The search went on… and on… and on… until it finally reached the point of becoming more frustrating than fun, and one evening in their hotel room, Pete sighed, “We’ve been to Notre Dame, we’ve been to the Panthéon, we’ve been to every graveyard in this city…”
“We’ve been to every above-ground graveyard in this city.”
Knowing exactly where she was going with that, he quickly interjected, “Do you have any idea how many miles of tunnels the catacombs are made up of? It’s practically a ‘city’ unto itself!”
Rennie was aware that there were stories of people who’d become disoriented while traversing the network of caverns and passages under Paris’s streets, some wandering around for days before being rescued, others never being seen again. As a matter of fact, it was Pete himself who’d once told her, years before, of the legend of one man who’d gone missing after descending into the catacombs, and whose body had been found eleven years later.
“But it’s the only place we haven’t looked,” was all she said.
He sighed again. He knew that it was true, and that just packing up and going home wasn’t an option. Neither of them would ever be able to forgive themselves if they gave up now.
“Alright,” he said at last. “But we’ll need to get some supplies together. We’re going to treat this like a spelunking trip– that’s essentially what it’s going to be. And I’m going to give Ray a call.”
“We might be down there for days. You’re not expecting him to go with us, are you?”
“I have no doubt that we will be down there for days, but no, I would never ask him to just drop everything in order to act as our guide. Given our goal, we need to do this on our own anyway. However, in one of his letters to me late last year, he told me about an invention of his that he was really excited over.”
Leaving that last mysterious statement to hang in the air, he got his phone and dialed Ray’s number.
Four nights later, they loaded their gear into the rental car, and went over to Ray’s place.
Once they’d all sat down in the living room, he showed them a machine that resembled a tablet but was a little wider and several times as thick, and had an antenna sticking out of the top of it. He told them that he’d built this device with archeologists (and other scientists whose work took them beyond the lab) in mind, though it had occurred to him since then that it could also be helpful to cavers, climbers, and divers.
The machine was waterproof, surprisingly lightweight considering its solid appearance, and capable of imaging terrain by means of either active sonar or radar.
“As the user moves through uncharted territory,” Ray was explaining, “the device creates a map of where they’ve been and where they’re going. On the screen, this map is displayed in the form of lines and shapes highlighted in blue, and the user’s exact location is represented by a yellow triangle. This makes it so that the user can explore freely without the risk of getting turned around and unwittingly going in circles.
“But what really makes the device useful, is this,” he said, and produced an object that was very odd-looking indeed, which he set down on the coffee table beside the first piece of equipment. It was a heavy-looking, black cylinder with what looked like a miniature satellite dish on one end, and a tiny red light bulb and two USB ports at the other. “While the device is busy creating the map and tracking the user’s location, it also transmits a signal to this module. I’ve built more than one of these mapmaking devices, so it’s already possible for other users to plug their own devices into the module and either track the first user’s progress in real time, or download the most up-to-date version of their map. This way, the user who’s out in the field leaves a guide for anyone who needs to trace their steps– an electronic bread-crumb trail, you might say.”
“That may not be the best description for it, Ray,” Pete commented, recalling a certain fairytale.
Rennie laughed uneasily.
With a shrug, Ray replied good-naturedly, “Hey, I’m just the inventor– I never said I knew how to pitch my creation. Anyway, if the device gets destroyed, or fails for any reason, the lack of a signal will activate this–” Ray pointed to the light bulb on the module– “so that whoever is tracking the user will know there’s a problem. In addition, the device has a ‘panic-button’ feature, which will likewise activate the distress-signal light. I’ve programmed the device to make it so that the user has to go through a very quick and simple, but still very specific, set of steps, so there’s no need to worry about setting that off by accident.”
Pete nodded. “Very impressive! Have you thought of a name for this device?”
“Well…” Ray looked a little embarrassed. “Inside my own head, I’ve named it ‘the Ninshubur Unit,’ but I should probably come up with something a little less obscure and a little less nerdy before I try getting it patented.”
“I think it’s a fitting name,” Pete reassured him. “There have to be at least some archeologists who can appreciate the reference.”
In Sumerian mythology, as Pete would explain to Rennie later on, Ninshubur was the goddess Inanna’s vizier, messenger, and closest friend (and, according to some versions of the myth, lover). Before descending to the Underworld, Inanna entrusted her with the task of going to the god Enki for help if she didn’t return within three days. (Inanna’s story included many other adventures, and was a cyclical one that in some ways was paralleled by the later Persephone myth, with its themes of descent, death, and rebirth, and its undercurrent of eroticism.)
Ray gave them a brief tutorial on exactly how to operate the Unit, and then said, “While in the catacombs, you shouldn’t have any problems with the Ninshubur, since it’s waterproof. But I have to warn you that any other electronic equipment you take with you probably won’t last long. As I’m sure you know, part of the ossuary is open to the pubic, but that small section doesn’t typify the catacombs as a whole. In many parts of the restricted area, the going can be… pretty rough. It’s a harsh environment. On that note, I hope that you won’t hesitate to use the panic-button if you need to. I know there is no talking you out of this, so the only other thing I can really say is, please at least be careful.”
After that, the three of them went out and transferred Pete and Rennie’s gear from the rental car to Ray’s truck.
Aware that there was likely going to be some sort of investigation regarding their disappearance, and not wanting him to get dragged into that mess, Rennie and Pete took the rental car back to the hotel, left it in the parking garage, walked a few blocks down the street, and had Ray pick them up. That way, none of the hotel’s security cameras would record his face, and none of the staff would see them leaving with him.
He took them to a side-street where there was an old utility hole that led into the catacombs. By the time they got there, the section of the catacombs that was open to tourists had been closed for the night.
While they were gathering their equipment from the back of the truck, he told them that the Ninshubur Unit would start sending a signal to the module as soon as they switched it on.
They thanked him for all his help, and he wished them luck.
They said goodbye.