The Bone Moth: Episode 3

The Bone Moth: Episode 3
Photo by Matze Bob / Unsplash

"There's no way you're going to put me on a dragon, not even a large one."

I lean on Naraik in the elevator back down. My slate has messages from Ajaë and the Head Curator. They're both curious, but for different reasons.

The shimmering walls have small seats, enough for me to heap myself down and rest my feet. If I can't make it down the corridor from the Guardian's offices to my own without a break, how am I supposed to go running all over the wilds looking for some missing archaeological finds?

"So tell me about this thing that holds the memories of the dead. What is it?" Naraik senses the pain coming on even before I do. These are distracting questions, but they have the desired effect.

"A myth. I was curious about it, you see, because it reminded me of what Ajaë does. Storing information using kata, putting it into something physical like a slate." I lean back and close my eyes. It took a lot to getthat article published, and I'd put it out of my mind.

"But not real. I don't remember you writing that paper. I'm going to have to find it, aren't I" Naraik lets me rest on one arm while checking xir slate with the other hand. "This is the list from Locaru. You'll have to see if you can pick out anything thatlooks suspicious."

Naraik flicks a thumb to show the list sparkling in the air in front of xem. "Recognise any of it?"

I peer closer, but at first sight, I don't identify any items anybody other than me would want to investigate. Nothing suitable for reuse, no weapons, only the small, broken bric-a-brac of everyday life. And nothing like the object I remember from the texts. But right now, my head is swimmy with pain and it's all I can do to breathe.

"Let's look at it back at the office. We can figure out what to tell the Guardian while we're at it." Naraik catches me and holds me until the elevator stops and we're back in the safety of the basement. The Gap must be open again; that bitter taste is back in my mouth and my bones burn.

Once we're back at our desks, I can settle into a comfy chair that's almost as old as I am. Could we fit it onto a dragon? That's a comical image, but I have to sweep it aside, because I have to know what happened to this shipment and I'm not leaving here unless I have to.

"If you want to go, we'll make this work." Naraik rests xir hands on my arm. The soft, stable kata in xir fingers is enough to ease the pain, creating a barrier between my body and the distant roaring of that monstrous rip in reality. "There's no reason you wouldn't be able to leave the Exclusion Zone and visit the site for yourself. If you wanted to."

"It's not a matter of not being able to," I say, choosing my words with care. "We could do it, of course. But not all our documents are katarised, are they. We'd have to take all the books with us." I wave a hand at the stacks on my desk. Naraik's, like Ajaë's back home, is conspicuously tidy.

"Do we need all these?" Naraik swirls coffee with a stylus. Xe's making up for not getting that cup of Guardian's tea. "Really?"

"What if we need to cross-reference something? We don't know what it might be. We should be thorough." I study the list from my slate, the blue kata sparking the air around me. This is stable kata, it doesn't hurt. It's only the raw stuff the Gap spits out I can't deal with.

Naraik takes a slug of xir drink. "But you reckon you can guess what it is. This paper you wrote."

I take a long sigh. The burning in my bones settles to a subtle tingling. "This was before you came along. I was a newbie graduate with big, wild ideas and I thought I had a decent argument. I have no idea what made me think about it." I put up a hand to wave these thoughts off. "It's probably somebody desperate from Outside the Zones thinking it's packed with be gold or diamonds or something."

Naraik narrows xir eyes. "Yeah, no. I know you. Ifthat popped into your head right then, you must have a sense that it's out there."

I keep gazing at the list. Scraps of metal, pottery, the detritus of every day life from five thousand years ago. We dust it off and write papers about how people drank their tea or painted their pots with images of the legends we've long since forgotten.

Then I see it. I freeze, chilled. I point, without speaking, and Naraik catches a copy of the document in the air to view it xirself.

"What am I looking at?"

"There." I highlight one item on the list.

Naraik squints, slugs coffee, then squints again. "You're going to have to explain this. It doesn't make sense to me."

I shift and for once it's not my own body making me uncomfortable. "All right." I'm going to have to admit to something I've been hiding even from myself, now. A sneaky little part of me that always hoped I was right, that I might prove the Head Curator wrong. "I found something, when I was writing up my graduate thesis. It's only one text, it's fragmentary, and it's in a weird dialect of Basati that's tricky to translate."

Naraik stares at me over xir coffee. "Go on. This is exciting."

"Well," I say, couching all my words in the language of academic caution, "my theory was the text was a series of notes. A couple of attempts to translate, but only a few words and phrases." I lean forward, getting into my groove. "Can you guess what everyone else thinks?"

Naraik grips xir coffee tighter. "No? Tell me."

"The standard theory is that it's from some sort of taxonomy of lepidoptera. A butterfly catcher keeping notes on their finds." I pick up my slate and start scouring all my old files. The paper's in here somewhere. Never threw it out, despite everything.

"What made you think it wasn't?"

"A couple of things." I have so many files on this thing, and my short fingers aren't the best at searching the deeper recesses of my slate's storage. But now I've opened the door in my mind, I don't need to re-read the paper. This was my whole world, for years. "Firstly, therewere weird words relating to the body, or human bones." I shudder. Pause. Start again.

"Secondly, the handwriting looked like somebody specific. We only have two other examples, but enough similarities to suggest they were the same person."

"Oooh, who is it?" Naraik clutches the mug and takes a keen sip.

I don't answer. I'm too antsy to sit still; I hobble up onto my feet, round my desk and start toward one of the museum's old exhibits, sitting in a corner. It's waiting to be updated. I'll get to it, I promise. I've been distracted. I point to a board that's meant to depict the basic history of the Five Empires period as a timeline.

"That's what Samour wanted you to work on, wasn't it?" Naraik sets xirself up like a student. Xe's done this a thousand times before with me, knows what to expect. "The thing you were avoiding because you were 'sorting through junk'."

"Xir words, not mine." I hold up one hand, then point to the midpoint of the timeline. Under a small, roughly-drawn map, a label says 'Basat Empire triggers the Rending'. Five words that ended the world. Every Amnari has this history memorised. We study it, recreate it officially as we grow up. It's what makes us who we are.

"So this is about the Basati, then?" Naraik asks.

"Yes. We believe that members of the Basat senate triggered the Rending when their army of Shades failed to destroy Isha." I feel like a lecturer saying all this. Naraik knows it as well as I do. "And we think that they were still working with the scientist who'd made that army: Tallis or Tallat, depending on the translation." I pause. This is where my argument got me into so much trouble. My heart thumps and for once it's not the Gap or fatigue.

I take a very deep breath. I remember every word of that paper now. I could recite it right here, but I'd need a lie down after. "I argued that the 'butterfly paper', as they called it, wasactually written by Tallis. Or Tallat."

"Ooooh, that's exciting." Naraik grins. "You think Tallat was into butterflies?"

"It's not about butterflies at all. It's about something else." Now I do have to sit down again. I fight it, because this matters, it matters so much.

Naraik leaves xir desk, abandoning xir coffee to prop me up. I propel us both out, heading for the stores. "You can rest, if you want."

I ignore xem, fixing my attention on the first storeroom beyond the office. "No. This is important. If I'm right, that document was a fragment of one of Tallat's notebooks. The most dangerous person from the Five Empires period, the one who caused all of this. Xe was working on something."

Naraik keeps me upright as we pass through the first storeroom. I keep going. Storeroom three, drawer fourteen, that's where we want to be. I can't catch my breath, I stumble and grip Naraik's arm harder. But I'm not going to stop now.

"All of the junk we've been pulling out of the Nas Ashca digs is old Basati material," I say. Storeroom two. One more to go.

"All right. You've told me this. That's where Basat was. You think we might find more documents?" Naraik holds me, balancing efficiency and care to keep me going. Where would I be without xem?

At last, we're here. Storeroom three. A low-ceilinged, square chamber packed with varnished wooden chests of drawers, all of them narrow, flattened out. Each one has a number on it. I pitch through the aisle, to the far corner. No room for us to move side by side, so Naraik swivels and guides me along. We use the chests for extra support.

"Tallat wouldn't want to let everything xe'd learnt go to waste," I pant, breath catching in my throat. "Everyone thinks it's all been lost."

"It was so close to the Rending Point, nothing would've survived," Naraik recites from xir history lessons.

I reach the right stack, lean on it for support as I pull out drawer three. "This did. I don't think Tallat was killed in the Rending."

Naraik hisses. "You're not saying..."

I gaze down at the grey folders within. Storing these ancient papers isn't easy. Every time we open these drawers, we expose them to more harm. But this is critical.

"I said therewere objects Tallat was using to try to store data the way we do." I pull out the folder, then stop. I need my slate. I need the paper. I need to explain. "This paper is a set of notes I think Tallat was making about storing all xir work, all xir consciousness, in an artefact."

Naraik's eyes widen, but xe keeps me upright nevertheless. "Like a slate?"

"Like more than a slate. Like Tallat's whole being, whole consciousness, with everything xe knew and thought and wanted."

"Like a ghost."

I swallow. My throat hurts. "Like a ghost." I tap the folder. I don't dare open it. "What I saw on that list is described here. Xe made it out of xir own bone. Somehow, I don't know how. Something that would look like just another decoration. Nobody would be able to tell what it was, unless they knew what they were looking for. An amulet."

Naraik speaks. "A moth."