… continued from Stormfront
The howl of the storm echoed through the tube, a banshee screaming in furious reverberation, increasing in ferocity and beginning to drive sideways rain many meters in from the cliff entrance. Any thoughts of waiting it out near the entrance now gone from their minds, Anna and Laxmi scrambled toward the inner end and peered into the dark void beyond, their headlamps piercing the gloom with twin beams of focused light.
The roughly eight-meter long by one-meter wide tube ended much as it began, with a sudden and smooth circular opening in the midst of an inward-facing cliff. Beyond lay a dark, cavernous chamber, its size lost in the black, though Anna’s headlamp picked out crystalline reflections sparkling from what might be the far side, a few hundred meters away. The floor of the chamber lay not far below them, a half-dozen meters, with a deeper narrow gully between the main floor and the wall from which she peered.
Hers and Laxmi’s were not the only lights to reach the room. As Anna’s eyes adjusted, she realized that dim shafts of daylight faintly lit the space, coming from other openings in the wall like the one in which they crouched. The storm’s howl echoed from the many tubes, a discordant symphony of deep tones, a pipe organ tune more suited for alien ears. A humid breeze freshened the cavern’s otherwise musty air, and the temperature had dropped several degrees.
“Let’s set up a rappel,” said Anna. “We’ll leave the rope anchored here for our return later.”
The two of them made quick work of it, once again triple-anchoring a sling with a cam and a pair of nuts into cracks in the tube. Anna once again threaded the doubled rope through the belay-rappel device and carabiner attached to her harness, then dangled her legs over the lip of the wall. She planted her feet against it and spun herself out, turning to face back toward the cliff. With the rope in her right hand, she relaxed the tension on her belay device and walked down the wall, feeding the rope slowly through the device as she went. When she reached the gully she stopped her descent and stretched a leg across the gap to the chamber floor. A solid push off the wall, and she was standing on the floor. She unclipped her carabiner and freed the rope from her belay device, letting it dangle against the wall for Laxmi’s descent.
Laxmi made quick work of her own rappel. She gave the wall a critical look after unclipping.
“It’s not as weather-beaten as outside, not so many cracks for climbing back up.”
“We’ll prusik back up the rope later. Let’s check out the chamber.”
Anna refocused her headlamp to a wide-angle beam, not penetrating as far but giving her a better sense of her immediate surroundings. The rocky floor of the chamber was even and mostly flat, though not machine-hewn smooth. Dirt, pebbles, and decaying leaves lay scattered across it, likely blown in by wind over the ages through the open tubes in the wall. Anna played her light across the wall and began walking, following it, mindful of the gap separating it from the floor. She counted eleven tubes in the wall, including the one through which they had entered, no two at the same height nor in the same vertical column, but rather appearing to be spaced randomly. Weather-darkened daylight shone dimly through nine of them, and misty rain occasionally puffed through seven of those nine, while two were no more than dark holes in the wall, their passage to the outside blocked by some ancient rockfall.
The wall extended upward for twenty-five or thirty meters before arching inward to become the cavern’s dome-like roof. Laterally, Anna and Laxmi followed it for about twice that distance before it curved gently inward, leading them deeper into the mountain’s interior.
“These people must have had a thing against right angles and straight lines,” Anna said. “Everything is a curve or a circle. Only the floor seems to be straight.”
Laxmi directed her light at the wall ahead of them. Carved out of the vertical rock, a niche just below head height penetrated several meters deep. Its edges were rounded, but in an oval rather than a circle, five meters wide and one and a half high. Like the main chamber, its roof was slightly domed while its floor was flat. Small piles of rubble littered its floor.
“Help me up.”
With a boost from Laxmi, Anna scrambled into the niche, crouching low in the cramped space. The space was regular and even in its rounded dimensions, the floor level and, apart from detritus, flat.
“There’s something on the walls in here. I think you should come up.”
Anna helped Laxmi up into the niche alongside her, and together they shined their lights on the walls.
“These are hieroglyphics.”
Though faint and faded with time, the walls were fairly covered with markings, etched and scratched into the rock. Near the niche entrance, the markings had the appearance of some kind of script, characters scratched in expanding spirals of various dimensions, though whether each spiral made up a word, a sentence, or a paragraph, Anna didn’t know. Jaci would know, she thought, remembering his three years of studying the received interstellar broadcast during their long journey to this star and this planet. Thinking of Jaci, she pulled out her tablet and held it up to the wall.
“Let’s photograph these markings. Jaci will want to see these, and he may be able to interpret what they mean.”
The spiral etchings extended from the floor to the rounded curve of the ceiling, continuing overhead until reaching down the other wall to the floor again. The niche walls and ceiling appeared to be completely covered with them. As Anna and Laxmi worked their way toward the back of the niche, the nature of the etchings gradually changed, appearing less like alphabetic or script characters and more like pictographs. Anna kept recording photographs.
“This place was occupied for a long time. But, this doesn’t seem like the culture to have had the technology to build that space station.”
“Perhaps,” replied Laxmi. “But I think it could have been. The tubes, for instance. They’re the same diameter as the hatch we inspected. Even this niche; it’s the right height for someone who would have been comfortable going through that hatch. And Jaci will be able to tell us if the script is a match for anything we received in the broadcast.”
“For someone short enough to live in this niche, it’s a bit of a hop up from the floor, isn’t it? Not to mention the climb up to those entrance tubes, unless there’s some other way in and out of here that we haven’t found yet.”
“I think we might have an answer for that. Look at these pictograms at the back.”
Anna peered closer where Laxmi indicated. Just as the spirals of script gave way to spirals of pictograms, so the pictograms became more and more crude the farther back she looked, with those deepest in appearing more like the stick figure drawings of a child.
Yet even the stick figures had a clearly discernible feature common to many of them.
They had wings.
“They could fly.”
Laxmi nodded. “So it seems. Though, look here, back towards the middle. The pictures show more detail, but they seem to be walking more than flying.”
Laxmi was right. Where the crudest, deepest drawings showed figures in flight, the more artful ones showed rounded bodies, with elongated heads, standing on two legs, with stubby wings, or perhaps just arms. The heads sported long, skinny beaks, sometimes open as if in speech, and expressive eyes, though what emotion they expressed remained obscure. Though detail remained lacking, the figures appeared to be engaged in multiple activities: conversation, or perhaps commerce, with each other. Or perhaps fighting.
“They look like kiwis with longer legs, or emus with longer beaks. Either way, flightless birds.”
“Which seems unlikely, given how tough it was for us, with hands and feet to climb, to get in here.” Laxmi looked around the niche, and out into the main chamber. “I thought maybe this was a domicile of some kind, a family niche in a communal living area, but now I’m not so sure.” She crawled out and hopped down to the floor, stood up and stretched. “There are more of them.”
Anna followed her out of the niche and looked. A short way further along, another niche, practically identical to the first, indented the wall, and beyond that another appeared. Looking up, she could see that more appeared higher on the wall, as well.
“Anna, come over here.”
Laxmi moved toward the open center of the chamber, and Anna followed her.
In the middle of the floor a platform of rock broke up the flat expanse, raised to about knee height. Like everything else they’d seen so far, it was oval in cross-section, with a nearly flat top, slightly hollowed in the middle. At one end a worn, rounded gap in the raised lip formed a natural drain for what could once have been a small pool. The gap, and the side of the platform below, appeared stained, darker in color than the rest of the rock. Below the gapped side, the stain continued in a straight track across the floor until it disappeared in darkness.
Looking around, Anna could see niches like the one they’d examined filling the walls of the circular room, except for the one side where the tubes to outside existed. Some of the niches were piled with pebbles and dirt, while others were merely dusty.
Laxmi lay a hand on the rock platform, tracing the smooth contours of the depression, then looked at Anna.
“This place feels more ceremonial than communal. Jaci should be here, he would know how to interpret this, but… I think this is a burial chamber. And this table…”
Anna looked again at the depression, the gap, the stain, and suddenly felt short of breath.
“I… I need some air.”
She moved away from the table, turned her headlamp to find the climbing rope fixed from its anchor, and moved quickly toward it. The trailing ends of the rope were piled together at the bottom of the gully that separated the main floor from the exterior wall, about a meter down. Anna hopped down into the gully and started untangling the lines. Still light-headed, she crouched down, put her head between her knees.
Her shortness of breath rapidly increased. Hyperventilating, Anna tried to get more air in her lungs, tried to stand up. As if from far away, faint as though the echo of a dream, she heard Laxmi calling her name, and then blackness overtook her.
… to be continued.
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