#43 Expeditions & interrogations: part 6
Digging up the past...and the future
Previously: Detectives Lola Styles and Yannick Clarke have travelled to the parallel dimension of Palinor to retrieve an Earth-born suspect in a case of cultural theft. Having arrived at the prison in the city of Bruglia, they are about to meet the person in question…
The prison complex was grim: a reminder to Clarke that despite the warm welcome and luxurious hospitality he and Styles had experienced, Palinor remained very different to home. Palinor was anachronistic in many ways, having partially absorbed some of Mid-Earth’s culture and processes, especially in Bruglia near the portals, while otherwise remaining closer to a feudal society. There were no countries or large organisations anywhere on Palinor, only isolated city states and the occasional pact of convenience.
Princess Daryla had left them at the gates. The unflinching design of the prison, with its bare cells, harsh stone walls and dirt floors, its dungeons and what he could only assume from glimpses through bars in the doors were torture rooms, was closer to medieval Europe. The structure sat on the edge of one of the city’s many interconnected mesas, its black-red stone interrupted only by ancient tiling that might once have been impressive but had fallen into disrepair long ago. There was none of the landscaping and cultivated greenery found in the city proper; everything surrounding the prison was dust and sand and dirt. He glanced at Styles, whose face had gone a little pale as they were led by a burly guard through the dark, narrow stone corridors. This wasn’t the fantastical, adventurous side of Palinor that she always craved.
“Alright, ladies and gentlemen,” the guard murmured, wrenching open a thick, wooden door. “Here we are.” He led them through to a larger room, with cell doors lining one wall. There was a table and bench in the centre of the room, which appeared to be nailed to the floor. “You can meet with your client for thirty minutes, then I’ll be back to lock him up. Don’t exchange any items - I will be checking. Other than that, we’re all good. Good?”
Clarke nodded, and the guard crossed the room to a cell door, inserted a massive metal key and unlocked it. “Out you come,” he said, “come on, chop-chop.”
A slim man, dirty and looking malnourished, emerged from the dark cell blinking and squinting against the light washing in from narrow windows set into the opposite wall where it met the ceiling. He wore khaki trousers rand shirt and what would have been a cultivated imperial beard was now a straggly fuzz of stubble.
The guard nodded, then withdrew through the wooden door, which he made a show of locking noisily. Clarke and Styles were alone with the prisoner.
Styles stepped forward and extended her hand. “Henry Goldspeth? I’m Detective Constable Lola Styles.”
The dishevelled man brightened and broke into a toothy grin, his hair long and matted against his face. “Yes! Detectives. From Earth? At last.” He looked expectantly at Clarke.
“DC Yannick Clarke, Mr Goldspeth. Why don’t we sit down?”
The benches were splintered and uncomfortable but it was the only furniture in the chamber. “Thank god you’re both here,” Goldspeth said. “Thank god. I might actually get out of here alive, after all.”
“Understand,” Clarke said, ignoring the man’s wittering, “that your plea deal is specific and binding. We will escort you back to Mid-Earth, to London, where you will remain in custody awaiting trial for attempted smuggling of indigenous items.”
“Yes, yes, I know how it works. That’s what I was counting on. A trial back home is going to be a lot safer than one here. Even if I lose, it’s better than being stuck here without a travel permit.”
Styles leaned forward. “I’m not sure I quite follow.”
The man swept his hair from his face with a flourish and grinned. “I’m a wanted man, Miss Styles. I need to leave Palinor with all haste.”
“You’re not a wanted man, Mr Goldspeth,” Clarke said, sighing loudly. “You may have noticed that you’ve already been apprehended.”
“Yes!” exclaimed the man, holding up a finger. “But that’s just for the theft and possession of stolen property, smuggling, and so on. Bla bla. Boring. That’s just my ticket out of here.”
Clarke was already irritated by the flamboyant idiot. “You don’t sound upset about being caught.”
“Of course not. I handed myself in as soon as I reached Bruglia. A risk, to be sure, but there was no way I could secure portal travel back to Earth through the normal channels. They’d have found me.”
Styles had taken out her notebook and a pencil. “Who would have found you, Henry?”
“I don’t know who they are. Nobody knows. But they killed everybody. Everybody except me.”
“OK, look,” Clarke said, resting his elbows on the table, “I was enjoying a perfectly pleasant sight-seeing tour before we had to come here and talk to you. Clearly you have a story you want to tell, so how about you get on and tell us so we can tidy up the paperwork and get out of here?”
Goldspeth grinned, rolled his shoulders, cracked something in his neck and opened his mouth to speak.
“I’m an archaeologist. I lead in the field of xeno-archaeology, to be precise: the study of history and pre-history of civilisations outside of our own. By which I mean Earth. Mid-Earth, to be precise. Palinor is the holy grail, always has been. A reality so far removed from our own as to be fully alien. While it’s been theorised that there must be some common root in the distant past, otherwise humans would not exist here, our worlds clearly diverged millions of years ago. It is, to all extents and purposes, like studying another planet. But instead of having to somehow travel in a Max-Earth spaceship for hundreds or thousands of years, we simply step through a portal.
“I digress. There is great demand for artefacts and other physical objects from Palinor’s past. There are collectors on Palinor, of course, but the highest bidders are found on Mid-Earth and Max-Earth. To the Palinese my findings are historically and scientifically interesting; cross through the portal and those same objects become exotic. Sought after on a whole other level! It’s really quite lucrative. And, of course, museums have their own interests and budgets to spend, too. I’ve embarked on many expeditions in the name of the British & Empire Museum back in old London town. And sometimes they pay the bills but keep their name out of the paperwork, if you know what I mean.
“Yes, sorry, I’m distracted again. I do that. It’s a thing I do. If you see me doing it, do say. Or slam a hand on the table, or something. Snap me out of my own bloody brain!
“Most recently I was on a private expedition. Very well financed. Anonymous donor, all done through an intermediary. That’s quite ordinary, quite normal. Plausible deniability, and all that. It was a big team, more than I’d normally have with me. Geologists, excavation experts, translators, palaeontologists as well. We could have founded our own museum. Took us a month just to get where we were going, which was in the middle of nowhere. If you think the terrain around Bruglia is unwelcoming, then you’ve never been to the western side of the Appilan Abyss. Everyone knows about the canyon, yes? But it’s what’s on the far side that we were after. And let me tell you, there aren’t many bridges across the abyss.
“We made it, we set up camp. There had been an earthquake about six months back, which is what triggered all this. The quake had opened up a cave system that nobody even knew was there. Inside one of the mountains was a city - an actual ancient civilisation, or the remains of it, carved out of the rock. We’re talking temples, carvings, drawings on the cave walls, evidence of worship and schools and farming. The find of a lifetime.
“Two months we were there, and all was fine. Best team I’d ever worked with. Then we started poking around the local area, sending out teams to see what else we could find. Bear in mind this place is in the middle of absolute nowhere. Nobody really goes to the far side of the Appilan Abyss, not even the koth. It’s a wasteland, uninhabitable generally. Any time some bright spark tried to found a settlement in the region, it failed.
“Turns out, though, that we weren’t the only ones out there. There was another camp. Only they weren’t digging stuff up, or looking for old relics. No, they were building something new. Something like I’ve never seen before. I’m still having nightmares. We observed from a distance, thinking at first they might be competition.
“But, detectives, understand, I’m the only one left of my team. Finding that other camp marked us all for death. Our camp was attacked in the night. Everyone slaughtered. I only survived because I was deeper into the cave system. It was a bloodbath. Everyone I’d been working with, dead. All because of what we’d seen. I’ve been trying to get back here to Bruglia ever since, trying to get back through the damned portal so I’d be safe. Because I’m not safe, not yet. Every time the guard comes, I wonder if he’s been paid off. That’s why I insisted on an Earth escort. You have to keep me alive, get me back to London. Do that, and I’ll tell you everything. Because you’ll want to know what exactly it was I saw.”
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That was something a little different. More on the particular narrative structure of this chapter in the author notes down below. Meanwhile - check out those illustrations! They were both generated using MidJourney, which I’m considering using for Triverse in general. The concept art-style material the system spits out is perfect for the story. You can read more about it here:
Those of you with paid subscriptions (THANK YOU), read on for some behind-the-scenes author notes. Everyone else, have a lovely weekend and I’ll see you on Monday for something rather fun.
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