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Extract from 'The Utjenet Tablets'

An archeological investigation, done diligently, is a long process, and has been since the turn of the twentieth century. Before then, talented amateurs - for such they were, more often than not - typically resorted to the use of hundreds of workers with pick axes and buckets, even dynamite, to make an entry into buried tombs. Much of the treasure originally stored in them had been stolen, long before these ‘amateurs’ arrived, and the context of what little was left behind totally lost. If you need an example, the darn great hole on the north side of the Khufu Pyramid in Giza, Egypt, known as the Robber’s Tunnel, was dug by workmen employed by Caliph al-Ma'mun around 820 AD with the sole purpose of refilling his empty coffers with stolen booty. Still, this was to be my first dig and I vowed to do it as well as I could.

I spent the next two days measuring and photographing the site. On the fourth day, I tried to establish whether there was a physical connection - like a road or pathway - to the stone circle on the other outcrop. I couldn’t find one! That didn’t mean there wasn’t one, but if it did exist it lay further down than our portable ground penetrating radar could reach and, besides, that intervening space was now covered with a forest of sturdy, fir-like trees. I decided that whether the sites were connected or not the dates of their construction were clearly separated, one from the other, by a considerable amount of time. ‘Day Five’ - the next day - was the day I would examine the strange wheel-shaped ‘whatsitsname’ at the far end of the aisle, which seemed to be the focus of the whole site.

 

I looked down at the ground behind the platform on which I’d been standing to study the wheel ‘thingy’. I hadn’t thought of the correct name for it, even though I’d been trying since I first saw it. In the end, I settled on ‘monument’. So, I was looking at the ground behind the monument when I noticed the layer of dust covering it had a distinct dip in it. It looked to be about a meter square and just large enough to be a covering stone. I began to clear the dust away with my hands, hoping to expose the entrance to a chamber containing incredible riches. Unfortunately, after I’d dug down more than a meter, my arms were no longer long enough to dig any further. I was making my way back to the tent, in search of something that might extend my reach, when a fast moving ATV grabbed some big air and slewed to a halt, sending a choking cloud of red dust in my direction. Mike slid off and removed his helmet. “Radio quit working?”

I walked towards him, coughing loudly for dramatic effect. “What?”

“Did... the... radio... quit... working?” he repeated, as if to a student who’d failed the TOEFL!

I suppose I looked a little sheepish. I certainly sounded it. “I’ve been preoccupied.”

He sat on the ground and stole one of my ‘ready to eat’ sachets. “Just wanted to make sure you were okay,” he mumbled, using his teeth to tear it open.

“I’m fine, thank you very much,” I said, picking up a sachet labeled, ‘Pineapple and Ham Pizza’. It tasted like goop. Pineapple and Ham goop. “How's everyone doing?”

Gettin’ it done,” he replied.

He didn’t sound convincing, but I let it slide. I looked around, half-expecting to see Sasha and the rest of her happy troop. “Did you come alone?”

“They’re heading back to the landing site.” He replied, picking up his canteen and pulling the stopper. “So, what you up to?” he asked, between mouthfuls of water.

“Measuring, photographing, and playing in the sand pit,” I quipped as I led him to the back of the ruin and showed him the hole I’d dug. Without another word from me, he got to his knees and started shoveling the sand out with his bear-sized paws like a backhoe. A few centimeters further down, his fingers brushed against something hard. Once he’d cleared away the bulk of the dust, I could see it was the same kind of rock that made up the rest of the site and on which it stood. In fact, the whole surface of the planet, from what we’d seen so far, consisted of this rust colored iron and sandstone mix. I sat on the platform and studied it while he drew his killin’ knife, as he called it, and traced the edges of the hole. He looked at me, briefly, then sheathed the knife and picked up his canteen. He removed the stopper and proceeded to pour water over one edge of the exposed rock. The water pooled, and then drained away through a razor blade thin gap between it and the surrounding rock.

“Interestin’,” he said.

“Couldn’t it just be a crack in the rock?” I suggested, anxious to avoid getting my hopes up.

“Don’t think so,” he replied, pouring more water onto the damp spot. It pooled then vanished just as quickly as before. He drew his knife, again, and probed deeper, until the blade stuck. He had to exert a great deal of effort to free it. Having sheathed it, he sat on the edge of the hole, raised his right foot and brought it down hard. The hollow sound suggested there was an empty space beneath it. “You’re the expert,” he said, grinning. “Do I break it or try an’ lift it out of there?”

Me, an expert? I laughed. Suddenly, I had a thought, and went to the tent for the ground penetrating radar. I set it on ‘maximum’ and swept it to and fro over the hole. In a few seconds, I was able to tell Mike there was, indeed, a space beneath the slab and to go ahead and break it in. It took a while, but he managed it with those huge feet of his. I have to smile at what was going through my mind at that time: Big feet. Big....

 

The shaft was a little more than two meters deep. Dust had accumulated to a depth of several centimeters at the bottom. A gently sloping tunnel, almost a meter square, had been dug into the rock on the side nearest the platform. It proved difficult to enter, at first, what with having to move pieces of broken cover stone out of the way but, eventually, by laying on my belly and entering it head first, I was able to slide slowly to the bottom, where it opened up into a roughly hewn chamber measuring two meters high, by four meters wide and eight meters deep. Mike, as big as he was, made his way down the tunnel far easier than I had and joined me in the gloom. He took a step forward. Something broke underfoot. A scurrying sound suggested he’d disturbed some kind of animal. I assumed it was another lizard.

“Don’t move!” I urged him, while I reached for my torch. I aimed it at the floor and saw he’d crushed a small pot beneath his jack hammer boot. I moved the torch around the chamber. It was littered with dozens of pots of various sizes. Some were sealed with a wax-like substance, most of the others were empty, and several were broken. There were a number of finely crafted statues - two of them similar to those either side of the aisle - and what looked like half a dozen large tablets, covered in some form of writing. Then I saw the skeleton, propped up against the right side of the chamber, with the jaw of its dog-like skull resting on a narrow ledge which jutted out from the wall. Its lifeless arms held another tablet in a timeless embrace. It seemed to me it must have been pretty important for this creature to hold it close, even as its life was ebbing away. I wasn’t sure whether I should disturb it, which I was sure to do by removing the tablet. Besides, I’m squeamish, that way. I got Mike to do it!

 

While he was retrieving the tablet, I caught sight of a tall lamp which had been designed with the minimalist elegance that would have passed unnoticed in any art deco apartment during the 1920’s. I sniffed it, detecting the faint odor of oil, then tested the wick with my fingers and found it was dry and cracked. Removing the tablet had revealed a small, rodent-like creature with a pair of enormous eyes and long teeth which had been hiding beneath it. It sat blinking up at us for a while before disappearing further into the chamber. While I bent to examine one of the numerous tablet pieces which littered the floor, Mike set the tablet down, unscrewed the pommel of his knife and produced a match, of all things. He trimmed the wick with the knife blade and struck the match on the chamber wall. It sparked into life and he lit the torch. In its spluttering light, the inscriptions on the piece of tablet I was holding were thrown into stark relief. At first glance, they appeared to bear a close resemblance to the cuneiform script developed by the Sumerians. Though I wasn’t versed in ancient writing, I quickly realized it wasn’t cuneiform. It just looked similar! I got to my feet and turned to face Mike. “Well, who’d have thunk it?”

“Sure beats hammerin’ rocks,” he said, grinning.

Ya think?” I picked up another piece of tablet and studied it. The surface material was easy to rub off, like dry clay, which was what it probably was given the geology of the area. I figured there must have been a lot of water, here, at some time, to produce such deposits. Maybe there still was? Maybe this was the dry season? I was using my right index finger to trace the outline of the symbols when something truly weird happened: a series of images flashed though my mind. Not like memories, more like they’d been fed directly into my visual cortex. Fire! Death! Corpses! Thousands of them! I felt dizzy and almost fell to my knees. Mike grabbed my arm and the disorientation passed. I placed both pieces of tablet at the entrance to the tunnel, poured some water onto my kerchief and wiped it over my face. “We have to get these up top without turning them into rubble,” I told him. “Oh, and we need try to keep the pieces of the individual tablets together.”

I got the distinct impression Mike wasn’t keen on lingering in the chamber any longer than we already had, but he did agree to my suggestion. It took us almost an hour to remove the three largely intact tablets and the remaining fragments from the chamber. That night, they rested safely in Mike’s tent, while I slept in mine. Mike slept by the fire with the blade of his killin’ knife thrust into the ground by his right hip.

 

My dreams were filled with the images that had flashed through my mind, earlier. But, they’d somehow been expanded - by my own subconscious, I imagine - into a narrative. I experienced a very real sense of terror: the kind that turns the blood to ice, immobilizes the muscles, and stops one’s thought processes dead in their tracks. The very planet itself seemed to be burning! The stench of charred flesh assailed my nostrils. I couldn’t breathe! I turned away from the carnage that lay before me and tried to run, but my legs wouldn’t move. I looked down at my feet and realized I was surrounded by countless charred and twisted bodies! I forced my self to take a small step. A skull crunched beneath my foot. A pair of unseeing eye sockets gazed back at me. I woke up screaming!

“You okay?” It was Mike, standing in the entrance to the tent.

I couldn't speak!

He knelt down and edged a little closer. “Bad dream?”

I sat up and looked at him, backlit by the flickering light from the fire. He handed me my canteen. I took a sip and stoppered it. “I don’t know,” I replied, after the several seconds it took to regain my composure.

“Happens,” he said, in a strangely gentle voice. He left the tent and stood up. “You want a hot drink?” he called out to me.

I slipped out of my sleeping bag and crawled out of the tent, dragging the sleeping bag with me. I stood by the fire with the sleeping bag draped around my shoulders and tried to calm my racing thoughts. Even though I felt in control, once more, my voice sounded shaky, “I’d love one.”

Mike looked concerned. “You should think about heading back to camp in the morning.” He filled a kettle with water from one of the two spare canteens he carried on his ATV, pulled a collapsible griddle from his pack, extended the legs, placed it over the embers and stood the kettle on top of it. “That was one spooky cave, back there,” he added, with considerable gravitas, as he poked the embers with the tip of his knife.

“You felt it, too?” I asked, clinging desperately to the flimsy raft of consensus.

“Walls have ears.”

The raft started to break into pieces! “What?”

“They have ears,” he repeated, gathering a couple of metal cups, a pack of dried milk and a box of cocoa in front of him. Still crouching, he twisted around on the balls of his feet and looked at me. “When something evil happens, they record the sounds and emotions of what went down. Play them back when someone goes in there - someone sensitive, like you.” He stood up and eased the cramp out of his left leg, rubbing it as if it had been hurt sometime in his past. He noticed I was watching. “Fell off a motorcycle when I was a kid and broke my femur in two places.” He looked up at the sky where a layer of dense clouds was forming off to the east. “Only hurts when it’s gonna rain.”

I nodded. “Going too fast for the prevailing conditions, I imagine.”

“You sound like my mother,” he said.

His mother? Not good!

He spooned a heap of cocoa into each cup, rolled his sleeping bag into a cushion and sat down. “I went to one of those ancient ruins, once.”

“Oh, where was that?”

“El Jem,” he replied.

Tunisia?”

He nodded.

“You’re telling me you visited a place on the UNESCO restricted access list?”

“I did a two year tour in Algeria,” he explained. “We chased some drug dealers across the Tunisian border, all the way to Sousse!”

“They say travel broadens the mind,” I said, smiling.

He leaned forward to pick up the kettle and filled the cups with hot water. As he stirred in the cocoa, he went on, “There’s a coliseum, sixty kilometers south of there, built by the ancient Romans.”

I took the offered cup and sipped the contents appreciatively. “I know.”

“We went down to the dungeons, where they used to keep the gladiators and the wild animals before they took them up into the arena to fight.” He shuddered as if a cold wind had blown up. “I was only there for ten minutes - you know, just looking around - but I swear I heard animals roaring and dyin’ men moaning.” He paused, remembering. “There were steps leading up to the floor of the arena. I stood at the bottom and looked up at the small square of blue sky above my head, like those poor bastards must have done. As I started climbing, I heard the crowd cheering - a long way off, at first, then louder and louder as I got closer to the top. It seemed like I was entering that arena to fight. Maybe die?” He shook his head, clearing it. “The stones of that place had recorded all that evil and sufferin’.” He put his cup down. “Want some more?”

I shook my head.

He rinsed the cups with the rest of the hot water. “You shouldn’t go back in there, Sam,” he said. “No good’ll come of it.”

I felt better now the cocoa had warmed me. We said our ‘goodnights’ and I returned to my tent.

 

 
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