The Meruk Episodes, #1
Scene: Archeology Department, Commonwealth University Extension, Prasken, Romblu continent, Spring
Meruk counted himself lucky to get a job on an archeological dig project in the wastes surrounded by the Nubom Mountains, just past the main spaceport on Gemar. Most archeology students had to wait years for an opening on a team. Fieldwork, "getting down and dirty", in the words of Dr. Rostarius, was the only real way for an archeologist to get decent credentials. Anyone could theorize. Gemar had such a long and widely varied past, thanks to the upheavals in First Civ and the Downfall, the rebirth of civilization, the shift from Conclave membership to Commonwealth, there was far more oral history and speculation than actual, concrete fact. And artifacts. And the government, especially the History Authority, made it as difficult and interminable to obtain permits for excavation as traveling between star systems without the aid of Leapers or Spacers. Meruk had only been in the archeology program two terms when Dr. Rostarius took a shine to him and offered him a position on his summer dig team before the openings were posted at the university.
"Of course, it's mostly because of your name," his advisor admitted with a grin and a snort, his eyes sparkling like starfire above his carefully maintained, disreputable-looking black bush of moustache and beard.
"Sir?" Meruk wasn't quite sure if he should laugh or be afraid. Dr. Rostarius had a reputation as a joker, as well as having a tongue sharp enough to flay a man, separating him from his sanity, position, and dreams.
"I checked to make sure you hadn't changed it before you enrolled."
"Why would I--"
"Good, solid Hovenu name, to go with your dark hair and eyes and that sharp chin, just like in all the picto-glyphs. Why did your parents give it to you?"
"I don't know. I barely remember them." Meruk offered a shrug and decided it was safe to smile now. "I wasn't old enough to talk and ask them before they died."
"No way of asking if they were experts, then. Hmph." The eccentric scholar's eyes narrowed for a moment. "Was it your name that prompted you to go into this field?"
"Among other things." Meruk debated a moment, then decided he had to trust Dr. Rostarius with his most precious secret. He unbuttoned the collar of his shirt and tugged it open, revealing the blue, black and green antiqued enamel and metal torque he had worn since the day it seemed to call him, from the depths of the box stored in his foster parents' attic.
"Where did you get that lovely old piece?" His teacher's voice dropped to a reverent hush, and the man's long, calloused fingers twitched, as if eager to hold the torque.
"It belonged to my parents. I started researching Hovenu culture just to figure out why they had it, what the symbols mean and one thing led to another... and here I am," he finished with a shrug.
"Guard it." Dr. Rostarius' voice went husky and something like fear muted the usual humor in his eyes. "Something that old and rare could get you killed." He attempted a chuckle. "Figuratively speaking, of course. At the very least, you could have unscrupulous collectors claiming you stole it, or try to force you to sell."
"You wouldn't sell, would you?" Meruk retorted.
"There are some things more important than money." He laughed more normally and stood up, gesturing for Meruk to precede him out of the office. "Do you have documentation, proof that it's been yours all this time?"
"When the Child Services people granted my foster parents custody, they took pictures of everything that was left behind for me. Time stamped and sealed in my records."
"Now that's something I never considered before." He paused in the hallway, his gaze going inward long enough that Meruk wondered if he had made a mistake revealing the existence of the torque. "I wonder how many lost treasures could lead us to clues about the past, safely documented in records that no one ever looks at?" His eyes regained their twinkle and he stepped briskly down the hall again, swiftly enough that Meruk had to race to catch up with him.
Scene: Archeological Dig, Nubom Mountains, Romblu, Summer
Most of what Meruk saw for the first two lunars at the dig was dirt. Some rocks, a few interesting fragments that senior students immediately snatched from the sieve that only the most experienced students operated, and more dirt. He breathed it and wore it ground into his skin and in a thick mask of sweaty mud, from morning until dusk. Dirt carrier was the only position permitted for such a junior student, but Meruk didn't care. He got to listen to Dr. Rostarius lecture in the evenings, and look at--never handle--the fragments once the senior students had made an attempt at identifying, age-dating and cataloging them.
The dreams about Hoveni came slowly, influenced by the things he heard Dr. Rostarius talk about or the speculations that flew among the workers at mealtimes or in the hot, dusty summer darkness under the canopies where the team slept. He remembered more of his dreams every day, instead of losing the fragments when daylight intruded. Meruk liked dreaming about the Hoveni. Even before he found the torque, he had dreamed of them, wondered about them, wished they were real. His favorite dreams were the ones where he was a Hoven and could shift shape into any animal he had ever seen, whether live or in pictures.
His dreams reached a level of intensity, of feeling more real than waking life, the night before the team broke through into a tunnel carved with Hovenu picto-glyphs, as clear and sharp as if they had been engraved in the walls just a few lunars ago, not centuries. Dr. Rostarius' shout rang across the dig site, bouncing off the high walls formed by lava ridges a millennia ago. Everyone involved in the dig came running. Somehow, Meruk was near the front of the group as they moved down the tunnel, wide enough for five people to walk together without touching. The echoes changed just before the tunnel curved to the right.
"Sounds big," Meruk whispered, and heard his voice bounce back to him. Dr. Rostarius glanced over his shoulder at him and nodded, his smile tight and tense.
"Anyone want to take a guess where we might be?" their teacher called out, temporarily halting the group of thirty student archeologists. For no discernible reason, he looked right at Meruk as he asked.
Meruk hesitated a few heartbeats, to let the senior students answer. The name, the bits of childhood stories that remained strong and clear in his mind, came together to give him the answer, but he didn't know how it could be true.
"Melafyxia's Throne," he said, when the waiting tension seemed to drown out the sounds of breathing and shifting footsteps.
"Ah. Exactly. Melafyxia's Throne." Dr. Rostarius nodded and his grin relaxed, even as tension dug lines around his eyes.
"But how?" Peytar Reece blurted. "The Throne was an amphitheater large enough to seat several thousand people."
"The old stories say Melafyxia gathered the heads of every family line among the Hoveni one last time before sending them out to the stars and to hide in the forests and oceans," Meruk said. "How could they have met without the Set'ri detecting them and destroying them all, if they hadn't met underground?"
From the momentarily stunned look on Peytar's face, Dr. Rostarius' graduate assistant and right-hand-man hadn't thought about that part of the legend. To Meruk's relief, he nodded after a moment and flashed him a sheepish grin, instead of getting angry at being shown up by a junior student.
"Well, my fine friends, shall we?" Dr. Rostarius murmured.
He raised the hand holding the handtorch and thumbed the control dial all the way over to what some members of the team called 'blind and stun', a blue-white light so brilliant it could be seen for ten kilometers in every direction. As the light spilled out and students raised hands to shield their eyes, their teacher stepped forward again, around the bend in the tunnel. His footsteps immediately echoed back to them hollow and muted, and the light spilled away instead of reflecting back from the walls. Meruk hurried to follow him when the others hesitated. They were probably wiser, moving slowly to avoid danger or any traps the ancients might have left behind, but he trusted Dr. Rostarius to know what he was doing. Besides, he wanted to see it all, right now.
Dark rainbows shimmered across the vaulted, eerily smooth dome ceiling that arched up nearly beyond the reach of the light. The walls hid in shadows, showing how wide the amphitheater spread out underground. Meruk caught his breath when he realized not a single pillar supported that vaulted ceiling.
"Natural volcanic bubble," Dr. Rostarius said, after turning around five times to look around them. He signaled with a jerk of his hand and started across the dusty stone floor of the cavern toward the shadowy curve of stair-step seats closest to them.
Meruk didn't move right away, as something inside him went icy and shivered with excitement. He had dreamed of just such a place. Whether it was memories of stories his parents had told him, or stories his foster-parents had repeated when he asked about Hoveni, or just his overactive imagination, he wasn't sure. He only knew that this place felt familiar, somehow. As if he had unconsciously pictured just such a place when he heard the story of Melafyxia saving her people by sending them into hiding. She had stood in this place millennia ago, if he and Dr. Rostarius were right, standing in the shadows with the weight of thousands of kilos of rock hovering above her head, and the Set'ri poised to kill anyone who didn't meet their standards of what it meant to be Human.
He caught up with Dr. Rostarius when his teacher paused at the steps leading to the oval platform in the center of the amphitheater. For some reason, the man turned and looked around the group of students until his gaze met Meruk's, and then he paused there just long enough to make the others around them shift uneasily. The light of the handtorch was too bright and washed out all expression and most details from the man's face.
"How many of you have read the legends of Melafyxia?" A tiny snort escaped him when only four others besides Meruk raised their hands. "How can you understand the culture of a lost race, my friends, if you don't read their literature, their legends and traditions? It isn't enough to dig up pieces and fragments and uncover picto-glyphs from thousands of years of sediment." He sighed. "What do the Set'ri and the Gen'gineers have in common, then?"
"They both think--or rather, thought--they had the wisdom and the right to determine what a proper Human is. Or was," Lianna Fomm said after a moment of hesitation.
"The Gen'gineers think Fi'in didn't finish the job when Humans were designed. Set'ri thought Fi'in made a lot of mistakes and let them live," Meruk offered. He snorted softly when his comments earned confused frowns from some of his classmates.
"Exactly. The Gen'gineers claim to be more enlightened and civilized than their philosophical ancestors, but the end results are the same. Destruction of any genotype that doesn't suit their purposes." Dr. Rostarius looked down at the first step and took a deep breath, visibly bracing himself before climbing to the top of the platform. He set the handtorch at his feet, braced his hands on his hips and looked around the platform. "Melafyxia was a visionary in all the various meanings of the word. She had the courage to save her people by scattering them. And I choose to believe that more Hoveni stayed here on Gemar and went into hiding than fled to the stars." He nodded, looking both satisfied and weary. "I have to believe that finding this place, more proof that the legends are true, will someday help bring the scattered remnants home, and the refugees out of hiding."
"You can't honestly believe Hoveni still exist?" someone said from the back of the group.
"Why not? What's to prove that the person next to you doesn't have some Hovenu blood?"
"But they're--well, they're not Human. How could they...breed?" the young woman finished with a queasy look.
"But they could and did interbreed with the so-called true Humans who invaded their world. If the legends are true. The oldest records state there was a Humanoid race living on this planet when the colonists of First Civ came to Gemar. They called themselves Hoveni. They mated with and produced children with the settlers. Or invaders, depending on your view of ancient history. Whether they truly were shape-shifters, or a bad translation of ancient languages and superstitious fear aided by guilt cultivated the belief...Only time will tell." Dr. Rostarius shrugged and graced them all with his oddly mischievous, challenging smile. Then he bent and picked up the torch and slowly climbed down the steps again.
"That interbreeding is why the Set'ri were so determined to destroy them, what set off the slaughter campaign that lasted nearly a century before the Hoveni simply vanished into the night. To punish them for polluting the pure Human genotype. It never occurred to them that if Hoveni could interbreed with Humans, that made them Human."
"That simple?" Lianna said softly. She glanced sideways at Meruk and smiled, as if they shared some bitter sweet joke.
* * * * *
Meruk didn't know what he had done, that Dr. Rostarius moved his assignment from dirt hauling to what some jokingly referred to as "point man", but he hoped he figured it out so he could keep doing it. It was much more fun, and comfortable, to use scanners and help set up an inverted topographical map of the underground chamber, to help the archeological team plan their investigations. Moving through the shadows and echoes of the amphitheater, he let fragments of dreams guide his steps more than the scanner that searched the smooth rock faces for hollow places and concentrations of metals--preferably refined metals.
The problem was that the scanners confirmed what his dreams told him would be there, and it spooked him a little more every time he reported another "possible dig site" to the senior students assembling the map. When someone joked that they should just turn off the machines and send Meruk through the side chambers and offshoot tunnels with a divining rod, he dropped the scanner box. Fortunately, it hung on a harness from his shoulders, so the only damage done was when the sensor cone slammed down into his knee.
"Something wrong?" Dr. Rostarius asked, startling Meruk from his thoughts when he emerged from the underground passage to take his lunch break.
"Sir?" The torque seemed to tingle a little against his sweaty neck, like a warning. Meruk nearly reached for it, then caught himself. He had worn the Hovenu piece for luck, and almost forgot it was there, comfortable against his skin in the cool and gritty darkness, rather than glued to his skin with sweat and dust from working outside.
"You have an incredible knack for finding likely spots for caches. Almost as if you had inherited a map along with that trinket," his teacher continued, gesturing at the torque hidden under his shirt. Dr. Rostarius smiled, a weary, understanding expression that took away the sting and hidden accusation in his comments. "Care to share your secret?"
"Dreams," slipped out between Meruk's lips before he could think. Muffling a groan, he sank down on the long slab of rock the older man used as a resting spot and hunched over, elbows on his knees. "I feel like I've been in there before, but that doesn't make sense."
"The Hoveni never believed in reincarnation," he murmured, his gaze turning inward a moment. "However, there is such a thing as genetic memory." A harsh bark of laughter escaped him when Meruk just gave him a confused frown. "I suspect that your parents were Hoveni scholars, if they left that treasure piece for you. If so, then I would hazard a guess they told you Hovenu legends as bedtime stories. You feel like you know the place, you have an idea of what should be there because of that seeming in-born memory, and that makes you extra-sensitive to what the scanner shows you. Easily explained."
"I hope so."
Meruk thought over his teacher's words as he returned to his chore after lunch. Instead of fighting the images of the underground amphitheater that filled his imagination, he listened to them. When he disagreed with the rough draft of the map that had been assembled so far, he mentally re-oriented the layout of tunnels and chambers. When gut instinct told him the central chambers belonging to the leaders of the Hoveni were thirty meters westward around the circle from where Dayren wanted to search for them, Meruk didn't bother arguing. He waited until the first snag slowed the team, then quietly took his scanner to the indentation in the rock wall he had chosen as his starting point, and swept the sensor cone over the spot that gut instinct told him was right.
It was almost an anticlimax when the scanner revealed the seemingly solid rock face had seams in it, and a chamber beyond tall enough to stand up in, extending almost twenty meters into the rock. Meruk debated calling over to the team now working on breaking into a sealed pit near the central platform of the amphitheater, versus getting a pry bar and seeing if he could find one of those hidden seams and work on this by himself. Then he thought of Dr. Rostarius, who had given him far more chances and freedom on this dig than a junior student could ever hope for. He owed his teacher the respect of not taking any drastic steps without at least notifying him of what he had found.
Rostarius was above ground, studying a Tri-V projection from a small, portable tank, using the latest data sent up by the scanner teams. Meruk felt dizzy for a moment, seeing the proof of his dreams hanging in mid-air, pale purple, green, and pink lines, cubes and pinpricks of light. Without thinking, he stuck his forefinger into the spot in the projection of the amphitheater where he had been scanning.
"The treasure chamber is there," he announced.
Someone snorted, among the five students working with their teacher on updating the projection. The sound died in a cough, and Meruk looked up to catch Dr. Rostarius' quelling look, that had sent university regents and History Authority officials fleeing his lecture hall.
"What do you think we'll need to open it?" was all the man said.
"If we can uncover the seams... the doors might even pivot open, if sediment hasn't sealed them shut."
"Pivot?" someone asked, with more curiosity in her voice than scorn.
"The Hoveni had technology, long before the First Civ colonists invaded. They weren't barbarians, any more than they were the animals the Set'ri tried to label them. Please remember that in the future. Yes, doors will pivot. Did you think we'd find slabs of rock that had to be blasted out of the way?" His harrumph of disgust was almost comical. Then he winked at Meruk and gestured for him to take the lead, back to the chamber with pry bars and a few soft force mallets. Dr. Hake, who represented the History Authority and supervised the team that recorded every move made, every discovery, hurried to catch up with them.
Meruk didn't expect to be given the honor of actually doing the hands-on work of breaking the façade over the seams. Those with more experience had that job, and he was glad to let them take the responsibility. However, he was one of two designated to catch and collect the shards to save for further study. That put him in the front row for everything that happened. He heard a soft hiss of air moving through the hair-fine gap in the rock when it was uncovered, but couldn't decide if it was air escaping the chamber, or air being sucked inside. Meruk wondered if anyone else heard, because no one reacted, not even the other student leaning against the rock face as they collected the shards.
When it came time to actually pry the door panels open, Dr. Rostarius handled one pry bar and let ethereal, tougher-than-basalt Andrianni take the other.
"I'd stand back, if I were you," their teacher said as he raised his pry bar and put it into place. He bared his teeth at Dr. Hake, who was a pleasant enough man, despite seeming to be everywhere at once, sometimes getting in the way of the work he was there to record on the dig. "Who knows what booby-traps the Hoveni left for those who despoiled one of their sacred places?" With another nod for the video recorder ball that hovered just above Dr. Hake's head, he tugged a breather film over his face, from chin to the bridge of his nose, and slid the thin wedge of the bar into place in the seam of the doorway.
"Wait." Meruk stepped forward, arms raised to halt movement, reacting to a sound that touched something inside his head and gut, as well as his ears. Dr. Rostarius paused, and Andrianni followed his lead.
"What?" Dyllan demanded after ten seconds of everyone holding their collective breath, during which time the sound approached the audible point.
"I hear something." Meruk gestured at the seam on the right side of the door panel.
"If you'd be quiet, some of us might," Dr. Rostarius said. He nodded to Meruk, but that reassuring twinkle didn't return to his eyes. Meruk wondered if his career teetered on the edge of disaster before it had even begun. He supposed there was a difference between using his imagination and imagining things, and the dividing line was thin at the atomic level.
The sound seemed to pop into the audible range. Meruk grinned when Dr. Rostarius flinched. The sound started soft, like a gritty whisper, then grew louder and deepened. Andrianni stepped back, lowering her pry bar. Dr. Rostarius stepped forward, bending down until his hawk-like nose almost touched the seam. He chuckled, that low, predatory sound of triumph that could be a signal of trouble or commendation, depending on his temper that day.
"I've heard about them, but never saw one in action. And to think we might have damaged it..." He shook his head and straightened and turned to look at Meruk. "Do you know what we're hearing?"
Meruk could only shake his head. Dr. Rostarius' grin widened, and he gestured at the other students gathered around, inviting them to guess.
"A mechanism of some kind," Dyllan guessed.
"There are Hovenu sensors still alert and functioning in there. They've sensed life forms, maybe heard us talking and analyzed our speech patterns, and found us acceptable. Safe." He shrugged. "So much for the intelligence of artificial intelligence." That earned some wry laughter from the senior students, who certainly had more experience in knowing when he was joking, when it was safe to laugh, and when it was wise to keep quiet. "Or those same sensors could be so old they're malfunctioning. The logic circuits have degraded enough that any warm body moving through here would have triggered them to open. But let's be optimistic, shall we?" He gestured for everyone to step back more, then beckoned for Dr. Hake to move up and record sensor readings.
The vertical seams grew thicker, and sand on the ground visibly shivered. Then seams appeared at the floor and maybe three meters up the wall, and Meruk inhaled sharply when he realized the wall between the seams had slid backwards, just enough to be noticeable. Dr. Hake lowered the control lens that guided the four recorder balls hovering at different angles in front of the door, and took a careful step backward, toward the students. Only Dr. Rostarius and Meruk held their ground.
Meruk took brief glances at his teacher as he watched the panel slide down into the ground, revealing a black passage beyond. While he felt as if he watched an old, vaguely remembered story become real, and wasn't sure he liked it, Dr. Rostarius grinned with greedy delight. The same grin he wore after a particularly vicious debate sponsored by the History Authority, over the validity of the existence of the Hoven race as more than just legend.
Six people thrust their handlights toward him. Dyllan snorted and keyed the controls for the floater lights, then handed them to Dr. Rostarius. Unlike other archeologists, he insisted on being the first to go into possible Hoven passageways and chambers, taking risks that most other experts and explorers preferred to leave for others to face. The lights hovered in the air just above his head, staying equidistant between his shoulders and the high ceiling of the inky passageway.
The moment outside light touched those walls, however, their surfaces emitted a pale, blue-black glow. Meruk got as close to the doorway as he could and peered down the passageway, studying the glyphs carved into the velvety black, matte surface from knee-height to just above his eye-level. A thrill raced across his scalp, down his back, and curled around in his gut when he recognized a handful of symbols that matched the enameled designs on the torque he wore. Meruk reached up to touch the flat diamond-shaped glyph in the center of his torque, for luck, and stepped down the passageway after Dr. Rostarius without thinking.
The dim glow brightened and turned silvery blue, revealing the passageway ended in a T-shape twenty steps past where Dr. Rostarius paused to study a set of glyphs at least five times larger than all the others carved around them. He looked back at Meruk, and laughed.
"It seems the Hoveni like you, young Master Syrus. Come along, then. Let's see what treasures they left behind for us." He turned and continued toward the T intersection, the floater lights hovering above his head, but dimmed now that there was enough light to see by. Meruk followed, tensed and waiting for something else to happen.
The light came from inside the walls. He paused a few times as he followed his teacher, to lean closer and look at the glyphs, which seemed to be a dark, royal blue against the light. Meruk supposed something coated the figures carved into the stone, to keep the light from coming through.
"It can't be stone, can it?" he asked without thinking, when he caught up with Dr. Rostarius.
Dyllan and a few other senior students followed, but they kept their distance. Maybe, Meruk thought, they expected something else odd to happen and wanted to maintain some distance in case the Hovenu sensors and the technology hidden behind the walls turned hostile.
"That's something we'll need to find out. But later, much later." Dr. Rostarius rubbed his gloved hands together and looked down both arms of the intersection. "Which way should we go, do you think?"
"The sun rises in the east in blessing from Fi'in, and we face north for prayers," Meruk said, echoing one of the few lessons and memories his parents had left with him. "Blessings are on the right, duties and warnings and punishments on the left."
"Very true. To the right, then." He didn't move, however, but looked Meruk up and down. "How much did your parents teach you about the Hoveni, before they died?" When Meruk could only offer a shrug in answer--what answer could he give, after all, when he had no way to predict what memories would surface?--his teacher nodded, sighed, and stepped to the right down the passageway.
Instead of glyphs marking the walls here, the walls were honeycombed with regular openings that reminded Meruk of the pantry room in his foster-parents' kitchen. The shelves were filled with dusty lumps, most of them flat squares, but a good percentage of them rounded and long, like tubes. When Dr. Rostarius came to the first shelf holding the tube-shaped objects, he stopped short and his eyes widened and glistened with actual tears.
"Scrolls," he murmured. "What are the chances we've found the last hiding place of the original visions and commandments of Melafyxia?"
"Scrolls?" Meruk asked, to be echoed by the bravest of the students who had followed them down the right-hand passageway. "I thought the Hoveni were advanced enough not to need scrolls."
"Special scrolls. Scribed on a substance tougher than the strongest flimsi we can produce nowadays. Only the most sacred and sentimental documents were entrusted to scrolls. The Hoveni loved beauty and tradition as much as they loved peace and preserving all life." A snort escaped him. "Even the lives of the murdering fools who set out to eradicate their entire race. No, the Hoveni used memory chips and wands, much like our own, but they left their most important documents as scrolls." He reached out one hand as if he would brush away the dust covering the scroll, then stopped himself with a visible twinge of pain. "Now, more than ever, we must follow procedures. Where is our friend from the History Authority?"
Dr. Rostarius let no one else handle the scrolls as he removed them, wearing special protective gloves, under the watchful recording eye of Dr. Hake and the History Authority. He put them in a tub that sealed, with interior padding that inflated to hold the contents secure without jostling or shifting. Meruk half-feared he would be delegated to stand guard over the tub of scrolls while the rest of the team continued to search the shelves' contents. Dr. Rostarius instead proclaimed him a lucky charm and insisted he be his personal assistant for the remainder of the day's explorations. Meruk didn't care that it mostly meant employing the vacuum canister to gently suck away dust--and save each shelf's content of dust in sealed and marked bags. He had to maneuver around the recorder eyes of the History Authority, but that didn't matter. Dr. Rostarius talked as he worked and examined, and explained each little glyph and artifact and decorative detail they encountered. His pure enjoyment and enthusiasm for the gritty work in shadowy, tight quarters made the task an adventure, far more enjoyable than his famous lectures aided by Tri-V animations and pictures and sound effects.
Dr. Rostarius lifted out a ceramic tablet inscribed with Hovenu glyphs and the archaic, military-precise language of First Civ, in parallel columns. The man paused to gaze at the markings, then laughed and held it up for the recorder eye to get a good view.
"Legend says there was a treaty between the Hoveni and the First Civ colonists, but no one quite agrees on who wanted the treaty and who had to be bullied into it. This might clarify some things."
"Does it matter, after so much time?" Meruk asked, as he bent to shine a light toward the back of the shelf that seemed too big to hold just the one tablet.
"In settling the question, probably not." Dr. Rostarius laughed. "What do you have there?"
"I'm not sure," Meruk said slowly. He saw something big and square-ish, with a rounded top, hidden in the shadows. He glanced up for permission before reaching in to see if it was close enough to touch. Dr. Rostarius nodded.
His fingers found what turned out to be a handle. It was stiff and smooth and cool. He guessed immediately it was more ceramic, like the tablet. Holding his breath, Meruk pulled and something came along with the handle. It was matte black, like the material of the walls of the passageway, and swallowed more light than it reflected. It was perhaps a meter long, half a meter wide, and half that again high, with a rounded top. The lock was nothing more than a flat, blue-black oval of ceramic on the front, crossing the apparent seam where the lid of the chest met the bottom.
"Open it," Dr. Rostarius said, after gesturing for Dr. Hake to bring the recorder eye closer.
Meruk knew better than to protest he didn't know how to do that. Gut instinct had guided him well so far, hadn't it? He put the chest down, pressed his hands flat against the sides of the lid, and lifted. A single spark in the center of the blue-black oval startled him, so he nearly let go. The lid tilted up and back, resting on hinges hidden inside the lid. A long sigh escaped Dr. Hake and Dr. Rostarius. Meruk went to his knees and stared.
Chains, pendants, brow-bands and torques filled the chest, as bright and untarnished as if they had been made only a few days before. The metal they were made of had a silvery-blue sheen that softly reflected the harsh glare of the float lights. Every flat surface of the jewelry bore the same symbols painted on the torque Meruk wore hidden under his shirt.
* * * * *
Dr. Rostarius called Meruk to his tent that night, after dinner and the evening lecture, and after the new guard shift rosters had been handed out. With so much historical treasure discovered that day, they couldn't rely on the usual proximity alarms and cameras and stun fields to guard the dig site. Meruk didn't ask why his teacher wanted to talk to him. He didn't have to ask if he should bring his torque.
He already had it halfway off his neck the moment he entered the tent, before Dr. Rostarius could hold out his hand. The pieces from the chest were spread out inside a protective case a meter wide and long, with sensors built into the clear front and gel-filled padding, to cushion the antiquities against all shocks. Rostarius held Meruk's torque next to another piece almost exactly like it, except that Meruk's was a reddish metal, and a blue that glowed just as softly in the light of the single handtorch hanging from the peak of the tent as it did when the chest was first opened.
"Do you know what this means?" his teacher finally asked, after they had compared every marking in silence and he handed the torque back to Meruk.
"Either this is older than anybody knew, or the artist had access to Hovenu records and designs we don't know about," Meruk offered. He held the torque in his hands, trying to reconcile the different scenarios and possibilities spinning through his mind. Images from last night's dreams filled his head. He had dreamed he was Hoven and had shifted from one shape to another with the ease of a man walking from one room to another in his house.
"Possibly. Have you ever wondered..." Dr. Rostarius grimaced and shook his head. "Keep in mind that whatever your heritage is, you have been deprived of it for years because of the deaths of your parents." He tipped his head to one side and regarded Meruk. "Your records don't say. How did they die?"
"Accident. But I don't believe it."
"Something suspicious in the circumstances?"
"It was all so mixed up," Meruk began, as he slid the torque back around his neck.
The tent flap flipped open and two men strode in. One was Dr. Hake. The other was a stranger, but from the expensive cut of his clothes and the way his eyes lit up as his gaze landed on the display case of pieces, Meruk guessed he was an high-ranking official with the HA. He bristled at the presence of these two, striding into Dr. Rostarius' tent like they had a right to interrupt. Coming so late in the evening implied they didn't trust the foremost authority on all things Hovenu.
"What do you think you're doing?" the stranger growled, and lunged at Meruk, both meaty hands reaching for his neck.
Meruk dodged, going halfway to his knees and reaching up his free hand to protect his neck. Then he realized he still held his torque in his other hand. He slipped it into place and fastened the collar of his shirt.
"Dr. Rostarius, I demand you have this thief imprisoned immediately!" the stranger snarled.
"Thief?" Dr. Rostarius laughed. "Meruk is one of my students. He wouldn't steal anything."
"Then what does he have around his neck?"
"More important, what doesn't he have around his neck? As in your hand." He snorted. "That torque is his property."
"A likely story."
"Uh, sir." Dr. Hake gestured at the case. "There were four torques when I did the inventory, and they're all in the case. No one has broken the seal," he added, when the other official opened his mouth to retort.
"You have no right to possess a treasure like that," the stranger snarled, pointing at Meruk, as if his finger were a stunner wand.
"You have no authority to make that sort of judgment. Besides," Dr. Rostarius added with another snort, "you barely got a good look at it. You have no clue whether it's genuine or not. Just the fact that it looks like the torques we found, that gives you the right to bully one of my most promising students?"
Meruk almost snorted at that one. He had taken enough classes with Rostarius, seen him in action often enough, he could tell when the man was laying it on thick just to frustrate the bully who had barged into the tent unannounced.
"Then let me see it." He held out his hand. His nostrils flared when Meruk took another step backward, and sideways toward Dr. Rostarius. He didn't have to see the scornful look on his teacher's face to know that if he let this stranger have his torque, he would never see it again.
"Have we been introduced yet? I don't recall anyone asking if they could come in or any warning that we would have official visitors tonight. We're not required to turn over anything we find until the dig has ended for the summer. I have it in writing, signed by Master Dasparran and the governor and a dozen or so other officials at the HA," he added, with a negligent wave of his hand, as if that much authority meant little to him.
"I am Dr. Sharptyn, head of security for the HA," the stranger said, almost hissing his answer through his teeth. "We felt, with such an unusual windfall today, it would not be wise to leave so much temptation lying about." He glanced at Meruk and started to open his mouth, but Dr. Rostarius sharply cleared his throat, cutting him off.
"Would you let us examine the torque in question?" Dr. Hake sounded calm and reasonable, but Meruk saw a few beads of sweat on his forehead. Here in the mountains, it got chilly at night in the summer.
"We just did that," Dr. Rostarius said. "Without doing any kind of chemical analysis, all we have to go on is appearance. The colors and designs are an exact match for those on the jewelry we found today."
"Such a treasure belongs in a museum. Certainly not around the neck of a student." Dr. Sharptyn held out his hand again.
"That treasure could be nothing more than an artist's attempt to copy something he or she saw," Dr. Rostarius said, repressed laughter making his voice rich, when Meruk again refused to obey Sharptyn's silent order. "And in case you're wondering, I fully support his refusal--and his right to refuse--to allow his property to fall into your custody. Chances are very good he'll never see it again, except in a museum display."
"Where did he get it?"
"It belonged to my parents," Meruk said, tired of being talked about. "It's one of the few things my parents left for me when they were killed. For all I know, they were killed by someone trying to take their property. And before you accuse me again of being a thief," he added, remembering Dr. Rostarius' words the first time he saw the torque, "it's listed in the inventory the Child Services people made when I was put into foster care. That's proof enough this is mine and has been mine and belonged to my family before that."
"Would you consider donating it to the museum?" Dr. Hake offered, cutting off Dr. Sharptyn as he opened his mouth. Judging by the sneer on his face, it would be critical, nasty, and most likely another demand.
"It's mine. My parents left it for me." Meruk tested the button holding his shirt closed over the torque. "I'm not selling it or giving it away." He muffled a groan when he saw the expression on Dr. Sharptyn's face. The one that meant 'we'll see about that'. "With everything to be catalogued and examined, why are you trying to steal my one piece, that's probably only a copy?" He gestured at the display case, and was amused at the way both representatives of the History Authority jumped. Had they actually forgotten about the riches they had originally come here to see? Or maybe 'confiscate' was a better word?
"Meruk, send Tollivy in to see me, would you?" Dr. Rostarius gestured at the door, a clear order--maybe permission?--for Meruk to leave. "I'm not putting you on guard duty tonight after all. We wouldn't want an accident to happen, would we, when we're depending on you to guard your private treasure?"
A quick glance back showed Dr. Sharptyn responding to the innuendo with a fierce glare, and Dr. Rostarius giving him an innocent, amused smile. Meruk shivered, finding it very easy to imagine the HA representative attacking him from behind, smashing his head with a big rock and yanking the torque from around his neck with enough force to slit his throat.
* * * * *
"Who's the grump?" Andrianni asked, nudging Meruk's arm with the handle of her spoon. They stood in the breakfast line at one end of the dining tent, filling their plates with gooey bakery, meatrolls, and vegetable hash. She pointed with the dripping end of her spoon when he looked up. He saw Dr. Sharptyn just over the bowl of the spoon, fists jammed into his hips, looking around the dig site as if he disapproved of everything he saw.
"What does he want?" She inhaled sharply enough to catch the attention of several partially awake students around them. "He came to snag all that loot we found--sorry, you found yesterday." She offered an apologetic grin, and Meruk grinned back. "They can't do that. Dr. R has authority to hold onto everything until the end of the summer."
"Yeah, he told them that. They don't like it, but do we care?" Tollivy said, coming up to join them. "How'd you rile them, that you got excused from guard duty?"
Meruk decided that the more people who knew he had the torque now, the safer he would be. He put down his mug of double-sweet tea and yanked down the collar of his shirt, exposing his torque. The admiration, surprise, and envy in the eyes around him almost made up for the sudden dropping sensation in his stomach. The same sensation that always seemed to warn of trouble trying to sneak up on him.
"It's probably only a copy, but it belonged to my parents. Dr. R was comparing it to what we found yesterday when he walked in--" He gestured with his full plate at Dr. Sharptyn, who now stalked across the camp to Dr. Rostarius' tent. "He demanded I hand it over, accused me of stealing it. Dr. R. knew I had this before the dig even started," he added, to head off any questions his fellow-students might have.
"Even if it's a copy," Andrianni said, leaning so close Meruk could count her freckles, "it's still pretty valuable. What kind of metal is that? Doesn't look anything like what you found, but that might mean it's even more valuable. I've never seen metal like that before."
"I have. Out in the Wastes, there's an artists' colony. They dig up rocks and have their own refinery. That's the only place I know of on the whole planet that has that reddish tint in the metal," Tollivy said. "Better guard that." He gestured for Meruk to pull his collar up over the torque again.
"Let's hope it really is a copy, and not the real thing," Dyllan said, nudging his way through the group gathered around Meruk. He flashed a mischievous grin. "Then again, if it's the real thing, you know what it means, don't you?"
"No. Sorry." Meruk wondered if he just imagined the hint of malice in Dyllan's smile.
"Please, not those stupid legends," Tollivy said.
Enough people chimed in, asking about the legends, Dyllan went on as if he hadn't heard.
"Legends say the Hoveni put a curse on everything they left behind. Maps, glyphs, jewelry, any artifacts. I know, who really believes in curses? Well, they had the technology to impregnate poison in metal and plastic, so that people who have touched them with their bare skin, thousands of years later, have fallen sick. It's documented."
"Guess that means this is only a copy, then," Meruk said with a shrug. "I've been wearing this for years."
"Thing is, having Hovenu blood makes you immune. Maybe since you're wearing it with no problem, that means you're a Hoven. Think about that, huh?" Dyllan jammed his thumbs in the pockets of his pants and strolled out from under the dining canopy, grinning as if he had just scored in an important game.
"Don't listen to that bahack," Andrianni said, and rolled her eyes in disgust. "He's just giving you a hard time."
"I know. He's just joking around." Meruk managed to grin, but inside he felt cold. Last night he had dreamed of danger leaping on him from the darkness. Each time, he shifted shape, becoming something big and winged, and escaped. Yet a few heartbeats later, danger again tried to enclose him in darkness and he shifted into yet another shape and fled. Being a Hoven didn't sound like much of an advantage.
Especially with someone like Dr. Sharptyn haunting the dig site all day.