Marshall sipped the rancid coffee from an ill treated tin cup, the smile never leaving his face as he looked out over the beehive of activity. John Allard ducked out of a tent behind him with some rolled up papers under his arm and sidled up alongside Marshall.
“The last of the equipment should be arriving today from the old dig site, but we are having trouble getting some of the locals to come and dig here.”
Allard said matter of factly.
“More superstition?” Marshall replied without breaking his gaze on the work proceeding before him.
“You know it.” John replied.
“Let us feel lucky that we have escaped that trap my friend. It is man's natural state to fear that which he does not know.” Marshal said in a didactic tone.
John just shook his head and stood in silence for a moment.
“We’ve discovered thirty three more spikes and a truly incredible number of those disks, we stopped counting them. I’m just having them tossed in a pile over there for now until we can figure out what to do with them.” Allard said with his arm pointing somewhere over his shoulder.
“Maybe they were currency, and rampant inflation made them worthless, so they made a game of tossing them around these spikes.” Marshall’s attempts to stifle his boyish grin contouring his face.
John laughed and shook his head. This was a game they usually played, throwing out the most ridiculous ideas just to get them out of your head. Sometimes in the past it had actually helped them get to the real purpose of artifacts, but mostly it was just for fun.
“Oh, there was one thing I wanted to show you, an idea one of our digger friends had.” John gestured back toward the tent he had just emerged from.
Back in the tent he unrolled the large draft paper from under his arm. It was clearly a survey of the new dig site, with each spike marked.
John began running his finger in a circle near the where the river was marked and began talking.
“This is clearly an engineered site. And importantly, we think the river cutting through it was not a part of the original design.”
“The spikes vary in size and protrude at seemingly random angles, but we’ve uncovered enough of them now, that there does seem to be a pattern to their placement.”
His finger finished tracing an arc around the outside of the map and Marshall’s eyes lit up.
“It’s a circle” Marshall said
“Exactly, the river cut through the very edge of what is apparently a very large circle. The spikes are placed radially around it, not in spokes exactly, but clearly in some sort of regular pattern we haven’t quite figured out yet. Possible when we excavate more of them it will become apparent but...”
Marshall cut him off.
“But what’s in the middle of the circle?” He said in a dreamy voice.
“Precisely what I was wondering about, my friend.” Allard said, his smile almost audible.
John reached behind him and carefully picked up what appeared to be a crudely fashioned, but very large protractor, and placed it down on the map.
“Based on what we can already see of the circle, I calculated what the circumference should be, and fashioned this so that we could...” as John spoke he dragged the pencil portion of the protractor around, making a perfect circle near the edge of the map. Then he grabbed a large ruler and made several straight lines through the circle, the intersections of which making an X at the very center.
“Find out what this was all built for.” he finished, and looked up at Marshall.
Marshall looked up from the table, his boyish grin gone. He clasped one of John’s shoulders and as sincere as John had ever seen him said “We make one hell of a team you and I.”
They both smiled and looked back at the map, it’s hidden geometry now clear as day.
Marshall was sitting in the drafting tent going over receipts for some new equipment. John bent over his cartography table, working out something intricate it seemed, when one of the workers parted the tent flap and stuck his head in.
“Mr. Marshall, there is a man from the nearby village here to see you.”
John Allard looked up from his work at Marshall with a knowing look usually reserved for young boys who had just been caught with their hand in the cookie jar.
Marshall sighed “Okay then, guess it’s time to sooth some ruffled feathers.”
They both followed the worker out to where a small delegation was waiting, looking on the excavation with worry written across their brows.
Marshall stuck his hand out as he approached. “Welcome to our dig site” He said in as friendly a tone as he could manage.
He recognized the man at the front of the delegation, the same man he had met in the street some weeks ago.
The old man looked at Marshall's outstretched hand but made no movements to shake it. Marshall withdrew his hand after a few awkward moments.
The old man started with a grave tone. “You did not heed my warning. This is our sacred land.”
Marshall replied with a snarky tone “Well it didn’t look like anyone was using it”
The old man held his hand up, stopping Marshall's sentence, so that he could continue.
“We are not warriors, we can not remove you from this land. Mine is to teach those who come.”
John and Marshall both perked up at this, and Marshall countered “That’s great, we are very eager to learn.”
But the old hand stopped him again, and continued.
“To teach you and the ones before you and the ones after you to not stray here. To not inquire, to not ask questions, to not concern yourself with what is here. So that we all may live.”
John Allard’s shoulders fell. This man was not going to help them after all.
Marshall stood not saying anything, so the old man turned to his entourage and the man behind him handed forward a wicker basket.
The old man held the basket out for Marshall to take.
“It is our belief, religion you may call it, that those who venture in this sickened land must have one of our protectors with them.”
Marshall looked through the wicker mesh front of the basket.
“It’s a cat” Marshall said in delight “The cat is your protector? Well that's great!”
Marshall looked back at John “I’m getting a cat!” and then back at the old man who’s expression had grown graver still.
“I beg of you, go with this protector, and heed the warnings you may find here.” the old man's voice grew lower. “Heed them, for all of us!”
With that the delegation performed a crisp about face, and walked away toward their village.
Unfazed Marshall began showing the cat off to the worker who had brought them. It was of the breed they had seen in the town, nearly hairless, but gentle and friendly.
John’s gut felt something was wrong. He knew it was wrong to impose on the natives like this, but that wasn’t it. He gazed around at the many excavated spikes around them, and in a deeper more primal part of his being, felt a creeping dread. This place, they were not meant to be here. He pushed the superstitions down and walked back to the drafting tent.
John and Marshall stood with several workers who had come in from the University after word of the excitement at the second dig site had made it back there. From this vantage point looking down you got a better idea of the scale of what was being uncovered. For the last week the entire dig crew had been working to excavate the very center of the circle.
Some interesting things had been discovered already. First, the spikes stopped near the center. Second, the center was a perfectly flat slab of whatever black rock the spikes had been made out of. Today they had finally finished clearing the entire surface of the slab. It was flat, but with what seemed to be an intentionally rough finish, pits and grooves as deep as a man's fist, it almost looked like rubble, but it was certainly designed this way from what they could tell. It gave the appearance of destruction when viewed from afar, but up close it spoke of supreme craftsmanship.
What was more interesting however was what was discovered last night, a dirt patch, a perfect rectangle at the center of the slab. They had set up lanterns and continued digging throughout the night. Their workers were mostly from the university now, the locals had all but abandoned the project, citing an evil presence at the site.
Ghost rubbed against Marshall's leg, despite his offputting appearance, being mostly skin, it was the most affectionate animal any of them had ever known. Marshall named him ghost in mocking acknowledgement of the superstition that pervaded the locals. He had grown quite attached to the creature and it now followed him everywhere.
Ghost reached up and clawed Marshall's pant leg, he bent down, and the cat bounded up, off his knee, and onto Marshall’s shoulder where it settled in as he stood back up.
Marshall, John, Ghost, and the university workers stood, transfixed at the rectangle in the ground.
Finally a shout rang out from below the earth. “We’re through! We’re through! Bring some light!”
The group arrayed around the edge sprang to life and began clamoring down the dirt embankment, Ghost leapt off Marshall's shoulders and stayed close behind as they descended.
At the entrance a worker handed a lantern to both Marshall and John as they entered the tomb.
The room was large, but felt small. The middle of the room had walls that didn’t go all the way to the ceiling, just about the height of a man. John and Marshall split up, John began examining the walls that made up the perimeter of the room, while Marshall moved to inspect walls at the center of the room. The initial giddiness of the moment had dissipated the moment they stepped inside this tomb.
The sounds of the outside failed to penetrate down here, it was utter darkness save for their lanterns.
Marshall ran his fingers along the perfectly smooth surface on the wall in front of him, and began speaking in a hushed voice.
“It was surprising at the first dig site to find that these ancients were metal workers. For the dates we have them pegged for that seemed advanced.”
His voice echoed in the chamber.
“But this stone work is beyond what I expected, even from people as advanced as that.”
John did not reply. Marshall held his lantern up to the wall he was inspecting. Very precise engravings in a language he had not encountered before covered the stone. As he walked along the wall, another set of engravings in a clearly different but also forgiegn language. Each slab that made up a section of the wall had a different set of engravings.
He exited the row made by the low walls and began walking down the next row. Each slab making up the wall the same, but different. The text wasn’t all of the same length, but not wildly different.
Walking down two more rows, he came out of the last row and found a larger empty space, no more low walls. Holding his lanter up he could see he was now at the front end of the room, and a larger slab stood at the front of the room, alone. It’s glyphs larger than the rest, the slab it’s self also larger than the rest.
“This must be the point of the room, this slab.” Marshall thought out loud in a hushed voice. “I bet the other slabs carry the same message, just in other languages of the time. That's why they are of similar lengths, but not exactly the same, just small variances in how many words it takes to say the same thing in each language.”
Proud of this deducement, he turned to see who John was not acknowledging his brilliant insight. John Allard was standing back from the perimeter wall with his lantern held high, casting it’s light on as much as he could all at once.
“What does it look like?” Marshall said, a bit louder now.
“I… Don’t know. Yet. Maybe it’s… something.” John trailed off, deep in thought.
Marshall looked on, the perimeter walls were quite different. None of the glyphs on the wall appeared to be written word. These looked more like pictograms. Quite complicated ones from the looks of it. A cluster of circles was featured prominently at the center of the wall, with several more circles further out. Marshall couldn’t make heads or tails of it.
The tables in the drafting tent had been pushed to the edges, and every chair in the camp had been relocated in neat rows to the center of the tent. Several dignitaries had made it in from the University now and were fidgeting in the uncomfortable seats, trying to figure out why better accommodations couldn’t have been made.
Marshall sat up front, but off to the side, Ghost curled up on his lap purring way. This was Allard’s show, he needed to convince the board to continue funding the dig as they were now over a month past their original mandate. Marshall thought the funding board was a stodgy bunch, and he had ruffled a few feathers there in the past. John was much better suited to their… academic… sensibilities. Marshall’s refusal to come back to the university to debate the matter had inflamed some old animosities and prompted this rather unprecedented field trip of the board members. Now it was John’s job to smooth things over.
“Thank you all for coming” John said as he squared up the pages in his hand.
“The presentation I have for you tonight will be rather brief, as we are making great headway in the excavation of the main shaft, and we will end with a tour of the progress there.”
“We have an abundance of mysteries, and although I do not have any definitive answers yet, I will walk you through the progress we have made on each.”
He flipped the page on the large flip board at the front of the tent, showing an overview of the dig site, with the spikes and central disk shaded in black.
“The first item we have made progress on is thanks to the renowned geochemist, Doctor Welshmit.”
“He originally tried to find where the obsidian rock that the spikes and central disk are made of had been quarried from. But after extensive chemical analysis, he has determined that it is in fact an engineered material. A sort of brick-like material, that was not naturally black, but instead dyed to be so.”
The dignitaries nodded their heads along as he spoke.
“The second item of interest are the disks we have been discovering throughout the soil strata as we dig.”
He flipped the page again, this time showing an expertly rendered analysis of the disk Haru had brought them. The drawing was neatly annotated all over.
“As you already know, the original disk that lead us to this site, has been sent to our colleagues at the prestigious linguistics institute international”
“The language still has not been deciphered, but it has been identified as being of a remote origin to this region”
“Additionally, one of the symbols” he flipped to the next sheet, which was a draftsman's rendering enlarged of the symbol on the right side of the disk.
“Matches symbols found by colleagues of ours several years ago, over two thousand miles away.”
A low murmur rolled through the crowd, John waited for them to quiet down before flipping to the next page. This time showing a layout of the tomb below the center slab.
“However the disk gave us a yet more interesting clue. Here in the tomb, we see writings in many different languages. Only one of which matches the writing on the disk.”
He flipped the page again, this time a charcoal shading of the text at the front of the tomb.
“We believe this language, of all of the languages represented down there, was the language of the builders. That is why it was also on the disks that are scattered about. This is also the language that was found along with the symbol from the disk when it was discovered 2,000 miles away.”
An interruption from the crowd of dignitaries “So the builders are not from here.”
John nodded at the man in agreement.
“That’s our working hypothesis.” He replied
“But then why come all this way to build such a large and ornate structure?” The dignitary felt bolder now.
“We don’t know that yet, except that it seems to have been very important to them.” John replied as he flipped the page again. This time drawings of the pictograms from the perimeter walls rendered in miniature.
“But what then is the purpose of the other languages in the tomb?” The dignitary continued, clearly feeling he could speak freely now.
Allard felt his frustration rise with the interruptor, but stamped it back down and forced his face to remain calm.
“We think they translated the message from the front of the room into as many languages of the day as they could. Possibly in hopes that in the future at least one of the languages would still be known to people.” Allard responded with forced calm in his voice, then he cleared his throat and drew attention to the new page.
“We have been less successful with the picograms on the outer walls. Perhaps they are drawings of their gods, or symbols, like talismans, that they thought kept them safe, we don’t have any leads here yet.”
More casual murmuring ran through the crowd, less concerned with John now and more self interested with hypothesizing amongst themselves. He let it happen, they liked talking more than they liked listening, so this would put them in a good mood for when the discussion turned to funding.
John started inventorying the list of things to do before tomorrow's funding meeting as a way of distracting himself as they talked, when a voice cut through the din from the back corner of the room. An older man seated toward the back of the group that John noticed hadn’t been participating in the casual theorizing was talking “Mr. Allard” he began “Could you flip back one page.” John fumbled mentally for a moment, then muttering some agreement and flipped back to the charcoal shading of the main text from the tomb.
The old man squinted for a moment then matter of factly stated “I know this language”
The room fell silent, all eyes now on the old man who got up and walked to stand in front of the flip board.
“Some of our colleagues aboard have discovered other text in this language, and have made some progress on deciphering it.”
He pulled a notebook from his leather satchel, papers sticking messily out of it in all directions, and began flipping through until he came to whatever page he had been looking for.
He looked over at John and gestured at the pencil in his hand that John had been gesticulating with. “May I?”
John handed him the pencil, and he began writing words in the common script below the unknown glyphs on the flip board. His hand scanning along, skipping words or whole sentences that he apparently couldn’t translate. The room sat transfixed, trying to crane their necks to see what he was writing.
Finally he stopped, looked at his notebook again, and then closed it. Without turning around he began to read the translated text.
“This place is a message… and part of a system of messages... pay attention to it.“
Marshall was stroking Ghost and stopped, an electric jolt in the back of his mind… Pay attention… pay attention… he looked down at Ghost who was now looking back at him. Pay attention. The old man from the nearby town flashed through his mind.
But the professor continued with the second deciphered line.
“Sending this message was important to us. We considered ourselves to be a powerful …” He stopped, Not sure about the next word “people? Culture?” he finally said, and continued more confidently.
“This place is not a place of honor…” he trailed off again, then took a step back.
Everyone looked at the partially translated text as if staring at it might translate more of it.
After a few moments Marshall leaned in. “Hey, what is that word?” One word was repeated through the untranslated text, Marshall counted, eight times.
He stood up without thinking and Ghost meowed as he was flung to the floor. Marshal walked up and flipped several pages back to the rendering of the disk.
“This word from the disk, it’s repeated eight times in the text, what does it mean?”
The old professor began rifling through his notebook, deep in thought. The other dignitaries began chiming in with speculation.
“Well it must be the name of this place.” said one.
“No no, it is the name of their god, probably the one drawn on the perimeter walls in the tomb.” said another.
“Maybe it’s just a throwaway word, like how many times you might see the word
and in any of our texts,” said a third man.
“Danger.” The old professor said in a loud clear voice that cut through the din.
Everyone fell silent as he looked up from his notebook, finger still pinned to the part of the page where he had found the answer.
“The word is Danger.” he said again.
Marshall walked behind John Allard as Allard tried to shout to the dignitary over the noise of the work crew.
“We have a steam engine running up here, we run lines down into the shaft so that we can use pneumatic tools to dig faster than ever.” John explained.
“Yes I read your report, why is it you think the builders collapsed the shaft in the first place? The rest of their works have stood the test of time, that implies to me that they wanted this collapsed.”
John nodded, leaning in to try and hear the man.
“We don’t know, but we’re hopefully getting close to at least part of the answer. The pictograms on the wall remain largely a mystery to us, except one, which clearly shows the shaft descending from the tomb. It has what we think are measurements on it, but we haven’t the foggiest idea what they mean. Our best guess is that we’re about a third of the way down, and we’ve just made our first discovery”
John gestured to the ladder in the floor, and they descended into the tomb. Once in it was as if someone had turned off the music, all was silent except for a few muffled sounds of work from below, the lines from the steam engine running along the floor to a crudely cut hole in the floor just in front of the main tablet at the front of the room.
“How did you know where to cut in the floor to access the shaft?”
John looked sheepish for a moment, and Marshall stepped in “John here calculated the exact center of the circle, and it was right below a subtly marked square on the floor here. Once we cut in we found it wasn’t just dirt, but clearly a collapsed structure of some sort. Seems like the sort of thing that's worth of a Pertzman Prize wouldn’t you say, Doctor” and he gave the dyngatary a wry smile.
“Yes well then, once we began excavating it, it became obvious that we would need a much larger access hole for removing material and erecting scaffolding, so we dug down at an angle from outside the circular sla, and well, we have a proper mine shaft now, extending down over 300 vertical feet so far.”
The dignitary leaned over the square hole in the floor and immediately reeled back, trying to steady himself.
“Not good with heights doctor?” Marshall chuckled
“No, no I’m fine, perhaps you should take Doctor Kennings with you, he is more of a geologist than I, let me go find him.” The man fled the room leaving John and Marshall smirking at each other.
A much more interested Doctor Kennings joined them shortly, and John continued, “As we descend the ladder here you’ll notice we’ve excavated out to what we believe are the original extents of the shaft. All of the walls were perfectly square, just like in the tomb, but what we have just discovered is apparently a small room just off of the main shaft, it doesn’t go anywhere, but appears to be some sort of message from the builders. Unlike the rest of the shaft it is in perfect condition.“
“How did they destroy the shaft, but leave a room like that intact?” Dr. Kennings said thoughtfully, not expecting an answer.
Marshall liked Kennings, he didn’t act like he had it all figured out like the rest of the dignitaries, maybe his academic home was finally getting some new blood at the top.
They finished the descent focusing on the ladder, when they finally dismounted onto the scaffold flooring they could see the spearhead of the work force several stories below, continuing to dig deeper.
Stepping off the scaffolding into the side passage, it was barely large enough for the three of them, with another stone tablet affixed to the wall, or perhaps part of the wall itself.
“This is the 3rd such room we’ve found so far, each at a different depth in the shaft” John said at what seemed like a whisper now that they were standing shoulder to shoulder.
“It’s always stone, doesn’t that seem odd? We know from your first dig site that they were quite proficient metal workers, so why is everything at this site made from stone?” Dr. Kennings pondered.
“The metal was badly eroded at the other site, it is much more susceptible to weathering and degradation than stone. Perhaps they did not care if the first site lasted past their epoc. But this site was intended to outlast them... and many others.” John said speculatively.
“There’s that word again…” Marshall said.
“Danger.” Dr. Kennings said.
“Also several of the same symbols.” John added “and some new ones, these are also on the pictogram in the tomb, this is why we think they are measurements, we’re pretty sure they are giving us either the depth that this room is at from the surface, or the distance remaining to get to the bottom. We’re not sure as we haven’t been able to decipher their numbering system.”
“What’s this?” Dr. Kennings pointed at another symbol.
“It’s from the pictogram as well.” John said
“It’s a little man I think” Dr. Kennings said, seemingly thinking out loud.
“Yes, perhaps. Other than the symbols that we believe to be their measurements, that is the only symbol that has changed.”
John took out a sketch of the symbol from the previous rooms higher up in the shaft and Dr. Kennings studied them for a moment.
“If it is a man… he looked happier up near the surface.” Dr. Kennings said.