Chapter 5: The Ruins
In the twisted wreckage of the
Armstrong’s cargo hold, Jack checked the rover carefully. The great all-terrain
tires were intact, as was the sweeping half-dome of transparent aluminum that
covered the driver and passengers’ seats. He ran his fingers over the seams —
not a buckle. The hull didn’t have a scratch. Even the spectrograph, radar, and
telescope sensors were intact. The rover seemed to have come through the crash
better than any of them.
Gonna take more than a little ol’ crash to dent you, huh, girl?
Inside, things were a bit of a mess in the rear compartment. The bunks had slid off their frames, and most of the gear had tumbled from the shelves. Nonetheless, when he ran a full system diagnostic, the status lights were all green and the science equipment seemed more or less functional. He nodded to himself. She was good to go.
Jack had to lower the Armstrong’s ramp manually. The crank was tight and bent, and he had to grunt to make it turn, but he managed. Then he climbed into the rover, settled into the driver’s seat, thumbed the start button to boot the systems, and shot down to the surface. He spun around to where Dominic and Kim were waiting with the rest of the gear they’d salvaged. Jack hopped out to help them load.
Kim was already carrying small backpacks aboard. Jack frowned. Kim saw his look and shrugged. “We should take everything.”
“Yeah,” said Jack. “I mean, I guess so. But c’mon, parachutes? We’ve already crashed.”
“We can use the material for tents,” Kim suggested, “or maybe—”
“We have tents,” Jack pointed out. “All weather, fully insolated. I think we’re good there.”
Dominic sighed. “Just do as the lady says, Jack. Pack everything.”
Jack raised his eyebrows. “You agree with her?”
“I disagree with you,” said Dominic. “About everything. On principle.”
Jack sighed and grabbed some bundles. He managed to do most of it without clenching his fists or grinding his teeth.
Twenty minutes later, Jack had the Rover moving through the dense jungle at a good clip, crossing hills and leaping boulders and streams alike like speed bumps. Jack worked the controls while Kim sat by his side. Dominic sat behind them, monitoring a science station. The map on his console showed their course, pointing almost straight ahead, at the wall of gray mountain cliffs. Jack ignored it.
“We’re a little off course,” said Dominic. “About five degrees or so. Turn—”
Jack interrupted before he could finish. “I’m making for the pyramids.”
“We’re supposed to make for the nexus,” Kim reminded him, shaking her head. “We don’t have much time, remember? Angela said—”
“It’s not that far out of the way,” Jack said quickly. “Just a few kilometers.”
“It’s against orders,” Kim said slowly, shaking her head.
“I thought you needed answers,” Jack accused. “Besides….” He grinned. “There could be tech at the pyramids. I mean, seriously. It’s as likely as that nexus thing, right? And if we wind up having to come back—”
“As much as it pains me to admit it, the lad has a point,” said Dominic.
“Thank you,” said Jack.
“Apparently, it is Planet bloody Impossible,” Dominic muttered.
A slow smile crept across Kim’s face. “That’s excuse enough for me. I’ll tell Angela.”
She reached for the comm system on the dash, but Jack reached over to stop her. “It might be better if we tell her … you know. After.”
Kim tilted her head and pressed her lips into a firm line, almost not quite a frown. “I don’t understand.”
“You haven’t heard the little expression about how it’s easier to get forgiveness than permission?”
Kim frowned. “This why you guys get in trouble all the time, isn’t it?”
Dominic nodded. “Pretty much. And remember, they’re not overhead yet. We won’t be able to reach them anyway.”
“We could wait,” Kim pointed out.
“Could,” Jack agreed.
“But we’re not going to, are we?” said Kim.
“Nope,” said Jack.
“Remember,” said Dominic. “Time’s passing. Tick tock, eh?”
Kim nodded. Jack saw her fighting to hide her smile. She fidgeted in her seat. He pushed the throttle and the rover moved faster.
The jungle was thicker and even with the rover’s all-terrain capabilities, Jack had to backtrack frequently to find ways through the deep growth. The planet’s sun was past its zenith, and a thick mist was rising. They kept moving until at last they came to a wall of vegetation seemed impenetrable. Jack looked left, and the right. There didn’t seem to be a way around.
“Maybe you should back up,” Dominic suggested.
“Maybe,” Jack agreed.
Instead, he pushed the throttle all the way down, and the rover leapt forward, crashing through the thick growth and into the great expanse of a wide clearing. Jack took his hand off the throttle and braked.
He heard Kim and Dominic gasp with wonder.
Ahead of them, a cluster of gray stone pyramids rose from the floor of the jungle. A mighty sphinx, at least as large as the one on earth, rose above the canopy to kept watch with narrowed, stony eyes like a great, silent sentinel. The ruins of smaller buildings, columns, and statues, vine-drenched and crumbling, surrounded the clearing. Some had tumbled, but many still stood, proud and defiant. Deep in the jungles of an alien world, they’d found the ruins of a lost city, vast and magnificent.
The architecture and motifs were decidedly Egyptian.
“Oh my God,” said Dominic, shaking his head. “Oh my God.”
“Are you recording this?” Kim’s voice was a whisper.
“Of course I’m bloody recording it!” said Dominic.
Jack eased forward on the throttle, and wove the rover over broken streets and though ruined buildings. Most of them were missing a roof and at least one wall. In come cases, only a few columns painted with strange symbols still stood. Some of the buildings were intact, though. “I wish we had time to explore,” said Kim.
“Me too,” Jack admitted.
“No signs of life or motion,” said Dominic. “Whoever built this city must have abandoned it eons ago.”
“What you do you think happened to them?” Kim wondered.
“Perhaps they migrated to the nexus,” Dominic suggested. “Perhaps they left some kind of record.”
“Think they left anything behind?” Jack asked. “You guys picking up anything that might be technology?
“Not yet,” said Kim. “Try the pyramids. They seem the most intact, and the largest.” She looked over her shoulder at Dominic. “Unless you have a better idea?”
“I do not,” said Dominic.
Jack stopped the rover near the closest pyramid, the largest. Fifty or so meters away the enigmatic sphinx stared silently.
“Bloody hell,” Dominic muttered. “It really and truly is a pyramid.”
Jack looked back at Dominic. “Shadows and illusions, huh? Theories put forth by crazy people, huh?”
Dominic quirked his head to the side, a half-shrug. “I stand by that last part.”
Jack rolled his eyes. Don’t glare, he told himself. Don’t sigh. And for God’s sake, don’t punch him.
Well, not yet, anyway.
Kim looked down at a screen on the dash and frowned doubtfully. “I don’t think there’s technology here. I’m not reading energy.”
“We didn’t last time, either,” Jack reminded her.
“Not till Jack hit it,” Dominic added. This time, Jack let himself glare at him. Dominic looked up and studied the patterns in the rover’s metal roof, whistling innocently.
Kim still tried to hide her smile. Jack glared at her anyway, just for good measure. “Get your gear, guys,” she said. “Let’s go.”
Jack hit the door control and shouldered his pack. Moments later, he, Kim, and Dominic were approaching the largest pyramid.
The air was heavier than Jack had expected, heavier than it had been before, and despite the lower sun, the day seemed hotter. He was starting to sweat. He shook his head. He’d been told that the Great Pyramids were smaller than you expected when you saw them in person, smaller than they appeared in pictures, anyway. That wasn’t true, not here, anyway. These pyramids seemed to rise to impossible heights, and the stones seemed to fit together far more precisely than he’d expected.
Kim looked down at her wristband scanner. “That’s weird.”
Dominic looked up from his own scanner. “The ages of the structures?”
“What’da’ya mean?” asked Jack.
“Some of these buildings are nearly five thousand years old,” Kim said. “I mean, just from preliminary scans. We need to take sample of courses—”
“Which is more or less when the first great tombs were build back on Earth,” Dominic added. “But a lot of these ruins don’t seem to be much more than five-hundred years old. If that.”
“Right,” said Jack. “Got it. Uh, so what?”
“So this culture lasted a hell of a lot longer than the ancient Egyptian culture back home,” said Dominic.
“But it … stagnated,” said Kim. “I mean, we need more research … but it’s like they just … sort of hit a plateau and stopped advancing. They kept building, but … more of the same. No new technology. No new building styles. Not that I’ve seen, anyway. You?”
Dominic shook his head.
“What could have caused that?” said Kim.
Dominic shrugged. “Lack of resources? Famine? Disease? War?”
“Happy with what they had?” Jack suggested. “Found what worked and stuck with it?”
“And then … five-hundred years ago,” said Kim. “It’s like they just … stopped building. Suddenly.”
“They did abandon this place,” said Dominic.
“Huh,” said Jack. “So I’m guessing we’re not going to find technology here.”
“Not likely.” Kim frowned. “We need more data.”
“That looks like an entrance.” Dominic pointed to a recess in the stones, like a great inset porch. A door gaped inside the opening, but a solid stone blocked the way. Its shape was roughly an elongated pentagram, a tall rectangle topped with a squat triangle cap. “Sealed, of course. Lovely, that.”
Kim and Dominic activated their holographic displays and scanned as they walked. Jack hefted his backpack, adjusting the straps. “Can I help?” Jack asked.
“We don’t need a pilot just now, thanks.” Dominic didn’t bother to look back. “Not now that you’ve crashed us.”
Jack scowled. “Uh, saved us, hello?”
“Just stand back out of the way,” said Dominic. “Okay?”
Kim offered him a quick smile over her shoulder. “It’s time for the scientists to do our work, huh? You’ve done your part.”
Jack took another deep breath and let it out slowly. “Maybe I should just stand out of the way. With the luggage? That be okay?”
Kim gave him a quick smile before turning her attention back to her scans. “Thanks, Jack.”
Jack closed his eyes and shook his head. He expected stuff like that from Dominic. It still stung, sure, but he was used to it. It was harder coming from Kim. He knew she’d meant it kindly, and was too distracted to see it hadn’t been received that way. That made it worse.
Kim opened a second holographic window and checked a new set of scans against the first. “This just can’t be,” she said. “A lot of this vegetation is consistent with earth flora. I mean exactly. North Africa—!”
Dominic nodded without looking up from his display. “Yes, but a lot of it just … doesn’t fit.”
“Alien?” asked Jack.
“No,” said Dominic. “That’s just it. It should be alien. It should be goddamn unrecognizable. I mean, we shouldn’t even know what’s a plant, or a … a fungus, or maybe even what’s bloody alive. Not for certain, not extensive without study. But it’s all earth-like.”
“And the closest analogies are fossils,” said Kim. “For some of them, anyway. A lot of these plants should be extinct!”
Dominic picked a piece of fruit off a tree as he passed. He examined it closely.
Jack raised his eyebrows. “These don’t look like fossils to me.”
“There should be flowers on these vines,” said Kim. “Primitive ones, but flowers all the same.”
“If they really are like the earth equivalents,” said Dominic. He sniffed the fruit he’d picked. “Rotten, I think. Diseased, maybe.”
Like something’s … wrong,” said Kim. “Incompatible.” She didn’t slow her pace.
“Right,” said Dominic. “That’s it exactly, isn’t it? Like there’s a whole other ecosystem trying to overwrite what’s here.” He tossed the fruit away.
Jack scratched his head. “So the North African plants are taking over the … uh, fossil plants?”
“No,” said Kim. “It’s the other way around.”
“Now that doesn’t make any kind of sense at all,” said Jack.
“Seriously,” said Dominic. “I keep trying to tell you all that.”
They reached the entrance. “Yeah,” said Jack. “That’s totally sealed all right.”
Dominic knelt for a closer look. “Yes, but look at the rocks around the seal, and the scrapes here on the porch. See there? It’s like it was sealed from the inside.”
“Inside!” Jack felt his eyes pop open. “Whoa, wait. Aren’t those things tombs?”
Kim shrugged. “Back on earth? Yes. Here? Who knows?”
“Could be a tomb, could be a temple, could be a palace, could be a bleeding pub for all we know,” said Dominic.
“That doesn’t make sense,” said Jack.
Kim chewed her lower lip for a second. “Can we get inside?”
Dominic raised an eyebrow at her, and the corner of his mouth sloped upward, the beginning of a sly smile. “Regulations? Protocol?”
“To check for alien tech,” she added quickly. She pointed skyward. “Energy shield? I mean, that’s why we’re here. Uh, right?”
Dominic smiled. “Our girl is learning.” He shook his head. “But it doesn’t look like that stone’s going anywhere. Not anything soon, anyway.”
“Leave that to me,” said Jack. He tapped some controls on his wristband. The rover glided closer. Jack manipulated the controls, and the rover extended a mechanical arm and grasped the great stone.
Dominic nodded. “So help me, that’s actually a good idea.”
Jack rolled his eyes and worked the controls.
Slowly, the stone began to rumble back. Jack adjusted the controls again.
“Careful,” said Dominic. “That rock could tumble over.”
The three took a few steps back.
Rubble and debris rolled away as the stone shifted, clearing a small bit of the entrance. It was a narrow sliver — Jack wasn’t sure about the balance so he didn’t feel comfortable moving it more — but there was room to slip through.
As the dust began to settle, Kim pulled a flashlight from her jacket pocket. “Let’s go,” she said.
“Wait,” said Dominic. “It might not be—” Dominic didn’t bother to finish. It was too late. Kim had already slipped inside. “Lovely.” Dominic turned back to Jack and nodded, his eyebrows raised. “I do believe we’re influencing her.”
“’Bout time we did something right on this trip,” said Jack. “C’mon.”
Jack and Dominic readied their flashlights and followed her in. Dominic had to turn sideways and suck in his breath to pass through the narrow opening. Jack followed right behind him. The opening was longer than narrower than he’d expected. The air was stale and dense, stifling. He paused, blinking for a moment, waiting for his eyes to adjust to the gloom.
And then they heard Kim gasp — a sound that was almost like a muffled scream. Jack and Dominic exchanged a glance, and then sprinted. The cold, rough stone tore at his flight suit, but Jack didn’t slow.
Inside, Kim had come to an abrupt stop. The powerful beam from her flashlight illuminated a section of the bare stone floor of the inner chamber.
Skeletons littered the floor. Their flesh and clothing had rotted away to dust ages ago, leaving only the bones. Jack swept the beam of his flashlight across the chamber. There were dozens of skeletons here.
No, more than that. Hundreds.
Hundreds at least.
A lot of people had died here — a very long time ago.
“It is a tomb,” Dominic said softly. His voice did not echo; darkness drank the sound.
“So much for abandoning this place,” said Jack. “At least we know where they went.”
Biting her lower lip, Kim knelt and took a sample from one of the skeletons with a collector from her belt, and then looked at her holographic display, waiting for an answer. Jack felt a hint of a breeze, coming from somewhere above. This chamber, at least, seemed to be ventilated somehow.
“Who were these people?” Jack asked. “Tomb robbers?”
Dominic shook his head. “Why would tomb robbers seal themselves inside?”
“Why would anybody do that?” Jack countered.
“There’s too many of them,” said Kim.
“No sign of violence,” said Dominic. He knelt with Kim to get a closer look at one of the skeletons. “Maybe they just … starved to death?”
“Now that’s a scary-damn thought,” said Jack. “What could be so bad outside that they’d rather end in here, like this?”
A chime sounded on Kim’s wristband. She looked at her holographic display, and then back at Jack and Dominic. Her eyes were wide. “They’re human.”
“Like … Earth human?” said Jack.
Kim nodded. “Their DNA is ninety-eight point seven percent consistent with late period Egyptian.”
“That’s impossible,” said Jack. Before Dominic could speak, he raised his hands and added, “I know, I know.”
“How long ago did this happen?” asked Dominic.
“Five hundred years at most,” said Kim.
Dominic nodded. “Well. Now we know why they stopped building, don’t we, then?”
“I’d know more if we had time for a more thorough analysis,” said Kim. “I—”
“We don’t,” Dominic said firmly.
Jack swept his beam along the walls. After a moment, Kim and Dominic joined him. Hieroglyphs had been carved deeply into the stone. It looked, to Jack’s eye anyway, like they had once been painted, but if they had, the color had faded ages before.
“Kim, can you read any of this?” said Dominic.
Kim shook her head. “Not really. I recognize some of the characters. From, you know, our Egypt. Back home, I mean. Those are some of the gods of the Nile region. That one means city. Or house, maybe. I think.”
“That’s something,” said Dominic. “A start, at least.”
Kim shivered. “This place is old. You can feel the weight of age. It creeps into your bones like the cold.”
“Should we turn back?” said Jack.
“Of course we should,” said Kim.
She didn’t. Instead, she turned and headed for a door at the far end of the chamber, one that led deeper into the cold darkness of the pyramid. She moved quickly and her fists were clenched tightly. She didn’t look back.
Dominic grinned. “She learns fast.”
“And we’re gonna get blamed for it,” Jack muttered.
Jack followed Dominic. Kim led the way, her eyes darting this way and that, bouncing from object to object like stones skipping on a pond. She didn’t say much, but Jack could almost see a thousand thoughts skittering through her brain for every one she uttered. He frowned, and found himself wondering about the thoughts she hoarded, the ones she didn’t mention.
Kim wasn’t turning out to be what he expected. She was more than just the too-smart teacher’s pet he’d taken her for. Something drove her, something more than the bad boy rebellious urges that pushed Dominic and him to try things that reams of regulations and the dictates of common sense said they shouldn’t. That much, at least, shouldn’t have surprised him. People without some special, intense drive didn’t get chosen, out of all of the great notion of humanity, for history-making missions.
He shook his head and pressed his lips tightly together. Some internal force pushed Kim; some hunger or need burned in her like fuel, but it was different, and it was something Jack didn’t understand. He wanted to talk to her, suddenly, and ask her about it, that secret longing, but this wasn’t the time. Besides, he suspected she wouldn’t answer anyway, not really, even if she knew how.
Jack reminded himself to keep an eye on her. Like any good pilot, his instincts wouldn’t let him ignore any variable he didn’t understand.
The doorway led to a long corridor with high walls of polished stone, also covered with images and ancient writing. Dominic and Kim recorded the hieroglyphs meticulously. The space was tall but tight. They could have walked two abreast, but barely, so instead they walked single file. Dominic followed Kim, and Jack followed them both, moving slowly and carefully. The air was still and heavy, no vent here, and Jack found it difficult to breathe.
The corridor led to what Jack judged must be close to the very heart of the pyramid before it opened at last into a vast chamber, taller by far than he’d anticipated. Kim and Dominic probed the chamber with the flashlights, and Jack felt himself gaping.
Treasure and darkness filled the chamber — statues, bracelets, rings, weapons, and elaborate masks flowed back to the deep shadows beyond the reach of their beams like a glimmering sea of gold and gems. The wealth had been arranged artfully around an ornate sarcophagus that dominated the multi-tiered dais that rose from the center of the great space.
Clay tablets and gilded jars had been placed on the top level, along with, to Jack’s surprise, what looked like small bits of rusted iron, next to the golden sarcophagus itself. Beyond, blackness draped the distant corners where even the powerful flashlights could not peer.
For a long moment, the astronauts stood quietly, gaping.
“Holy crap,” Jack said at last, shaking his head. “It’s like a freakin’ Scrooge McDuck cartoon.”
“Okay, then,” said Dominic. “That rules out tomb raiders, doesn’t it?”
“Or if they were,” said Jack, “they really suck at it.”
Kim shook her head. “This is a holy place,” she said softly.
“It sure is,” said Jack. “Uh, assuming holy means the same thing as scary-ass.” He looked around the room with wide eyes. “Should we, uh, take something back?”
He took a stop toward the center of the room, but Kim stopped with a hand on his shoulder. “Just recordings I’m thinking.”
She knelt and examined the stonework. After a second, she pressed on a large paving stone. With a great CRACK, it fell away, and Kim had to lean back, flailing her arms wildly to keep from falling forward into the deep pit hidden below. The fall would have crushed her bones. If that hadn’t killed her, the tall, sharp spikes at the bottom would have.
“Well that’s rather nasty, isn’t it?” said Dominic. “Lovely.”
“Okay,” she managed. “That was a bit more … elaborate than I expected.”
Jack heard a WOOSH then, and felt sudden wind on the back of his neck.
He turned in time to see a huge bronze blade swiping down from above.
He dove, grabbing Kim by the shoulder pushing her back and down. She gasped, startled.
The tarnished blade passed over them, swinging on a pendulum arm, missing them by the width of an eyelash.
Kim stared blankly, unable to speak.
“I think the phrase you’re looking for,” said Dominic, “is holy shit. Or is there a more eloquent Chinese equivalent?”
Kim’s mouth hung open, a wide O, and her face had paled. “Shénshèng de gǒu shǐ,” she said.
Jack’s heart raced. He concentrated again on his training, forcing himself to relax. “What the hell was that?”
“It just occurred to me,” Kim said. She motioned back to the entrance chamber. “If those weren’t tomb raiders back there, then the traps wouldn’t have been sprung. They’d still be active.”
“Okay,” said Jack. “Feeling a lot less greedy now.”
“Look here.” Dominic pointed to some hieroglyphs on the wall, near the entrance. They weren’t as deeply carved as the others, and the lines were not as precise. There was no hint of even faded color or decoration. “These look … cruder. Like they were carved in haste.”
“Maybe that’s the record you were talking about.” Jack scratched his head. “Maybe it tells what happened here?”
Dominic nodded. “Maybe. If only we could read it.”
“I know this one,” Kim said. “It’s the symbol for Sobek! The, uh, Egyptian reptile god.”
“How on Earth did you happen to know that?” asked Dominic.
“We’re not on Earth,” said Jack. “Sorry. I’ve been waiting months for a chance to make that joke.”
Kim smiled and fingered the chain of the silver necklace she wore under her flight suit. “I’ve studied a lot of world mythology and religion. It’s, uh, kind of a thing for me.” She blushed and looked away, suddenly embarrassed. “Anyway.” She turned back to the wall and traced the hieroglyphs with her fingers. “And here … sons of, or people of, maybe. Uh, I think so. And here … weapons. Bright or flashing. So. Sons of Sobek with flashing weapons. Here—”
Kim moved closer, but before she could finish, she stepped on another loose stone. It, too, fell away, revealing another gaping, spike-filled pit.
Kim screamed. She stumbled, but Jack and Dominic grabbed her flight jacket and pulled her back — a split second before a great and heavy stone block, nearly two meters cubed, fell from the ceiling with a terrible crash that rumbled the walls, raising a cloud of dust and sealing the pit forever.
They looked at each other, eyes wide. The only sound was the in and out of their fast, heavy breathing.
“Let’s walk … careful like, okay?” said Jack. “On the way the hell out of here, I mean.”
“This is only the first chamber,” said Dominic said hesitantly. “We should really explore the rest—”
At that second, they heard another a great rumble. Jack looked up. The sounds came from above, like the movement of massive stones scrapping against one another, counterweights shifting. Dust and rubble poured down.
Jack glared at Dominic. “I gotta vote no on that.”
They scrambled back.
Another stone fell. Jack gasped and shook his head. Had they been one step closer to the chamber, he realized, the great mass of it would have crushed them all.
Jack looked up. They heard more rumbling, again from above. More dust rained down.
“Run!” Kim shouted.
They sprinted to the corridor without looking back. They reached it and ducked low, running faster still. Jack heard another massive stone block fall behind him, and another after that, like the blows of a giant’s hammer. The crashes fell hard enough to shake the walls and floor. The blocks fell, one after another, chasing them. Jack thought he could feel one brushing the back of his heel as he ran. The rising clouds of dust were heavy and thick, and Jack coughed heavily.
Kim squealed, a choked-back scream. They ran harder. The stones fell faster. The mighty crashes were closer, closer….
They reached the antechamber near the entrance and dove, landing hard on the stone floor and rolling to safety. The final stone missed them by millimeters.
Jack heard another WOOSH, again from above. He rolled, and two more sweeping, razor-sharp blades swung over him. The last one made a cut in the back of his jacket.
The rumbling sounds stopped. Jack looked back.
Stone blocks filled the corridor, sealing it forever.
“Oh my God,” Kim muttered. She fingered the chain of her necklace. “Yes, truly, that was a lot more elaborate than I expected.”
Jack turned to glare at Dominic again. Dominic shrugged. “For what it’s worth, I officially withdraw my suggestion that we explore the rest of the structure.” He smiled. “Right, then. All agreed?”