Chapter Seventeen – Seti
Iset was frantic with worry. In the excitement of the exploration team’s departure, her beloved Seti was nowhere to be found in the village. Akhen and Besal scoured the countryside for kilometres, searching in vain for the little man she loved. Nefer and Sekhmet tried to comfort her as best they could but Iset was heartbroken. Seti had run away in a blind panic when Iset gently told him that it was time for them to settle down together. He liked the attention she lavished on him but when it came to the serious business of sharing the rest of his life with her, he ran. He was a free spirit and he intended keeping it that way. When her back was turned, he took off for the hills as fast as his legs would carry him. Akhen and Besal returned empty handed from their search. The community loved Iset and was angry with the cheeky little thief, for the way he had taken advantage of the kind-hearted loving woman. Iset withdrew from community life, choosing to live on her own in a small hut at the far end of one of the surrounding fields. Life gradually returned to normal in the village over the next few weeks.
Temo and Llokk sat on the porch of Temo’s house in the morning sunlight, sampling some of the first wine of the season made from one of the many types of edible berries found in the surrounding countryside. Llokk kicked back his chair and balanced against the wall with his feet on the low rail of the porch. He was enjoying the taste of a cigar made from a wild tobacco-like herb, which grew in a valley across the mountains where Levene had previously explored.
Khan’s expedition had not reported in for over two months. Akhen was getting concerned for the team’s safety. Temo kept a round the clock listening watch on the communications unit he had built and installed in his house from spares in one of the containers. Temo lit the cigar Llokk handed him and drew in the intoxicating smoke from the mildly hallucinogenic herb. The combination of the wine and herb soon took its toll as Llokk and Temo drifted off to sleep in the warmth of the triple suns’ rays. “New Cydon, Bentu—over,” the speaker beside Temo sprang to life.
Khan and the team had established a base high on a plateau in a mountain range beside a series of waterfalls. “Everything is fine. We’re about to search what look like ancient ruins, a day’s march from here,” Khan said, in answer to Akhen’s questions. “We do have one problem however,” he said, sounding slightly annoyed. “It appears we had a stowaway on board!” The news that Seti was alive and well brought Iset running to Temo’s house with tears of joy flowing down her cheeks. Akhen handed her the microphone and everyone left the room. Khan said later that, “By the time Iset had finished blasting Seti for his selfishness and cruelty towards her. The normally cheerful little man they all knew withdrew into a sullen silence.” But now that Khan’s team knew why he had stowed away, they decided to work him twice as hard as the rest, to make him pay for his sins and the heartbreak and anger he had caused back home, not to mention the added burden he placed on the expedition’s already limited resources.
The noise of the insects increased as sunlight penetrated the thick canopy of the jungle. Seti and Orz cut a path through the thick undergrowth with their laser blades, courtesy of Besal and Tosar’s ingenuity. The crawler followed, loaded down with equipment driven by Nemaar, while Khan, Apis, Mdjat, Hoetep, and Misakk trudged on behind in the sweltering heat. By noon, they had arrived in a small clearing on the edge of an escarpment overlooking some ruins.
While Mdjat built a fire to cook the midday meal, Khan and the sweat-encrusted Seti searched for a way down the escarpment. “Khan, have pity!” bleated Seti, nursing the large blisters on his heels.
Laughter boomed out across the jungle covered ruins, sending insects and mammals scurrying for their lives. Khan’s composure returned as he stared at the pathetic vision sitting behind him. “Finally, that’s all it took, Seti. A simple act of contrition on your part,” he said, tending to Seti’s weeping blisters before bandaging them. Ever since he had been found in the engine bay after they landed, and his escape from domestic bliss had been revealed, Seti had acted like a petulant child when Khan gave him a task. The impossibly hard work routine imposed on him by the rest of the team increased in intensity whenever he protested. Khan helped the little man back up to the clearing and gently lifted him onto the passenger seat of the crawler. “No more nonsense from you—all right?” Khan said, good naturedly jabbing his finger into Seti’s chest, but with a steely glint in his eye.
By nightfall, they were on the outskirts of the ancient ruins, sleeping in hammocks slung between trees beneath the star filled sky. When dawn arrived the next day, Seti had a fire burning with pots of food slowly cooking in the embers around its edges. The wood smoke mixed with the aroma from the pots tantalized the nostrils of the men, as they lay half-awake in the dappled light of the camp. For the moment, Seti had reformed. No one knew for how long but they were all determined to make the most of it. As the heat of the day climbed, the men divided into pairs to explore the ruins.
Misakk and Apis were investigating the low outer walls of an enclosure, when Apis stuck his hand inside the mouth of a carved figure projecting out of the wall. The sickening sound of sliding stone echoed around the enclosure as Apis’ hand was trapped inside the carving. Groaning from the intense pain, the big man broke out into a cold sweat. Misakk tried pulling Apis’ arm, which made him scream in agony. Pulling his fusion pistol from its holster, Misakk changed the setting to maximum, aimed, and fired at close quarters, showered the enclosure with pieces of stone. The sound of the shot brought Khan and the rest of the group running. “It’s a shame Tosar’s not here,” Orz said, “Being a stonemason he’d know what to do.”
“Well he’s not,” hissed Apis, through gritted teeth. “Just get me out of it – now!”
“What possessed you to put your big stupid paw into such a tiny hole anyway?” Seti asked, from a safe distance.
“I saw a piece of metal inside the hole—alright?” Apis replied angrily.
“Calm down,” ordered Khan, “let’s get you free, Apis. Nemaar go back to the crawler and bring that mini-cutter of Seti’s,” he added, quickly taking charge of the situation. Mdjat carefully cut away sections of the carving until he could see inside the hole where Apis’ hand lay trapped beneath the stone slab. Driving wedges under it eventually released his crushed hand. It was badly bruised and throbbing. While Seti and Orz did all they could for him, Mdjat and Nemaar working together, pushed the slab back up into the slot until it clicked into place, out of view. At the back of the hole, was a metal object unlike anything they had seen before, firmly embedded in the stone. With care, Mdjat cut it free and brought it out into the failing light for inspection.
After they had eaten their evening meal and were sitting around the camp-fire, Misakk and Hoetep examined the curious metal object. After several hours of fruitless endeavour they turned in for the night. The next morning it had vanished. Everyone searched the camp thoroughly coming up empty handed. Everyone had to reluctantly carry on with their exploration. Despite the throbbing pain, Apis was slowly on the mend. Seti had taken over the role of cook full-time now and prepared another hearty breakfast.
The search of the ruins continued. In the afternoon Misakk walked back to the camp via the enclosure. Something caught his eye as the sun’s rays were reflected back at him. Calling out to the rest of the team Misakk peered inside the carving, which had caused so much pain to Apis the day before. There, back in its former place, was the metal object firmly embedded in the hole inside the stone carving. The debate over what had happened was rapidly turning into accusations of theft against Seti. Everyone knew he liked collecting things. “But why would I put it back into the wall if I wanted to keep it?” he argued. No one could find fault with his logic. “And another thing,” he continued, “How did I manage to seal it into the stone. It looks as if Mdjat never cut it out. You can’t see the cutter marks anywhere in the hole and the carving has been restored to the way it was!”
They all sat in silence on the wall near the carving, baffled by the mystery. “We’ll just have to forget it and continue exploring,” Khan started to say, when a low hum from the carving stopped him in mid-sentence. Jumping off the wall the team dived for cover outside the enclosure as the sound increased in volume. Peering around the entrance to the enclosure, Nemaar saw that it was now occupied by a small pyramid shaped object, suspended by rays of light from the hole in the carving and others like it, forming a protective green layer around it as it gently spun in the air. Hoetep stared at the pyramid over Nemaar’s shoulder. Its sides were covered in characters he had never seen or heard of in his life. Edging carefully forward he got closer to the pyramid. It floated to the ground inside its protective green layer after the rays of light had retreated into the carvings. The layer surrounding the pyramid felt icy cold to the touch when Hoetep picked it up and turned it over in his hands. The pyramid appeared to be polished stone but was made from some kind of manufactured material. He took it back to camp to study it carefully. Someone had placed it there, but why? As a warning maybe, or a greeting from across the ages—who knew? Until Hoetep deciphered it, the site exploration was put on hold.
Hoetep sat on the deck of the crawler reading the reference books he had brought with him, illuminated by the green glow given off by the small pyramid. From time to time, he turned it to compare the languages on its sides with the archaic examples in his books. The others sat around the red-hot embers of the fire, dozing after the meal Seti had prepared. The little man had turned in and was snoring softly in the comfortable cocoon of his hammock. Khan got up and walked over to Hoetep. “Having any luck with the languages?” he asked.
Hoetep shook his head. “No—nothing. It’s like all the known languages and yet none of them.” He sighed. He pointed out similar glyphs in the books to parts of the languages on all five surfaces of the glowing pyramid, shrugged his shoulders, and spread his hands in a questioning gesture before dropping them to his lap. He sat deep in thought, staring at the pyramid, not seeing that Khan had returned to the seated group of men.
The songs of the insects high up in the jungle crown announced dawn as the triple suns’ rays warmed their tiny bodies. The smoke from Seti’s cooking fire gently drifted up toward the canopy starkly revealing the sunbeams around the camp. While Seti filled each mess tin with steaming hot food, Orz took breakfast over to the still sleeping Hoetep on the back of the crawler. As he approached the crawler’s deck, the overflowing mess tin fell from his hands. “Khan—guys get over here!” Orz yelled.
Dropping their food the rest of the team ran around to the back of the crawler. The pyramid was elevated above Hoetep’s sleeping form, spinning gently, only now its green protective layer encircled Hoetep as well.
Next time – Chapter Eighteen