The Guardian spurred his horse on to a full gallop through the narrow, winding streets of the old city, followed closely by five companions, leaving behind the chaotic sounds of iron clashing in vain against the thundering fire of the invaders. The four raced towards the outskirts of the city, to the edge of the desert, where they stopped to take a final look at the destruction that was being unleashed upon their beloved city.
The Guardian and his men watched in silence as arcs of fire erupted all across the northern sector of the city, cutting through every line of defence, the shrieks of the wounded rising together in a harrowing chorus of death. The men had no words to express the depth of their anguish. They had spent years preparing for this day; when the last remnants of the once-mighty empire would be crushed by the merciless onslaught of invaders, but to finally witness the inevitable unfolding was driving daggers into their hearts.
The raiders from the north had launched several attacks on the city in recent years, each one more devastating than the last. The defenders had barely managed to repel the onslaught – until now. Their swords and spears, ancient charms and amulets, were useless against the strange sorcery the foreigners possessed. Messengers had been sent to nearby Gao and Djenne, and as far as Agadez and Niani, in urgent requests for assistance from the allies of the empire. The few reinforcements that were promised never materialized. Meanwhile, the city’s defences steadily weakened to the point of collapse. Since last moon, most of the population had fled to neighbouring kingdoms in anticipation of this final assault, the Guardian’s wife and only child among their number. Those who remained had resigned themselves to the mercy of their new masters.
The Guardian dismounted and stood before the five others, casting his gaze upon each one of his men. They wanted nothing more than to be fighting alongside their brothers in the streets – not to save the city, for the city was already lost, but only to stand in the ranks of their doomed comrades as they faced the unstoppable terror of the invasion; to leave the mark of their blood on the hallowed soil of their ancestors. These six men were bound by the most sacred of oaths to lay down their lives for the empire, but they also had been entrusted with an assignment of the utmost importance; one whose gravity weighed as heavily on their hearts as their desire for martyrdom. The Guardian saw pain written clearly in the eyes of his men but, beyond the surface of their despair, he also saw a wellspring of determination. This unbreakable resilience, shared between them, was the only source of his hope.
‘Look!’ he said, sweeping a hand over the ruins of the city, ‘how the jewel of the desert, the greatest treasure of humankind, is turned to dust. The prophecy of our great Teacher has finally begun to unfold. Fear God and honour the spirits of the ancestors, for we are but grains of sand in the eyes of the Eternal Ones.’
The Guardian knelt down and carefully drew the Seal of the Order in the sand; tracing a wide circle and, within it, three symbols in their sacred language. This was a final reminder to his men of the cause which they had been called to serve from the early days of their youth. He then mounted his horse, drawing the hood of his cloak over his head. His powerful black steed shifted restlessly, perhaps sensing the cloud of impending danger hanging heavy in the air all around them. The Guardian then turned to look at the city one last time.
‘For as long as the heavens remain above the earth,’ he recited, ‘may the sun light our feet and the stars guide our paths.’ Then all six chanted in unison: ‘And may the God of the universe be with us!’
The men reared their horses and charged off into the unending darkness, charting their course towards the east, beginning the arduous journey to complete their final quest. As the inferno disappeared over the horizon, the Guardian knew in his heart that this was the last time he would see the city of his birth. He whispered a prayer of hope into the night that the hand of God, the Architect of chance and destiny, might rest upon him and his men, to protect them as they embarked on their final mission. For in their hands lay the fate of humankind.
An alarm was ringing. Sara wouldn’t have heard it if Zongo hadn’t also been buzzing around her, prodding at her shoulder with its spindly carbon-fibre limbs. She lifted her head from the desk, squinting at the white glow from her computer screen, and brushed away the thin locks of hair that had been pressed to her face.
‘What time is it?’ she mumbled.
‘The time is 3.17am,’ Zongo answered, in its androgynous, almost-human voice. ‘The date is 17 April 2036, and the temperature outside is 23 degrees Celsius. The weather today will be…’
The words barely registered. It was still dark outside the window of the-single bedroom apartment. The annoying little drone hovered beside her. She folded her head back into her arms.
‘Sara, the scan is finished.’
The scan. A vague sensation stirred within her.
‘You asked me to wake you up when the scan was finished.’
Awareness slowly seeped into her consciousness. The imaging scan was complete. That meant there was only one more thing left to do before she could finish the preliminary report for her doctoral thesis. And, of course, tonight was the final deadline.
She jumped to attention and ran into the living room, which was cluttered from wall to wall with bookshelves, radiographs, scanners, and storage cases filled to overflowing with her personal collection of obscure finds. She retrieved the leather-bound book from the cylindrical white scanner, replacing it in its storage box. She returned to her computer and tapped on the deskpad to bring up the results of the scan. Hundreds of yellowed pages of text were collated and displayed on the screen as small rectangular icons, arranged into a grid layout. She tapped again and the first page was enlarged to fill the screen. Centred on the page was a circle inscribed with three strange symbols.
Sara had discovered the book while reconstructing historical artifacts recovered from a Sufi shrine in the old quarters of Timbuktu city. It was one of several shrines which had been damaged during the insurgency over two decades ago. The book had been found buried deep within the rocky foundation of the shrine, wrapped carefully in a sheepskin pouch. Local tradition held that the shrine was built in the 17th century, a fact which was confirmed by radiocarbon dating of the objects found within it. However, the same radiograph readings indicated that the book was at least a century older, meaning that it had its origins long before the creation of the shrine. That in itself was nothing remarkable. What really puzzled her was that the book was written entirely in a language which at first glance resembled Arabic script, but was composed almost entirely of symbols she had never seen in all of her research into the history of language in West Africa.
‘Zongo, get Professor Kelechi on the line.’
‘Sara, the time is 3.25am. The Professor will most likely be asleep by now. Perhaps you might want to wait until sunrise to make this call.’
‘Don’t get smart with me, Zongo, just get him on the line.’
Zongo complied without further comment.
Moments later, a gruff voice rasped through Zongo’s speakers.
‘Sara? What’s going on, now?’
‘Sir, I’ve just completed the scan of the text; the one I told you about last night. It appears to contain coded information, and I’ll need access to the mainframe to attempt a full decryption.’
‘Is that why you’re calling me at this hour?’
‘Yes, Professor, I believe this finding could tell us a lot more about the history of the current excavation site.’
‘Sara, I don’t see how this has any bearing on your thesis. Your work was meant to focus on the restoration of damaged artifacts. You’re already several weeks behind schedule with your report and you know I can’t push the deadline back any further.’
‘I know, Professor, but this might just turn out to be the most important discovery since the decoding of the Voynich Manuscript. Let me just get to the bottom of this. It won’t take more than a few hours.’
‘Look, Sara, I know how passionate you still are about your past work, but you also know that the board wants our department to focus more efforts on restoration. That’s why you were offered this grant in the first place. You’re one of the best researchers in our department and I am generally inclined to trust your intuition, but I’m not going to assist you to ruin your career over this trivial matter. Forget about this unnecessary diversion.’
The line went dead.
‘Idiot!’ Sara yelled as she slammed a fist on the desk. ‘How can he be so narrow-minded?’
‘The Professor does make a valid point,’ Zongo offered. ‘Perhaps, it may be wise to-–’
‘Oh, shut up, Zongo.’
Sara buried her hands in her locks and suppressed a scream. Before getting her PhD in archaeolinguistics, she had sworn to herself never to return to academia. The first grant from the University of Timbuktu had changed her mind. Now she was within sight of her second doctorate, but her initial apprehensions had begun to resurface. Her research objectives were always dictated by the donors, an inflexible bunch of upper-crusters who were only concerned with whatever field of study was most fashionable at any given time.
But Sara was determined to get to the bottom of the mystery.
‘Zongo, get me Farouk. And I mean, like, now.’
‘Connecting to Farouk,’ Zongo replied and, within an instant, was displaying the dim, grimy-looking interior of the young boy’s rented room. A proliferation of display screens and network cabling were strung haphazardly along the walls of his apartment, so it took a while to notice his thin, black form emerging from the shroud of darkness. Farouk had a policy of never disclosing his actual location so, as far as she knew, he might be living next door or on the far side of the moon.
‘Long time, Sara,’ the boy said, in his French-affected English.
‘I need your help, Farouk, and it’s really urgent.’
‘Straight to business, huh? Okay, what can I do for you?’
‘I’ve got to run a decryption on a coded text from one of the sites I’ve been working on, but this one is going to take some serious horsepower.’
‘Ah, I see. But I think the University mainframe is online, no? Or is there some problem with the Timbuktu grid?’
‘No, no, they’re just not giving me access. Some bullshit politics with the board.’
‘Politics? No problem. I can fix that for you, easy. Real easy.’
The boy immediately went to work, disappearing into the flora and fauna of his electronic jungle. A few minutes later he reappeared onscreen.
‘It’s done. I have now set up a secure virtualized supercomputer using timeshares from seven different mainframes: one at the Ecole de Kinshasa, two at CERN in Switzerland, another in Novosibirsk, two more at the SKA at erCarnarvon, and, of course, the one at your politics university. Is that enough horsepower for you?’
‘Farouk, you are a genius!’
‘Yah, sure, so you will marry me now? You know money is no problem for me; I can take very good care of you. We will make many beautiful, genius babies together.’
‘I do love you, Farouk, but not that much,’ she said as she tapped on the deskpad. ‘I’m sending you the scans and reference files right now.’
‘Receiving. But I think you are considering my offer, yes?’
‘Think again. It’s business before pleasure, Farouk, not the other way around.’
‘Ah, but you are too serious for me, anyway. No fun. No joie de vivre…’ he shook his head as he drifted back into his dark world.
Zongo cut the line and descended towards its recharge station as Sara went to pour herself a glass of water. She sat by the dining table, wondering about the potential significance of the text, and the authors of this cryptic language which seemed to have no greater purpose than to obscure information from prying eyes. And they had succeeded: for over 400 years. What secrets were they trying to hide?
When Farouk called back at sunrise, Sara was by her desk, sipping on a double shot of espresso from a vacuum flask as she pored over the scans.
‘I don’t know what else to say, Sara – I cannot make any sense of this.’
This caught her completely by surprise. It was blasphemy coming from the mouth of one who considered himself a god of the networks, an omnipotent deity within the electronic realm. He was not the type to accept failure, let alone admit it.
‘What do you mean? Are you messing with me?’
Farouk remained silent for a few moments before he replied.
‘Sara, I don’t have 10,000 degrees like you, but I do know my cryptography. You see, the whole point of encryption is to make information appear totally random, and that’s what my results are showing; that this text is nothing more than one, long string of nonsense. But if there is any meaning to that randomness, as you seem to believe, then I can tell you one thing for sure – there is not enough horsepower on this planet to decode that book.’
At first, it was nothing more than a suspicion – an intuition, a subliminal shift in the song of the winds, the sounds of shadows sailing across the dunes – but by the third sunrise of their journey, the Guardian was sure they were being followed. Mid-morning, the men spotted the forms of a dozen riders on the horizon. They were being pursued.
‘This can only mean that our temple has been discovered,’ the Guardian said to his men. ‘They will surely have captured Teacher.’
‘We could have protected him,’ said Keita, visibly agitated.
‘Yes, we might have, but only at the cost of our mission. Did Teacher not tell us that sacrifice will be demanded of every one of us – even himself? In this, too, his words have come to pass.’
‘Those savages,’ said Musa. ‘They are like a plague upon the earth. They do not seek to build, only to destroy. What kind of evil possesses them?’
‘There is no evil in humankind, and neither is there any good. There is only the drive to seek happiness and avoid suffering. The invaders are no exception. They only seek to relieve themselves of suffering, even at the cost of inflicting it upon others. They are being driven by forces beyond their control. We have now entered a New Age, when a great change will sweep across the four corners of the earth, leaving no peoples untouched in its wake.’
‘What then will be the fate of our own people?’ asked Ahmad.
‘The same as all humankind – they will rise again. In time, this tragedy will be forgotten. History will be written and rewritten until our memories are erased from existence – until the prophecy of our Teacher comes to pass. We can only pray that the invaders do not discover the location of the Sacred Book.’
The six riders reached the foot of the mountains by noon, proceeding until they found suitable cover within the recess of a cave at the edge of a steep rise. They shared the final, meagre portions of the bread and water they had brought along to sustain themselves. The end was within sight.
By nightfall they were ready to begin the trek up the desolate face of the mountain but they could not allow their pursuers to discover their final destination. Two of them would remain at the cave, to ensure that the others would not be followed.
‘I volunteer,’ said Keita.
‘And I,’ said Ibrahim.
‘So be it,’ said the Guardian to them. ‘May the God of the universe be with you.’
‘And with you,’ they replied.
The two men readied their weapons and released their horses, retreating into the darkness of the cave as the Guardian and his three remaining companions continued into the mountains.
After the evening prayers, Sara left her apartment, brushing through the crowded souk as she made her way towards the Medina; the oldest quarter of the city. Unravelling the mystery of the coded book was now the only thing on her mind. Her initial suspicions of its importance had been confirmed beyond doubt. The attempt to decrypt its contents had only raised even more questions about its origins. How was it possible that 16th-century scholars could devise a form of encryption that was indecipherable by the most advanced computing technology of the 21st century? Neither did she think it plausible that anyone in that era would have spent volumes of valuable paper on a nonsensical text. Everything about this book appeared to defy all logic.
She decided to dig deeper – closer to the source. The shrine had been kept by the same household since its creation. She had visited some of the family elders formally to ask for their permission to begin the excavation. Back then they had seemed reticent, almost hostile, at first, but she put this down to the personal nature of their relationship to the shrine. Looking back on those encounters now, she was beginning to suspect that they might have been holding back some information from her.
The house was located close to the entrance of the shrine, where separation barriers were still in place. She was welcomed at the entrance by a young veiled woman, who led her into the courtyard.
‘I would like to speak with Mrs Touré – I called the house earlier. Is she around?’
‘Yes, she is expecting you.’
Sara sat on a straw mat laid out underneath a date palm growing in the centre of the paved courtyard. An old woman emerged from an arched doorway a few minutes later and seated herself across from her.
‘Welcome, Miss. How may I help you today?’
‘I have some questions about the shrine, in particular, about a book we uncovered during the excavation. We found it buried beneath the foundation. I’m hoping you can give me some more insight into its origins.’
‘Is that so? This is the first I’m hearing of anything under the shrine. Perhaps, if you describe the contents of this book, I might be able to tell you more.’
‘That’s the problem. You see, the book is written in a strange language – one that has never been documented before, and I can’t make any sense out of it. I can show you some of my scans.’
Sara pulled out a screensheet, which displayed images of the first four pages of the book. Mrs Touré reached forward to take the sheet from her. She examined it for several moments, and turned her gaze to Sara, staring at her with an intensity that made her nervous. And then she rose without saying a word, returning into the building. Sara wasn’t sure what to make of the woman’s reaction, but she waited patiently until she had returned, holding an old picture frame, which she handed to Sara. In it was a faded celluloid photograph of a middle-aged man standing next to a woman in hijab, who held the hand of a young girl. Despite the difference in age, Sara could see a resemblance between the young woman in the photo and the old woman sitting before her.
‘That was my grandmother,’ Mrs Touré said. ‘She used to tell me stories about times gone past, when this small, dusty city was once the centre of the world. Scholars would travel here from all corners of Earth to teach and learn. That all ended when we came under attack from the raiders of the north. Much of our greatest treasure was plundered, and a great deal of learning was lost forever. After that, the city entered its period of decline.’
Sara was well aware of the history of Timbuktu, how the empire of the Songhai – the last great empire in West Africa – had been brought to its knees by the constant raids of the Berber, Tuareg and Moroccan kingdoms, with the help of conscripted European infantry. The arrival of the arquebus, one of the first modern firearms, had changed everything. This was the stuff of textbooks.
‘But there was something else she told me,’ the old woman continued. ‘When I was young, I really believed that it was true, but in my later years I dismissed it as a fabrication. According to the story, the first king of the Mali empire, Sundiata Keita, created a special group of the most learned scholars in the kingdom to serve in his court. They reported directly to him, and were known as the Guardians of the Empire. After the fall of Mali, they continued to serve under the kings of the Songhai empire, which came afterwards. Their activities were always shrouded by a veil of secrecy. This lasted until the fall of Songhai, after which they were never seen nor heard of again. That is where the story always ended, whenever my grandmother told it.’
Sara had never heard of any such legend in all her years of research. She didn’t know whether she ought to believe the old woman, but she had no choice but to listen.
‘And according to her, our family is descended from the last leader of the Guardians. His name was Abdul Rahman Touré.’
‘Do you know if any of this is true?’
The old woman reached underneath her shawl and pulled out a silken cloth, about the size of a handkerchief, and handed it to Sara. Embroidered into the fabric was an unmistakable inscription, almost identical to the one in the book. Sara’s heart jumped. She was onto something.
‘May I ask how you got this?’
‘That is our family crest,’ the woman replied. ‘It has been used for as long as any of us can remember.’
‘And do you have any idea what these symbols might mean?’
‘Of course,’ the woman answered. ‘I never had the opportunity to go beyond secondary school, but even I can tell you what they are. That’s the problem with the youth of today: too much knowledge, not enough education. Why, can’t you see? The answer is obvious. It is written quite plainly in the stars.’
At first Sara was confused by this remark, but as she examined the symbols more closely, the obvious conclusion struck her with the force of a lightning bolt.
‘Thank you!’ Sara exclaimed, jumping to her feet, ‘thank you so much!’
She knelt down and kissed the hands of the old woman in a spontaneous expression of gratitude. She ran out of the compound, after saying a hasty goodbye, and down the street, towards her apartment in the metropolitan district. She stopped in an open square to look up into the night sky, where she stared at the answer, or at the least the first part of it. She traced the outlines of the three symbols in the stars above. Orion. Phoenix. Kranich. Three constellations, all visible above the Sahara.
Triangulation. They were reference points; directions to a specific location. A message from the dead to the living. Written plainly in the stars.
Touré and his men were minutes from their destination when they heard the first shots ringing out across the mountainside. They froze in their tracks as the shots continued sounding in scattered bursts. There was silence. And then one final, solitary shot.
‘God rest their souls,’ Touré said.
‘We three will remain here,’ said Abubakar. ‘We can slow them down. Not for very long, but long enough.’
‘So be it,’ Touré replied. ‘May the God of the universe be with you.’
‘And with you.’
The men drew their bows and took up defensive positions. Not long after parting from them, Touré heard more shots, this time much louder than before. The pursuers were very close behind. He ignored the sound of the approaching threat and scaled the face of a large, rocky plateau which jutted out near the peak of the mountain. The mission was almost complete.
He unhooked his satchel and removed his instruments, and began carving into the rock with all of his strength and skill, as the sounds of the struggle below gradually gave way to a deathly silence. In less than two minutes he had completed the inscription. A wave of peace overcame him. The work was done. The future was now in the hands of God.
Some day, he thought, as he descended from the peak, some day, the Seeker would retrace his footsteps to the peak of the mountain, and uncover the hidden truth. He offered a prayer of thanks to God as he calmly walked towards the sounds of the approaching men.
A moment later, he was staring into the faces of his pursuers: a motley group of mercenaries, most of whom were total strangers to the land. Of the dozen which had been spotted in pursuit, only seven remained, all of them armed, but three were badly injured. This caused Touré to smile. His men had not gone quietly into the afterworld. And neither would he.
‘May the God of the universe save us all,’ he prayed, drawing his sword for the last time.
Sara was halfway up the mountain in a rental hovercar, with Zongo driving her up the winding road that snaked high into the Aïr mountains. She had set off as soon as she was able to triangulate that general area. Zongo steered the vehicle off-road, dodging large obstacles and sailing over smaller ones. When they arrived at the destination, Sara climbed out of the vehicle, looking out over the expansive desert.
With Farouk’s prodigious knowledge of cryptography, they were able to put together the final pieces of the mystery. Most of the characters in the text were stylized representations of the various constellations, arranged into specific configurations. The reason they were not able to decode the text at first was because they only had half of the equation. The other half was written into the infinite complexity of the heavens; in the relative positions of a multitude of stars to a single, absolute reference point on earth. In effect, the Guardians had harnessed the forces of the entire universe to create a colossal machine, the greatest supercomputer in existence. And so in order for the decryption to work, it had to be calculated with the same computational precision as was used in the encryption. They needed to find the exact location of the reference point from which all of the calculations were based.
‘There should be some kind of indicator somewhere around the peak of this mountain,’ Sara said. ‘Zongo, search for the target symbol.’The drone detached itself from its harness and flew out over the rocky terrain.
‘Sara, this could be a huge discovery,’ said Farouk, on the other end of her comlink. ‘And not just for university politics, you know? If we are able to unlock this encryption, there is no telling what else we can do with this technology..’
‘I suppose, but all I want is to know more about the lives of our ancestors. We can always discover new technology, even if it takes a thousand years. But we can’t learn anything about our past without a historical record.’
‘Target has been located,’ Zongo announced, hovering over a spot some 30 metres away.
Sara ran over to the spot and knelt down, inspecting the faint carving in the rock. It had weathered over the centuries, and was now almost imperceptible, but it was there all right. A few more years, she thought, and it would surely have been erased from existence. But they had arrived in time.
‘Have you found it?’ Farouk asked.
‘Yes, we’ve got it. I’m sending you the co-ordinates.’
While Farouk fed the data into his network of hijacked supercomputers, Sara traced her fingers across the faint grooves of the inscription. Touré had been at this very spot, 400 years ago. He could not have known with any certainty that someone would eventually uncover the mystery. She wondered what it must have felt like to carry the burden of a secret that might never be revealed. Above all, she wondered what kind of knowledge was possessed by scholars whose intelligence had somehow outpaced modern civilization for centuries. There was only one way to find out.
‘You’re not going to believe, this, Sara.’
The readout of the transcript began to scroll down Zongo’s display, translated into English from the original Arabic script:
The History and Philosophy of the Architects of Civilization,
Of the Builders of Pyramids and the Readers of the Heavens,
The Hidden Keys to Infinite Power in the Light of the Eternal Ones,
The Rightful Legacy of All Children of the Sun.
These are the Archives of the Guardians of the Empire,
Keepers of the Lost Knowledge of the Ancients,
The Ones who Write Secrets in the Stars…