The soldier turned the humming generator off, and the light died.
"Son of a bitch." He looked at the generator, then around at us. "Son of a bitch!" He grinned broadly.
"It's no 'one small step,' but it'll do," Clark said. "Amazing. What do you suppose they used?"
"Son of a bitch!" Primachenko scratched his head. "I don't know, I don't know... did we do that?"
"Turn the generator back on."
He saluted the Colonel. "Yes, sir." With a comforting rumble, the light returned. Primachenko made an encompassing gesture that pointed out the glow that suffused our area. "We did do that. Ten thousand years these things have been turned off--we have the switch!"
"Seven thousand," Jameson corrected. "But I'd say that's still good for a prize. Excellent work, Lieutenant. I'd like you to see what else you can do." He looked at the rest of us. "Now, I'm a pretty good mood; how's the rest of the work coming?"
"Slow," Blackman said. "And we'd have to work pretty hard to beat this." He nodded to the ceiling.
"I'd like you to take a look at this," Kennard said softly, and set the crate on top of the generator, flipping it open.
I could hear Jameson draw sudden breath. "And this might just do it. Where'd you find this?" I indicated the building we'd been working in. "What are your thoughts, Dr. Kennard, Mr. Cameron?"
We looked at each other. "I'd say it looks like a weapon, sir," Naomi said. "And fairly conventional, at that."
"I'd agree with her, sir. I told you we can't always tell what's of utility and what's not, but... we could just be forcing our biases on that thing, but..."
"It's got a trigger," Jameson said, interrupting me.
"Yes, sir," I admitted.
It was poor fortune that we had discovered the armoury when we had, because now Jameson looked at Kennard and I, and lifted the thing out of its package. "What do you suppose the odds are," he asked, gesturing towards the generator, "that it still works?"
"Possibly fairly good, sir, but... it's really not... for us..." I trailed off as it became clear that he was examining it much more closely than I'd hoped he might--and with the attitude of a soldier and a genius. It was a bad combination.
"It doesn't have a magazine," he decided. "No place to put one. You think it's one of those laser guns, Cameron?" I shrugged, hopelessly, and he grinned. "Got a place here where it looks like something might go... Primachenko, what do the connexions look like for the circuits you've been working with?"
The lieutenant leaned over the weapon--I was done pretending it was anything else, at least. "Like those, sir. I don't know what they might've used for power, but something like a battery would go there when it was being used..." he anticipated the follow-up. "I think I can probably adapt the generator, if you give me a few moments." Before I--or anyone--could say anything, the Colonel had removed the wrapping from the weapon and handed it to Primachenko.
By then it was too late, but we--Johansen, Kennard, and I--tried anyway. And were, of course, summarily ignored--though everyone saw this coming. Jameson was convinced that the device could be reactivated, and further that it posed no risk--"no more than any other," as he put it, "and I've plenty of experience." We had expended all our arguments against the Jameson Wall when Primachenko handed him back the thing, connected now through a heavy box to the generator.
"Kurtz," I said. "Don't do this, sir."
Jameson shrugged at me. "We must all live a little, Mr. Cameron, lest our lives be unspeakably bland." Then, pointing towards the cavern wall, he pulled what was evidently the trigger. "And nothing happens anyway."
"That might not be a bad thing, sir. For all you know this fires... nuclear-tipped death missiles or something." He was fiddling with something on the device. "These people were much more advanced than we are, sir, you have no way to know what you're doing..."
He pulled the trigger again. I thought the light above us grew dimmer for an instant, and now loose debris was slipping down the side of the cavern, leaving behind a sizeable nick in the rock wall. Jameson looked at us, at me, oblivious to my horror, and nodded softly. "Just because you get more advanced," he said, "doesn't mean you lose sight of the old ways."
When he pulled the trigger again, the generator sparked and everything went dead, but it had been--he told me afterwards--a "highly successful test."
We were back to work in "the armoury," then, cataloguing. Something hung in the air oppressively.
"What have we unleashed?" Naomi finally asked.
"Inevitability," I said. "There was nothing we could do."
She grabbed a crate and thumped it down, hard, symbolically. "You know our discovery will be used to kill people, right? Here we are in the middle of the greatest site since Olduvai Gorge, finding new ways to visit destruction on people we've never met." The collie was on the verge of tears, I perceived, and I put an arm around her. For a moment I thought she would push me away, but then we collapsed on each other. "I hate him," she said, shakily.
"God damn it." She bit down on her thumb. "God damn it, Richard, I didn't ask for this. How the hell do you tell when some... suited gorilla asks you to come out here, where're they saying 'oh yes, and we want your help killing people'?"
"This is the curse of science," I said, softly. "And discovery. We do what we can, is all..."
"What does that mean? They're going to take all this, and they're going to test it, and then they're going to deploy it, and then every time I turn on the radio to catch the evening news I'm going to be reminded how I help to slaughter some faceless enemy in some nameless war for some meaningless reason and... what are we going to do about that?"
"Not be able to live with ourselves," I said. "Probably. You couldn't have foreseen this."
"I couldn't have. It's people like your Kurtz out there that remind me why the newspaper keeps track of the doomsday clock." She blinked wetness out of her eye.
"No," I said quietly. "He knows what he's about." I realised that this was true only as I said it. "We're in good enough hands, rashness and insanity or no. There are better people to be worried about."
She looked at me and sighed heavily, shaking her head. "I'd like children, someday, Richard. But not here, not with his God-damned 'old ways' and his lights and his perimeters."
"They're not his, though," I said, wonderingly. "Not more so than they're ours. If there's a solution for it all, it lies with us, not with pointing fingers..." I hugged Naomi, who said nothing by way of reply. "You said two days ago that there were still great things left at this site. And in me. I'd like to think that there are--yes? In all of us."
The collie looked around us, at the stacks of crates, each incubating Death. She managed a smile. "I thought you were supposed to be the cynical pessimist."
"Oh, it's just like you to say something like that," I said. "I should've figured. And pessimism is shit," I said, dourly. "It never works out." There was still sadness, still regret--but the smile widened anyway. A good sign. "It's not all lost yet, Naomi," I said, more seriously. "Things'll turn around, I promise."
Kennard was quiet, so silence settled in and shielded us in our own thoughts. "If I ever doubt for a moment that I love you, Richard," she finally said, "you'll remind me of this moment, ok?"
And we went back to work in Nagaina's nest, writing here and there in a ledger. Suddenly Naomi sat back and tossed her notepad on the floor. "We're such damned fools," she said, and inwardly I sighed.
She shook her head, sending fur askew. "That's not what I mean. Quite, at least. Think a bit, Richard, what reason've we got for being here? These people looking from the air for their crashed aeroplane, they've got a metal mound out in the middle of the desert that happens to be radioactive. Would your first thought be, 'oh let's get some Deckardian archaeologists out here!'?"
"Well... no," I said, thinking about it. "I'd have gotten some military technicians out here."
"So they must have something else. An artefact--a piece of pottery, maybe, something."
"I bet you're right."
She sighed. "And nobody saw that. We could've guessed from the first day we started here what they were going to have us doing."
That hit home. "We could've."
"Bloody hell," she said, and looked at her notebook with distaste. After that--once it had all become our fault again--it was hard to get back to work.
We cornered Jameson as we returned that evening--I was growing much more bold than I ought to have been, you see. He looked at us both and asked if there was anything he could do.
"Perhaps," Naomi said, and explained her line of reasoning. His facial expressions had been changing throughout such that when she finished he was smiling broadly.
"Well done. Now you see the value of a good mind. Don't screw anything up in this thing you've got going, Mr. Cameron; it'd be a shame to lose her." I flinched and wondered how much anyone else suspected; was not gladdened at all by the follow-up: "It's fairly obvious, by the way, you two. But not a problem. Anyway, Dr. Kennard, you have hit the nail right on its proverbial forehead. The first ground team to come out here found a skeleton."
"So this thing in the cave didn't faze you."
He shook his head. "Not at all, Mr. Cameron. It was a relief when the dates came up about the same, of course. Now... the real reason why we came down here was something else. Something we found in the skeleton's hand. Hold on..." he disappeared for a moment around the side of the truck, and returned cradling something. "This." A small disk, about the size and shape of a good skipping rock. "This marks only the third of it's kind we've found. The other two are in the hands of the Union government, of course. They're very finely milled, and from dissection we know that they appear to contain circuitry we can't even hope to understand."
"What do they do?"
"That we didn't know, Dr. Kennard--that's what you folks were for. We'd never found one in such rich... surroundings. With Lieutenant Primachenko's newfound understanding of their technology, however, we've been able to activate it."
He shrugged. "It glows, children. Bit of an anticlimax, I admit. If the power is removed, it stops glowing. Would make a nice bauble, though."
"So in terms of running a kajillion volts through alien technology you don't have a prayer of understanding..." I said.
"Yes, we're three for three. Two of them we have a working grasp on, now! The beauty of it all is--" then someone tapped him on the shoulder and handed him a piece of paper. He stopped in mid-sentence and when he spoke again his voice had changed--was deeper, less personal. "This conversation ends now. I shall see you all again shortly." And without even an opportunity to bid him farewell, Jameson was gone.
'Why,' we learned less than ten minutes later when he assembled everyone--he and nine other soldiers, the five scientists--in front of one of the armoured personnel carriers. He looked uncharacteristically... grim, I suppose the word is. Ordinarily he was powerful, but impassive. Now he was set.
"Good evening, puppeteers. I'm afraid I have some very good news for you." He nodded to himself. "I've just received word from our fathers across the Naffis Sea, and it looks we may be getting some company."
I shot Naomi a somewhat worried glance and was met by one equally so in return. "Friendly company, sir?"
"How well do you fancy the colour red?" The Colonel looked at us each in turn and then folded his hands in front of his muscular stomach. "Satellites have detected a Gaarderriken battle group moving south from their installations in the north-west, and for the code-wranglers amongst you I've been forwarded a note regarding recent SIGINT activity. There is more, all of it classified; suffice it to say to you all that it appears that some kind of operation has been launched. As you are aware, our activities here are, technically speaking, in breach of the 1969 treaty between the Union and Assuli; given the recent pledge of support to the Assulian government by the Gaarderrike Soviet, this has the potential to be an explosive situation." Something that was trying to be a grin crossed his face. "Quite literally."
"What have they got, sir?" Captain Ellis did not sound as frightened as I would've, asking the same question.
"Only one ship capable of supporting activities against us, a helicopter carrier of the type they find so attractive... Unfortunately, they will be in a position to engage us close to two hours before NEST reinforcements can arrive. The République has pledged her assistance to our predicament, so a joint Tourainean-Union task force is being assembled, but we appear to be rather short on time..."
"What's the plan?"
"Well, we have, as I see it, two choices--presuming they are planning to join our little party. That, we won't know until tomorrow. Either way, we can either surrender ourselves, our equipment, and the site to them--or we can stand and fight. Of course, this is not a democracy, so the decision has been made for you." This decision was obvious even before he explained it. My heart was beating faster and faster and, even with death at least a night away, my mouth was dry as he explained that he was ordering defences to be set up within the cavern itself. I wondered what was going to happen to me, personally, in all this, and then he asked a final question:
"Can any of you civilian-types shoot?"
Clark evidently was a hunter. I had never fired a gun in my life; neither had anyone else. Jameson cursorily dispatched Ellis to explain the basics and then withdrew, taking three of his men with him to work on fortifying our positions. Without saying anything, Captain Ellis assigned to each of us an "M19A1 .223 calibre gas-operated assault rifle," which was not only lighter than I had thought such a fearsome thing would be--I guessed ten pounds--but also possessing fewer moving parts.
Basic training was cursory. I think Ellis was impatient, and wanted to get back to the Colonel, but he showed us first how to load and eject a magazine, how to charge the weapon, how to manipulate a selector lever on the side. Then, admonishing us not to "do anything stupid," he was off, leaving five academics standing around, rather incongruously holding automatic weapons. Only Clark seemed to be at home with this--and he, still wearing a vest and tie, looked more out of place with the gun than anyone else.
"Correct me if I'm wrong," Johansen finally said, "but did we all just get assault rifles?"
"We did," Marcus Blackman confirmed, examining his closely. "I myself am trying to figure out why... er... are any of us soldiers?"
No. "This is very much not what I signed up for," Kennard declared, and set the gun back on the truck it had emerged from.
"Me either," Blackman agreed--though he kept his.
"Come now, who didn't see something like this happening?" Clark played with the charging handle, and only saw our bewildered expressions when he looked back up. "Oh, don't give me that. What do you think they had rifles to spare for, door prizes? Didn't any of you notice that? For shame."
Blackman's gaze flicked from the fox to his gun, and then back. "This is ridiculous."
"Oh, live a little. Didn't you see Raiders of the Lost Ark? Great movie, that. You kind of look like Harrison Ford, actually, Cameron."
"I'd never thought about it," I said. "At the moment, I'm a little more focused on the whole, 'we all die tomorrow morning' thing."
"Nah. We're the good guys, Richard."
"With no experience at all in killing people."
"Or dying, either," Peter Clark returned. "So the playing field's even." He sighed and gave the handle an authoritative snick! "Look, we're all scared shitless, but that doesn't help, right? We can't do anything about this, so we might as well stick together, do what we can. Just like in the movies."
"We are going to be attacked by trained fucking soldiers," Blackman hissed. "What the hell are we going to do--lecture them to death? Christ, Peter, are you retarded or something?"
The fox held up a finger. "Pragmatic. What's your solution?"
Their eyes locked until finally Blackman threw down his weapon--far less carefully than Naomi had disposed of hers--and stomped off. In parting, he declared that, "I hate you, Clark. Just remember that."
"I could be less cheery," Peter admitted to no-one in particular. "But that wouldn't change anything, so why be an asshole about it? That's my thinking, anyway." His interest slipped back to the handle. Marit Johansen left to find Marcus, and the fox now looked at us. "What can you do?"
"I really don't want to die," Kennard said, offhandedly, as though this had just occurred to her. "I don't recall telling anyone that I did, when I came out here."
"You didn't. You, Cameron?" I shook my head. "Nah, me either. The thing is, I don't intend to, so, it doesn't matter."
"What do you suppose the odds are we make it out tomorrow?"
Clark looked at me closely and cocked his head. "Odds are for mathematicians, not soldiers. Tell you what, though... I bet you fifty bucks you'll be alive to pay me back when we get back to Midbar. You too, Kennard." He waggled his eyebrows. The bet was completely foolish, obviously, but I took heart in it somehow.
"You're on." I shook his hand. "Fifty bucks is a small price to pay for living through a firefight, I figure." Naomi seemed to agree, and took him up as well. "If you lose, though, you pay me back when we get to hell, yeah?" The bravado was reassuring.
"Swear to God," Clark said. "Lucifer, whatever. Now... we've got a long night ahead of us. I'm pretty sure I can guess how you two will be spending it, but, uh, I've got some things I should be attending to myself. I'll see you tomorrow." With this he was off, jauntily carrying his rifle.
Futilely Naomi and I spent the night under the stars again. We said almost nothing, just held each-other close. I scanned the sky for shooting stars and found none--not a single thing upon which to make a wish. As it grew colder we huddled together, lost in our thoughts--both hoping, I think, that if we simply didn't talk about the next day, it wouldn't have to happen.
Breakfast was eaten in funereal solemnity as we awaited our fates--I know now how condemned prisoners feel. Even the soldiers, normally talkative amongst themselves, said nothing, and I realised that we were all in the same boat--they were far too young to have seen Indochina, had never fought before. This camaraderie was not comforting in the slightest.
The death sentence came from Jameson at about a quarter of nine--though you would not have known this by the cheery air with which he approached the cluster of doomed men. We looked at him all at once, as though to a friar, looking for salvation. He stood above us and let the silence grow more dense before finally shrugging. "Three Gaarderriken helicopters have departed a ship off the coast, headed for our position. Their ETA is forty-five minutes."
"Maybe a few more, but yes. Needless to say, regardless of what you may think I have absolute faith in us. That said, this laager is going to be our only hope. The compound itself is just too risky to fight in. We hold the cavern, or we don't hold. I will have nothing but the former--that's an order, and if you are frightened of the Soviets, you had damned well better be more frightened of me." It was a hell of a pep talk.
"Absolute faith in us or not," Blackman spoke up, "how the hell are we going to survive this?"
"By offering me the same faith in return"--he didn't speak in reply to Blackman, but to us all. It was cold comfort. "I know the odds as well as you do--on paper. What you don't know is that I am immortal. I've gone forty years without dying for a very good reason. And where I am immortal, my men are immortal. And where my men are immortal, little things like bullets don't matter to them. All you need to do is believe me."
He found no reassurance that we did in the silence that followed, and finally he nodded his head, as though finally understanding something. He turned to the man at his side. "Captain Ellis, you're a believer, are you not?"
"Sir--yes, sir." There wasn't a moment's hesitation, and I felt sudden awe at the courage behind this conviction.
Jameson drew a revolver from his jacket. It wasn't a gun I'd seen before, on him, but I recognised the type from westerns. He snapped the chamber open and handed the weapon muzzle-end to the Captain. "Remove the round from a chamber, Ellis." Without saying a word, the man did, clicked the revolver closed again, and handed it back. Jameson then, with great deliberation, spun the cylinders around and they blurred, frantic, until at last they slowed to a halt; now he raised the gun and levelled it at Ellis's forehead. I thought I saw the Captain swallow nervously, but he said nothing. "What are your odds?"
"Five in six that I lose my head, sir." Dead calm in this.
Jameson seemed to nod, although he also seemed to not move at all. I don't know which he did--and it is possible that he did both. "Do you trust me, Mike?"
Again there was no pause, and the Captain said very simply: "yes, sir. To the ends of the Earth and back again." I was entranced, by this point, and with crystal clarity I could see as Jameson's finger squeezed closed on the trigger, and the click of the firing mechanism as it found an empty chamber was the loudest sound I have ever heard.
The Colonel looked at all of us, now stern and compassionate, horrific and a bulwark. "This is all I ask. And if any one of you still thinks that you are mere mortals, speak now."
You can laugh now, I guess, or mock us all. But it wasn't fear that kept us silent to a man--even Blackman. We knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that he had been telling us the truth.
The APCs had been placed, with the trailers and the truck, in a semi-circle--this was Jameson's laager. The fourteen of us took positions in whatever places seemed most strategic to our untrained minds. At one point the Colonel suggested that the laager, as our fortress, needed a name, and asked for suggestions. He did it with such disturbing cheer that someone whispered an oath under their breath--whereupon he grinned, and Fort "Fuck You" was christened.
He wound up maybe fifteen feet from me and I watched as he took from one of the pockets of his uniform a small radio. Something about the shape bothered me, and I felt compelled to ask what he was doing.
"That's none of your concern, Mr. Cameron."
I edged closer. It was distinctly familiar--from a movie, I thought, and then something clicked. "That's a detonator, isn't it?"
"Shut the fuck up and take your position," he said, dangerously.
"Sir. What the hell are you planning?" He glared at me and said nothing. "Colonel, this is something that one might conceivably think was important--what have you got going?" He sighed in exasperation and his gaze almost physically hurt, but he turned the radio to me so that I could see it in profile.
"Three hundred kilos of plastique, all we had. Construction explosives--shaped charges. Primachenko and I set them up last night. If our position becomes untenable, my orders are to level this cavern. Destroy the site, and everyone in it."
"Jesus Christ. Sir, that's not a good idea." For this I had no support save for self-preservation, and I was unable to get him to turn the detonator off. I couldn't even think of a good argument when I heard, muffled through the cavern walls, the sound of helicopters. After the longest minute in the history of the universe, a dark shape flitted across our narrow field of vision.
"Those aren't Union," I heard Ellis shout, and Jameson nodded. I struggled to control my breathing.
I could hear him chanting something softly from where I lay. I turned an ear to try to understand the words: "Immortal glory of our forefathers, remain faithful. Would that we die as you did."
"The Bible again, sir?"
"Charles Gounod." He stared at me, looking for something. "Do your damnedest, Cameron." I swallowed and nodded.
"Union soldiers," boomed a loudspeaker from above--the voice of God would be similar in location and tone, I imagine, though less accented. "Surrender your arms and come out into the open!"
Jameson stood and faced us. "Ellis, are we at war with the Gaarderriken?" he roared.
"Sir, no sir!" Ellis shouted back.
"Then..." here he half turned, and raised his rifle towards the helicopter, which was drifting into our field of view. "Don't kill any of the miserable bastards unless it's an unfortunate accident! Safeties off!" He fired a short burst at the helicopter, which reared back abruptly, like a stallion.
There was dead silence for a minute or two. Then a low hiss, and smoke began to fill the entrance of the cavern. Coughing, the turrets of the APCs rained fire into the opening. Presently the smoke dispersed. Silence again. I imagined that I could see the heaps of a few bodies, and was horrified that that almost comforted me--but it was hard to tell.
Then dirt behind me began to spray and sparks cascaded from the trailer I was using as cover. Underneath the din of the APC cannons I could hear return fire. Through the narrow slit I had allotted myself I saw a figure rise distantly and pulled the trigger of my rifle. The figure collapsed--something I didn't really perceive until later. I was operating entirely on reflex.
One of the APCs stopped firing--out of ammunition, it seemed. I watched the two soldiers bail out of it and sprint back towards us. One of them joined me behind the trailer; the other tripped and fell on his face--only after he landed did I notice that the right side of his skull was missing. I blocked that part of my field of vision as best as possible.
The other APC went silent maybe only five minutes later; its crew gained the safety of our works without incident, which I was consciously grateful for--unconsciously I had pointed my weapon and caused two more shadows to collapse. Dimly I heard Jameson order a fallback and then we were running towards the second line of defence they had prepared.
As we did I saw Clark stumble and go down, motionless. The Colonel's dark form was then slinking over a field of sand being constantly pockmarked, as though in a downpour. Several, I saw from the corner of my eye, came within inches of his body, but then he and Clark were both behind the truck, in relative safety. I didn't have to cross the open space to reach them and I crawled close to discover that Clark still appeared to be breathing, and Jameson curtly told me that he would be fine.
I stuck close to the Colonel even so, trying to keep an eye on the detonator, which he had laying next to him at all times. Time passed or did not--I wasn't sure; you couldn't have gotten a straight answer from me on the subject. I had no idea of what direction the battle was heading in.
I was focused on a couple of a moving shapes some distance ahead when there was a deep percussive whoom! from behind me. Instinctively I knew that Jameson had fired the plastique and I squeezed my eyes shut tightly against the coming death. When, seven or eight heartbeats later, I was still alive, I opened them again to discover the battle still raging. Grenade.
Like a snake Ellis was now amongst us, and he called to the Colonel calmly. "We can't hold this, sir."
Jameson punctuated his reply with bullets. "I know that."
"We're going--" then there was another explosion, and Ellis went down. Jameson looked at the Captain almost in shock, and then grabbed for the detonator. He flipped something on it and his finger hovered above a square button on its face. He looked over at me and our eyes locked. In that instant I tried to send every telepathic message I knew how, communicated great tomes of meaning through the bullet-travelled gulf between us. As the microseconds drifted lazily by and his finger came closer to our destruction I redoubled my efforts. Time stopped entirely. "Kurtz," I said. "Don't." You said you had absolute faith...
Something changed in Jameson's face, hard as it was to read. He flipped the switch back on the detonator, and called back to us. "Fall back to the complex!" I breathed a sigh of relief. Somehow I found the strength to haul Clark back with me--I had every intention of giving him my money, in that instant. Miraculously we reached the grey wall intact and then were inside.
The engineer had cut another hole in it to fit the generator through and there was disturbingly ample room through which we could draw fire. The battle intensified; my ears began to ring with the constant unmuffled chatter of our weapons and the ricochets of theirs.
I was not so deaf that I could not hear a distinctly female cry of pain from behind me, though; the terror of what this signified was even worse than that I felt of my own impending death. But I could not turn to look--there was always more fire from in front of me, always yet another swiftly moving rider bent on killing us. I don't actually know what happened--I was suddenly off the ground, and back against a solid wall. Our meeting was not happy, and the world fell to immediate, solid black.
I nodded dumbly. There was an unfamiliar soldier in front of me. Unintentionally I thought back to Storelvsby--when another mysterious man had said the same greeting to me. My home seemed a long way away; a long time ago. He pulled me to my feet and shook my hand.
"I'm Jean-Paul, monsieur. The cavalry has arrived. Are you all right?"
I wasn't, exactly--I ached everywhere, in parts of my body I didn't even know existed. But I nodded. "I think so, sir." He nodded and moved off.
The activity seemed to be clustered near the mouth of the cavern; I discerned vehicles there, and little lumps of people. I limped towards it unsteadily. As I drew near someone approached--Blackman. He was dirty and dishevelled, and he looked disturbed. For a reason that I didn't recall then a moment of terror flashed through me.
"Are you ok, Richard?"
"Yeah, mostly. You?"
He shut his eyes tightly, then opened them and nodded briskly. "Um, yeah. I seem to have been the only one of us who got through without being injured at all--not a scrape."
"That's something." I didn't want the answer, I knew, but I asked the question. "How did we fare?" He began to shake and I--unsteady as I was--had to stabilise him.
He took an uneven breath. "Not so well, Richard. Um... four of the soldiers are dead. They already took Ellis and the engineer, the Russian guy, out in a helicopter--they're in critical condition." Blackman's teeth started to chatter and I pitied him. "Clark got shot in the chest. He, uh, he wants to see you when you have the chance." His voice broke and he had to take a pause before he continued with the worst of it. "We, uh, we lost Johansen. She didn't even... didn't even have a chance," he managed.
"Christ. Oh, Jesus, I'm sorry."
The clatter of his teeth was louder than his words. "There was nothing you could do." He was on the verge of outright tears and there did not seem to be a way to hold him together. Without saying anything else we walked back to the triage centre that had been set up and he sat down in the truck, shivering.
Jameson was conversing with a pair of neatly-uniformed soldiers--based on Blackman's testimony I gathered that he had been wounded, but it was impossible to tell this. I looked amongst the neat rows of our injured--and theirs, apparently. Red hair caught my attention.
Naomi had been hastily bandaged; here and there dark blood showed through. I thought she was asleep (well, no, at first I thought worse) but her eyes fluttered open as I stood there, and with some effort--it hurt like a bastard--I sat down next to her. She smiled at me and I brushed her hair with my paw. "How are you doing?" I asked, softly.
"Based on your expression, a hell of a lot better than I look."
I nodded. "What happened?"
"Damned if I know. I woke up here, honestly. Some friendly guy with a beautiful Gallic accent shot me full of something very nice. How about on your end, Richard? You look like you've been through a war."
I smiled weakly. "I'm in your boat, but without the morphine." Naomi laughed quietly--and the sound was almost enough to drive me to tears. I realised at once how worried I had been, how relieved I had become. I bent down and kissed her on the forehead.
She grew more solemn. "Did you hear about--" I nodded, and so did she. "A damn shame. You see Clark?" I shook my head and the smile returned. "He's babbling about some philosophical bullshit to everyone who'll listen to him." The collie sighed, suddenly drained.
"I'm tired. I think it's whatever they gave me. Though... admittedly, I've had a stressful morning."
"I'll let you sleep then. I should find Clark." With that I kissed her again, and hugged her as best I could. Then, torturously, I stood up and hobbled back through the camp.
"Richard!" Clark almost clapped me on the shoulder, perceived my condition, and stopped in mid-swing. "What did I tell you? You owe me fifty bucks, you coyote bastard."
I laughed in spite of myself, through--because of, too--the tension. "Midbar."
He nodded enthusiastically and produced a small leather-bound book. I thought at first it was a Bible, but he explained that it was his journal. "I write everything in here," he said. Then he turned it around and I gasped. The pages had been shredded in a neat circle. He grinned. "Saved my life! I can't believe it. My God, I almost didn't get a chance to collect on our wager, I mean... but! Oh, get this." He opened it and read aloud: I find myself wondering what became of these people here. What was their fate? I think we shan't ever know. He turned the book back around and indicated the bullet hole, which had stopped on that page, revealing only a single word of this passage, which he now repeated. "'Fate,' Richard. It's enough to make one get religion."
Kennard's wounds were, it turned out, not as bad as they appeared (if not truly superficial); we boarded the last helicopter with everyone else who was capable of walking. She sat down and as I entered Jameson tapped me on the shoulder and pulled me aside.
"I have to destroy the site, you know, Richard." I sighed. "I know you rather it not work out that way--I would too. But... we're not going to have a chance to excavate it, and I can't let this fall into the hands of the Gaarderrike."
"That tell has the potential for enormous benefits to... to humanity, not just archaeology. You can't..." I said weakly.
"I know. But the political situation is too unstable, here, Richard. This must be our gift to our children. This is the sacrifice today makes for tomorrow."
I looked at him. Fighting back tears, I nodded. "I understand." And I entered the helicopter. I sat next to my lover and started to say what Jameson had told me. Kennard already knew. The ebony man sat across from us, looking noble while at the same time... almost humble. The helicopter began to grow lighter, and then we were up, climbing slowly, inching skyward. I thought maybe I would look back at the tell but I didn't, watched as Jameson fingered the detonator. It was he who looked at it, reverently, and then thumbed the button down.
He could see things that I could not, behind me, but his eyes fell on mine. He set the detonator away, and leaned forward with an expression on his face that I could not read then, and cannot now. And he spoke--four words only.
"The horror!" Jameson whispered to me, in a cry that was no more than a breath. "The horror!"
I was only bruised, fortunately--even Clark, it turned out, had suffered broken bones. We spent a week in Midbar Ramady recovering, after the funerals; after grieving Naomi and I spent much of the time planning our future--such as it would be, what with her an ocean away. That hurt more than my battered body did. There were vacations here and there--for her more than for me, since work in the north was sporadic, and her university did not have her teaching year-round as the high school did. When I hugged her for the last time and bid her farewell as she boarded the plane for Britannia, I kept myself together; as she disappeared I began to weep, and would not stop for nearly an hour, despite Clark's best efforts. It was a stressful time.
But I was reinvigorated by it all. Clark worked in Rennsylsmark and we took separate planes home, so I was alone when I reached Storelvsby, having had plenty of time to think. I decided that I was going to turn things around--it's cliché that recognising the transience of life reinforces its importance, and honestly that wasn't all of it. I started to have second thoughts about my distaste for archaeology. I started to have second thoughts about my distaste for teaching. I had millions of thoughts about Naomi Kennard, though they were all happily the same.
First-period history (the simply-titled "Ancient Rome") was not a very exciting class. I didn't care much about Rome; the students didn't care much about anything, so near as I could tell. But that was ok. I burst through the door, eliciting a few shrieks, and then I grinned broadly at my charges, and in a deep voice opened the class:
"Good morning, puppeteers!"
My impression wasn't half-bad, if I do say so myself.
In my office--the little partition of one I have, rather--there are, hanging on the walls, only two things. The first is a calendar; the second is the framed letter I received from my advisor suggesting that the programme I was enrolled in wasn't working out. I kept that around in case I ever started to have any self-esteem, see. In early August I received something else that was a worthy candidate.
Richard, it began, and a few breathless paragraphs later said this: I've been speaking with people in my department who pull some weight in the University. We're not officially accepting anyone, here, but I have it on good authority that, if you say the word, we'd suddenly be looking for a new student. Decorum suggests I shouldn't be your advisor, but Jim Reed volunteered without even skipping a beat. But only, love--only if you say the word.
I placed a hasty phone call without even reading the rest of my mail that day. I still hadn't read it when I started packing my bags.
I'm not sure what I'm going to do. I hope life in the Northland will be satisfactory--though I have at least one ally there who can guarantee victory against all odds, so I'm not too concerned. She's expressed more hope than I might've dared for my future--and damned if that hope's not contagious. Whatever comes my way, though... I'll make it work.
The week I spent in the Assuli Expanse has changed me deeply, fundamentally--permanently. Even without the journals I'm always writing I could recall the whole thing from memory, I think. Setting down there, in the cluster of tents. Jameson--God, everything about him. Naomi, drinking water like it was going out of style. That first skip in my heart as we entered the site itself and I realised what I'd been missing. The gut-wrenching horror of those last few hours.
I wouldn't say it was all positive, but I don't regret signing on--the first decision in five years I haven't regretted. It's given me a new lease on life, a new future. Not everyone has these chances, unfortunately--but I've been given mine, and I won't let anything take it away, no matter the odds. Odds are for mathematicians, anyway.
They're announcing my flight now, so it's time to end this, I think. Fold the whole story back inside--and tell it, maybe, once or twice. It's not a bad one. And there's the boarding call again--and you know what?
Airports ain't so bad after all.