1. The atomic priesthood
Information needs to be launched and artificially passed on into the short and long term future with the supplementary aid of folkloristic devices, a combination of an artificially created and nurtured ritual-and-legend...
“I love you,” said Jo. “Let me give you the world.”
“You can't be sure of giving me anything,” said Linda. “The world is too big.”
“That's not what I mean, and you know it.”
“I know,” Linda said. Chaos help her, she knew.
Sometimes the world felt small. The maps in the sanctum that she knew far better than the back of her transient, mortal, hand, with their distortions and projections and ancient sites carved into hollows she could connect by touch just as well as sight. She'd seen it all before.
But someone had to remain.
“Would you stay here, for me?” Linda asked. “Here, in the caverns?”
“You'd have me, even being—what you are?”
“I made a vow of guarding the wastelands, ruin take it—I'm not sworn to celibacy!”
She laughed, to underline the point. On a good day's journey on a rov-bike from the caverns, one could encounter leaders from half a dozen ancient faiths, who lived lives from the solitary to communal and everything in between. Linda's priesthood was the newest, but Jo would be hard-pressed to find more fervent devotees anywhere.
“Cindy's parents were in the order,” Linda went on. “She grew up with this as her life, she wanted to carry it forward. There's nothing stopping us from being together.”
Jo nodded, drawing a ragged breath. “I know. If you—asked me, I'd stay here for you.”
“And would we be happy, either of us?”
“We'd have each other. Isn't that enough?”
“Jo, I can't answer that. This is my home, this is my life. This is my duty. And anything I have, I want to share with you. But if you're going to have wanderlust after a year or two, then let's not set ourselves up for heartbreak.”
“You think I can't handle commitment? You're the dutiful priest and I'm just the dangerous explorer, the enemy you have to protect against?”
“Jo,” Linda whispered, “you could never be an enemy.”
She pulled Jo in for a fervent kiss, and Jo kissed back, their arms strained tight around each other. When they'd broken apart, Linda continued staring at her with curiosity. Jo looked down.
“I know—there's no vow against it. And what works for Steve is one thing. But you—for you the oath comes first. You need that to be the first thing in your life, the first thing in this millennium—in ten millennia. I don't want to compete with that.”
“You think this is some kind of competition?”
“Not in your waking mind. But in your heart, maybe? I'm afraid—not today, not tomorrow, but a year from now? Ten?”
“Has fear ever gotten in your way? That doesn't sound like my Jo.”
“Has fear of hurting someone tough and brave like me ever gotten in the way of people like you? Waste-priests?”
Linda paused; as usual, her first instinct was to research a literal answer to the question. “This may come as a surprise, but I'm not really a student of the past.”
“Just a bridge to the future. I know.”
They kissed again, and that was a kiss goodbye—without embracing, without any hope of building a connection they could not sustain.
“No,” Jo finally said, “not 'just' anything. You are doing good work here, Linda, all of you. Necessary work.”
“Don't pity me, I have a world to see.”
Linda nodded. “Tread gently, Jo. The changing poles light your way.”
Giving benedictions had not been in her priesthood's commission, but more and more, she found it a worthy calling.
2. The radiation cats
Such an animal species should dwell within the ecological niche of humans, and its role as a detector of radiation should be anchored in cultural tradition by introducing a suitable name (e.g. "ray cat") and suitable proverbs and myths.
Jo led Linda into her tent, taking off her own poncho and setting it on a table. Linda did the same, sitting down with a grateful smile.
Then, she began sneezing.
“Are you all right?” Jo asked.
“'m fine,” Linda stammered, but her eyes were welling up.
Jo glanced around the tent. The furnishings were as spare as Linda's own—nothing to fear from a simple table, chairs, cookpot, leatherhide. Her wagon was secured in the village commons, and while there weren't as many varieties of assorted sand as there were in Linda's tent, their absence couldn't have brought on that virulent a reaction.
Maybe some supply of food? Steve had said that in places where more grasses bloomed, the wrong plants could make people feel ill, so Jo began rummaging through her stash of dried goods. “Do any of these make you sick?”
“Jo,” Linda said, wheezing, “I eat the same things you do.”
“I just thought—”
“It's all right.”
But clearly it wasn't. Depositing everything back in the chest, Jo paced to the opposite corner of the tent, where Erwin was shedding again. She picked the cat up, stroking his back, and carried him across the tent. As she did, Linda gave another almighty sneeze.
“Bad kitty. Bad kitty!” said Jo. “Linda, I'm so sorry—let's go outside.” Erwin's fur had always been part of the ambiance to her, but for Linda, it was an obstacle to breath.
Continuing to sneeze, Linda made her way out of the tent. “What, and let him run loose here?”
“C'mon, kitty, let's walk. This way...” Setting him down, Jo began to pace slowly, trying to make sure he'd follow.
“And this is supposed to help?”
“Outside it won't be as—dense. The hair, I mean. I think.” Jo sighed. “I'm not a lorist.”
“Don't sell yourself short,” said Linda, walking slowly behind Jo, careful to keep her distance. “You're brilliant, I just—don't see how this is going to improve things in the long term.”
“Maybe Cindy will take him off our hands. She's got these big dogs that fight all the time.”
“Maybe,” Linda echoed. She hadn't objected to the 'our,' at least; Jo supposed that was something.
Linda was following Jo, and Jo was wandering in spirals, making sure Erwin didn't get too far ahead of them. The cat wandered away from the village, out away from the caverns, towards the basins, and after a while it was enough just to watch the sand he kicked up as he leaped into the distance. Gradually, Linda's wheezes died out to brief sniffles. Erwin continued shedding, white fur dropping onto the dry land.
“Jo,” Linda hissed, “your cat was black when we left the tent.”
Jo glanced down at Erwin, then back up at Linda, then dove to scoop up the cat into her arms. “No,” she breathed, “no, that's not possible...”
“I thought I was sick! There's something wrong with that cat!”
“There's something wrong with this land. We have to get out.”
“Don't need to tell me twice,” Linda muttered, beginning to run back towards the village. Jo sprinted to catch up, the cat hissing and scratching at her arms.
“When I adopted him, they told me he had seersblood. I never really believed in the old stories...”
“Where the cats' fur changes, it's not safe to drink the water. I'll have to tell the others—there are enough wagons, we can move out if we don't think it's safe this close.”
“He's always been fine in the village, hasn't he?” Linda asked.
“That's right, that's right. Maybe that's far enough. But I'll want to make sure he breeds, too. So the seersblood lives on in the next generation, they'll need signs...”
By the time she made it back to the village, with a stitch in her side and scratchmarks across her hands, she'd left Linda far behind.
3. The pyramid
As over 90% of the Cheeps pyramid is still extant after 4,600 years, there is no doubt that such a construction, if left undisturbed, would preserve inscribed messages for 10,000 years.
“Jo,” said the dark, commanding woman behind her, “you're under arrest for trespassing and theft. Anything you say can and will be used against you.”
The feeling of Linda's warm hands against her was a nice bonus, but this really wasn't how she wanted their first meeting to go.
“You know,” Linda snapped, “in the days of the ancient pyramids, at least people tried to turn lead into gold.”
“Oh yeah? What's it to you?”
“They were rustics and didn't stand a chance. But their hearts were in the right place. Would have reduced poisoning, for one thing.”
“My heart's in the right place too,” said Jo. “I'm pretty sure I haven't been exposed to anything that would warp it.”
“And those ancient alchemists with their necro-pyramids also never tried to steal a periodic table.”
“I don't think they even knew what those were, so you can't give them too much credit.”
“One war brought humanity weapons like they'd never seen before. Another threatened to wipe us out. We cannot have knowledge falling into the wrong hands.”
“We only want to learn. Information can't be locked up in some tomb-like pyramid!”
Jo flinched—she'd given away too much. “You said I could keep silent. I think I'll try that now.”
Linda sighed. “You're a brave woman. Crazy, and stupid, but brave. I'll help you as best I can, but you need to meet me halfway.”
“Halfway means you give us access to half the elements, right? I bet you start with helium, you're good at talking a lot of hot air.”
Linda paced around, glaring at her. Jo tried to muster regret.
“Do you want us to try synthesizing on our own? Getting sick and dying like the old alchemists? I thought that was what your pyramid was supposed to prevent.”
If this shook Linda, she didn't show it. “If you had any ability to synthesize on your own, you wouldn't have tried raiding the pyramid. And it's not mine.”
The first was true. “Well, it was a rhetorical question—whatever you want has little to do with what we accomplish, anyway.”
“Once you're locked up, the same can be said for you.”
“Not the brains of the operation, then?”
“Our smartest are better than getting caught in that maze.”
“But none as big and strong as you?”
Jo made no answer. She half-expected some protestation about how Linda was just doing her job and deserved some answers for having to talk to her all day, but the security officer just left her cuffed and headed for the door. Finally, Jo called, “What was in those ancient pyramids?”
Linda hesitated, then admitted, “A couple different kinds of things, I think. Ancient treasure...and dead bodies.”
“They believed that the treasure would—protect the dead people, somehow. Be useful to them, even after they were gone. None of the dead ever reported back, as far as I'm aware—I suppose it just attracted grave robbers.”
“And yours—sorry, the Free State's—holds what? Dying atoms below, guarded by treasured rocks?”
“We can only hope those atoms are dying out.”
“You haven't measured them?”
“I'm not going down to find out!”
“Because it's not your job, or because you don't know how?”
Almost Jo thought she saw a flash of fear, but maybe she was just imagining it, like she had so many reactions.
“Look, why don't you let some of us help you? Or whoever's responsible. The Free State needs new blood.”
“I'm just a security guard.”
“Sure you are. Or does nobody in the Free State actually know what to do with the pyramids? Just haul away anyone trying to study the elements, that'll help.”
“I thought you were going to stay silent.”
“Here's your first lesson—unstable systems decay. Always.”
In other words, it is largely a self-correcting process if anyone intrudes without appropriate precautions, and it seems unlikely that intrusion on such buried waste would lead to large-scale disasters.
“I love you,” Linda whispered, cradling Jo's thin frame close to her. “Every day. Hang in there.”
She felt a dull hunger for something more substantial than the meager servings of food, or those days mostly drink, that Jo could sip down. Maybe if—when, she told herself—Jo was alert and stronger, she'd make her way down to the hospital mess hall to get some food for herself. Or even the food court outside. Until then, the drab room bounded the center of her world.
Jo stirred awake. “Mornin'.”
Linda kissed her, silently, so that Jo didn't need to speak again to respond. For a moment, that was enough.
But as soon as Linda stood up, Jo took the silence for a correction. “Afternoon?”
“Ssh, you silly,” said Linda, “it doesn't matter.”
“What day is it?”
She was more lucid than she'd been during the worst of the pain, that was something, but Linda hated when Jo's memories were too much to bear. “Sixth day of Ocean's Moon. You haven't missed much.”
Jo rolled over, glancing at the hospital walls. “I've missed a lot.”
Undeniable. “Can I get you something to eat? Drink?”
“Water,” she said. Linda hastily poured a cup from a pitcher they kept by the side table, and Jo drank in small sips.
“How does it feel?”
“Hurts everywhere,” said Jo. “I miss my rig, I miss my team.”
Her hand began to shake, and Linda hurriedly took the water before she could spill it, but there wasn't enough to spill. “I know,” she said, wrapping an arm around her. “You've come so far.”
“Wanna see Chris.”
Linda began rubbing Jo's back, unsure whether this was mere nostalgia or her lover's mind drifting again. Chris had been dead for almost a year, of the same strange wasting disease that was eating Jo. Cindy had given orders to burn the rig they'd shared, out in the drylands, in case it was contaminated. People had ridden it before with no ill effects, but who could be sure? “Not now, honey.”
“We had to leave...something. He said.”
“Jo, look at me. I'm here.”
She hadn't really expected it to work, but Jo did turn to her and snap into the present. “Linda!”
“Yeah. Ssh. I've got you.”
“Thank you,” she said, exhaling, “Even if...I'm too silly...again.”
“You are not too silly,” Linda snapped. “But thank you, you're so—” Suddenly the words fell over themselves and she choked back on them. In Chris' last days, Jo—though ailing herself—had been the best person to talk to him. He didn't want to be told he was strong when he wasn't; they had their own language, the wordless signs of the rig. Was there something of their legacy they needed to leave in that dust, to warn the future? “You belong out there on your rig.”
“I belong with you,” Jo said, “wherever you are.”
“I'll stay right here with you. As long as we have.”
Another nurse came by, and Linda reported that the water had stayed down. He helped Jo swallow another dose of medicine that seemed to help with the worst of the pain, and even brought Linda a flatbread wrap which she gnawed on. Hours passed. They waited as Jo drew breaths each more feeble than the next. It had always been like Jo to rush ahead, going out for long, sunlit days on the rig and leaving Linda behind in the cool enclosures of buildings, the distant bureaucrat quietly in charge as they tried to salvage what they could from the civilizations who had once built there.
If she could spare her Jo—free, outdoor Jo—the bleak endurance she was dreading, Linda decided, she would do her utmost. As though any of them had had any choice.
The soft breath against her chest hovered, peaked, and fell still. For a brief, selfish, moment, Linda could not think any more of Jo, who had suffered so long without respite, but only what it would mean for herself if tears did not come—was her body as warped as the droughtlands, where no rain fell?
But then like any widow, she was racked by mourning.
5. Concrete monoliths
As an example, for an inscription on a wall, consider locating a second wall, higher and wider than the inscribed one, in a position that protects the inscribed wall and yet permits comfortable viewing by a few people.
Behind her, a pile of rubble, from some structure that hadn't stood in decades—centuries, probably. Ahead, only more illegible signs in a language she couldn't fathom. Heaving a sigh, Linda took another picture and moved on.
The concrete barrier seemed to be taunting her with its cryptic symbols. And it was painfully hot—it always was, on site, but trapped between the dark walls it was even more so. Linda slid along the wall; if only the crumbling wall had been taller, it might have cast a shadow to make the heat marginally more tolerable. Instead, she just found Steve crouching. “I think it continues underground,” he asked.
“Underground? You mean we have to dig here?”
“Yeah. I'd try to requisition some tools from admin, because I'm not coming back with a shovel.”
“And I'm not staying out here any longer than I have to while we wait for forms to get stamped.” She hated fieldwork. Hated the heat, the dirt, the taunts of the screaming faces etched into the walls.
Steve laughed. “Can't you pull some strings?”
So through the patchy reception on their mobile phone, Linda called Jo. “Hello?”
“How's it going?” Jo asked.
“More of the same. We're seeing some of the same old carvings, but with different symbols next to them—we think maybe some alphabet? Not the old Spanglish one. I don't recognize it.”
Jo cursed. “What do you want me to do about this?”
“Next trip, get someone who can dig underground. It looks like the messages continue.”
“'Get someone'. As if I couldn't do all of this myself...”
“Talent rises to the top, Jo, they need you where you are. Someone who understands fieldwork has to lead us, we can't have paper-pushers telling us what to do...”
“It's a bunch of checking boxes and smoothing fringes, I can't stand it.”
“Well, don't give up before you find someone to drill this hole for Steve.”
“You don't want a big rig?”
“As soon as I get back in, I'm going private sector.”
“You what? Linda, what about me, what about us?”
“Jo, that's not what I—”
“Sorry,” said Steve, “should I...”
“You're fine,” Linda whispered, but Steve was already backing away. “Jo, are you there?”
“This is stupid, this hasn't worked in years.”
“Jo, calm down—”
“I could order you back out there, as your boss, you know that, right? Unless you quit. But I care about you too much, so help me—”
“Jo,” Linda repeated, “it's late, you're tired...”
“Forget it,” said Jo, “make the budgets look good and don't run up the precious phone bill.” She ended the call before Linda could respond.
Sighing, Linda stowed the phone, only to find that Steve had left the tent. “Hello?” she called.
Pacing out, she saw that he'd wandered out back to the monoliths, and was studying the crumbling wall. “You know,” he said, “if this wall hadn't been here, the wind would just have eroded this one away.” He nodded to the standing structure behind them.
“Good,” muttered Linda, “we wouldn't be stuck reading these stupid glyphs.” And maybe she wouldn't have fought with Jo.
“Do you think there was anything carved on this one? Some message that we're missing?”
“Depends on how long it was supposed to last. If we're too late to understand it, maybe. If it was addressed to us...maybe not. Maybe the wall was just a sacrifice, to be eroded away so that we could see this eventually.
Was that all Jo and her were to each other? Sacrifices—it didn't matter if they got used up, as long as they served their purposes. Jo was as awful a bureaucrat as she was a fieldworker, but if Steve could get his rig and they could find something below the wall, admin would be happy. They'd go their separate ways, one more bond fissured by the drylands' heat.
If these symbols are grouped together as pairs, the sum of two half-understood symbols might be two fully-understood symbols.
“These rocks and water are unsafe,” Jo repeated. “They can kill.”
Bān deg afhimdi mig yūyē amē. Mēm dōēphafo.
It had been a few months since they'd discovered the waste depository, and Jo had thought she would have been happy to never return. With Linda leaving her desk to come with her, however, it almost qualified as a date. “Almost,” because their coworkers and families were with them—once they'd translated more of the ancient Chinese, they'd decided that their distant forbears would have wanted them to mark the site for themselves. Some text was direct translations of the original signs they'd uncovered, and some was new.
“We didn't want confusing things,” Linda read. “Write by means of your own languages...” Ifdōnōd fopawudi. Dāfiva ond hankindi yamdō.
Hopefully nobody would have to decipher from scratch what they left behind. Hopefully, their language would endure, at least in enough remnants like the old scripts. But either way, they'd left a legacy.
“Thanks for coming out,” said Jo. “I know you hate fieldwork.”
“I do,” said Linda. “I'm going to say this isn't technically fieldwork.”
“Well,” she began, “first of all, you're here...”
She pulled Jo in for a kiss, and Jo eagerly reciprocated, to the amused whistles of their co-workers. “Get a room!” Steve taunted.
“Oh, I got one,” said Jo. “Full of all sorts of messages and random crud, downstairs. Want to see?”
“Yes,” he laughed, “but not today.”
And to the assembled crowd, with a smaller drill than on the usual rig she liked to drive, Jo began drilling into the pillar, securing the plaque.
Moments later it was done; the others applauded uneasily—was their gathering a cause for celebration? Jo basked in it anyway, then retreated into the crowd, sharing handshakes with Steve and another hug with Linda.
“There won't be plaques for the place we fell in love,” she pointed out.
“Well,” Linda said, “our relationship probably isn't going to make people sick in five thousand years.”
“Is that a challenge?”
“There will be room below when we translate the longer texts. We can sign our names, explain that we were a couple. Tell the future there wasn't all gloom and doom out here.”
“When we translate these? I didn't sign up for that.”
“When they get translated.” Linda rolled her eyes.
Jo laughed. “Count me in.”
“Where do we go from here? I know you love your rig, I'd rather be behind the desk—can we make this work?”
“If admin's cool with me dating my boss, I'm sure there are enough projects to work on that we can avoid conflicts of interest.”
Linda grinned. “I'm sure they'll have no shortage. Would you want to work in the caverns?”
“If we can get down there, sure. Chris always talks about retrofitting the rig to get down there, but I'll believe it when I see it.”
“Give him a chance. If they let me, I want to keep translating this kind of stuff. Cindy seems to think there'll be enough to keep me busy for a while, and if not, we probably know enough to make sense of the northern ruins this time without getting anyone else hurt.”
“At the rate you work, you'll burn through it.”
“Oh,” said Linda, “I think I can manage to stay...distracted...on the job.”
“Let me know if you need help.” Jo stole another kiss.
The stars were beginning to come out, pointing in ancient directions. “Do you think there'll be anyone left?” Linda asked. “By the time it's safe to go down there, I mean?”
“They won't have any reason to go,” said Jo. “There's no oil or anything down there.”
“You don't have any reason to dig, and you almost—”
“Well, that's me, isn't it?”
“Yes, yes, you're very special.”
The stars would move, the atoms would decay. Plaques would rust, words would become distorted. But love abided one day at a time, marked on no map. Like the best of cartouches, it showed two things brought near each other, revealing a deeper meaning when they stood as one.