Under Ancient Gaze
After the heat, the dust, and the damnable flies, the cool of the hotel room came as a welcome shock to Ashton’s skin. He slumped down in the green chair next to the bed, letting out a long sigh, which seemed to him to be half air and half sand. All he had wanted to was a little bit of exploring. A little uncovering of the past, and their government goons were making the whole thing deplorably fractious. Why couldn’t they let a gentleman do his work in peace?
The temple needed to be excavated, after all. Something that old was always full of secrets. Ashton wanted to know the names of the two creatures that guarded the doorway. Vast, blank faced idols that almost scraped the canopy of the trees with their huge stone heads. Ashton didn’t recognise them from the religions he had been taught at school, and they fascinated him. A story had been hidden here, in this sweltering jungle, and it was up to Ashton to uncover it before it was lost forever. Besides, there were things to be found. Pottery, statuary. Gold. It all had to be cleaned and catalogued. It was progress. You couldn’t take into account the feelings of people from the past, not if you wanted to move forward.
Trouble had started on the second day, when a car had pulled up alongside the bustling activity of the dig and spewed forth a group of blank-eyed individuals and a dark-suited man called Maheed. He strode up to Ashton as though he was an equal, and was the only one of the extraordinary group who spoke. Maheed spoke in a quiet, insistent tone that cut right through Ashton. Something about the perfectly formed vowels, as though he were trying to impersonate an Englishman. Ashton didn’t want this… man wasting his time.
“If you gentlemen don’t mind, we’re conducting an important archaeological dig here.” Ashton thought that he had brought enough authority to bear. It wasn’t enough to pretend to be an Englishman, one simply had to be an Englishman.
Maheed was the only one who spoke again, and it made Ashton angry. Why bring all those dullards along if they weren’t going to say anything? Not one even one on them had so much as a gun, so it’s not like they could really stop the dig, even if they tried. Ashton had his gun, after all, and he knew quite well how to use it.
“It’s a scientific study.” Ashton had protested at the embassy, over brandy. “I don’t see what they’re making a fuss about. It’s only old gods. No-one cares about them anymore. Their wars are over.”
The next morning found the site vandalised, though without the destructive forces usually associated with vandalism. Everything had been neatly packed away or dismantled. The tray of finds was empty, and Aston had the horrible feeling that the pottery and coins had been reburied in the now-filled trench.
Of course, he had complained to the ambassador, who promised him a number of military to guard the site overnight. Ashton himself decided to sleep at the excavation that night, to make sure that the restart they had made wasn’t undone in the small hours.
There, under the eyeless gaze of the ancient statues, Maheed had come to talk to Ashton again. The statues stood, impassive faces staring out into the darkness, their long fixed stare passing through the trees to some other, distant sight. Down on the sand that marked the boundary between the temple and the jungle the two men stood opposite one another. The shivering shadows cast by Ashton’s lantern threw their shadows high up and over the statues.
Ashton slumped down in the green chair next to the bed and sighed. The little idiot had made his claims, he thought to himself. Let tomorrow bring what it may.