Chort’s tooth ached.
Each step as he hurried to the Museum of Natural History lanced an icy spear of pain through his jaw. Dr. Oly-Vir Chort scurried as if late for work despite his habitual punctuality. Ignoring the pain he quickly climbed the ornate stone steps and pushed through the archaic doors hanging at the museum entrance, remnants of a forgotten civilization.
“Been to the dentophile yet?” the security guard looked up at the rush of cool air.
“Not yet,” Chort grimaced as he leaned on the guard’s desk.
Gingerly he touched one of his three broad molars. Blinding pain shot through his head. With a hiss he clenched his eyes shut.
“It’s the child,” he sighed, opening his eyes and trying to smile. “Pauppy created the child and I elected to carry her to term.”
“Yeah, I don’t have any knee-highs of my own, but I hear they suck calcium.”
“That’s the least of it,” Chort chuckled as he patted his rotund little belly. “The good news is we’re Planters so these teeth of mine will be out soon enough and I’ll have a new set grown in a few weeks. It’ll save me drilling, filling, and billing.”
“So true,” the guard said with an understanding smile.
“Well, I have a meeting today before the board,” Chort puffed his chest and tried to stand taller. “Wish me luck.”
“If this proposal goes through I’ll be leading another archeological trip to the Homeworld.”
“That’s a big deal,” he dropped his familiar smile in lieu of impressed awe. “I read about your last expedition. Is the Homeworld where we really all came from?”
“All the habitated planets,” Chort replied with a distracted look.
“Well, get in there,” the guard nodded enthusiastically. “Send me a post-pic from the dig when you get there.”
Smiling, Chort left the guard standing in the atrium. Checking his timepiece he bustled on into a labyrinth of corridors reserved for Museum employees. Lost in thoughts of his presentation he robotically navigated his way to his office.
“The civilization in question clearly possessed a written language,” Chort stamped his foot emphatically as he stood before the review board of New Plymouth University’s Archeology Department. “We’ve uncovered countless fragments of their early language. To date, however, that language is a puzzle. Despite what we have been able to input into our most powerful verbalizers, we can’t decipher it.
“Our most important discovery sheds a new light on the civilization of our ancestors,” he hesitated. “We found evidence of a functional hierarchy with a royal family entrenched in the ruling position.”
The room sat silent. A dozen sets of eyes stared interrogatingly at Chort.
“This is all well and good,” Dr. Nyatzwol grumbled from beneath his walrus-like whiskers. “But what we need is a tangible reason to continue funding you particularly. Don’t forget there is a line of candidates desperately wanting what we’ve graciously extended to you.”
“Yes,” said a chairwoman who wore the wide-eyed stare of a stork and had a neck to back that theory of ancestry. “What can you offer that would prove of value to the museum? What do you propose that shows archeological value, while still drawing the paying herds through our halls?”
“What do I have?” Chort asked himself.
Several board-members nodded.
“Oh, just this,” he replied with a circumspective smile.
With a flourish he pulled a metallic tablet from his dark, cloth satchel and placed it on the table before Dr. Nyatzwol. An audible gasp escaped every set of lips in the room.
Lightening flashed across the poisoned reaches of the storm darkened sky, illuminating Dr. Chort’s face as he frantically gripped the metal framed seat to keep from being tossed about the spacious cargo hold of the TKB-421 Skylark.
“You look like you’re going to recud,” a warm smile spread across Pauppy’s face. “Anything I can do to help?”
“Get me off this ship,” Chort groaned, his face slipping to a deeper shade of greyish-green. “You know I hate flying in atmo. It’s so turbulent.”
“I know,” she laid a soothing hand on his clenched fist. “It always makes you sick, but focus on what we’re here for. Hopefully that gives you some relief.”
Purple lightening flashed again. Through misery misted eyes Chort caught a glimpse of the rest of his research team. Their demeanors spanned the distance between Pauppy and himself. A few slept. Some read or played on their holopads. One of the team staggered to the bathroom as the ship shuddered.
Chort turned and smiled wanly at his wife, even as he fought to control his stomachs.
“I love you,” he whispered as the ship bucked violently against the storm raging outside.
In the upper reaches of the atmosphere the clouds swirled and roiled in a dark cauldron of unrest. Hurricane level storms blanketed large swaths of the planet. Once they broke through to the lower atmosphere, however, the buffeting winds calmed and stability returned to the Skylark.
“Look,” Pauppy pointed out the window behind them.
Chort slowly turned in his seat, trying not to upset the delicate balance of his stomachs. A gasp escaped his lips. Ruins sprawled as far as he could see. Sitting precariously on the lip of a long dried sea, the metropolis slid into the distance in a fusion of nature and synthetic materials. He found his eyes drawn to the contemporary cliff of the dried seabed where people once splashed and played among rolling breakers.
“It must have been magnificent,” he muttered as his eyes scanned ceaselessly over the landscape.
“Yeah, long time ago,” Pauppy said.
With his face pressed against the viewing-port, Chort dreamily watched centuries fleeing before the oncoming wrath of time and age. Somehow in his mind he saw the past world. As the airship dropped lower he saw the epochal history of the land unfolding before him.
Humans grew, adapted, changed, and fled the dying lands in search of fresh fields to sow. They sought virgin planets to support new civilizations. To the fore lay new home. Behind them the dying planet lay in ruin, a shell of a once glorious civilization, torn by war, ravaged by neglect, and left to the most devastating element, time. In the absence of humanity the land reverted. Nature found balance. A new creation emerged, superimposed over the negative image left behind by the human directors as they abandoned their home before it cycled to fruition.
As humans sailed the astral seas, drifting away from their mother, the flora and fauna remnant adapted and evolved, growing into a new existence among the skeletal remains of the departed.
Now, Chort thought with a dreamy smile, we return.
With a colorful burst of flame the ship dropped through the striated layers of sparse atmospheric gasses. From the unbreathable upper reaches they flew over the ruined city and finally dropped into a protected rift valley on the distant outskirts of the city. There, unaffected by the barren wasteland above, a thriving arboreal ecosystem sprouted.
“All right people,” Chort unbuckled, his nausea lost among the shuffle and chaos of landing. “Usual teams of three. I want camp up and running within the hour and prelim survey teams out.”
And they moved. Like a pop-up book the base-camp sprang into existence. Then, with the sun hovering near noon, the teams set out on assigned vectors to explore the ruins Gaia had dropped into the valley. Days of exploration lay ahead, but their enthusiasm plunged the team into the wilderness with relish.
“What is it?” Nyatzwol carefully inspected the metal plate.
“An artifact we discovered in the rift valley just south of our base camp,” Chort replied with confidence. “We believe it’s an ancient hieroglyph depicting the ruling class of ancient Earth.”
“What evidence supports this hypothesis?” the avian demanded.
“Our excavations uncovered the ruins of thirteen buildings. Each of them seemed built to accommodate the ruling class depicted here. Apparently they were given access to every building so they could easily govern their vassals.”
“Interesting,” Nyatzwol absently twirled a sideburn around a thick finger.
“Yes, sir,” Chort bobbed his head. “I would like to propose a second archeological expedition to the rift valley site to further investigate this ruling class.
“Also on this expedition I would like to expand,” Chort reached out and shifted the plaque so the edges lined up with the board’s low table. “I propose at least a second team to explore a likely site on a second continent. If the board sees fit, a third team at a third site would greatly expand our knowledge of our ancestors.”
Nyatzwol chewed his top lip in contemplation. Then he glanced around at the other members of the board.
“What you have presented is very interesting, Dr. Chort. We will discuss and let you know of our decision within the day.”
“Thank you, Dr. Nyatzwol,” Chort bowed as deeply as his stomach allowed. “Thank you for your consideration.”
He reached out to take the metallic blue rectangle.
“You can leave it,” Nyatzwol quickly placed a broad, square hand delicately atop the artifact. “It will be returned for cataloguing when we reach a decision.”
Chort nodded and left without arguing.
“Over here,” the young archeologist yelled, carefully brushing the dark loamy soil aside.
Pauppy hoped to impress the others with her find. Elation flooded her veins as she sat back, wiping away the perspiration gathered above her brow before it dripped down her delicate, button nose. Heat stifled the pale young woman as the weight of the post-humanity, forest bore down with a silently oppressive air.
She yelled again and heard a distant clamor of voices. Rocking back on her haunches, Pauppy rested from her labors and waited.
The forest lurked silently. Pale light from the dying sun trickled like a luminous mist to bathe her excavation site in a warm ruddy glow. With a deep breath Pauppy relished the scent of decay and life in their eternal intertwined struggle. She stirred the earth absently, wafting the scent more strongly to her nose. Looking down, Pauppy studied her slender, yet roughly calloused hands and recalled her modern life. For the briefest moment she lamented the luxuries left behind. Then she recalled the complexities accompanying such luxury and she relished the simplicity of life away from civilization. The nature of the Homeworld brought solace to her modernity-plagued mind. In nature choices proved basic, more primeval. For that simple reason Pauppy felt the continual draw of field archeology.
“What is it girl?” Chort’s eager voice snapped her reverie. “What have you found that’s so bleeding important?”
“I’m not really sure,” she replied as Chort picked his way through the maze of enormous trees with surefooted ease.
“Then why disrupt me? You know we’ve found a building almost completely intact in the north quadrant.”
“I detected a metal object beneath the surface here and began the initial excavation,” she rose and brushed the loose soil from her pants. “I was hoping to get clearance to actually begin unearthing whatever it is.”
“Did you log the location?”
“It’s a flat, metallic rectangle,” Pauppy replied confidently.
“What, do you want me to hold your hand?” Chort’s face lit with a gruff smile. “Dig, girl.”
“Without hesitation Pauppy dropped to her knees and delicately began peeling layers of the rich soil from the small area of excavation.
“To be honest I was mystified when you decided to scan this area,” Chort leaned over her shoulder to watch her fingers deftly wield trowel and brush. “But judging from the fact that you found something, I’ll never question your instincts again.”
“I know,” Pauppy’s voice strained with concentration. “Orbital recon failed to detect anything of importance in this quadrant, but scans don’t always penetrate deep foliage layers to detect smaller items.”
“It’s the last day of the dig,” Chort chuckled as he peered over her shoulder, trying to make out the object. “That’s the only reason I decided to run your hunch. In the future, follow your instincts from the get go. I’ll even give you an assistant next time.”
“There’s going to be a next time?” she paused and brushed a loose strand of hair from her face as she looked up at him.
“There’s always a next time,” Chort shifted to allow more light to fall on the object slowly emerging from the soil. “We just have to make sure we convince the powers that be to make it so.”
Pauppy grunted and returned her concentration to the delicate task at hand.
“So what made you choose this spot?”
“That cluster of buildings up at the head of the ravine,” she replied absently. “I assumed debris would wash down from there.”
Chort nodded, casting a lingering look over the rolling hills flanking the depression. He hoped whatever lay under Pauppy’s trowel proved worthwhile. Everything unearthed had been meticulously catalogued. However, while the group had uncovered various buildings, a variety of decayed machinery, and the remnants of a primitive, artificial brain, no further examples of a written language had surfaced. Now as the dig drew to a close, frustration and tension threatened to boil over among the crew.
For almost six weeks they had toiled in the wind deprived depths of the continental forest and turned up nothing groundbreaking. Now, as he stood over Pauppy, the middle-aged professor felt like a child before a present laden Christmas tree, waiting for the revelry to begin. His impatience threatened to erupt as Pauppy carefully unwrapped the earthbound package.
In silence Pauppy delicately dug her trowel into the remaining soil and cleared away the dirt surrounding the artifact. A short time, and another bucketful of sweat, passed before the young woman pulled out her brush and slowly, inch by inch, removed the last layer of loam. Before them, curiously preserved, lay a faded blue rectangle attached to a rust eaten pole.
“What is it?” Pauppy asked, cocking her head to the side.
“I don’t know,” replied Chort, hope building in his chest and throat. “It looks like a primitive sign. It must be a welcoming device, judging by the location here away from the buildings on an avenue of approach.”
The rectangle depicted a crude stick figure, reclining, luxuriously in a great wheeled throne. Above and below, to Chort’s delight, stood two full words in a boldfaced, white type, two complete words in the forgotten tongue.
“I wonder…” Nyatzwol turned the relic over in his hands.
“Perhaps Chort is correct and it is a welcoming sign for the ruling class,” the avian woman said. “The structural schematics submitted by Chort demonstrate all of their structures were built specifically for the wheeled thrones to have ease of access.
“Before this we assumed the ramps allowed the transportation of goods, but perhaps we are mistaken. I would posture the ramps were built specifically for the royalty to be able to access their domain.”
“It is plausible,” a course skinned board-member said somberly. “I’ve come across records pointing to a class ordained by the gods to rule. Could we be looking at proof that our ancestors worshiped these individuals?”
“I would say so,” Nyatzwol displayed the sign for the others to see. “We can deduce this from the fact that these people were never forced to bear the burdens of daily life. They never faced the trials of walking. These wheeled men must truly have been great in a terrible sense to have exerted their rule so universally over the warlike peoples inhabiting Earth before the exodus.”
“Is it possible that these wheeled people were gifted in the mind?” the stork-faced woman asked. “Note how the head is grotesquely enlarged when compared to the body. Perhaps the rulers of Earth controlled the rest of the populace through force of will.”
“Yes, yes,” Nyatzwol exclaimed. “You must be right. The ancient men of Earth were weak of mind and ruled by these god-men, these wheeled men.
“We must know more,” he stepped from behind the table and strode quickly to the doors. “We must fund this second expedition posthaste.”
Without another word he flung the doors open and set out to find Dr. Chort. As he purposefully marched down the hall he examined the sign and imagined what the words symbolized. He scowled at the collection of letters arranged so mysteriously…