As for why they needed an Egyptologist on bloody Mars of all places, I couldn’t tell. And no, it was not for the sake of the supposed ‘pyramid’ that people were losing their minds over during the early years of the Anthropocene. That nonsense was all thoroughly debunked before the first human being set foot on the Red Planet. That didn’t mean that I was not mystified as for why my presence was required. And my berth sponsored by a private firm with interests in technology and weapons systems, no less. Then again, if someone were to offer you a return trip to the Red Planet for a mere ‘site visit’, would you turn them down?
Yet here I was, made awkward by my suit and hating the way the glass on the inside of my helmet kept fogging up. No one else’s seemed to. Though it was hard to tell through the tinting that reflected our wobbly reflections as we bumbled along.
Squad leader Omar Abrahams led our party with sure-footed steps across the uneven shale of the canyon, where piles of what I could only describe as frost made heaps in the shadows. Everything was red-tinged, dust-ridden, and dead, and our hellish, six-month journey here served as a stark reminder that we’d be long deceased before help arrived, if any did. Ours was a purely a research mission – as much as I could tell after signing all the NDAs. We were as expendable as the ones who held our purse strings considered us. We certainly couldn’t expect the Chinese scientists from halfway around the planet to bestir themselves to come to our aid. Their base, when we viewed it from our orbital dock, looked flimsier than a dandelion clock awaiting a hurricane.
My mouth grew dry, and my biometrics readout told me that my pulse was spiking. Did I wish for a small jolt of benzodiazepine, my suit AI queried. I signaled a negative. I needed to be alert, not floating on bliss, although the bennies were tempting.
Our destination temporarily distracted me from my anxiety. What the actual?
A small, rectangular doorway had been hewn into the rock face where the canyon narrowed to a mere slip of a ravine.
“Who carved this?” I asked, stepping forward to brush my hand against the polished surface of the lintel.
“So far as we can tell, it’s been here for millennia,” Omar replied, as if this wasn’t the discovery of the century. Damn the man. I could hear the smirk in his voice even if I couldn’t see it on his face. He no doubt relished my astonishment.
Privates Naidoo and De Villiers stood casually back. Military types – our bosses’ only concession that we required protection. No doubt they had very little understanding of how important this find was. Their postures suggested casual indifference.
“Why has no one reported on this yet? You know how the media gets.” I peered into the dark rectangle, my breath short.
“We needed to be sure. We needed someone with impeccable academic pedigree to confirm in situ.”
I snorted. Me, impeccable? Now there was a joke my superiors at the university would find hilarious.
“Sure of what?” I turned to Omar’s inscrutable helmet.
“Go see for yourself.”
A weird thrill shot through me then. Why do they need an Egyptologist?
I flicked on my headlamp and took that first step into the yawning portal… And nearly stumbled over my own feet. A tomb. An ancient rock-cut tomb. The wall paintings looked like those straight out of a 19th Dynasty noble’s, yet the scenes depicted were… No harvests. No weighing of hearts. I wanted to turn around and shout at Omar that they could have warned me, could have sent me videos, stills images, 3D renderings in VR. Anything but this shock of seeing something at once unexpected and defamiliarized. Context is everything.
The paintings depicted conquests, recognizably human figures arriving out of what resembled a disk set upon a pedestal, and smiting ape-like figures, causing them to till the earth, build, images where the ape-like humanoids were hunted from chariots.
Someone who watched too many late-1990s science fiction dramas had a wet dream here. Yet…
I had no way to reliably date or verify what I’d encountered; I’d need to set up a formal exploration. If only they’d prepared me…
“Amazing, isn’t it?” Although Omar’s voice sounded over my helmet’s audio, I still jerked in fright.
“It must be an elaborate hoax,” I told him.
He’d entered the tomb and was standing behind my left shoulder. His dry chuckle set my teeth on edge. “Hardly likely.”
“That’s for you to tell us so that we can best decide how to proceed.” He gestured at the neat columns of hieroglyphs running down the sides of the pictures.
“Why drag me all the way out here?”
“You’d not believe it, otherwise.”
“Some warning would have been nice.”
“Too much danger of it being intercepted. It was better to show you.”
If only I could arch a skeptical brow that he could see.
I had a week, I discovered. A week to scan, photograph, measure, take all manner of readings and samples. The script itself was an archaic form of the ancient Egyptian language, and included many symbols unknown to me, as if the writing used on Earth was a debased form. It would take me months, if not years, poring over the texts to decode them. Fortunately, Omar and his superiors were not expecting miracles. They merely desired confirmation that what a random rover had detected was indeed the real thing. The longer I squinted over the script and the accompanying images, the more I started to believe that this was not some clever fake.
Things might have turned out rather differently had I not stumbled over a protrusion on the floor. Despite the all-but-non-existent atmosphere, a definite click reached my suit’s sensors. Then the ground juddered, and I suppressed a small yelp of surprise and jumped aside as part of the floor gave way to reveal a slot. By now everything was shaking, and small fragments and dust rained down from the ceiling. Omar ran in and froze on the threshold, and we watched what could best be described as a black mirror in an unadorned frame of blackened iron ascended. Just like the disc in the wall painting.
Omar was muttering unintelligible imprecations under his breath, and it was only about a minute or two of idiotic peering at this obviously alien artefact that he asked, “What are we looking at?”
I shrugged, went closer, and immediately lurched back half a step as the thing began humming in a way that made my molars ache. At first, the mirror reflected our suited figures, but then its surface shimmered into opalescent life. I can’t say what possessed me, perhaps equal measures of wonder and shock, or maybe I legitimately stumbled, mesmerized as I was by the swirling depths. Omar snatched for my arm, but it was as if I was drawn by some greater power.
And I fell. Everything turned inside out, and my stomach tried to eat itself. Then I peered up into a blinding sky with a binary sun, my gloved hands clenching bone-white sand. Below me, beyond the dunes that encapsulated this dip, stretched a ribbon of green punctuated with pools of cobalt water. Shining, gold-capped pyramids stood proud on a rocky ridge beyond this.
What the actual…
Overhead screamed craft that resembled an uneasy hybrid of airplane and falcon, and all I could think of was the smiting conquerors depicted on those walls. Terror gripped me, and I scrabbled back to that portal, which thanks to all the imaginary friends in every cosmology known to mankind past and present still hummed and shimmered. I threw myself into the chasm. Reality inverted itself as I tumbled through an unimaginable warp in the space-time continuum.
I was sobbing and dry-heaving when I clattered down on the familiar stone floor of the rock-cut chamber, almost right on Omar’s feet. He danced away lest I knock him over.
“Where did you go?” Omar yelled. “What is this thing?”
I rocked back onto my haunches, unable to look away from this abomination.
“I don’t know,” I rasped.
“We need to make a report. Duatech needs to know. This could change everything.”
Fear gripped me then, a deep, primal terror as I considered the grain of truth wriggling deep within the mess of conspiracy theories and alien-hugging wingnuts.
“No, we don’t.” I fingered the utility knife in my belt holster. If I moved quickly, I could sever his suit’s air supply. There would be no body. No evidence. I could do my best hide this from the rest of humanity, present it as a hoax. Let us not poke sticks at a veritable hornet’s nest. I entertained no delusions about how this would turn out for our species the second time around.