Short Story: Like the Buzz of Crickets in High Summer
Ever wondered if the 3D printing an ancient Egyptian priest’s vocal track to hear what he sounds like might be a bad idea? Me too…..
According to the scientific report in Nature: Synthesis of a Vocal Sound from the 3,000 year old Mummy, Nesyamun:
“Only those able to verbally confirm that they had led a virtuous life were granted entry into eternity and awarded the epithet ‘maat kheru’, ‘true of voice’14, as applied to Nesyamun himself throughout his coffin inscriptions. In these texts, Nesyamun asks that his soul receives eternal sustenance, is able to move around freely and to see and address the gods9 as he had in his working life.”
Taking the idea, and a few liberties…..
Like the Buzz of Crickets in High Summer
Dean ambled into the room, whistling as he flipped what might have been a melted lump of plastic into the air, caught it and repeated the motion.
“What is that?” asked Simone, his supervisor, as she peered over the rims of her tortoiseshell glasses.
“Little job from the unwrappers,” Dean replied, smiling. It was his little pet name for the researchers in C Block who were studying the museum’s cache of mummified Egyptians. He handed her the plastic. “The machine accidentally printed a duplicate.”
“Accidentally?” Simone scowled, examining the 3D print.
“Yeah.” Dean shrugged. “I’d just box up the first and put in the post for Dr. Read when the machine started printing another.”
“All by itself, huh?” Simone gave him the look that said he wasn’t being totally honest.
“No, really,” said Dean earnestly, holding up his hands. “Not my fault. I got Mick to give the systems a debugging.”
“Great,” grumbled Simone. She returned the print to Dean and swiveled back to her computer screen. “You still haven’t told me what it is.”
“It’s the larynx of an Egyptian priest.”
“No, seriously,” Dean enthused. “They took his body for a CT scan over at the infirmary. He was so well preserved that they were able to model it.”
“To what end?”
“Well, they think they’ll be able to simulate his voice,” Dean grinned and he put it to his lips and blew a discordant note. Simone shuddered. “What a lovely singing voice he must have had,” Dean chuckled, and blew again.
“Cut it out!” Simone snapped. “It’s giving me goose bumps.”
Dean smiled with devilish delight. “What? Like this?” He blew again, hard, and the sound rose to something like the buzz of crickets in high summer…..
* * *
“Can you be more careful?” asked Dr. Read without looking up. He had his face glued to a mag-light as he skillfully unwrapped a layer of bandage with his tweezers.
“What?” replied Tania, the assistant. She held up her hands. “I didn’t touch anything.”
Dr. Read huffed….. carefully. “Well some one just jogged the table.”
He was about to issue a retort, but he thought he saw the corpse twitch. Dr. Read peered closer, then sat back and rubbed his eye. Just a twinge, no doubt. He was dog tired after long hours of careful examination. With a sigh he looked over at his assistant and asked, “Well, who was it? There’s no one else here?”
“Jeez, take it easy doc,” said Tania, knowing full well that the epithet irritated him. It was damn disrespectful, that’s what it was. “I wasn’t anywhere near you. Felt more like a lorry going past or something.”
“Or something?” Dr. Read’s mouth twisted up in distaste at his assistant’s casual dismissal.
She shrugged, gave him a smile, then looked at her watch. “You look hungry. What do you say we grab a bite of lunch.”
As if on cue his stomach emitted a confirmatory protest and he sighed with the world weary burden of a man who must succumb to the grim hand of natural processes. He put aside his tools and together they adjourned to the office and sat at their desks. He found his wife had packed him the obligatory cheese and pickle sandwich, and he wasn’t in the slightest envious of Tania’s extensive salad bowl that appeared to have pomegranate and seeds liberally sprinkled amongst its foliage.
They set to eating, and as he ate he felt his vigor return somewhat. For want of anything else to say he asked Tania how long she thought it would take the 3D print to take.
“I expect the tech bods will have something for us this afternoon,” Tania mused.
Pleased, Dr. Read brightened. “Amazing, isn’t it?” he enthused. “The actual vocal tract of a priest.”
“Guess so,” shrugged the assistant. “Not sure about it’s value, but it certainly makes a nice story.”
“Nice story?” Dr. Read was faintly incredulous at her lack of enthusiasm. “We’ve accomplished something never done before.”
“I mean, I get it,” his assistant replied, poking at her lunch. “But he had a human voice. He probably didn’t sound much different than any other person. What interests me is the difference in composition of the natron used in his desiccation.”
Dr. Read shook his head. “A sodium compound will vary depending on its origin.”
“Yes, but if we can identify the origin, we’ll have a better idea of where his body was originally mummified. It’s certainly not typical of the area where – “
She was interrupted by a sound from the next room. “Did you hear that?”
Dr. Read shook his head as Tania got up and headed next door. His hearing was a little weaker these days, wasn’t it? Not that he was going to actually admit it, what with his wife always nagging him to go and get it checked. Given her usual chatter he wasn’t missing much, but he supposed that…..
“Er… Dr. Read?” his assistant called, and he gave himself a smug smile. Heard that fine, didn’t he? He shouted his reply around a mouthful of sandwich: “What is it now?”
“You better come see this!”
With a disgruntled sigh he got up and shuffled to the door, muttering, “I really don’t know why I put up with – “
He didn’t finish his sentence. Instead, his jaw hung slack as his assistant turned her head and asked him, “Doctor? Where’s your mummy?”
* * *
Officer Perch frowned as he jotted the details into his notebook. “So, let me get this straight; you lost a mummy?”
“That’s right,” said the doctor’s assistant. “It was right here when we went to lunch, then poof! Gone!”
“And the doctor?”
“He had to go and lie down,” the young woman explained. “He was a little distressed.”
“I’m sure,” said Perch with arched eyebrows. “Not every day that the dead take a walk now, is it?”
She laughed, the sound hitting some nervous high notes. “No.”
“And is there any chance that someone could have stolen it?”
“No,” and the assistant shook her head with vehemence. “No one could get in or out without us seeing.”
“Well,” Perch replied, his frown deepening, “How the hell is it supposed to have even left the room? The window perhaps?”
The assistant didn’t look convinced, but Perch wanted to check it. The windows, however, were all shut and locked. Perch chewed his lip and considered that he was having his time wasted, that perhaps someone was playing a hoax and hadn’t realised that the police would turn up. After all, who would really want to steal a corpse? The question prompted another: “What would you say the value of this mummy is?”
“Priceless,” explained the assistant, “It’s irreplaceable.”
Perch shook his head. “That’s not what I meant. Does it have any black market val – “
He was cut off by someone hurrying towards the office. “Officer! Officer!”
With some small consternation Perch stuck his head out the door, the typical querying look of the English bobby on his face. Outside, one of the – what was he? a curator? – a curator was hurrying towards him. “Oh thank goodness! You’re…. er, partner?”
Perch held up a hand. “Colleague.”
“Ah, your colleague said you better come and take a look at something.”
Perch sighed and turned away, trying his radio. “Emerson?”
There was no response, just the crackle of static. With tired resignation Perch told the man to lead the way and together they made their way down the hall and through a door into another part of the museum. They descended some stairs and the decor became decidedly more modern and office like. As they traversed another long hall Perch spied Jenkins waiting anxiously, guarding a turning taped off with blue and white incident tape.
“What’s the problem Jenkins?”
“Better take a look chief,” replied Jenkins in a voice hinting at nerves.
Perch sighed and moved past him, then heard Jenkins speak to the curator. “If you could just wait here, sir.”
A short way down the generic grey carpet tiles appeared sullied. Sand. There was more and more of it as he moved along the hallway until he reached Emerson who awaited him. She smiled in that way that suggested she knew a joke no one else did.
“What have you got to report?”
“Well chief…..” and she had to repress a chuckle. “I can’t rightly say, but someone’s gotta be pulling our leg.”
“If they are,” Perch grunted, “Then they’re going to very sorry to learn a nasty lesson about my lack of amusement.”
Emerson nodded and lead him across more sand to an office with a door half open and a yellow drift of the same spilling forth. “Take a look chief.”
Perch poked his head in. “What the Hell?” The room wasn’t just a mess; it was filled with sand in dunes that crested across desks and ran in slopes over the furniture. The outline of a chair jutted forth like some lost ruin.
He entered and made his way – with a little difficulty – across the floor without a thought about the fact that he was entering a possible crime scene. At his passing the sand shifted from the chair to reveal something dark on the floor. Bending down, he retrieved a pair of tortoiseshell glasses, the lenses cloudy with scratches. As he pulled them loose more sand slid away and he saw something pale. He brushed at the sand, already fearing what he was about to uncover….
The bone was fresh, clotted with sand that had turned pink.
And it wasn’t just one. Perch retreated to the door as quickly as he could, dizziness threatening the edge of his mind.
“Get forensics in here and tell me what the fuck is going on!” Perch bawled in Emerson’s face. She saluted with a half grin, half grimace and got on the radio. When there was nothing but static, she shrugged nervously and hurried away.
* * *
An hour later Perch watched as a team in white overalls sifted through the sands. There were two skeletons, but also something else. One of the team approached Perch with a baggie, waving it at him. It had something pale in it that might have been skin.
“What’s this?” asked Perch.
“Looks like an insect shell,” the forensics man replied.
Perch perused it. “Looks like a giant grasshopper.”
The man in the overalls nodded. “Probably some kind of locust.”
“Well, where did they come from?” Perch demanded.
The man shrugged. “No idea. Not from anywhere around here.”
Perch felt the dizziness returning, and needlessly order the man to “carry on”. All of this was highly irregular, and if not for the bloody aspect of the bones he might have thought it was just a joke. But they were human bones and the two workers who’s office it was couldn’t be found anywhere.
The conclusion? To Hell with conclusions! They invited madness. Perch would stick to the stolid conviction that there had to be a reasonable explanation: the Mummy had been removed somehow – sleight of hand no doubt, he’d seen it on that show The Mentalist – and the bones were probably stolen from a somewhere……
It all sounded totally ridiculous, but then again so did the Zambian space project, but he’d been reading that there had been just such a thing back in the 60s. Anything was possible…….
He played it over in his mind again. There must be a thread somewhere, but which ever way he turned it, it still all sounded ridiculous……
“What is it Emerson?”
She gave him a sardonic grin. “The professor is ready to talk to you.”
“Where is he?”
Perch nodded and made his way back to C Block. In the same room as he had talked to the assistant he found a man that fitted every preconceived idea of the word “professor”. He was aged and balding with the intellectual look of an old bird.
“Doctor Read, please,” said the man with a tired smile.
Perch nodded and jumped in, “We’re in a pickle here doctor. Your assistant gave me the details, and I’m having a hard time comprehending how any of this is possible. I expect you heard what we found?”
Read appeared baffled. “Found? My mummy?”
“No,” Perch replied with a shake of his head. “We’re talking about two fresh skeletons and a room full of sand. If I were a superstitious man then I’d be inclined to believe that there was something, oh, I don’t know, supernatural afoot. But as this is the 21st century, I am not. This is certainly a ruse, and I will get to the bottom of it. And whoever thought it was funny to partake of a little grave robbing will find it less funny when they’re in the dock for….. well, for whatever it is we charge people with for that kind of thing.”
Dr. Read’s face was an expression of brittle confusion. “Grave robbing?”
“Where else would they get the skeletons from?”
Dr. Read scratched his head and looked out the window. Perch eyed him and wondered if there wasn’t a touch of dementia there. He was about to say something of the matter when another museum employee sauntered into the room, a big pair of headphones on and completely oblivious to the police officer in the room. He was young, shaggy haired and a slight fuzz on his chops. The plain overalls had a menial cast to them, and Perch watched as he emptied out letters from a satchel in the corner, then left a couple of missives and a small box. Without another word he departed, as oblivious as when he entered.
“Who was that?” Perch inquired.
“The internal mail,” Dr. Read replied, “I think his name’s Dave.”
Perch nodded, feeling suspicious now. “What’s in the box?”
Dr. Read shrugged and moved to retrieve the box. Perch watched as he unfolded the loose flaps and an almost wan smile crossed the old man’s face.
“What is it?”
“It’s a 3D model of our mummy’s larynx,” said Dr. Read, pulling out a piece of plastic that looked like a nightmare albino root vegetable.
Perch was intrigued, despite himself. “And what is the purpose of doing that?”
“Well,” Dr. Read replied, puffing up with a touch of pride, “We should be able to get an idea of how his voice sounded.”
And with the twinkled in his eye of an excited school boy the doctor blew a discordant note on it.
“What a lovely singing voice he must have had,” remarked Perch.
“Perhaps I blew too hard,” mused the doctor and tried again.
“Well, you certainly succeeded in making my skin crawl,” said Perch. “Perhaps we should focus on the task at h- “
But he didn’t get any further, for Dr. Read was already putting the thing to his lips, and a strangled noise resonated through the air, the sound rising to something like the buzz of crickets in high summer. A sudden wind sprang up from nowhere and a soft pattering of grit touched Perch’s face.
“What the f – ?”
The wind leapt suddenly and the sand swirled. Dark, chittering shapes flew through the air before him. Over the rising din he heard the sound of the doctor, a harried wail as he glimpsed the doctor pointing. Perch spun around, mind racing, and a large shape loomed out of the obscuring whirlwind.
A dark voice spoke then, and as the figure pulled Perch toward it with a clawed hand he saw where the bandages had frayed and tattered to reveal fresh, wet flesh beneath. As he opened his mouth to scream, the last thing he saw were the two gleaming eyes set in that new meat of the creature’s face, dark and ancient, and filled with malice at having been awoken from slumber.
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