1985, Northern Afghanistan.
Jyothi held her breath and crawled under the trees as two Mi-24 helicopters zoomed above her head, their blades mincing the cold morning air. The aircraft looked like oversized insects with bulbous eyes gazing at the dusty landscape. The low-pitched vibrations from their engines shook the very ground as they reverberated through the valley. As they turned around and gained altitude to climb over the cliffs, Jyothi allowed herself to leave her precarious hideout and crawled towards the edge of the hill, among the juniper trees and hawthorn bushes. She grabbed her binoculars from her backpack. She had smeared the lenses with engine grease to avoid reflections that could easily give away her position. In the past few days, the only human presence in the valley had been the soviet helicopters on their way to the nearby plateau, but Jyothi did not want to take any chances. She was a ghost, here. A presence roaming the hills and valleys of a country some western scholars had named "Graveyard of empires" - but of which empire? The British one? The Soviet empire? The Bactrian empire? The Mughal empire? Or perhaps even Alexander's foolish but oh-so-fascinating endeavour? Strangely enough, thought Jyoti, Afghanistan's historical role as a crossroads, much more than a cemetery, was the real reason for her presence here.
Her binoculars swept across the valley, finding dust, juniper and cedar trees, then a dry seabed and, finally, an ancient Bactrian-style arch lost amidst hawthorn and gooseberry bushes. Here it was. The entrance to the Butterfly Garden. Jyothi watched the skies once again, but the helicopters were not coming back. She stood up and slowly crept down the valley, towards the dry forest growing against the limestone cliff. She wondered what she would have looked like to a distant observer. With her well-worn jacket, scarf and ancestral Lee Enfield rifle she would have been easy to mistake for some kind of operative, perhaps even a KGB one, but her veil clearly identified her as a woman. She spoke acceptable Pashto and, maybe, could have had been mistaken for an afghan person. Maybe. In a very dark alleyway.
It felt strange to walk under this time-battered arch, stepping on an ancient path taken over by the overgrowth. Maybe, she thought, some of her ancestors had fought near this valley, in the Mughal Empire's bid over what was yet to be the state of Afghanistan. Perhaps even a few drops of familiar blood had soaked the dust and sand of this very place, unbeknownst to her. Jyothi entered the garden. She felt better now that she was under the relative cover of the trees and bushes. The air was colder and less dry, emboldened by the nearby springs. A few dozen meters away from the arch were the ruins of a small building she could not identify; it could have had been anything, she thought. The pillars of a small mosque, the pedestal of a Buddha, the last stones of a Hindu stupa, the entrance of a long-lost church, the last remnant of a pagan temple, maybe even everything at once, in a strange summary of Afghanistan's history. Graveyard of empires but crossroads of civilisations...Jyothi kneeled in front of the ruins and sent a short prayer to the clear skies above, a prayer that could have been addressed to any deity, then slowly, gently, started to work the stones loose.
It took Jyothi a few hours to finally reach what she was looking for. A small wooden crate, the size of a jewel box, carved in butterfly patterns, wrapped in white cloth in memory of a loved one. She opened the box with great care and unwrapped the jewel that it contained. It assumed the shape of a moth with its wings spread to the wind, made of small crystal fragments sewn together with half-decomposed linen strings. To the untrained eye, it barely had any value, and indeed no self-respecting pillagers of ancient things would have even considered seeking for this thing. And yet, to Jyothi, it was one, if not the most precious artefact in the world. It came from Ethiopia, by way of Cairo, Jerusalem, Tbilisi, Moscow, Baku and all the civilisations in-between. A strange relic, assembled by scholars, peasants and wanderers from fragments found at the heart of old deserts under an ancient sun.
It was made of one hundred and twenty-seven four-dimensional crystals, shards of self-repeating symmetry both in time and space.
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