By Dawn Vogel
10 July 18–
My dear Mademoiselle Taggart,
Please accept my apologies for the lengthy delay that has preceded this missive. Although I arrived in Constantinople some two weeks ago, I wanted more than just hearsay and rumors before I contacted you with news of your husband’s whereabouts. I must admit that I am no closer to learning the truth of his disappearance than I was before I left Nice.
Upon my arrival in Constantinople, I procured the services of a local guide who assured me that he could lead me to the site where Doctor Taggart had gone. After a journey of some two full days, we arrived at the location. Although the countryside leading to the area had been lush with vegetation (relatively speaking, of course), the first thing I noticed when we reached the site was how barren it was. This was no work of grubbing and clearing, either–the site looked as though it had been blown clean of any and all plant life.
Gone, too, were the tents and other trappings of the encampment, all of the tools that Doctor Taggart brought with him, and, indeed, any indication that he or his crew had ever conducted an archaeological dig on this site. My guide spoke little English, but he managed to convey to me his sense of unease at this location. I agreed that we should return to Constantinople. While his intention was to return there permanently, mine was to assemble a group of trustworthy men to conduct an excavation of our own to search for any evidence of the good doctor’s expedition.
By week’s end I had returned to the site with my team, and we proceeded on our own dig. On the fourth day, just as I was preparing to call a halt to the entire operation due to lack of results, one of the men found Doctor Taggart’s journal.
Though I have read his entries from March through May with the strictest attention, I find that I am unable to ascertain your husband’s whereabouts. The journal stops near the end of May, with no clear information as to why. The entries leading up to his last are highly peculiar, and I feel that the things they might imply are too far-fetched to accept at face value.
Those I have discussed the site with suggest that Doctor Taggart was foolish to attempt an archaeological dig at this location, which the locals say to be cursed. I am a rational man and I want to dismiss such superstitions as folly. But if his own speculations are valid, then I am afraid I may not be able to assist you in locating him.
I send along my transcription of excerpts from the good doctor’s journal by this post, so that you might read his observations yourself. I will present you with the journal in person, but I do not entrust it to the mail service in this place. I have procured additional men to assist me in investigating the site, and will send you further word at my earliest convenience. The fee you have paid is, at the moment, sufficient to cover these expenses.
Very respectfully yours,
From the journal of Doctor Octavius Taggart
29 March 18–
After nearly three weeks of work, my men have begun to make progress with our excavations. The vegetation at this site grows at an alarming rate. No amount of hacking at the foliage with machetes has had an impact on its progress. It has only been through the use of fire that my men have been able to hold the vines at bay for more than a few days. The natives that I hired to serve as our cooks tell us that with the end of the rainy season, the plant life will gradually become less active. I hope their estimation is correct.
Our find today was a low wall, less than a meter in length, and a little more than 20 centimeters in height. Nearby landforms suggest that there may be other segments of this wall in close proximity. Now that we have a starting point, I have directed my men to focus on the most likely paths of other pieces of the wall. Once we have established the boundaries of this structure, we can focus on the interior portions, where the goods we find may suggest the function that this place once had.
7 April 18–
The segment of wall that my men unearthed just over one week hence has proven itself to be a strange maze-like series of small walls. Their function is no clearer than it was the day we found the first. So far, we have located seven distinct pieces, none more than three meters in length, and varying only slightly in height from one piece to the next. One of my men, a good native chap who calls himself Horace, has been sketching the segments as they uncover them, but his drawings do not yet suggest any pattern to their placement.
I return to Constantinople in the morning, to hire more men. As the size of this excavation expands, the need to keep the vegetation at bay becomes more pressing.
13 April 18–
After five days away from the dig, I was astonished on my return to learn that my men have found thirty-seven additional wall segments. My earlier estimation of these pieces as part of a maze seems to be given additional credence by Horace’s sketches. I am certain now that these walls did not surround a dwelling, a temple, or any other type of building that I have encountered in previous digs. I have sent word back to Nice, requesting issues of several recent journals that contain papers on the concept of labyrinths in early cultures. I do not recall any such finds in this particular region, but feel that consulting the scholarly record may be illuminating.
15 April 18–
Our labyrinth continues to grow. I have sent a group of five of my men in each of the cardinal directions, to a distance of fifty meters, where they are each to dig until they reach a portion of the walls. The labyrinth may not be as large as this, but I feel that our investigations will be benefited by finding the outer boundaries.
My men have asked if we will be digging deeper, rather than wider, to find any treasures associated with this site. For the time being, I have indicated that such remains our ultimate goal. I suspect, however, that the riches of which they dream will not be found in a labyrinth. Inevitably, only my colleagues can appreciate the intrinsic value of this site.
17 April 18–
For the past two nights, my dreams have been filled with the labyrinth. We have ascertained that it covers an area approximately 150 meters in diameter. We have located curvilinear walls that appear to be the outer boundaries, and our initial mapping reveals that the labyrinth is a perfect circle. We have not, as yet, located the entrance or exit to the maze.
With regard to my dreams, they have been fleeting. Tonight, I sleep with my journal and pen at my side, so that I might record the details when they are fresh in my mind.
18 April 18–
I found myself in a walled enclosure, open to the night sky above. The walls stretched up only about thirty centimeters above the top of my head, so that my outstretched arms could just barely gain purchase on the top of the wall. As I rotated slowly in place, I noticed that two of the walls did not join, and it was there that I found my egress. As is so often the case in dreams, I did not have full control of my faculties, and so I wandered through the maze without gaining many more details of my surroundings. I cannot say how the labyrinth was lit, for example, nor can I identify the source of the prolonged thrumming noise that accompanied my journey.
I redirected my gaze only when the constant sound was drowned out by a solid, resounding click of metal on stone. I looked up, and could see only a dull silver metal covering the open top of the labyrinth, stretching as far as the eye could see. The air was suddenly thick with the scent of machinery that had run long past the time when it required more oil. And then I awoke.
18 April 18–, evening
Today’s excavations produced the first artifact of this dig. Just as my men began to cease their labors for the night, one of them stumbled on what we had previously believed to be a strange protrusion of rock from the wall. His shovel fell against the bump, and the unmistakable clang of metal striking metal rang out across the site. I ordered brushes and water directly to the location, and even climbed down amongst my men to be present for this momentous occasion.
As the metal surface began to emerge from the dirt, my heart sank. The dull silver color was neither the bronze nor gold that might be expected in such a setting. Instead, it seemed that we had found nothing more than a tin bucket, probably discarded by an explorer only a decade or two previous, shoved down into the earth by the constant growth of foliage. My men muttered about the possibility of silver, but what little I know of metallurgy assured me that this could not be the case.
When my men finally pulled the object from the clutches of the earth, it was revealed to be a helmet of a style that I have not seen previously. In the morning, I will send a sketch of the artifact to the Royal Museum in London, in the hopes of receiving identification from their antiquities experts. For the moment, I have place the helm in a locked chest beneath my cot, and wear the key on a string around my neck.
19 April 18–
My dreams of the labyrinth persist. When I awoke this morning, my hand was grasping for the lock on the chest that contains the strange helm. It occurs to me now that the metal of the helmet resembles that of the “lid” that covered the top of the labyrinth in my dream.
24 April 18–
Work continues apace, as do my dreams. Twice now I have awoken with the key in hand, having nearly unlocked the box in my sleep. I would like to entrust the key to someone else in camp, but have noticed the way that my men track my movements when I am away from my tent, and attempt to peer into the darkness inside for a glimpse of the chest. We have found no other artifacts, and their hopes for a substantial bonus (or a few trinkets that they might pocket and sell later) diminish daily.
I awoke this morning from what had seemed to be a dreamless sleep. Clutched to my chest was the helmet. The metal was strangely warm despite the chill that permeates the morning air in this region. I put the artifact away immediately, but my thoughts have been drawn to it constantly.
I received word today that a former colleague of mine, Thomas Du Verre, is bringing the journals I requested personally, as he is also interested in this site. When he arrives, I hope to convince him to join me in an experiment.
1 May 18–
Du Verre arrived late this afternoon. He had taken the liberty of annotating a list of the journal articles on labyrinths for me during his lengthy journey. However, my attentions of late have remained fixed on the helm. My men continue to excavate the labyrinth, but I am certain that the key to this mystery lies within the sole artifact we have uncovered. Each night, I have ensured that it is securely locked in the chest. Each morning, I feel its gentle warmth on my chest, radiating throughout my body. I have heard nothing from the Royal Museum in response to my inquiry, and grow impatient to learn more.
Du Verre brought with him several of the better vintages from his wine cellar, and we shared a bottle while I laid out my plan. I told him of my dreams, as well as of the discovery of the artifact. He asked if he might examine the helm, and I consented.
When he touched the surface, he shuddered uncontrollably. Fearing that he had fallen victim to a seizure, I approached the entrance of my tent to call for the surgeon. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed the helmet falling from Du Verre’s grasp. Faster than I thought possible, I returned to his side and caught the artifact, mere centimeters from the ground below. Du Verre recovered instantly from his fit, but was clearly shaken. I asked him what he had felt. His answer chilled me to the bone.
“Cold the likes of which I have never known, and a vast emptiness, deeper than the chasms of the ocean.”
Despite this momentary dire feeling, Du Verre regained his spirits rapidly, and was most anxious to hear of the experiment I wished to propose. For the sake of posterity, I record my plans here as well.
I proposed to don the helmet first while awake. Assuming that nothing went awry, I would then wear the helmet while I slept. My hope was that whatever connection there was between my dreams and this artifact would be made clearer by intentional contact with the helmet, as opposed to my present nocturnal wanderings.
Du Verre and I agreed, after his experience, that I should wait until the following morning to attempt the first phase of this experiment. He also suggested that we include the surgeon in our confidence, in the event of another reaction such as his. I, however, felt concern over including any other persons in my plans. Also, as I reminded him, any secrets about the helmet were safe between the two of us. But as Benjamin Franklin had written, three can keep a secret only if two of them are dead. Du Verre agreed with me reluctantly, but secured my promise that he could call for the surgeon if he believed me to be in any danger at all.
2 May 18–
Our initial experiment produced no results. The helm did not change in temperature when I donned it, nor did it grant me a vision as it did Du Verre. While I am disappointed with this outcome, I am not dissuaded from the second portion of my experiment.
Du Verre has registered further concern over continuing. He tells me that while I wore the artifact, he heard a persistent buzzing sound and felt as though the tent had filled with heat and steam, like a sauna. I reassured him that it is simply a matter of adjusting to this climate, as the temperatures have risen slightly every day we have been here. He is not convinced, but he will be.
3 May 18–
Our further experiment has been an unparalleled success! I feel that I have learned more about this helmet than any scholars might hypothesize after years of study. However, my conclusions are of a sort that might land me in a mental asylum, were I to express them aloud.
Shortly after I donned the helmet and lay down to sleep, I found myself again in the realms of my dreams. This time I felt that I was in control. To test my theory, I inspected the walls of the labyrinth.
I realized two things–one, that I was, in fact, able to dictate my own actions; and two, that what I had previously perceived as a labyrinth was actually a docking structure. I must admit some initial confusion over this revelation, which sprang unbidden into my mind. There is no water anywhere near this structure, nor have we found any archaeological evidence that would suggest that water once flowed here. Additionally, I could locate no mooring rings or posts to which a boat could be tied.
The thrumming sound of my earlier dreams was repeated, and I spent my time seeking out the source of this noise. I could tell that the sound came from above, though I saw nothing that seemed to produce the sound.
With my gaze trained upwards, I noticed the silvery object that I previously perceived as a “lid” over the top of the maze. This object hovered in the sky, then tilted sharply to the left and drew closer to the structure.
As the lid settled atop the labyrinth structure, I discerned etchings on the bottom. They were aligned so as to look like writing, but the language–indeed, the alphabet itself–was unlike anything I have ever seen.
The whirring sound began anew, reverberating through the chambers of the labyrinth. I located a portion of the lid that had a rectangular opening in it, from which a bright white light poured. Although I could see figures moving within the light, I could not make out any detail of their persons. Before I could step into the light, I awoke.
On reviewing what I have written, I know that this sounds like nothing more than a strange dream. For years, religious men, the mentally ill, and others of dubious emotional clarity have claimed to see flying discs in the sky, which they attribute to the workings of God and the saints or beings from another world. I have always deemed such sightings to be folly. But now I wonder. Between my dreams and this docking labyrinth that my men have uncovered, could it be possible?
As I said previously, these are not the type of theories that I wish to expound to the world, nor even to my closest friends. I shall keep my journal under lock and key, with the helmet. And as for Du Verre, I fear that I cannot share the contents of my dream with him even if I wanted to. He has been taken with a fever, likely succumbing to the climate, as I warned him he might. Nonetheless, I shall spend more time studying the effects of the artifact on my dreams.
7 May 18–
Four more nights of sleeping with the helmet on, and four more nights of dreams. I have not recorded the details because they have been the same each night. I still cannot see the features of the inhabitants of this flying craft. I am left with the feeling that I am drawing nearer to my answers, so perhaps it is only a matter of time before their faces are revealed to me.
Du Verre’s condition has worsened daily, and the surgeon says that this is unlike the fever that I experienced on first arriving here. The surgeon tells me that each night, Du Verre’s screams can be heard across the entire camp. I find it curious that I have not been roused from my sleep. But it seems that while I sleep peacefully each night, no one else has been able to do so.
I have agreed to sit with Du Verre this evening, rather than donning the helmet and sleeping in my own tent. The surgeon insists that he must try to get rest, or he will go mad.
8 May 18–
By my watch, midnight is only just past. I must have dozed off for a moment, for I awoke with a start to a bright flash of light. Du Verre is sleeping calmly beside me; his fever seems to have finally broken. My men are beginning to stir and shout. I must quiet them, for Du Verre’s sake.
8 May 18, morning–
The surgeon and two of the workers have vanished from their beds. According to one of my men who had drawn guard duty for the night, the bright flash of light emanated from the heavens and woke the entire camp. When my men began to rush forth from their tents, the surgeon and the other two men were nowhere to be found. I suspect that these two incidents are not related. The flash could have been nothing more than lightning. And deserters are surely not unheard of in such a work environment.
The loss of the surgeon may prove to be a problem, as he was the only native who spoke rudimentary French. I have learned but little of their language, certainly not enough to maintain a conversation with any of them. I fear that I cannot entrust any of them to travel back to Constantinople and bring me a new surgeon or a new translator. Their eyes now express the fear that has been growing within them as the labyrinth emerges from the ground. I fear I may soon have no men left to complete the excavation.
21 May 18–
I have neglected my journal in my exhaustion. I have not had time to don the helm for the past two weeks. Each night, I have awoken to see the remnants of a bright flash of light, though no storms have struck our camp. My men have deserted in twos and threes, leaving me with but a handful of assistants. I have taken to the field myself, toiling alongside them daily, and collapsing into my bed each night. Together, we have nearly uncovered this docking labyrinth. Du Verre has begun to recover, though he is still too weak to do much more than help with the cooking. (The cooks were among the first to abandon us, after the surgeon.)
Remembering the sense of rest and peace that I felt when I last slept while wearing the helmet, I have decided to resume this practice, just for tonight. I have not troubled Du Verre with my plans, as he needs to recover his strength rather than sit up and play nursemaid to me.
A strong wind has arisen from the south, and I almost think I can hear the faintest of whirrings carried across it. Surely, it is only my exhaustion that leads me to believe such things. I am looking forward to a night of quiet, and rest.
Originally appeared in the 2011 anthology, In Situ, published by Dagan Books
© Copyright 2016 Dawn Vogel
Dawn Vogel has been published as a short fiction author and an editor of both fiction and non-fiction. Her academic background is in history, so it’s not surprising that much of her fiction is set in earlier times. By day, she edits reports for historians and archaeologists. In her alleged spare time, she runs a craft business, helps edit Mad Scientist Journal, and tries to find time for writing. She lives in Seattle with her awesome husband (and fellow author), Jeremy Zimmerman, and their herd of cats. Find her online at http://historythatneverwas.com, or on Twitter @historyneverwas.
Listen to the audio podcast of “Last Rites” narrated by Matt Dedon here.
Read our author interview with Dawn here.