Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Message in a Monolith

The stone stood in the sand directly ahead of us. We saw it long before we actually reached it; the vague dark shape had been rippling on the horizon for hours, motionless except for the heat that makes everything in the Golden Desert shimmer at a distance.

When we reached it, it turned out to be a rather unremarkable standing stone. It looked like sandstone of some kind. It also looked old, though - I didn't even recognize the characters that were carved into its single flat side - and nothing made of sandstone keeps its details for long in the gritty wind of the Desert. The writing was still legible.

There are far too many things hidden beneath the sands of the Golden Desert for anyone to even dream of counting them. The dunes roll back occasionally and uncover ruins, tombs, monuments from civilizations long forgotten. They might stay visible for a week, a day, or only a few hours before the dunes swallow them up again. Most travelers (especially if they're of the scientific persuasion) will stop to at least look at things like this stone. The common opinion is that if the Desert has unveiled something for you to see, it's probably worth taking a good look. You'll probably never see the thing again, after all - and even if it holds no meaning for you, who knows? There could be an archaeologist in the next town who's been looking for it for years.

This is the Golden Desert, where the history is deeper than the sand. People stop here for interesting rocks.

Predictably, everyone in the caravan took this as an excuse to take a break. The gafl were unhitched from the wagons, free to go snuffling around in the nearby sand; everyone else got out food or books or pillows and sat down to eat or read or snore for a while.

The team of scientists (I'm still not sure whether they're geologists, archaeologists, something more obscure, or perhaps a combination of all three) piled out of their wagon and gathered around the stone. They tested and measured it with various instruments, taking notes and chattering among themselves. One fished a dilapidated box camera out of her luggage and took a careful photograph or two.

Mirenza, the avian woman I spoke to earlier, stood back a bit from the others. She seemed to be focusing on the writing on the stone. I could hear her muttering under her breath. She squinted at the barely legible hieroglyphs for a few minutes, then turned back to the others with a funny half-smile on her face. I could only pick out a few words of what she said next. The other scientists' reactions ranged from chuckles to confused frowns.

Karlishek told me later that the inscription on the stone roughly translates as follows:

"You have seen the stone I carved, and read the words I wrote. That is all I really wanted. May your travels be happy and your path even."

The signature had been worn away by the sand.

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