This is not a jackal. It’s not a human head.
Carl looked up from his console.
“I have our expert here,” he said.
“Put her on the screen.”
The emptiness of space on the panoramic screen was replaced by the smiling face of an old lady under a white hair bun. It was like suddenly being dropped out of deep space and into a small-town biscuit-baking class. Only, this lady was not a baker.
“Professor Lillehammer,” Carl announced. “Your old teacher.”
“Professor? So nice to see you again!” Ayla smiled at the screen.
“Ms Black!” the old lady beamed.
“You remember me still?”
“To be honest, I remember your friend better than I remember you. Luigi, the Italian boy. You were always hanging around with him, and he’s hard to forget.”
“I heard he’s out at digs,” Ayla said carefully.
“He’s become a grave robber.” The professor shook her head. “He could have had a brilliant career with us if he had stayed... but he was tempted. Many are. The war makes it too easy to loot excavation sites.”
“Professor, I need your help. I have a question that probably only you can answer. Would you give us a few minutes of your expertise?”
The old lady’s face lit up. “I’m sitting around in my campus office all day. Not much to do now that I’m not teaching any more... Fire away.”
Ayla remembered the beautiful campus under a glass dome, green with trees swaying in the light artificial breeze, birdsong and the scent of flowers coming in through the open windows. She thought of Luigi too, with whom she’d shared all this. For a moment, it was almost painful to think of what she’d lost. No time for that. She nodded to Carl, and he put the image of the Anubis statue on the line. It now appeared in a small corner of the screen, and the professor squinted to see better.
“It’s a kind of Anubis, obviously,” Professor Lillehammer said. But her tone was cautious, almost questioning.
“And?” prompted Ayla.
“There’s something wrong with it. The head.”
The professor pointed at the back of the statue’s head, where something like hair or cloth spilled out over the shoulders of the standing man.
“That shape there.”
“It is unusual?” Ayla asked.
“I’ve never seen something like that. You see, in ancient art, there are traditions for how to depict things. Every part of an image has a meaning, often connected to some myth or ritual. Saint George always has a lance, is always sitting on a horse, stabbing at a dragon’s head. He’s always in armour and almost always wears a red cloak. His horse is almost always white. This kind of thing. After all, neither the artists who painted him nor any of the congregation had ever seen Saint George’s face or knew what he looked like. The lance and the dragon are therefore the only means of recognition. They are defining this person in the image as being Saint George. And the same applied to Anubis and any other religious figure.”
“So our image here doesn’t meet the standard?”
“First, the head of the figure is too long at the back. It’s almost like the neck is connecting to the middle of the head rather than the back. This is not a jackal. It’s not a human head. It almost looks like something... something out of an old science fiction or horror movie. And then, Anubis should be holding an ankh.”
“Ankh?” Perry said, looking puzzled.
“Anubis was the god of death, the protector of the gates to the underworld. He’s holding the symbol of life in one hand, the ankh. It’s a circle or ellipse with a T-shape hanging under it, a little like the universal symbol for ‘woman’, the sign of Venus. I’ve always thought that there’s a connection. You know, women giving birth and all that.”
Ayla looked more closely at the image. “Ours has the cross inside the circle,” she said.
“Yes. It looks similar, superficially. But it’s a different symbol. This one is called the sun cross or solar wheel. Sometimes it’s associated with Wotan, an ancient Germanic god. The Celtic cross, or Saint Patrick’s cross, also derives from this. But certainly, Anubis has no business holding that in his hand.”
“So this is a rare Egyptian artefact?” Carl asked.
“I’d be very surprised if that was Egyptian at all. It’s like a Christian drawing a cross where the horizontal line is longer than the vertical. Yes, it can be done. And yes, it would be a cross. But I’d never believe that someone who had grown up with crosses would draw a cross like that. Zoom into the image a bit.”
Carl enlarged the image so that it now covered the screen, every grain of the material clearly visible.
“This statue is strange. Really, I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s certainly not Egyptian. It must be fake, someone with little knowledge or experience trying to pass this thing off as an ancient artefact. But nobody who has any knowledge of actual Egyptian art would be fooled for a second.”
“We were told it’s very valuable,” said Ayla carefully. “We’re going to be given a new spaceship for obtaining this thing. I can’t believe that someone would pay for a fake statue with a luxury spaceship.”
“Obtaining?” The professor raised an eyebrow.
“There’s a war on, Professor. We don’t have the luxury of choosing our clients.”
“I’m sorry to hear that, Ms Black. Anyway, I believe that your clients are mistaken. Now, if you will excuse me.”
The screen went black.
“She hung up,” said Carl. “That ‘obtaining’ thing didn’t go down well.”
“She’s an old lady,” Ayla said. But she had felt her old teacher’s disappointment. Yes, they were in the business of ‘obtaining’ things. They were criminals. But it was the world that had forced this life on them. They hadn’t chosen it for the thrills. She hesitated. Or had they? Had there been a moment when she could have chosen the birds and the trees of an old campus instead of this life in the deep dark?
Lea stepped over behind her and put her hand on Ayla’s arm.
“My parents wouldn’t have liked my job description either.”
Carl interrupted the silence.
“Luxor Worlds ahead,” he said. He looked at the radar screen. Empty space all around them -- and in the distance, the first echoes of the space station, rapidly drawing closer.
“The moment of truth,” Ayla said. “We’ll see if they let us across the fence.”
“Security ships ahead.” Lea had stepped back to her station, and she now zoomed the big screen in. One could only discern the unmarked, dark shadows where they eclipsed the stars behind them. “There are quite a number of them. That’s unusual. What’s happening here?”
Carl looked at the computer. “The station’s news feed says there’s a concert tonight. Venus Wu.”
They all looked at each other. Just what they needed, Ayla thought. The solar system’s greatest star would be accompanied by a small army of security people. The whole station would be locked down, every person under heavy surveillance. This would make their job of finding the Anubis almost impossible.
The station’s security ships were floating in the dark in their usual waiting formation: an arrow shape, like migrating birds, five ships in front and seven in the row behind them. If it was a small patrol, they might only have one in front and two behind, forming a triangle, but here Ayla could already see the effects of Venus Wu’s visit. They had cordoned off the station with security ships as if it stored the Saturn Federation’s gold reserves.
“Slowly, Perry. Give them time to look at us. Fly like we belong here.”
Perry fired the braking thrusters and took off some of their speed. They coasted silently, flying at a tangent past the dark, waiting ships.
“They’ve locked on to us,” Lea said.
“But we’re not supposed to know that,” added Ayla. A visitor to this place wouldn’t have anti-targeting devices. Their ship had. Another hint from whoever was orchestrating this, Ayla thought. Their new ship wasn’t a luxury cruiser, although it looked like one. It was a smuggler’s bird, or a pirate’s. “Perry, don’t do anything that would show them that we have lock scanners on board. Just keep going.”
The tension rose. In a few seconds, they’d be at the closest point to the waiting ships that had targeted them, their weapons locked on their hull, silent, deadly. They’d be defenceless, trusting only the word of some black-clad Brotherhood boys who weren’t men enough to come and get their job done themselves. Ayla noticed that she’d stopped breathing, and forced herself to resume.
“They’re ready to shoot,” Lea said.
“Standard procedure,” said Carl. “If we didn’t know it, we wouldn’t be concerned.”
“But we do,” said Ayla. “I don’t like secs pointing their guns at my ship.”
“Closest approach... four... three... two... one... now,” counted Lea.
They saw the waiting ships pass along their starboard side and slowly recede into the distance.
“Quiet,” Ayla said. “They might be scanning our hull. I heard rumours that they can listen to what we say in here from the vibrations.”
“Pirate talk,” said Carl. “I don’t believe that.” But Ayla noticed that he was whispering.
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