by Curtis Schweitzer
The dry air clings like heavy fabric, pressing with a gentle firmness against any exposed skin. The wind rushes past, as if someone had just opened an empty oven. The sun remains high in the sky, spilling light like some sort of massive waterfall, cascading across the landscape, seeking the darkest place and wiping shadow from the desert floor.
I gaze across the dig site, watching the small teams of my men carefully removing the desert's harsh skin, sifting it for the tiny clues left behind by the people who once lived here. I see, in the distance, about a mile off, the distinct outline of a stoic human face—a nose, eyes, and a mouth. I see a thousand tiny brushes busily flipping back and forth, hurling tiny grains of sand to and fro, exposing the stone edifice of a face to the wash of sunlight invading the landscape and to our prying, curious eyes.
We found the mammoth statue a few months ago, but we haven't made much progress until recently. Looking out at the long, dry horizon, it strikes me as odd that a civilization would erect such large works of stone out here, in the middle of nowhere. I know that the climate was different even a hundred years ago, but it still seems like an odd place.
Team 4 seems to be making the most progress. A large piece of blank, cut stone juts into their work area, shedding its coat of sand, standing stark against the smooth lines of the desert. A group of three men wait with the air compressor nearby. Soon they will use it to remove the last bits of the desert so that the artifact may be photographed and analyzed. Impressive work, I think to myself, making a mental note to congratulate the team leader later this evening. A voice interrupts my thoughts.
I turn slowly, hoping that this tacit gesture communicates my irritation at being disturbed. My eyes fall upon a young officer, waiting eagerly with a small communications dispatch clutched between his white-knuckled fingers. Without speaking, I take the paper and nod. He scurries away like a terrified field mouse.
Looking down at the envelope, I carefully remove the seal with a tiny knife. The insignia of the Defense Forces greets my eyes as I unfold the letter and scan its contents.
"To the commanding officer of the archaeological dig in Province 32, grid C: Your message of intent has been received. At this time, however, we cannot allow a transfer from your current assigned post for logistical reasons. Your commanding officer also did not feel that your transfer was in the best interests of the Defense Forces, and thus your transfer request has been denied. This decision is final and absolute, and no appeals will be granted."
I fold the letter up carefully, placing it in my pocket. It was as I expected. There are few officers qualified in archaeological excavation, especially of this nature, and most do not want to spend their time in such a hostile environment.
I turn my attention back to the dig site, letting my eyes scan the 23 teams scouring the landscape for a trace of anything that isn't sand. Team 4 looks agitated; a few of them are scurrying about their dig site, and a few are staring at a newly uncovered section. I make my way down to the site.
As I approach, I call out to the team members. They turn around and snap to attention, forming a straight line of saluting soldiers fast enough that I find myself mildly impressed. I wave an at-ease gesture and they relax.
"What have you found, soldier?" I ask the man with the most decorations on his sleeve. He responds rapidly.
"Some sort of inscription, sir."
"Where?" I inquire. The soldier gestures to a section of stone. "Why don't you show me yourself?" I ask.
He guides me to the inscription. "Right here, sir." He says, pointing down to a small set of lines protruding from the rock.
"What language?" I ask.
"Well, we're not sure sir, but we've called a linguist over from Team 13 to check."
"When will he arrive?"
"I'm here." I'm startled by the voice behind me, and I turn to see a short woman striding towards me, her uniform dusty and wrinkled. I’ll have to speak to her about her unkempt appearance later. I show her the inscription.
She sets a small box on the sand and removes a cloth, on which she sets an array of tiny brushes. Magnification glasses are next, and as she sets the bulky lenses on her eyes awkwardly, I notice a large gash running down the side of her hand. The wound is bleeding freely.
"You're injured," I note coldly.
"Yeah," she says indifferently, "Team 13 failed to secure part of their excavation wall, and a rock fell while I was doing an analysis. At least none of the equipment was damaged."
A good soldier, I think to myself. Understands her place in the greater system. Seems willing to sacrifice herself for the State, and…
"Looks like English," she says, interrupting my thoughts.
"English?" I ask, "Can you translate it?"
"Not right here," she says, digging through her small pack. "I'll need to find a lexicon to compare the text to. It's pretty degraded by the harsh environment."
"When can you have it done?" I ask.
"Probably sometime this evening," she replies.
"Please notify me when you are finished," I say, walking away. "Oh, and team 4?" The team members present turn their eyes on me. "You will receive extra rations tonight for this discovery." They smile and return to their work.
What I don't tell them is that Team 13 will be donating those extra rations due to their carelessness in dealing with their linguist. I've never encountered one who could translate English that quickly. Most take a week to bring me the translation of one line of English, let alone a full inscription. I make a mental note of the officer's name, and head back to the command post.
The rest of the day passes without any major incidents. We only have to execute one member of Team 13 for complaining about the rations, and his death, combined with the execution of the team member responsible for securing the excavation walls, makes for the lowest number of executions in a day so far. Two is an impressive number—I make sure to include it in my daily report back to command.
That night, I am sitting in the command tent making my way through dinner when the linguist approaches the tent clutching a black folder. I stand and go to greet her.
After the usual salute and at-ease command, she extends the folder.
"Finished, sir," she says. I detect a note of fear in her voice.
"What's wrong?" I ask. She pauses and looks at the ground before replying.
"It's the text, sir," she says, "It is rather…"—she looks back up at me—"non-orthodox, sir."
I say, "What do you mean?"
"Well, as far as I can tell, I don't know how this made it on an inscription, sir."
I look back at her, skepticism coloring my expression.
"It's fairly heretical, sir..." her voice trails off.
"What do you mean, soldier?" I ask, my voice growing stern.
"Look at the translation, sir," she says quietly.
I open the envelope and peer into it. A few minutes pass as my eyes dart up and down the vertical lines of the translation. Slowly, my face grows ever more grim. What is this? I think to myself. What kind of a people inscribes this in the mute infinity of stone? Who could believe this? I finish reading, and slowly look back up at the linguist.
Her face is full of fear.
"Good work," I say, carefully placing the folder on the stand next to me. "You are dismissed."
I cut her off. "I said dismissed!"
She scurries away, reminding me of the courier who visited earlier. I suddenly realize that I will get my wish. I will get to leave this hellish landscape far behind.
I return to my small desk and bring up the communications relay. Small taps from my fingers send, instantly, a brief report back to the waiting eyes of command. Flicking my fingers away at the relay, I transmit the translation across thousands of miles. The response is immediate:
Hastily, I shut the machine down and call my communications officers to my tent. Minutes later, they have arrived, and I am giving them instructions. They hurry away, making preparations.
I open my desk drawer and search through the contents until I find what I'm looking for. The small strip of metal is tied to a chain, and rests at the rear of the compartment. I snatch it up and run out of the tent, heading for my small personal transport at the base of the hill.
Flying above the sandy landscape, I review the procedure in my head. Activate the Destroyer device. Evacuate the site. Remove any evidence of the information. Leave radiation beacon. It is all fairly simple, as if command has encountered this before.
I knew that I might find such an inscription at this site, and I knew what it would mean. Somehow, though, I resigned myself to staying here forever, digging out massive stone statues from beneath the sand, exiled to a lifeless wasteland.
I reach the site and grab the metal key I had retrieved from my desk. I hurry over to the small tent, throwing the small flap to the side and entering. I find exactly what I expect—a small hole with a ladder leading deep into the ground. Hastily, I enter, gripping each rung tightly as I make my way into the darkness.
As I reach the bottom of the ladder, a motion sensor triggers the lights, revealing a small, tomblike compartment with a single door at the opposite end, a red light flashing near the lock.
I scurry over and insert the key. The light blinks off for a few seconds, transforming itself, before re-appearing green. I throw the door open and make my way into the chamber beyond.
The Destroyer device is disappointingly ordinary. Just a mammoth sphere with a small control panel jutting out at eye level. As I approach, the panel lights up and a small screen begins flashing instructions.
I enter my key code and insert the key into a small slot. All the lights on the panel flash green, and I am informed that the device is active. A small door opens and a remote control slides out. I grab the round black object and check the readout: Three days. If I do not activate the device in three days it will activate itself for me.
I run back to the ladder.
Later that night, I look over the camp. It is a buzz of activity. Ships are taking off at an impressive rate as we prepare to leave this place.
I look back at the report one last time, glancing over the translation and the linguist's provided report. Suddenly, my orders come flooding back to me, as I realize I have one more thing to do.
Remove any evidence of the information.
I call one of my couriers and give him a short, quick instruction. He leaves hastily, knowing what is coming.
I run outside and make sure the Radiation Beacon is working properly. I supervise as it is turned out and the signal checked, before being loaded carefully into one of the massive ships.
Back in my command tent, I secure any documents in locked cabinets, and take one final look over the report and translation. Outside, the roaring of ship's engines can be heard, and I realize that it is time to go.
I throw the report back on my desk, knowing that as soon as I detonate the Destroyer both the paper and desk will be instantaneously incinerated. I run out to a waiting ship, where two couriers and the linguist are waiting for me. After a quick consultation with a human resource officer, I confirm that all personnel are ready to leave. The weapons officer gives me a damage estimate based on the Destroyer's location and potency. Everything looks satisfactory.
I turn to the linguist.
"You are one of the best linguists I've had contact with, soldier."
She replies, "Thank you sir."
"That's why I'm so sad to inform you that you will not be leaving with me."
She looks confused. "You want me to ride another transport?" she asks, "But your officer said..."
I cut her off. "This is the last ship to leave."
Her facial expression slowly morphs from an abstract curiousness to abject horror.
"No..." she whispers.
"I'm afraid so," I say. "I'm sorry."
With that, I enter the ship, followed by the remaining officers. The linguist remains standing in the exact spot, crying softly.
The roar of the engines causes the entire ship to vibrate. I look out a small window and watch the ground recede beneath us as the ship lifts us into the air. The linguist’s short figure is soon a small dot on a vast sea of sand.
I turn away and pull the remote detonator from my pocket, and press a button, thinking about the linguist and the deadly inscription on that stone. As a bright light fills the cabin, I begin understand why I am forced to let her die—why we are forced to destroy the entire site.
Those words, and the ideas they expressed, were more dangerous, more insidious than the most fatal poison. At least, that is, to the state. Such careless words, wielded without the proper education, the proper thought. I think back to when I first read the report, and imagine the page in my hands, trembling as my eyes looked from the translation to the picture of the original inscription. I can see it in my mind's eye, even now:
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame,
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
I sigh, and fall asleep.
© 2004 by Curtis Schweitzer
This story originally posted at empty rhetoric, July 29, 2004.
Reprinted with permission.
Curtis Schweitzer is a recent graduate of Biola University in La Mirada, California, where he studied Music Theory and Composition under John Browning and Christopher Wills. He lives in Colorado, and plans on pursuing a doctorate in Music Theory. He blogs at empty rhetoric.
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