Chapter Twenty – Ancient Discovery
Hoetep remained in the library over the winter surrounded by all the food and equipment Levene left behind to sustain and protect him. He would be picked up the following spring by the next expedition. In the meantime, life would go on in the village without him. Tuluk reported on the presence of the avatar to our High Council, and continued to observe and send reports on a regular basis. Shansur was chosen to lead the next exploratory team this time to the farthest landmass of all, the vast frozen continent surrounding the planet’s south pole. Manouf, recently trained by Misakk, would pilot the Bentu while Nusaan looked after weapons and communications.
Tosar was to drive the crawler and equipment, leaving Jamal to take care of the team’s health as medic. The departure time was not for a few days and Nusaan was desperate to spend time with Sekhmet. The enforced separation had only fuelled the flames in his heart for the girl he loved. It came as no surprise to everyone when the pair announced they were to live together as man and wife. When the expedition left, Nefer and Iset comforted the tearful young woman as the Bentu took Nusaan away from her arms. In the following winter, a new life would begin, but for now it lay hidden safe inside its mother’s womb.
Tosar drove on steadily through the howling blizzard that engulfed the crawler. Manouf watched the navigational display intently. In these conditions one wrong turn and they would be lost forever in a crevasse or fall down the side of a mountain to their deaths. Shansur checked the survey map of the valley they were steadily climbing while Nusaan and Jamal held an animated teenage discussion over the noise of the crawler’s engine and the blizzard.
The insulated cab of the crawler was the only thing between them and the minus one hundred-degree temperature. Even when the blizzard ended, the crawler continued to be blasted by winds reaching over one hundred and fifty kilometres per hour. Eventually they reached the spot Shansur had marked on the map where their base camp would be. Manouf wanted to bring the Bentu closer to the camp but with the uncertain weather of the mountain ranges, Shansur had decided to leave her down on the continent’s ice shelf, fifty hours away by crawler. In the shelter of a rock overhang, they made themselves as comfortable as they could. Spring was barely distinguishable from winter. There were really only two seasons. Seven months of winter darkness followed by a month of twilight. Then three months of endless summer daylight with a further month of twilight before darkness fell once again. The blizzards and winds happened no matter what the season. Nusaan established a communications link with New Cydon by bouncing the signal off the atmosphere around the planet, wishing his fledgling community had access to alliance technologies such as broad spectrum digital comms and satellites.
Shansur’s news was not good in their first report back home. When they had landed to pick up Hoetep, he had vanished yet again. They had spent three precious days searching for him using heat detection sensors inside the underground library and out across the plateau. Flying due south across the prairie covered continent, they continued the search for Hoetep but came up empty handed. So for now, their search of the most promising location on the southern continent would be done the hard way on foot, using educated guesswork. With only three months before the autumn twilight took over, they could not afford to waste any more time. Shansur initiated a grid search of the high altitude valley that gradually extended to the valley’s highest point by the end of the second week. So far, nothing further had been found. There was no indication of any kind of settlement, or indeed that anyone had ever been there at all. By the end of the second month, the team’s morale was at an all-time low. Apart from treating them for frostbite, Jamal’s major concern was that Tosar had become snowblind.
Shansur took the decision to return to the Bentu the next day after they had taken some much needed rest from the harsh conditions. Their spirits rose at the thought of going home. The next morning they set out with Nusaan, driving back down the valley through mild snow flurries. As the crawler climbed back onto the ice shelf, the weather improved, giving them near perfect conditions for the remainder of the journey. Jamal had just finished checking Tosar’s eyes when Manouf let out a startled cry. “There’s another ship!”
Nusaan stopped the crawler and Shansur got out to climb on top of the vehicle with his imagers. As the automatic magnification and focus did their work, the unmistakable outline of a ship hove into view to the west. It was not the Bentu; it was a research ship of Drana origin, half buried in the ice. In the blizzard conditions they encountered earlier, they had driven straight past it. Taking advantage of the jagged blocks of ice thrust up by the previous year’s ice shelf melt as cover they drew closer while Manouf scanned ahead for telltale heat signatures but found nothing. When they were less than half a kilometre from the Drana ship, Shansur signalled Nusaan to pull up behind one of the blocks of ice. Leaving Jamal to take care of Tosar, and placing Nusaan on top of the block of ice with the imagers, in clear sight of the research ship. Shansur and Manouf carefully advanced towards it. The large vessel gleamed in the frozen sunlight of the ice shelf. Her shape belied her age. No ship of this design had been built for millennia.
Manouf signalled to Shansur that he had found a frozen hatch close to the tail section. The coded entry panel was buried behind a ten centimetre thick layer of ice. Manouf reached inside his protective coat and pulled out his fusion pistol. Setting it on destruct, he placed it beside the panel, covering it with blocks of ice, and then he and Shansur dived for cover behind one of the tail fins. The sound of the explosion echoed across the ice shelf towards Nusaan and the crawler. Shansur picked himself up giving Manouf a hand at the same time, and the pair went back to the hatch. It was still in place! The explosion had totally destroyed the key code entry but did little damage to the hatch itself. Signalling Nusaan to bring the crawler, Manouf and Shansur started to clear the remaining ice from the hatch. Jamal secured the crawler’s recovery cable to the inside of the door through the hole where the panel had been. Then Manouf started the crawler’s winch. The cable tightened as the winch took up the slack. Smoke billowed out from the winch gearbox as the tug of war between the ship and the crawler reached its violent conclusion.
The cable sang its deadly song microseconds before it gave way under the enormous strain, slashing across the gap between the crawler and ship, decapitating the crawler’s cab and Manouf in an instant. Manouf’s head flew across Tosar’s prone body in the back of the crawler, coming to rest between his boots. One of New Cydon’s best people had died senselessly. Now Shansur had real problems. How were they going to get back home? With Manouf dead, they had no pilot. By the time they arrived back at the Bentu the surviving members of the expedition were tired and half frozen. Nusaan drove the battered crawler inside the ship’s hold and closed the hatch behind them, cutting off the harsh cold of the frozen continent.
Shansur’s report of the failure to find evidence of occupation paled in comparison to the tragic accident and their current predicament. Angered and alarmed yet saddened, Akhen did not relish telling Khan that his best friend of many years had died so horribly, and for what – an ancient frozen ship. Nevertheless, a rescue mission was organized and set off to pick up the hapless remaining members of the expedition before the season changed. Three days later the Hapi touched down beside the Bentu. Despite the tragedy that had befallen the expedition, Shansur persuaded Akhen and Khan that the ship was possibly the one and only real find across the frozen wasteland of the southern continent. While Khan took Manouf’s remains, accompanied by the slowly recuperating Tosar, back home, the investigation of the Drana research ship continued under Akhen’s leadership.
You’ve now read the twentieth chapter of my science fiction space opera ‘Onet’s Tale’. If you want the priviledge of reading the next twenty, just say ‘More Please’ as a comment below this post. If I hear nothing from you, well…