“No, sah. Not here.”
Frowning, I glanced over at Attenib. I’d heard a wobble in the man’s voice that I didn’t recognize. He didn’t sound quite like himself.
“Atten, everything okay?” I asked in a lowered tone, taking a step closer to him. Damnable insects swooped down at my face, biting and stinging. I managed to smack one, and watched with vicious satisfaction as it slammed into a nearby tree trunk and then dropped, stunned, to the forest floor.
I returned my attention back to my guide. After years alongside Attenib, I knew his moods well, recognized the minor twitches of the muscles beneath his nut-brown skin. I’d worked with him long enough to trust in his uncanny ability to know just where to dig.
But now, today, he looked nervous, pale despite his leathery, tanned hide. And when he looked back at me, I saw a glint of unexpected emotion in his eyes.
“Is this the wrong place to dig?” I asked again. I stood near him, almost shoulder to shoulder despite the oppressive, humid heat of the jungle. I’d called a halt, so our porters huddled several steps behind, taking shelter in the shade of a large palm.
Again, Attenib shook his head. “Right place,” he said softly. “But wrong feeling. Not good to dig here.”
I took a moment to weigh his words. I truly believed that Attenib appreciated our arrangement, that he harbored no resentment towards my ownership of him. After all, I’d treated him far better than his fellows, snapped up on the bidding block to work the fields until their muscles and bodies failed them. But I’d seen his talent, and he’d served me well.
But we sat on our laurels too long, as I basked in the attention of the Royal Society and failed to note the new naturalists nipping at my heels. I’d secured the funding for this expedition, but one of the Senior Fellows had drawn me aside and warned me that, without results, it would be my last.
I looked again at Attenib. Did he know the conflict in my head? He just looked back, waiting.
I made my decision.
“Men! Gather your tools!” I shouted to the hired porters. “You lot! Axes, to clear the area! You others, picks and shovels! This is the spot!”
Attenib said nothing, but I saw him shrink back towards the camp. I should have disciplined him, I knew, but I chose to let him go. I had a dig to supervise.
And soon, Attenib’s almost supernatural talent proved itself once again, as one of the porters let out a cry of surprise. “Sah! Over here!”
I hurried over to the man, roughly pushing him aside before he could damage the delicate artifact. But my words died away as I stared, open mouthed, at the object.
Silver metal, curved, suggesting a large cylinder. Rivets in regular lines showed where the plates were anchored together. A hatch, the glass obscured with dust and dirt. And a logo of some sort, a square of blue with white dots, next to red and white stripes. It looked like a flag, albeit one I’d never seen before.
“What is it?” I asked, utterly confused.
From nearby, Attenib let out another soft moan. “Evil,” he answered me. “Not from this place. It doesn’t belong.”
I bent closer, wiping away more dirt. I saw words, now, stamped on the metal. “Apollo,” I read. “What could that be?”
Unnoticed, Attenib shrank back, in amid the trees that reminded him of his childhood when he’d laughed and run between their trunks. His master continued to puzzle over the alien thing that he’d felt in the ground, but Attenib could stand here no longer.
With other objects, he felt their history. That drew him to those hidden beneath the earth, feeling for their long histories, disrupted but to be resumed once unearthed. It became almost beyond notice, the history of all around him, all he touched.
But this object had no history at all.
And as his master found the handle, reached for it, Attenib turned and fled into the trees. He ran blindly, not to anywhere, but just to get away.