Two Months Ago.
The Chief Archaeologist, Samson, made his way crab legged down the slope towards them, startling a little landslide of sun-baked pebbles. His cloak and boots, dusty. Above his goggles, his thinning hair stood straight up at attention over his burned forehead.
He grinned and waved at King Joseph as he descended.
“Joe,” he said when he got close enough.
Joe nodded. “Sam. How’s your team member?”
“Safe.” Samson had to think a moment before he remembered what Joe was referring to. He waved a dismissive had. “A broken ankle, already on the mend. C’mon.”
He beckoned to Joe and was already feeling out the ground to go back up the slope.
“Hang on a minute, Sam,” Joe said, reaching for him.
“Eh?” The old Archaeologist half-turned.
“What’d you find?”
Sam hesitated. “Easier to show you. And I mean that literally. But nobody died, and nobody’s gonna. So not a bad cave-in really.” He paused again with a smirk. “Considering its size.”
“Its size?” Joe looked up the hill with a frown and began to follow Sam.
Sam spoke between panting breaths as they climbed. “We didn’t think there was much here. Just some old foundations and a piece of a steel girder, almost rusted away.”
They crested the hill and Joseph looked down into the dig site. He could make out the vague crisscross of ancient walls. Just mere scratches in the dust now. Samson’s crew was hard at work down there, poring over the remains with brushes and trowels. One section had been fenced off with wooden planks. Samson led them down towards this area. Beyond the fence the ground yawned open, a sinkhole about as wide as an ox. Joe could just make out the shape of two weathered steps that led down into the abyss.
“Yana was cleaning these steps when the ground fell away beneath her,” Sam said. He chortled, “Our theory was there might be more stairs or even a basement. But nothing like this.”
They stood and peered down. Blackness save for where the jagged circle of light shone in. Joe saw their shadows upon a flat grey landing, looking back at them. A cool air blew from within the ground. A ladder had been propped in the hole, leading about twenty feet down.
“When she fell, the air starting blowing out from under the ground.” Sam reached for the sky with a hand. “A big geyser of sand–wind was pouring out of the hole. We rushed over with rope and Osman rappelled down to get her. She was unconscious, but not from hitting her head.” Sam raised his eyebrows at Joe. “Osman himself was seeing spots when we pulled them back out. Like suffocating on air, he said. He took it in his lungs but there was no life in it.”
Joe shifted on his feet and looked uneasily into the pit.
“Meanwhile the wind was still howling out through the gap. It carried on blowing for a couple of hours. And the best part,” Sam said with a smirk. “Osman’s voice, when he came out of the hole.” Sam broke off laughing.
“He sounded like a child,” Sam said, shaking his head with mirth.
Joe was frowning.
“No, I swear, Joe. His voice went high-pitched. Not on purpose. He couldn’t control it.”
Joe pursed his lips. “From being in the hole.”
“Something in the air down there, if I had to guess. Some Power of the ancients. A poisonous gas with a comical side-effect.”
“What about now? Is it still dangerous?”
Sam shook his head. “Eventually the wind slowed and died down. I’ve been all over the inside of the cave myself, with some of the others. Whatever it was is gone now.”
Joe looked sharply at him.
“What? We were excited. There’s never been a find like this one. No one got hurt. No one died. It’s perfectly safe down there. Or, it is now. Anyway,” Samson said, his eyes twinkling. “It was worth it.”
Joseph looked down into the hole for a long while. “Show me.”
It was cold underground. They made their way with lanterns held before them, casting shadows over the walls of the tunnel. King Joe ran his hand over the wall as they went. Smoothest stone, tall and rounded, shaping the tunnel like a worm-hole through the earth.
“Concrete,” Samson whispered, his voice loud in the closeness and silence of the space. “Like nothing we make nowadays.”
Joe looked mutely around. What could have built a tunnel this large, this perfect? Like a lava tube, but made by man. They went on through the tunnel for some time and then Samson led him through a small door into a side room.
Vastness. The ceiling lost in darkness. Samson lifted his light but it did little to penetrate the blackness around them. On all sides Joe saw what he took to be vehicles. Wheeled, most of them. Made of metal. The largest of them had enormous tubes sticking out of them.
“Weapons,” Samson said quietly. “These are weapons of war.”
Joe looked at him, uncertainly.
“This isn’t what I wanted to show you.” Samson carried on walking and Joseph followed. “This election has been good for people like me. You ran on a platform of scientific advancement. Learning. Reason. You’re a kindred spirit, Joe.”
“Well, I’m no historian. Not like you.”
They paused before another black doorway and Samson said, “Nobody is.”
Then he went inside, and Joe went after him. “Nobody can be,” Samson said.
Joseph looked around the room. Myriad black squares looking back at him. Black squares resting upon pedestals, upon tables. Beside them, black metallic boxes. Nests of twine or cable joining it all together.
Joseph said, “Are these computers?”
Samson was nodding. “That would be my guess. My educated guess.”
Joseph looked around. Hundreds upon hundreds of them, stretching off in all directions into the darkness. He felt light-headed. “I guess that settles whether computers were real.”
Sam went to the closest one and gingerly laid his hand on the box. “This is where they put all their knowledge, Joe. All their history. Everything they ever learned. Everything they wanted to leave behind. In these. No one’s ever found evidence of one that was more than a broken shard of metal. These are in perfect condition. They’re not even dusty.”
“How do we use them?”
“Power.” Samson sighed and crossed his arms. “Every bright-eyed girl and boy knows the Ancients used their Power to make their civilization work.”
“The Power of the Ancients.” Joe frowned. “That’s not very helpful. Whatever it was it doesn’t exist anymore.” He went and peered at one of the flat black boxes. “And whatever makes these things work, it’s not magic or superstition.”
Joe raised an eyebrow at Sam.
“It doesn’t have to have been magic,” Sam explained. “Their Power. It could have just been technology.”
Joe was skeptical.
Sam went on, lifting his lantern. “To someone who’s never heard of oil, a lamp might look like magic.” He nodded at the computers. “If they could do it, so can we. If we can find out what the Power was, we can use the computers. We can read them. We can learn their history and how they thought.”
Sam turned to Joe, smiling. “And then, maybe, we can learn what happened to them.”