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"There's a parachute over there," Sam yelled. Anti-artillery bullets shattered the cockpit, ricocheted inside the old flier. This first contact didn't go well.
"They'll shoot you down. We have to reach the escarpment and the caves." Engine #4 burst into flame. Glenn throttled it down. Airspeed dropped. The plane shook. Tried to rise. Nosedived.
"Grab the stick and pull. We need to gain altitude." I jumped into the copilot's seat and yanked the stick. Ground rose faster than the plane climbed. Glen bent the throttle levers back. The engines screamed death agonies. Wings held. It climbed once more as an updraft lifted the plane. And yet, it clipped trees. Killed birds. The escarpment came into view. Engine #1 seized, blew apart. Its bearings shrieked as metal scored metal.
"Jump." Sam yelled, bracing the stick. We jumped. The plane spiraled downward. A final descent. A fiery descent.
* * *
"The Cave of Winds," Sam said, pointing to the inscriptions.
"Nothing more than limestone worn by wind. Mark the rounded slopes, the herbal fragrance blowing from the jungle side. There's probably a secret system of caves and conduits beneath. I can hear the springs. We should find water spurting," I answered.
"What did you say?" Sam asked.
"I was paraphrasing."
"Paraphrase some food and tell us if there's any geologic danger in here," Glenn ordered. "Translate this stuff. There's more to these inscriptions than just Wind Cave." We moved into the system of caves. Each chamber repeated the symbols, arranging them in different configurations. Sam struggled with the translation.
"I think these cave drawings are astronomical. The repeated symbols are the stars as they appear in the sky on certain days of the year. They line up with the sight holes in the ceilings. All this was excavated by primitives," he said.
"Did they bore the sight holes just to tell the seasons?" Glenn asked. Glenn should have been named Thomas Full of Doubt.
"Probably not," Sam said. We passed through a narrow tunnel. It opened into a chamber with a pool of warm water fed by a spring and a stone platform with a flame about six inches high burning from an iron vent in the floor.
"Is this for real?" Glen sat on the ledge and tested the water. I examined the gas jet and its source in the floor. Sam studied the carvings. We worked silently, wanting to disprove our eyes.
"The flame heats the chamber and vents through the holes in the ceiling," I explained.
"The water is potable." We waited for Sam.
"You know, this writing is different. It is subtler, more sophisticated. The current natives didn't build this and I doubt they understand a its functions. We're in a monastery. That's the closest concept in English. This is the ritual chamber." He walked to another chamber. Six sinopia-colored, statues of naked men stood like antimythological heroes carved in limestone, waiting for us, naked, bowed in adoration. Innocent athletes.
"I thought so." Sam read more inscriptions.
"What?" Glenn asked.
"Here," Sam pointed to the symbols as he translated. "And every time, when the length of I can't tell how years has passed, the supplicants. No, that's not right. It's not petitioner. It's not sacrifice, more like volunteer. Acolyte maybe."
"We get the point," Glenn grouched. Sam studied several lines of script, silent.
"What next?" I asked.
"The chosen ones would stay here waiting for the moon to cross over the sun. An eclipse, that's what they mean. Preparing both mind and body for the eclipse when the fire would grow cold, engulf the chosen and make them glorious." Sam paused. "My translation is too literal," he studied the writing. "It's more like: the priests had a choice. If they found the chosen ones acceptable, they made them priests. They sculpted statues are representations of the chosen ones, immoderate ones."
"The sinopia coloration is form of heme-valent iron. Perhaps oxidized blood. Definitely odd. A civilization flourished here and worshiped this flame for six hundred years. I don't know why it ended. I wish I had my computer so I could record the inscriptions from each cave. Every language has an elusive multiplicity of meaning, shades, hidden implications. I'm sure I'm missing something."
"The rescue mission will take six months. Are we safe?" Glenn asked.
"Sure. The water's potable. There're edible mushrooms and rats for protein. There might be ghosts but the natives are afraid of this place. The writings aren't threatening."
"Then we'll set up camp here. It's as good a place as any." We had nothing to unpack.
Sam translated by memory. I mapped the caves. Glenn bossed.
This limestone ripped cotton clothing. In one month, we wore rags. We substituted parachute nylon but it didn't last. After four months we sported long hair, beards, smiles and nothing else.
"The way I read the star maps, noon today is the eclipse, a centennial occurrence. At zenith, the holes will create a ring of light around the flame. The secret of immortality will be revealed. At least that's what the inscriptions say. I wonder if fear of a lunar eclipse might be what pushed the natives away. Fear of the dark?" Sam mused. He motioned for us to stand inside the ring of light.
The moon disc touched the sun. Words lit up around the chamber. A clever trick. A ring of light coalesced around the flame. The flame grew brighter as the chamber darkened. When the moon disc covered the sun. The fire became alchemical. A cold flame the color of sinopia burst from the ground and burned the blood in our veins. I felt my blood congeal, my body solidify. My flesh transform into rock. I was limestone from weathered outcrop to hill-top temple.
I understood the solitude that asks and promises nothing. I understand faultless love. The rescue squad carried our bodies back home, placed us near murmuring waters and gesticulating fountains. We are immortality personified in a limestone landscape.
1500 words more or less
FUTURES YET UNKNOWN
Ten Stories by Dave Fragments
*An Alien serial murderer and a furry detective with fleas.
*Murder on a world with altered humans.
*Disturbing apocalyptic visions *Monstrous dystopian societies.
*A man on trial for betraying the human race to robots.
*Devils, demons and ghosts.
*Survivors of a plague war.
*Cyborgs trying to be human.
*Six friends in a strange sinkhole.
*The truth about a world drowning in rain, without sun, without hope.
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