Xarin simply stood there, overcome, in the early morning shadow of the canyons. He cocked his head, reflecting the slight cant of the face before him. Violet eyes returned his gaze. Looked through him. Each one was the size of a house, and the head was larger than the Curio II, the transport he’d arrived in. The ornamentation was exquisite, and the exposed understructure was unlike anything he’d seen before; unlike anything anyone had seen before—of this, and only this, he was sure. Breathlessly, he spoke into the still air. “The reports did not mention the size…”
Fenewick, the digmaster, didn’t even look up from his tabulations. “Keeping a secret this size is more difficult than the digging. We must be cautious of hungry ears.”
The phrasing was odd, but Xarin understood. He’d been to a hundred excavations on a hundred worlds. On the list of things he’d found strange, hungry ears didn’t even register. At least the people here dressed like home. That was something.
The enormous, beautiful human face was trapped in a haunted expression. Vacant. Buried up to its chin in orange sand, it gave the impression of taking a final knowing breath before drowning. And drown it had, not in water, or even in sand, but in time. No artifact had ever disturbed him so, but neither had anything left him so captivated, either.
The scant crew of dig workers below the artifact adjusted the sparse scaffolding, tearing down here and raising up there. “Not many workers,” he said, “and no machinery.”
Fenewick looked up only briefly, his eyes darting over the worksite, and then returned to his screen. “That is all of them,” he said.
“What?” Perhaps his own cochlear translator was in need of an update. “Impossible. It must be well over 100 meters tall. Do you intend to dig it out with shovels?”
Unconcerned, and still apparently only half-paying attention, Fenewick said, “No. Hands. We dig with hands.”
A ploy, then. Xarin understood now. “If this is about funding…”
But Fenewick waved him off. “Not our hands.”
Seconds passed. What did that mean? If not their hands, then—
Xarin made the divine gesture—a superstitious habit he’d been powerless to break. “You’re going to wake it up,” he said, first to himself, and then again to Fenewick.
The digmaster just smiled and chuckled, but continued at his work.
Ancient technology like this was often in functional condition, but it was unpredictable. The people who had designed and built it were as strange and unknowable as any alien. It seemed an unnecessary risk. Once the thing was awake, who was to say how it might react? Xarin asked as much. “Why would it cooperate?”
Again, Fenewick laughed, but this time with an edge. He finally showed Xarin what he’d been reviewing on his screen. “To unbury the others,” he said. “It will want to unbury all the others.”
Notes: I used an image as a writing prompt for this piece. You may be able to find the image on the artist’s ArtStation page. Image by Sangyeob Park, used with permission.