Thou Shalt Not Commit Amateur Archaeology
“Your great-uncle found it in the ruins? What ruins are these?
” Jen Sin blinked at the sudden rush of Ichen that followed his question. He was proficient in the language, but not quite fluent. He gestured for the shopkeeper – a tall, nervous man named Shelben, of all things – to slow down, and listened carefully. “The old rulers, the chieftains? Sounds fascinating. And close to the Port, you say?
Shelben had gone a little pale. “Oh no, gentle sir, they are off-limits! A danger to the public, sadly. It would be a great shame for an honoured visitor such as yourself to lose his life in a mouldy old ruin!
Jen Sin paused for a moment, taking in this vehement warning. “Ah, you quite mistake me,
” he said lightly. “I do not search for buried treasure, no. I am something of a student of architecture, and I had hoped to do some sketches of the ruins – from a safe distance, you understand. Now, as it happens,
” he rambled on, extracting a flimsy from his jacket pocket, “I have here a map of the Port and surroundings. If you could mark the ruins for me, well, that would save me a great deal of trouble.
Shelben opened his mouth to produce another polite demurral, but Jen Sin kept talking over the top of him. “Trouble such as asking around the Port for directions, telling everyone how it was you who first raised the topic of ruins. Ah, how much your reputation as a helpful businessman will rise! No doubt all will hasten to your shop in order to experience this wonderful customer service!
” Jen Sin gave the man a friendly, open smile. Shelben had now lost all colour, and Jen Sin felt a pang of guilt for so exploiting the man’s social expectations.
“No need for that, honoured sir,
” the shopkeeper said hoarsely. “I…I will mark the site, for your sketching.
” said Jen Sin, still smiling. “What an excellent guide I have found!
Jen Sin eased the rental landcar onto the side of the road, and took in the view. Behind him was the highway, running south to the ore processors near the mountains. In front of him was a low rise covered with dense forest, and to his right and left the forest curved away from the road. Jen Sin frowned, and checked his flimsy. Shelben’s mark was to the side of the highway’s thin grey line, scribbled over a small elevation mark and in line with a larger elevation to the east. Jen Sin stuck his head out of the landcar’s window, and saw a boulder-strewn hill directly behind him – to the east. Jen Sin scratched at his right ear thoughtfully.
He eased the landcar over to the base of the rise and powered it down, grabbing a pack from the passenger seat and climbing out of the car. The pack contained hand-light, food, water, spare ammunition – and a sketchpad hastily purchased at a specialty store on the fringe of Port. Verisimilitude was important, Jen Sin thought as he strolled up the rise, pack swinging from his left shoulder, and it was best to have an excuse for wandering around a forbidden area.
Jen Sin reached the top of the rise, thick with orange-brown lapea trees; useless for logging, a lumber factor had informed him the previous day, but they were quite striking in such numbers. The view from the rise was also impressive: the highway a long grey line slicing through a plain of waving yellow grains, a set of synthcrete scales balancing the grey smudge of Port with the glint of light that must be Kolen, the planet’s capital. There was no sign of ancient ruins anywhere nearby. A puzzle, then. Jen Sin fingered his right earlobe as he considered the situation.
Had oh-so-obsequious Shelben marked the wrong place on the flimsy? Jen Sin couldn’t really imagine the shopkeeper’s motive; Shelben might have wanted to dispose of Jen Sin by leading him into a trap, but this be-treed rise was hardly deadly wilderness. No, the marking was probably accurate – at least, Shelben thought it was. Could the shopkeeper have simply made a mistake, from ignorance or poor memory? It was possible. Jen Sin heard his father’s voice for a moment: Injurious actions are generally the result of malice, incompetence or ill luck. Prepare for all three. Yes, it was very possible that Shelben had made a mistake.
Jen Sin wandered over to the nearest tree to break off a piece of bark, and stood rubbing it between his fingers as he thought. Shelben might have made a mistake, but the shopkeeper had seemed very confident regarding his directions; as if every native of Lakfort knew the ruins. Jen Sin began to pace, walking between one tree and the next. Five paces, turn, five paces, turn, five paces, turn. Considering the amount of pressure that had been required to get directions from Shelben, Jen Sin rather thought asking around the Port would be unwise. Every planet had its taboo areas, although Jen Sin had never before found ‘amateur archaeology’ on that list.
Jen Sin took another five steps, turned - and stopped, eyes jumping between the tree beside him and the next one. He paced out the distance, between the two trees again, then did the same for the gap between the next two trees. Both were a little more than five paces apart, five steps and half a foot. Exactly the same distance apart. Jen Sin scuffed at the grass with his boot. He didn’t know much about forests; he was a city boy, or more accurately a port boy, and the only tree he’d spent much time around was Jelaza Kazone – hardly a sample from which to draw conclusions about all other arboreal lifeforms in the universe.
Yet Jen Sin was fairly sure that trees did not grow in a regular pattern, all exactly the same distance apart. At least, not naturally. He peered into the lapea thicket, but couldn’t see more than a dozen metres. Which was perhaps the point. This was an odd place for a plantation, but if the ruins were some kind of planetary shame…Jen Sin scratched his ear, considering the size of the plantation and the height of the trees. Decades old, hundreds of trees. Most likely planted before Lakfort was opened to trade. Well. He opened his pack and extracted a compass, took a bearing, and then set off into the thicket.
It was quite deep. After a few minutes he lost sight of his starting point, and began to reconsider his plantation theory; who would go to the effort of cultivating such a large forest? And why? Perhaps there was another reason for the even spacing, some kind of recognition that stopped the trees of this species from germinating too close together. Or did the trees exude a chemical, killing off saplings that grew too close by? Jen Sin frowned at the thought of trees as competitive as people. It was an unsettling idea.
Through the screen of lapea trees, he caught a glimpse of something silhouetted against the fading sun. Jen Sin picked up his step. There were ruins here after all. He emerged from between the mottled trunks, staring into a large clearing totally surrounded by lapea trees. In the centre of the clearing was a stocky tower, perhaps once mighty but now only two stories high. It was built from an odd black stone, neither reflective nor dull; the tower seemed to drink in sunlight. Around the clearing, red-tipped shoots grew around and over more stones that must have fallen from the tower’s upper levels. But the tower itself was totally bare of vegetation, squatting in a patch of bare earth. The red-brown dirt looked like a scar in the centre of the clearing.
Jen Sin reached up to scratch his earlobe, then realised what he was doing and yanked his hand away. He needed to break himself of the habit. He turned his attention back to the clearing. Well. He no longer doubted his plantation theory; someone had cunningly (or at least comprehensively) hidden this place. The method did not really interest him; the real question was why (as it almost always was). The barren area around the tower suggested some kind of hazard, perhaps leaking radiation or an old chemical spill. But Shelben had said that the ruins were from the old rulers, before the Scouts had even discovered Lakfort.
Jen Sin sighed, very faintly. There could be all sorts of dangers in the tower: the aforementioned radiation or chemical leaks, unstable architecture, animals that did not appreciate being disturbed, and of course he would leaving Lakfort under a shadow of opprobrium, if the locals learnt he had entered their hidden-slash-sacred ruins. Better all around to go back to the Port; there was nothing here but the answer to idle curiosity.
The inside of the tower was cool, but not pleasantly so. It was on the verge of painful, a persistent chill that leached the dexterity from Jen Sin’s limbs. He tried to ignore it as he glanced around the ground-floor room. It was a small room, no more than a few flagstones separating two doorways. The right-hand doorway led to a flight of stairs that now spiralled upwards to a waiting sky, little breezes whispering through the doorway and tugging at Jen Sin’s hair. The other door also led to a flight of stairs, a mirror image of the other stairway save that they went downwards. Jen Sin went up the right-hand staircase, testing each step before trusting it with his weight.
The stairway was solid, with no signs of wear or age. There was no dirt or dust, no trace of animals using the structure for shelter. Jen Sin walked all the way to the abrupt end of the stairway, and spent some time staring at where the stonework ended. He squatted down, and looked at the edge. There was no weathering. The tower simply ended, as if cut away with some titan’s pocketknife. Or a plasma beam of some kind. Plasma scars on a ruin dating from Lakfort’s days as an Interdicted World? Well, apparently it had not been as interdicted as it should have been. But that didn’t seem like much of a secret.
Rubbing his arms against the tower’s odd chill, Jen Sin went back down to the ground floor. Peering down the left-hand stairway, he pulled a hand-light from his pack and turned it on. Holding it in his left hand, he descended the smooth steps. He moved slowly at first, but the steps were as solid as the rest of the tower. The stairway curved round and round, going through what Jen Sin thought was three full circles before ending in a long, narrow chamber. He flicked the light around, and saw something on the walls. Stepping into the chamber, he tilted the light so it played all the way along the left wall. There were carvings on the wall, a procession of stylised figures and scenes in three long horizontal panels. Jen Sin checked the other walls, and found the panels continued on the right-hand wall, but the back wall was blank except for a small ledge with a stone on it. He decided to look at that after he’d examined the carvings.
The carvings told a story, with each panel divided into segments that had a clear progression from right to left. Jen Sin started at the door end of the right-hand wall. At first the panels showed odd figures, too broad and tall to be Terrans, accomplishing various tasks: fighting other strange creatures, some only oddly proportioned but others with too many arms, or strange spines, or no discernable anatomy at all. There were scenes of the figures sitting on thrones, with human-like figures bowing before them. And then a large panel, incised deep into the stone, showing what looked like asteroids falling from a sky, with buildings and fortifications being torn apart by the impact.
The panels skipped over to the left wall, and Jen Sin walked past the stone orb to pick up the story again. The large figures gathered together, and went through something that looked like a lopsided gate. Then scenes of the figures slaughtering humans, taking over the buildings. Then new characters showed up, exaggerated outlines clearly meant to be human females. They fought the larger figures, and it seemed evenly matched. One figure showed up repeatedly, a female with long hair, the stone scraped away so her hair was a lighter shade. There was a segment with the large figures sitting in council, and then two figures met the light-haired woman and handed her something – a little circle? – and the next segment shower her being sucked into it.
Then there were segments of more fighting, but the women were clearly winning. The large figures gathered again, and went through another gate. More scenes of enslaving humans, and the final segment showed them building a tall, slender tower and placing the small circle inside it. Jen Sin glanced over at the little orb on its ledge, smooth and round in the light’s harsh beam. Hmm. He might have just wandered into one of Lakfort’s holy places. If that was a sacred relic, well, he might be in a spot of trouble if any locals found out he’d been here. But Shelben had seemed too frightened to talk, and Jen Sin hadn’t told anyone else where he was going.
It was a rather bland relic, Jen Sin thought. He stood before the ledge, and considered the object. About the size of two fists clenched together, it was a perfect sphere carved from grey stone. The wall carvings had shown the sphere sucking someone away; some kind of talisman, or curse-object for use against enemies. Jen Sin scratched his ear, studying the stone orb. There didn’t seem to be anything special about it. Well, might as well be hung for a sheep as a rabbit, as Uncle Shan had once said. Jen Sin reached out and tapped the orb with a fingertip.
It burst into sudden, blinding light, making him stumble backwards and throw an arm over his eyes. There was a thrumm that made the walls quiver, and the air seemed to ripple against his skin. The light died, and Jen Sin lowered his arm to see what had happened. His cautious glance saw a glimpse of something blonde before Jen Sin was slammed against the wall, a hand like iron at his throat. An angry female voice snarled something in a tongue that Jen Sin didn’t understand, but seemed vaguely familiar. Blinking away the little purple spots that filled his vision, Jen Sin saw a short blonde woman in a soft yellow shirt and work-leather pants. The woman from the carvings? Oh, he was going to be burnt at the stake, wasn’t he. The woman was flushed with rage, her hair forcing its way out of her ponytail in wisps and strands. She glanced around the narrow chamber, and snarled something else.
Jen Sin recognised the language now, an Old Terran dialect he’d heard spoken by the third mate of an ore trader. The man’s ship had only been in Surebleak for a few days, and Jen Sin hadn’t learnt more than a few phrases of what the man had called ‘Mercan’. Jen Sin concentrated, and dredged up a few words.
“Friendly time?” he rasped through the ache in his throat. The woman cocked her head – the line of her neck was quite lovely – and spoke again. Jen Sin caught a few words, but most of it was a blur.
Jen Sin shook his head, as much as the unyielding grasp allowed. He thought about his palm gun, looked into her cold eyes, and thought better. “Speak little,” he gasped out. “Please speak slow.”
Jen Sin sighed internally as the woman began another rant in Mercan. He hadn’t learnt a thing from his exile. Still touching things he shouldn’t.
Jen Sin’s a bit of a prick, really. He deserves everything he gets. Most of the conflict in this story is going to be All His Fault.