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Mantell Sector, North Nekhebet, Resurgam, Delta Pavonis system, 2551
There was a razorstorm coming in.
Sylveste sood on the edge of the excavation and wondered if any of his labours would survive the night. The archeological dig was an array of deep square shafts separated by baulks of sheer-sided soil: the classical Wheeler box-grid. The shafts went down tens of metres, walled by transparent cofferdams spun from hyperdiamond. A million years of stratified geological history pressed against the sheets. But it would take only one good dustfall one good razorstorm to fill the shafts almost to the surface.
"Confirmation, sir," said one of his team, emerging from the crouched form of the first crawler. The man's voice was muffled behind his breather mask. "Cuvier's just issued a severe weather advisory for the whole North Nekhebet landmass. They're advising all surface teams to return to the nearest base."
"You're saying we should pack up and drive back to Mantell?"
"It's going to be a hard one, sir." The man fidgeted, drawing the collar of his jacket tighter around his neck. "Shall I issue the general evacuation order?"
Sylveste looked down at the excavation grid, the sides of each shaft brightly lit by the banks of floodlights arrayed around the area. Pavonis never got high enough at these latitudes to provide much useful illumination; now, sinking towards the horizon and clotted by great cauls of dust, it was little more than a rusty-red smear, hard for his eyes to focus on. Soon dust devils would come, scurrying across the Ptero Steppes like so many overwound toy gyroscopes. Then the main thrust of the storm, rising like a black anvil.
"No," he said. "There's no need for us to leave. We're well sheltered here there's hardly any erosion pattering on those boulders, in case you hadn't noticed. If the storm becomes too harsh, we'll shelter in the crawlers."
The man looked at the rocks, shaking his head as if doubting the evidence of his ears. "Sir, Cuvier only issue an advisory of this severity once every year or two it's an order of magnitude above anything we've experienced before."
"Speak for yourself," Sylveste said, noticing the way the man's gaze snapped involuntarily to his eyes and then off again, embarrassed. "Listen to me. We cannot afford to abandon this dig. Do you understand?"
The man looked back at the grid. "We can protect what we've uncovered with sheeting, sir. Then bury transponders. Even if the dust covers every shaft, we'll be able to find the site again and get back to where we are now." Behind his dust goggles, the man's eyes were wild, beseeching. "When we return, we can put a dome over the whole grid. Wouldn't that be the best, sir, rather than risk people and equipment out here?"
Sylveste took at step closer to the man, forcing him to step back towards the grid's closest shaft. "You're to do the following. Inform all dig teams that they carry on working until I say otherwise, and that there is to be no talk of retreating to Mantell. Meanwhile, I want only the most sensitive instruments taken aboard the crawlers. Is that understood?"
"But what about people, sir?"
"People are to do what they came out here to do. Dig."
Sylveste stared reproachfully at the man, almost inviting him to question the order, but after a long moment of hesitation the man turned on his heels and scurried across the grid, navigating the tops of the baulks with practiced ease. Spaced around the grid like down-pointed cannon, the delicate imaging gravitometers swayed slightly as the wind began to increase.
Sylveste waited, then followed a similar path, deviating when he was a few boxes into the grid. Near the centre of the excavation, four boxes had been enlarged into one single slab-sided pit, thirty metres from side to side and nearly as deep. Sylveste stepped onto the ladder which led into the pit and moved quickly down the side. He had made the journey up and down this ladder so many times in the last few weeks that the lack of vertigo was almost more disturbing than the thing itself. Moving down the cofferdam's side, he descended through layers of geological time. Nine hundred thousand years had passed since the Event. Most of that stratification was permafrost typical in Resurgam's subpolar latitudes; permanent frost-soil which never thawed. Deeper down close to the Event itself was a layer of regolith laid down in the impacts which had followed. The Event itself was a single, hair-fine black demarcation the ash of burning forests.
The floor of the pit was not level, but followed narrowing steps down to a final depth of forty metres below the surface. Extra floods had been brought down to shine light into the gloom. The cramped area was a fantastical hive of activity, and within the shelter of the pit there was no trace of the wind. The dig team was working in near-silence, kneeling on the ground on mats, working away at something with tools so precise they might have served for surgery in another era. Three were young students from Cuvier born on Resurgam. A servitor skulked beside them awaiting orders. Though machines had their uses during a dig's early phases, the final work could never be entirely trusted to them. Next to the party a woman sat with a compad balanced on her lap, displaying a cladistic map of Amarantin skulls. She saw Sylveste for the first time he had climbed quietly and stood up with a start, snapping shut the compad. She wore a greatcoat, her black hair cut in a geometric fringe across her brow.
"Well, you were right," she said. "Whatever it is, it's big. And it looks amazingly well-preserved, too."
"Any theories, Pascale?"
"That's where you come in, isn't it? I'm just here to offer commentary." Pascale Dubois was a young journalist from Cuvier. She had been covering the dig since its inception, often dirtying her fingers with the real archeaologists, learning their cant. "The bodies are gruesome, though, aren't they? Even though they're alien, it's almost as if you can feel their pain."
To one side of the pit, just before the floor stepped down, they had unearthed two stone-lined burial chambers. Despite being buried for nine hundred thousand years at the very least the chambers were almost intact, with the bones inside still assuming a rough anatomical relationship to one another. They were typical Amarantin skeletons. At first glance to anyone who happened not to be a trained anthropologist they could have passed as human remains, for the creatures had been four-limbed bipeds of roughly human size, with a superficially similar bone-structure. Skull volume was comparable, and the organs of sense, breathing and communication were situated in analogous positions. But the skulls of both Amarantin were elongated and birdlike, with a prominent cranial ridge which extended forwards between the voluminous eye-sockets, down to the tip of the beaklike upper jaw. The bones were covered here and there by a skein of tanned, desiccated tissue which had served to contort the bodies, drawing them or so it seemed into agonised postures. They were not fossils in the usual sense: no mineralisation had taken place, and the burial chambers had remained empty except for the bones and the handful of technomic artefacts with which they had been buried.
"Perhaps," Sylveste said, reaching down and touching one of the skulls, "we were meant to think that."
"No," Pascale said. "As the tissue dried, it distorted them."
"Unless they were buried like this."
Feeling the skull through his gloves they transmitted tactile data to his fingertips he was reminded of a yellow room high in Chasm City, with aquatints of methane icescapes on the walls. There had been liveried servitors moving through the guests with sweetmeats and liqueurs; drapes of coloured crepe spanning the belvedered ceiling; the air bright with sicky entoptics in the current vogue: seraphim, cherubim, hummingbirds, faeries. He remembered guests: most of them associates of the family; people he either barely recognized or detested, for his friends had been few in number. His father had been late as usual; the party already winding down by the time Calvin deigned to show up. This was normal then; the time of Calvin's last and greatest project, and the realisation of it was in itself a slow death; no less so than the suicide he would bring upon himself at the project's culmination.
He remembered his father producing a box, its sides bearing a marquetry of entwined ribonucleic strands.
"Open it," Calvin had said.
He remembered taking it; feeling its lightness. He had snatched top off to reveal bird's nest of fibrous packing material. Within was a speckled brown dome the same colour as the box. It was the upper part of a skull, obviously human, with the jaw missing.
He remembered a silence falling across the room.
"Is that all?" Sylveste had said, just loud enough so that everyone in the room heard it. "An old bone? Well, thanks, Dad. I'm humbled."
"As well you should be," Calvin said.
And the trouble was, as Sylveste had realised almost immediately, Calvin was right. The skull was incredibly valuable; two hundred thousand years old a woman from Atapuerca, Spain, he soon learned. Her time of death had been obvious enough from the context in which she was buried, but the scientists who had unearthed her had refined the estimate using the best techniques of their day: potassium-argon dating of the rocks in the cave where she'd been buried, uranium-series dating of travertine deposits on the walls, fission-track dating of volcanic glasses, thermoluminescence dating of burnt flint fragments. They were techniques which with improvements in calibration and application remained in use among the dig teams on Resurgam. Physics allowed only so many methods to date objects. Sylveste should have seen all that in an instant and recognised the skull for what it was: the oldest human object on Yellowstone, carried to the Epsilon Eridani system centuries earlier, and then lost during the colony's upheavals. Calvin's unearthing of it was a small miracle in itself.
Yet the flush of shame he felt stemmed less from ingratitude than from the way he had allowed his ignorance to unmask itself, when it could have been so easily concealed. It was a weakness he would never allow himself again. Years later, the skull had travelled with him to Resurgam, to remind him always of that vow.
He could not fail now.
"If what you're implying is the case," Pascale said, "then they must have been buried like that for a reason."
"Maybe as a warning," Sylveste said, and stepped down towards the three students.
"I was afraid you might say something like that," Pascale said, following him. "And what exactly might this terrible warning have concerned?"
Her question was largely rhetorical, as Sylveste well knew. She understood exactly what he believed about the Amarantin. She also seemed to enjoy needling him about those beliefs; as if by forcing him to state them repeatedly, she might eventually cause him to expose some logical error in his own theories; one that even he would have to admit undermined the whole argument.
"The Event," Sylveste said, fingering the fine black line behind the nearest cofferdam as he spoke.
"The Event happened to the Amarantin," Pascale said. "It wasn't anything they had any say in. And it happened quickly, too. They didn't have time to go about burying bodies in dire warning, even if they'd had any idea about what was happening to them.""They angered the gods," Sylveste said.
"Yes," Pascale said. "I think we all agree that they would have interpreted the Event as evidence of theistic displeasure, within the contraints of their belief system but there wouldn't have been time to express that belief in any permanent form before they all died, much less bury bodies for the benefit of future archeologists from a different species." She lifted her hood over her head and tightened the drawstring fine plumes of dust were starting to settle down into the pit, and the air was no longer as still as it had been a few minutes earlier. "But you don't think so, do you?" Without waiting for an answer, she fixed a large pair of bulky goggles over her eyes, momentarily disturbing the edge of her fringe, and looked down at the object which was slowly being uncovered.
Pascale's goggles accessed data from the imaging gravitometers stationed around the Wheeler grid, overlaying the stereoscopic picture of buried masses on the normal view. Sylveste had only to instruct his eyes to do likewise. The gound on which they were standing turned glassly, insubstantial a smoky matrix in which something huge lay entombed. It was an obelisk a single huge block of shaped rock, itself encased in a series of stone sarcophagi. The obelisk was twenty metres tall. The dig had exposed only a few centimetres of the top. There was evidence of writing down one side, in one of the standard late-phase Amarantin graphicforms. But the imaging gravitometres lacked the spatial resolution to reveal the text. The obelisk would have to be dug out before they could learn anything.
Sylveste told his eyes to return to normal vision. "Work faster," he told his students. "I don't care if you incur minor abrasions to the surface. I want at least a metre of it visible by the end of tonight."
One of the students turned to him, still kneeling. "Sir, we heard the dig would have to be abandoned."
"Why on earth would I abandon a dig?"
"The storm, sir."
"Damn the storm." He was turning away when Pascale took his arm, a little too roughly.
"They're right to be worried, Dan." She spoke quietly, for his benefit alone. "I heard about that advisory, too. We should be heading back toward Mantell."
"And lose this?"
"We'll come back again."
"We might never find it, even if we bury a transponder." He knew he was right: the position of the dig was uncertain and maps of this area were not particularly detailed; compiled quickly when the Lorean had made orbit from Yellowstone forty years earlier. Ever since the comsat girdle had been destroyed in the mutiny, twenty years later when half the colonists elected to steal the ship and return home there had been no accurate way of determining position on Resurgam. And many a transponder had simply failed in a razorstorm.
"It's still not worth risking human lives for," Pascale said.
"It might be worth much more than that." He snapped a finger at the students. "Faster. Use the servitor if you must. I want to see the top of that obelisk by dawn."
Sluka, his senior research student, muttered a word under her breath.
"Something to contribute?" Sylveste asked.
Sluke stood for what must have been the first time in hours. He could see the tension in her eyes. The little spatula she had been using dropped on the ground, beside the mukluks she wore on her feet. She snatched the mask away from her face, breathing Resurgam air for a few seconds while she spoke. "We need to talk."
"About what, Sluka?"Sluka gulped down air from the mask before speaking again. "You're pushing your luck, Dr. Sylveste."
"You've just pushed yours over the precipice."
She seemed not to have heard him. "We care about your work, you know. We share your beliefs. That's why we're here, breaking our backs for you. But you shouldn't take us for granted." Her eyes flashed white arcs, glancing towards Pascale. "Right now you need all the allies you can find, Dr. Sylveste."
"That's a threat, is it?"
"A statement of fact. If you paid more attention to what was going on elsewhere in the colony, you'd know that Girardieau's planning to move against you. The word is that move's a hell of a lot closer than you think."
The back of his neck prickled. "What are you talking about?"
"What else? A coup." Sluka pushed past him to ascend the ladder up the side of the pit. When she had a foot on the first rung, she turned back and addressed the other two students, both minding their own business, heads down in concentration as they worked to reveal the obelisk. "Work for as long as you want, but don't say no one warned you. And if you've any doubts as to what being caught in a razorstorm is like, take a look at Sylveste."
One of the students looked up, timidly. "Where are you going, Sluka?"
"To speak to the other dig teams. Not everyone may know about that advisory. When they hear, I don't think many of them will be in any hurry to stay."
She started climbing, but Sylveste reached up and grabbed the heal of her mukluk. Sluke looked down at him. She was wearing the mask now, but Sylveste could still see the contempt in her expression. "You're finished, Sluka."
"No," she said, climbing. "I've just begun. It's you I'd worry about."
Sylveste examined his own state of mind and found it was the last thing he had expected total calm. But it was like the calm that existed on the metallic hydrogen oceans of the gas giant planets further out from Pavonis only maintained by crushing pressures from above and below.
"Well?" Pascale said.
"There's someone I need to talk to," Sylveste said.
Reprinted from Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds by permission of Ace, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright ) 2001, Alastair Reynolds. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.