The ghosts of Nekhuan (Story - Part 2)

in fiction •  last month

Excitement mixed with awe, like in the early days, when they first set out to explore Nekhuan and she could not help feeling out of place, for what business did they have to spoil the peace of a planet that had existed undisturbed since the dawn of time? Not that she doubted their mission, the need to find a new habitat for mankind was unquestionable and, some said, quite urgent. Still, every step that crushed a even single blade of grass felt like a terrible act of intrusion against this planet, wild and teeming with life, like Earth must have been before man first walked upright.
Wandering away from the foot of the hill, making her way through the sparse underbrush, Sarah wondered if she was going crazy, like Bercow. The voices she thought she heard could not be real, all the surveys, before and after landing were clear, there were no signs of any sort of civilization on Nekhuan. And yet.
She did not dare make her way to the heart of the forest on the other side, she kept close to the edge, the metal transmission tower always in sight. A little red bird, perched high up on a tree was watching her with indifference, making Sarah feel even more like an intruder, although after almost one year on Nekhuan they’d started feeling at home. They’d earned their right to be here, she argue with herself, working hard to build a home for themselves and growing their own food. Not all, but enough to make them confident the project was working.

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As she was made her way round the hill, something caught her eye. Hidden behind a dense thicket, the tall grass gave way to a patch of brown soil, completely barren. An unnatural rectangular shape that seemed to mark the door of hobbit’s dwelling. Could be nothing, she thought, maybe just a big boulder buried in the side of the hill, but the biologist’s critical mind was overruled by simple human curiosity. She had to check. Her small shovel had not trouble digging at the soft dirt, that crumbled and fell away to reveal some sort of metal shield, gray and scratched as if it had been carried over a rough terrain. The notion that she should alert her colleagues was swiftly discarded. It was her right to discover what lay beneath, if anything. She wedged the tip of her shovel on the right side to pry the cover open, but what she found was nowhere near as impressive as she was hoping. It was not the secret entrance to an underground tunnel, nor the hiding place of the creatures that howled in the night, not even a hobbit’s house. Just a hole in the earth barely big enough for her to fit inside. Empty. Or almost empty, for there was something lying on the ground. An oblong object no bigger than her flashlight and covered in dust. When she managed to clean it up a bit by rubbing it on the leg of her jeans the object was revealed to be transparent, as if made of glass, but softer to the touch. A material she’d never seen before. Weird black worms were trapped inside, yet clearly alive, moving around quickly, weaving and unweaving strange patterns. Strange, but somehow familiar. It did not take long for Sarah to realize where she’d seen those patterns before, John Bercow’s scribbles. She dropped the thing as if it had suddenly turned red hot, but it did not break and the black lines went about their squiggly dance undisturbed.
The already long hours Sarah spent doing research became even longer. Her door latched against intruders, the young woman stared at the black lines which she decided were not worms or living creatures of any kind. It was more like ink and, whatever its origin, the device carried a message. The patterns were not random and repeated endlessly. It was hard to make any sense for they kept changing rapidly, to quick for her to sketch on a piece of paper. Her attempts to copy any pattern ended in frustration, as some were quite similar and she could never be sure if it was the same one. Three exhausting nights were wasted with the painstaking attempts to manually capture the images, until she realized the obvious solution. Take pictures and load them on her computer. In less than two hours she had a folder with 293 different squiggly signs she could study at will.
Sarah felt like that guy, whatever his name was, who deciphered the Egyptian hieroglyphs, only her work was even harder. The hieroglyphs were easier to translate as they had been made by human beings and many of the signs referred to easily recognizable earthly things, whereas she had no idea who had left the message buried in the hole.
Little by little, the images on the screen started to make sense. She felt sure the sign that looked like a Z in reverse with a little pointy hat on top of it referred to an alien being. If these were the inhabitants of Nekhuan what had happened to them?

(To be continued)

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