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A Planet's Search for History
"Settle down people. We are ready to announce the team," Lord Pitviper said to the large audience. Most were reporters, waiting to see who the next victims would be. I could tell he knew it as well.
"Team leader and head Archaeologist is Dwarf Professor Duranu Jorsenth, and his beautiful wife, well known in her own right, Dwarf Dr. Cullves Jorsenth, will assist as second in command." He looked at them as they nodded to the reporters. A few of us clapped polity. Very well known people.
"The people responsible for keeping them alive will be ..." He hesitated. Five climbing teams applied for the job, but we were the last of the real pros. Finally, he said it: "Elf Aelfrice Brokk Eldon Gnoth as head climber and his lovely wife Elf Loka Dulcina Fay Gnoth will be his second. That is the team. We congratulate them and wish them good hunting." Some had clapped again when my wife and I were named.
With that we were immediately swamped with questions. I thought Lord Seacodent stacked the news people — all their questions were clearly from a view we were stupid, silly, suicidal, or mental nincompoops chasing rainbows and wanting to die. Lord Pitviper ended it after a few minutes of that kind of abuse and apologized to us for their behavior, showing them that he saw through their charade.
Getting to the ledge of the Castle Gods-Cut wasn't going to be easy for me. They say the word Cut is from the ancient language, thought to mean origin or home — Castle of God's home — but nobody is sure. The time was before we could write. The image from the telescope showed something strange clearly sat there, frozen in time and ice, missed for centuries in all but our legends because of where it was and how it was situated. Thought to be the original home of the first humans and the first Queen, Diboca Honor. Missed time and again because it was never believed it would be in an area high in the mountains where no warmth existed.
As the legend went, the human gods arrived from the void and became our rulers by force; then, after unknown years, they simply disappeared, vanished in all but memory. We wanted to find out what happened to them and why. They were the core of all our legends going back to our earliest tribal memories.
Six other parties had tried to climb that mountain. Three fell before reaching the top of the ledge, and the other three vanished. I watched eight souls in one party fall from the face, all carrying extra gear because of the unknowns. As they climbed the flat wall something failed, pitons pulled out, and they all died. I was Lord Pitviper's last hope, he said. We were the last of the professional climbers in his state, also the youngest. Me at twenty-three and Loka, my wife, at twenty.
Did I have fear? You bet I did. Not of the climb, but of what was waiting there on that ledge when we arrived. I went through each pack and eliminated all the extraneous items; we even left the reader behind. We could record our progress but not see any of it. Tough; it weighted almost four pounds. If it was a normal mountain we'd be to the top in a week, but this was anything but a normal mountain.
My climbing team consisted of our scientific team, Cullves and Duranu, Dwarf names. My wife Loka was our doctor, and everyone called me Eldon. Loka and I were Elf/Human and our scientists were both Dwarf/Human. Funny, for all of us the human part dominated. We all pretty much looked the same, in the five foot-six to six foot range. We Elf halves have improved agility and flexibility and the Dwarfs have ungodly stamina along with a good supply of muscle mass. They said another four hundred years and we would all be the same, just Olgreenders. It was decided that since we didn't know what was at the top, mates probably should go along, all to meet the same fate. Our laws decreed mating was for life.
What we thought was the Gods-Cut ledge could not be seen from the ground anywhere around the mountain — only the telescopes saw it, and from only one small town miles away. Funny, standing at the mountain's base, when I looked straight up all I saw was rock until it slipped from view into the clouds. Some child had been the first to notice the strangeness of the ledge. Word spread and the view was studied. Strange? Yes, but not natural? Well, I thought we'd see.
I questioned this being the correct mountain for several reasons. What humanoid in their right mind would build a castle inside the arctic ring and why were there no roads or steps to it? Where did these humans come from originally? Here or somewhere in space? Why did they leave us? Oh, our religious leaders had all the answers, but none made sense and it always boiled down to having faith. Our scientists also had ideas that required just as much faith. As a climber I found having faith in anything but yourselves and your equipment just made you dead.
We took the job knowing that we would go at half a normal party's strength, just us four instead of the usual eight. Funds were short and Lord P had already funded six teams, some four and some eight strong. None had returned. Loka and I were okay with it, but it put a large burden on us as far as carried supplies was concerned.
The entrance was calculated at seventeen thousand four hundred feet from the valley floor, which is, itself, two thousand feet above sea level. Just over nineteen thousand total. The atmosphere is good to around twenty-one thousand feet without supplemental oxygen — didn't mean no trouble, just meant it was possible to survive with some acclimatization. We didn't need to carry air for this mountain if we were careful.
* * *
I pounded a piton deep into the small crack in the rock face and secure my line. Loka was attached to me and Cullves was hooked to her, then Duranu was hooked to Cullves in the usual fashion. Since this was a different type of climb and we needed every piece of equipment, I changed the usual single line to double. At each piton station I added a second and secured an additional rope from Duranu to the rest of us. This second piton and rope was backup. It took longer, but I felt with our heavy packs it was a necessary annoyance.
* * *
We were into our fifth day of the climb and we hit the now infamous rock face that was almost vertically flat. I estimated four days climbing it, then there was a small ledge at its top, but it turned out piton-suitable cracks were scarcer than I thought they would be, and it was taking far longer than anticipated. For every two feet up, we had to go ten feet left or right. I had watched a former party fall from this face, their bodies were recovered — I found their rope and it had a shredded end. They had been almost as overweight as us. Each day I scrutinized the ropes before the day's climb.
* * *
On the eleventh day in we finally made it up above the face and there was a small valley ledge where we set a rest camp.
* * *
On day twenty-six of the climb, I saw our objective a little above us. It took almost an hour to do a normal fifteen-minute job. Air was very thin now, but other than being tired, I think we were fine. The last few days had been easier, just a steep ice hill climb, but we anchored at each rope length — I wanted no accidents. We were using full ice climbing crampon boots for the rest of the way. We set camp for the night and would push to the ledge tomorrow.
* * *
I was wrong, we had three days of whiteout conditions, making moving a hazard, so we waited for the storm to end. We had no communication with the valley base for over two weeks. I suspected it was the strong magnetic field we detected after we cleared the halfway point. It got stronger as we near this ledge, strange, but fascinating as well. Our scientific team were totally baffled by it. Our two scientists thought it may be just a form of loadstone in the rock. I suspected differently, since no matter how I held my compass it always pointed to the ledge above. When the storm broke, we would find out.
We lost one of our tents, it shredded in the howling wind but we were able to secure the gear and reset another one.
* * *
Finally, six days of hell ended. I had to dig out and up to uncover the tent. It was a clear, cold day.
Lead Scientist Duranu was the official to go over the ledge first, Loka followed because she was almost as good a climber as I, and I was a stronger anchor should someone fall. Prof. Duranu because it would be his find if we succeeded. It was partly his money and his prestige as well. We were still hooked together, only in a different order.
Finally our camp packed up. I thought two or three more hours, we would see what awaited us on the ledge.
* * *
Loka was still being careful, I was very proud of her. After two hours climbing she pushed Duranu over the top lip, then she was out of sight, Cullves was next and they hauled me over last.
Duranu studied the strange ice, as it seemed to be a solid mass, no cracks, wet looking with sort of a dark clearness to it. Very strange. The ledge is almost 100 yards wide and the ice is about 40 feet back from the edge. The large strange ice block appeared to climb skyward, maybe another twenty feet past it to the mountain. How to describe it? Like one half a giant ice-cube sitting on a table, the table being the windswept ledge. The cube is aligned so a corner edge is sticking out toward the ledge and about half the cube is visible, the rest disappears into the snow and ice of the mountain. It was almost clear. We saw shadows inside, but nothing more than knowing something was there. I had to finally admit that it definitely did not look like the unusual, but natural, formation I first suspected when I saw it through the scope from town.
After an initial inspection, we set up a camp, took pictures and readings from all over the ledge, and in the process we had eliminated the loadstone idea. Whatever was jamming our instruments was inside the ice.
I had Cullves unpack her plane. We each carried one. A simple idea thought of by one of the children in town. Nothing from the other groups was ever seen or heard after they reached the top, all of them had weighted balloons — something new was needed. We could clearly see from the wind direction here the balloons would most likely have floated out toward the vast ocean, not as originally thought over the valleys below, but we could hope our planes would fair differently.
They were simple foam model planes, three-foot wingspans, small electric guidance systems and homing devices. They weighed a few ounces — I didn't want them but Lord P overrode me. It was the only thing we disagreed on. I unpacked my plane and attached the wings with the accompanied rubber bands but they had to be warmed first or they just broke. Loka felt they would shatter from the cold air buffeting the plane so I tied the wings on with some of our surveyor string. Duranu placed the recorded camera memory stick and a copy of all our climb notes into the little cargo bay. I weighted the nose to balance the plane, tested it all and let Duranu launch it from the ledge. It was soon out of sight on its long flight down and hopefully, when it got far enough away from the strange magnetic field, it would pick up the homing signal from the town so far below and be guided to it.
We had decided at the start, two planes would be launched before we did anything other than look and study, then the last two if we found something.
I found the first sign of the missing parties, four tent stakes stuck in the ice ledge where I had placed our site. Cullves decided she wanted to be somewhere else so we moved 30 yards back along the right side. A superstitious scientist?
Over the next two days we measured, recorded, and studied every inch of the cube and ledge. Duranu took some small samples of the cube ice as well as the regular ice, melted them at the cook stove, and ran tests. "Nothing, all the same, everything is the same but it can't be the same. The cube is clearly not an act of nature damn it! The ice is harder and clearer."
We launched Loka's plane with all the updates early on our third day, right after Duranu pointed out that where he took the ice samples off the cube had filled in while the other sample sites hadn't. Something kept the ice in place on this cube.
Cullves wanted to try and cut into the cube near a dark area that appeared to be some kind of square, maybe a door. Loka agreed it looked best. I dissented. "Notice, other than the tent stakes, there is no sign that the others were ever here? I think they all tried the same thing at the same spot and it is all healed over. Might I suggest we try digging at the back in what we know is NOT part of this cube and see what we see?"
Duranu would make the final call of course. "Well, we know what isn't here, the other crews, nor their equipment, nor do we see bodies frozen in the ice.
"Either they dug in far enough we can't see them before they froze, or they were able to find a way inside. I say try both, we dig along the back to see what there is, and we dig into the block toward the spot that looks like a door, then we wait overnight and see how long it takes to fill back."
We spent all the next day doing just that. My idea was sound, but useless. After about two feet of snow and ice we found the solid rock of the mountain on both sides of the cube. We had managed to get into the cube almost two feet, as the ice was super cold and hard.
We waited overnight.
"Interesting," Duranu said, "only a foot of it grew back last night. If this holds true we can get through. Two foot in, one foot back."
It took a solid week of work, at this altitude we tired very easily. A little less than half of our efforts filled in each night, until day four that is. Loka had been carrying her rope and pitons but set them down in what was now our tunnel into the cube so she could work easier: she forgot them. Next morning nothing grew back. Duranu was mystified, but we set pitons along the tunnel floor, walls, and up along the top as we dug. Nothing grew back near any of our equipment. We took pictures, updated what little we knew, and decided we would launch plane number three as soon as we saw what this is. We could now see quite clearly that the dark spot was a large doorway.
The next day we uncovered the right edge of the door. "It has strange writing on it," Cullves remarked, probably for the recorder since we could see them. It was nothing any of us had ever seen before, clearly copper colored letters burned into the frame by some unknown method, but we had nothing to go by as to meaning. By the next day the whole thing was exposed. It was a flat black color and in the exact center of the top was a very small green glowing light. I carefully wrote the following strange letters from left to right as I saw them to send down with the plane.
:: PORTAL 17 :: SYSTEM 12 :: 371734 LY :: STEVES MALLS :: GMT2 ::
That is all it had. We launched plane three that night. We would continue into the door tomorrow.
* * *
Morning came and we were ready. From the door edge the ice went back nine inches, then nothing, just blackness. Again the ice acted strangely, we didn't break through with the door ice, having it cascading down on us, and all that was removed was what we took out. We removed the ice as we had each day, with our two small water buckets. Loka and the others retrieved their gear, but I had them leave the pitons lining the ice tunnel in place in case we needed to leave in a hurry. I found my flashlight and all stood together looking into the dark maw of inky blackness.
I had the honor to go first, the other three waited at the door as I tied off to them. Using the flashlight I walked into that unknown, seeing nothing. The light didn't even penetrate to the floor, it just formed a glowing ball that reflected, like a bright light in a strong fog. I finally went down on my hands and knees and scooted forward; rope or not, I didn't want to step off some huge cliff.
The floor was smooth cold rock. I could not see to either side, the spot of light was swallowed by the blackness. Like the ice, it felt unnatural and quite eerie.
I continued forward and just as suddenly as it began, it disappeared. I was crawling into a room and as I moved inside, it instantly lit with light from an unknown source. I stood and slowly looked around — my rope materialized out of solid rock behind me. I moved back to it and held my hand out — it disappeared. Okay, it was something that made that black hole look like rock.
Excerpted from "A Planet's Search for History"
Copyright © 2015 MF Burbaugh.
Excerpted by permission of IFWG Publishing International.
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