7 - The Jungle

Well, try as we might to leave the city of Sodden alone, it always worms its way back into the conversation, polite and impolite both.

Here we go. The following has been paraphrased in the third person from the unpublished private memoirs of one Gus Edgewise, now tenured professor of Archaeology and Ancient Studies at Academy Spuria.

Ahem. The mosquitos were the size of cooked hams and smelled like eggplant. Or was it the other way around? Anyway, you sure noticed when they tapped you on the shoulder with a proboscis like a chopstick. Then undergraduate archaeology student Gus Edgewise had travelled to the jungle with heavy backpack AND heavy heart. This particular jungle threatened to swallow the west-most mandible of the city of Sodden.

A pause between sweating, digging, and swinging at the insects with makeshift clubs. Gus reflected on his unfortunate posting. His first research project had been abruptly canceled, leaving him with the dregs of funded digs to choose from.

Nobody would even entertain the notion of his studying the strange symbols. The strange symbols, some odd, intelligible markings, he’d found in a side corridor in the basement of the Academy, and some other dark and stony places around Old Jardinian. Even the mysterious glyphs themselves were chipped off and erased the next time he came to image them.

The C-rail from Sodden had stopped several kilometres previously, his student’s box-home sitting uselessly at the exploration depot run (shoddily, might he add) by the Meteorological and Geographical Conglomerate. He hadn’t even had a chance to revel in the aggressively sinful atmosphere of the notorious city of Sodden, his school administered box-home had locked him in for the duration of his single night’s stay.

This lockdown procedure apparently hadn’t been a problem for the esteemed Professor Gus had been working with; he hadn’t seen the doctor since they’d arrived in Sodden. Doubtless he’d show up as soon as Gus found something interesting. Ol’ Doc Wittlewinter, in the meantime, was probably quite busy spending their meagre expedition funding in the numerous casinos of Sodden; the old man was likely too old for drinking, drugs or romps of a sexual nature.

He sighed resignedly as he dug. The preceding six words pretty much summed up how his academic career had played out so far.

The word digging was generous really, it was more shovelling and brushing plant material into different piles to see what popped up.

So far, he’d uncovered naught but a few ancient columns, and some collapsed walls. Each was thoroughly mossed over and covered in ferns. That isn’t to say nothing interesting at all had happened.

The first night, he’d set up his tent in the clearing he’d been half-heartedly excavating.

A voice rang down from above.

“Look up to me, my son, and you will find salvation.”

Gus, never a religious lad, was quickly re-considering his views on the subject. Leaving his sweltering, and not exactly mosquito-proof tent, he was slightly disappointed to see the scene was lacking a grand, tree-cover puncturing ray of light exuding a heavenly fervour.

What he did see was an old man, well bearded, high above in some sort of tree-house with an antiquated lantern and wearing a collection of none-too-clean rags.

“God, is that you? I know I haven’t been going to the temples so much, and I would have prayed, but it’s so busy these days, you know how it is.” Gus considered the scene. “Though to be frank, I could say I was expecting a little more pomp in this circumstance.”

This threw the Old Man off his game a bit.

“What? No, I’m not God. Am I? Maybe I am.” He sat down, chin in hand in a classic thinker’s pose. After a few moments, he remembered himself. “Ah! Salvation from the Night Jaguars, you daft coconut. Get up here”

He indicated a rope ladder, almost completely hidden behind some immense ferns.

Gus began hauling himself up. A few dislodged coconuts from the giant tree nearly braining him.

The Old man bowed, and welcomed him to his hut in the sky.

“Welcome to my hut in the sky,” he said. “I’m Aris, formerly of Sodden. They call me Aris the Bottle.”

There was a sign above what was apparently a bar, that said the same thing.

“Do people come here much?” Gus asked incredulously.

“No, said the old man, it’s just so that I remember where I am when I wake up. I drink a lot” He gestured to the bar. He also gestured to an old, archaic writing machine in the corner. With actual keys. Gus felt a bit sick looking at the rare artifact rusting away in the humidity. “I drink, and then I think. And then I write it down. I’m working on my Treatises.” He indicated the stacks of primitive papers mouldering on the floor beside the machine.

He offered up a halved coconut. “Hungry?”

Gus took it, nodded his thanks. They sat on the edge of the hut, and listened to the approaching cries of the Night Jaguars. By the sounds of it, the Night Jaguars were busy letting the air out of Gus’ mattress.

“Beautiful, dangerous creatures,” the man said, with a tear in his eye. Gus nodded.

The next day, a little stiff from his stay on the treehouse floor suite, Gus clambered down from the straw-roofed roost. The jungle was moist and steamy in most places. Sunlight streamed weakly through the palm fronds. If nature had an armpit, this was it, he thought darkly. He began the laborious archaeological toil that would occupy him for the next few weeks, while he dreamed of the lovely and strange symbols he’d uncovered in Old Jardinian.

It was someway through the third week, though Gus was beginning to lose track. He was hacking some particularly stubborn ferns off a section of the exposed column. He wasn’t gaining any ground. In a defeated huff, he dropped his tool on the dirt floor with re-directed gusto. It produced a satisfying metal on metal clank. Wait, what?

The sound surprised him. The ruined building behind the columns, which Gus, like any self respecting archaeologist, would ignore for months while painstakingly brushing off the first column he’d found, suggested a grander construction than originally guessed. And the clank had signaled an ornate metal floor, featuring the same strange symbols he’d discovered back in Old Jardinian when uncovered. He was elated. The discovery of the century. He’d thought he’d have to give up the pursuit of the enigmatic language forever, and yet here it was, leering at him from the undergrowth. The metal flooring stretched farther, and farther back from the fallen building’s limits, into the jungle just beyond the edge of the clearing. Shaking with excitement, he began to image the symbols, extending the camera attachment from his wrist interface into the palm of his hand. He had to adjust the image settings, somehow it seemed darker in this patch of jungle than expected.

He went back to the communication module he’d left in the tent, thankfully unmolested by jaguars. On his way in, he’d unspooled a communication cable from the M&G Cong. expedition centre, partly to remain connected, and partly to find his way back through the maze of ferns and decay. Like the great expanse, it was well known that the jungle, or “Paradise, Dirth of” as it was called in nature texts, had a habit of scrambling wireless communication signals, and of harbouring strange events. The communication spools only went so far, a few more kilometres further and the Jungle became too dark and strange for even the hardiest adventurer. Nobody wanted to encourage that depth of exploration; the M&G Cong. wanted to retain some guise of safe working conditions.

He slept well for the first time, still on the floor of the tiki hut, wrapped up in his sleeping bag. He slumbered with a peaceful grin on his face.

That night, he was woken from his slumber on the hut floor by the old thinker. He observed that Aris was remarkably coherent and deft for a drunk, one that evidence suggested more or less exclusively lived on coconuts and booze. The old man pointed at the clearing. Although as much as he expected, Gus was dismayed at the new addition to the excavation site. It was old Wittlewinter, making an appearance. Also making an appe arance, was a large, harsh set of construction lights, and a flamethrower that weighed about as much as the grizzled, old professor.

The thinker held his finger up to his lips. It was the universal signal for silence. The signal for flamethrower was less universally known, so he didn’t attempt it here.

Here he is, Gus thought sadly, to claim the credit for my discovery. I’ll probably get shipped off first thing in the morning. He watched as his crotchety professor began to torch the vegetation that choked the ruins, the flamethrower bucking and roiling in his hands. It was about the size of old Wittlewinter himself, fuel pack included, and threatened to escape his hands at any moment. Gus thought it safer to stay up in the tree for the moment, and watch the carnage below. Thankfully for the thinker’s tiki tree bar hut, the moist, moist jungle was more or less flame resistant. The professor had to target any veg he wanted to clear with extreme prejudice.

Old Wittlewinter was clearly concerned with the ornate floor, columns be damned. He followed it, a tongue of fire spraying forth like a devil’s breakfast. He seemed invigorated by the experience, Gus had never seen the old man so spry. Dry, unhinged cackling rose above the scene. He cleared the metallic floor painstakingly of all prescribed nature, and at high volume. As his flames began to tickle the edge of the clearing, the metal floor widened. A meter more into the jungle at large, he came upon an unnatural object covered in vegetation. Gus hadn’t been able to see it earlier, so obscured from the front as it was. The professor, trigger finger pressed down, advanced toward the object, extinguishing vines, trees, and singeing a few fuzzy monkey bottoms in his way. The masked object dwarfed the professor. With a determined look on his wizened brow, that only the retreating monkeys could see as they made both haste and what looked like rude gestures, he lay fiery siege to the covered artifact. There was a sharp hiss, that of a perturbed python. The local pythons looked at eachother accusingly, tongues flicking in suspicion, but nobody admitted guilt.

As the blackened vegetation fell away, the object, to Gus’ surprise and wonder, began to rise slowly. It appeared to be a dark-grey egg shape, twice as tall as the old professor. The remaining leaves and foliage floated away from it gracefully. The egg stopped ascending about a meter in the air, and hovered. The charred greenery hung in the air for a moment, and then dropped, as if only just now hearing about this remarkable thing called gravity. The egg shape was marked with a symbol, a top-heavy hourglass. Gus was certain whoever had built the old, collapsed temple was not responsible for this strange creation. The dark egg fit in like a burlap-covered acolyte at a grimy Sodden dance club.

The remaining leaves and foliage flitted down, seemingly of their own volition now, as the artifact hovered politely, presumably awaiting arcane instruction. The professor was excitedly jabbering into his own communicator. Gus was too far away to hear, but the old man seemed to be watching the sky. His intense concentration was rewarded with some especially exciting ethereal phenomena. A star in the sky abruptly changed course. It got larger. As new information came to light, all parties privy to the scene became sure that it was not a star at all. It was an airship. Airships were few and far between in Greater Jard, used mostly around old Jardinian for construction, and lifting heavy loads. Popular opinion, duly encouraged, held that it was much more efficient to transport people by C-rail. This airship though, as it swung into view, was different from others Gus had seen around. All of it’s features looked intentional, not just scraped together on a jobsite. It was a light matte color, all straight lines and modules of mysterious function. It would have been functionally sleek, but for the gigantic belly that extended below it, presumably to carry cargo.

The airship wallowed into the clearing, seemed to hesitate, and then landed. It squished Gus’ M&G Cong. issue tent, and obstructed Gus’ view of the strange artifact. Out of the ship, to Gus’ enormous surprise, came the Dean of Academy Spuria, and a strangely dressed figure who seemed to glide along across the uneven ground. Gus’ briefly glimpsed inventory of the figure listed what could only be described as a dark-grey wetsuit with some pockets. There was a partially opaque facemask with an attached, er sunhat? The effect was that of a high-tech beachgoer, though he could not imagine the real purpose of the ensemble. The figure was somewhat shorter than the average Jard, though making up for that with an evidently sizable noggin.

The figure disappeared with several devices, one after another around the side of the ship, towards the floating artifact. The Dean strode out to meet the professor. In her presence, his stature assumed a slouch of submission. She was barely out of her teenage years, and yet treated the esteemed professor like an underling. She was the niece of the previous dean, who had died unexpectedly the year before. She had been raised for the role, quietly biding her time until opportunity presented itself.

Industrious sounds came forth around the bulk of the ship to the watchers, standing in the clearing and tree-hidden both.

The Dean, and Prof. Wittlewinter looked around at the trees suspiciously as the odd figure continued with shrouded purpose. After some time, the third figure came back around the ship. In remarkable voice, with a sort of sing-song inflection, the mysterious character spoke. It was excited. Gus heard the name of something odd, Cimmerian Broth? Was it lunchtime for this strange entrant? No. The figure spoke about the artifact in reverence; Gus had certainly never felt that way about a soup. Then the figure seemed to stop, and take stock of the larger scene, as if it had just noticed the surrounding area. It had rested it’s masked gaze on him for a long moment, and then turned back to it’s companions. Gus felt naked behind the cover leaves and his expedition outfit, which, of course, he supposed he was.

“Are you completely sure that was empty?” The figure said, looking reproachfully and pointedly at the flattened tent.

The Prof and the Dean shared a knowing look, it was night-time after all.

“Um” Said the old Professor, after a moment. It dawned on Gus now, that perhaps the squishing of his tent had been premeditated.The Dean glared at him. “There was never any student here to begin with, you daft old fool. You’ll probably forget this entire evening next. Hint.”

The old fogey knew what was good for him, and immediately forgot everything that had happened that night, and preemptively forgot the events that were to come. He hummed to distract himself from taking in any more information.

The masked figure shrugged. This seemed to satisfy its concern. It appeared to trust the dean implicitly. The strange trio disappeared again from view, the professor still humming with all he had. A moment later, the ship lifted off. The egg artifact was gone, along with the floor it had been floating above. Hovering only for a minute, the airship made a hasty exit towards the general direction of Old Jardinian.

Gus wanted to cry. The most important (only) discovery of his lifetime had disappeared in front of his eyes. The ornamented floor, not to mention the floating egg; a dream discovery, now a receding memory, zooming off into the distance. Life is hard boiled. Er, egg artifacts on the brain, he mentally corrected himself. Life is hard.

High above, at the apex of the great dignified palm that held up their tree platform, the great mother coconut swayed in the pulse from the airship’s engines. It hung pregnantly, and without warning, began a short journey to the forest floor, stopping only to whack Gus on the head and knock him out, both of consciousness and of tree.

When he came to, he was staring into a selection of sweating, exuberant faces. It was a young scout troop. They had been canvasing the jungle for roots and edible leaves, attempting the scavenger’s merit badge, when they’d found a crude sign that read “help” with an arrow. The sign, and several proceeding signs smelled distinctly of coconuts and rum.

A jungle rescue meant more merit badges for everyone, so they had pushed on excitedly. They’d found Gus conked out in a clearing, with all his remaining, non-squished possessions piled around him. Gus had tried to impress the gravity of his situation upon the leader, a natural choice named Archie. Archie had taken to referring to himself as “the general” even though he was only a month older than the rest. Assuming Gus’ ravings to be of the feverish variety, the young troup nonetheless promised to drop him off at the academy when they went back to Old Jardinian. After they got their badges of course. He was their prize for now. Gus was thankful for the rescue, but harboured a nagging doubt surrounding the lack of any adult supervision. Seemingly in control, young General Archie led the way back to salvation and civilization.

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