Authors: Paul E. Cooley
He nodded. "But tomorrow we remove the cap. Then maybe we'll find out something."
"Maybe," she agreed.
Big John stood and stared toward the west. Somewhere in the dark, the temple stood watch over the cave. He shrugged off the thought. "I'm turning in."
"I'll be right behind you after I check on Blanco and Alonso."
"Fair nuff," he said and walked toward his tent.
THE birds in the sky blotted out the sun. A flock of thousands swirled and soared through the air. The tornado of feathers and avian screams slowly descended toward the desert floor. In the distance, the temple glowed yellow and crimson. As the birds moved closer to the ground, the temple's glow increased. The world shook when the flock surrounded the temple, hiding it from view.
A bright beam of light flowed upward into the sky. The birds flapped their wings as one and the air thundered. The ground shook again as the thousands of birds flew off in different directions. Unobscured, the temple was the color of bright sand, etchings and glyphs clearly visible on its walls.
In the distance, a group of people wearing loincloths marched toward the temple. As they neared the building, they each became distinct. Heads bowed, thirty-seven men and women walked in single file through the entrance. A lone condor circled them and then entered behind them.
The temple groaned and the ground quaked. Light streamed from the outer walls. And then the world became a single flash of white.
John opened his eyes and stared into the morning darkness. He was sweating in the cold air. He shrugged back into the sleeping bag and slept once more.
THE coffee was hot and bitter, just the way he liked it. John sipped it and stared toward the desert. He could make out the temple in the distance, but only because of the bright blue flags that rippled in the wind. From so far away, they were little more than blue dots.
He stretched and powered on his laptop. He opened a console and called up the mail client. Another sip of the coffee warmed his belly against the morning chill. It had been a cold night and until the sun managed to climb a bit higher in the sky, he'd be able to see his breath. He stared at the screen while he finished the hot drink.
He looked through the new emails and found one from Willet. He opened it and scanned the text. All Willet said was that the dimensions had been fed into the program and he hoped he would have results in a day or two. John sighed and drank the dregs from the cup. He shook the mug and a few droplets and grounds slipped out onto the desert floor.
He stood from his chair and walked toward the cooking fire. As he neared the coffee pot, the green tent a few yards away shook. He smiled as he refilled his cup. "Rise and shine, Steph," he said in a cheerful voice.
The tent flap opened and Steph stepped out of the tent. His grin disappeared. Her face was pale and she was shivering. "You feeling okay?"
She groaned and zipped up her black fleece. "I've been better," she said and spat a wad of phlegm. "Guess I'm coming down with something."
He nodded. "I can take care of things. Why don't you head back to bed?"
Steph shook her head and sat down in front of the fire. The flames had mostly died off leaving white ash and a furnace of coals. "I'm not going to miss taking off that cap." She looked up at him with a wan smile. "I want to see what's in there."
"I understand that. But, you look like shit."
"Yup," Steph said as she eyed the coffee. "Anymore of that left?"
He nodded, walked to the camp table, pulled off a clean mug, and filled it from the kettle. He handed the steaming cup to her. She cradled it in her hands, sniffing the warm liquid.
"I'll check on Alonso and Blanco," he said and headed toward their tents. The Peruvian diggers were both amateur geologists. Like most of the dig-staff, they were diligent, hard workers who were getting paid a ridiculously low wage for the expedition. And yet, the amount was gratuitous compared to what they could make in the cities.
"Blanco?" he called as he approached the man's tent. The only reply was a cough and a groan. "Senor, coma estas?"
The tent shook and then Blanco poked his head out. His close-cropped black, grey-streaked hair looked unhealthy in the morning light. John frowned. The man's face was pale, just like Steph's, and his eyes were sunken into his skull.
"You, okay, man?"
Blanco's mouth opened in a wide smile that showed off his dingy teeth. "Si, Senor Vizcarra. Just a little under the weather."
The archeologist nodded. "Same with Steph. You guys party late or something?"
Blanco shook his head. "No, Senor. Too much digging."
"Well, if you need to sleep in--"
"I'm awake," he said. "No need for more sleep. Tiempo por trabajo."
Big John nodded. "All right. I'll get Alonso."
"Gracias," Blanco said and disappeared back into his tent.
John stepped to Alonso's tent. "Senor--"
"I heard," a husky voice said from inside the tent. "Por la momentido."
John turned and headed back to the fire. Steph was sitting up and drinking her coffee. Her pale complexion had at least warmed a bit.
"Much," Steph said. "You going to join us for the cap?"
"Is there room?"
She shrugged. "Probably not for all of us."
John sighed. "Linton will fit. I'll wait outside with the camera. Or until you call me in there."
Steph giggled. "Must suck to be the boss."
He shrugged. "Sometimes. But somebody's got to control you lunatics."
John had dragged a portable chair and portable table to the mouth of the cave. Alonso and Blanco, both looking as though they'd gone ten rounds with the flu and lost, had managed to carry the cooler and tools. Linton had joined them. Like the others, he looked under the weather. With John's back in bad shape, they'd insisted he sit on his ass.
Big John sat with his laptop on his knees. The portable satellite link lay next to his chair. Every now and then the tiny dish whirred and moved. He watched the video feed on the computer. Linton wore a hat with a portable cam attached to it. If John couldn't be inside the cave, at least he'd have a live view of the dig.
The video swung in dizzying jerks as Linton helped the rest of the crew loosen the cap's edges. The previous day, they'd cleaned off the dirt and begun digging down beneath the cap. They had to be careful--they'd already broken off a tiny shard from the strange stone-like marker. After so many thousands of years, there was no telling just how fragile it was.
He turned up the volume on the computer and heard heavy-breathing and chattering. The camera focused on Steph's face. Her smile was infectious.
"Well, boss, here we go."
The camera tilted away from her and peered down at the circular stone cap. He watched as four pairs of hands scraped beneath the stone. The cap moved just the slightest bit.
"Heave!" Steph shouted.
The cap rose from the ground. A rush of air hissed out from beneath the stone. The camera swung as the group carefully moved the cap to a small cart in the tunnel. The cart was covered in burlap and cotton to protect the stone.
They carefully laid it on the cart and then the camera swung again up to Steph's flushed, sweat-dripping face. Her smile was even larger. "Well, Boss, come and get it."
John grinned. He closed the laptop and rose from the chair. With careful steps, he made his way into the cave. Steph and Linton were hunched over the cart. Alonso and Blanco had already made their way back into the chamber.
Big John offered his huge hand and Linton shook it with a grin. "Good job, guys. We got it all on film."
He took the cart's handle. "All right. I've got cold drinks and sandwiches. You guys ready for 'em?"
Linton dabbed a handkerchief at his brow. "Not for me. I want to see what's in this hole."
Steph nodded. "Same. Get that thing out of here though, before one of us crushes it."
"Got that right," John said. He tipped his wide brimmed hat and slowly pulled the cart through the tunnel. Its wheels ground against stray gravel and dirt, but he didn't have to pull very hard to keep it moving. Once out of the cave and into the sunlight, he dragged the cart beside his chair.
John stared at the cap in the bright sunlight. The glyphs seemed to glow. He picked up the high-resolution digital camera and snapped pictures. Once he caught the entire face of the cap, he took close-ups of each glyph.
After photographing every single inch of its surface, he flipped the mode to video and did the same. If nothing else, the images would be fed into Willet's program in addition to filling out the expedition journal.
He put down the camera and covered the artifact with a reflective blanket; he didn't want the sun damaging the find.
He opened his laptop and the video feed immediately jumped on the screen. Linton was bent over the hole, his LED headlamp shining down into the dark. John watched as small shovels cleared and dug more dirt out of the hole. A clicking sound caught his attention as Blanco's hands moved back from the hole.
"Brush," Blanco said in a shaky voice. A small, wooden-handled brush appeared in the corner of the screen. Blanco's fingers took it and the camera view was obscured as the digger bent over. "Dios, mio," the man breathed.
"What is it?" Linton said from off-camera.
Blanco's face stared up at the camera. "I think we have a body."
Dusk was fast approaching. John sat beneath the field canopy. The breeze had picked up a bit and the hemp cloth wavered in the wind. Blanco, Alonso, and Steph had already wandered off to their tents. The surprise of the find was enough to keep them upright until late afternoon, but fatigue had finally caught up with them.
Spread out on the field table was the bundle they'd removed from the hole and several other artifacts buried with it. Condor and albatross carvings had been found with the body. The carvings were much more intricate than what they'd found at the cave's mouth. The birds still held some hints of crimson color. John wondered what kind of dye they'd used. Whatever it was, it had managed to survive thousands of years in the ground.
While the team unearthed the body, Linton had taken pictures of the carvings
and shrouded bundle. They would be filed with the rest.
The bundle. John stared at the five-foot oblong wrapping of cloth. Black and white grains of dirt had permeated the cloth so heavily, he was certain it was all that held the wrapping together. There was little doubt what was inside--it was human shaped. But unlike other Norte Chico mummies, this one was in terrible shape.
The denizens of the Norte Chico civilization had mummified their dead either by taking corpses apart and reassembling them, stuffing the corpse with vegetable matter, slathering them with mud, or drying the body cavity and dressing it up. But in those instances, the body wasn't wrapped--it was preserved in a wooden casing. The only bodies they'd found wrapped were those of children.
"Bart," as Steph had named it, hadn't been encased. The corpse had been hastily wrapped and then dropped into the hole. The holy carvings of the albatross and condor had been placed at various depths around the body before they filled the hole.
John knew this was something unique. The Norte Chico civilization was hardly understood, but this further muddied the intellectual waters. He couldn't wait for the anthropological community to start arguing with itself once the find was published--it would be bedlam.
He fought the urge to touch the mummy. The team had preserved it as best they could and used a sling to raise it from the hole. It was important not to touch the bundle with bare hands for fear of introducing oils onto the wrappings.
John yawned. His body ached. If it was the beginning of the same crap that the rest of the team had, things were going to get pretty bad around the camp. With the exception of Blanco and Alonso, the Peruvian workforce had left last week. Once the heavy-digging was finished, there had been little reason to have them around.
The problem was, without any backup, he had to make sure he could take care of his people. If that became a problem, they'd have to radio the nearest camp which was 15 km away. Due to lack of funding for his wild goose chase, they'd been forced to share a truck with the city expedition, and they were using it. Not for the first time, he regretted not demanding an additional vehicle.
The daylight finally left. The solenoids in the LED lamps triggered and the small lanterns lit up with white light. The mummy and the artifacts glowed. With a sigh, John fastened a heavy tarp over the table. He rubbed his eyes and walked around the canopy and shut off the lights. No reason to burn the energy from the solar batteries. The darkness crept in as each LED flicked out.
He yawned again and checked the fire. They had eaten a meal of beans and salted pork stew earlier. Although the team was still excited over the find, the fatigue of the flu, or whatever the hell it was, had finally taken its toll. The fire was nothing but ash and coals now. Convinced it would burn itself out, he headed toward his tent in the growing darkness.
The sound of something moving caught his ears and he whipped around. His eyes had adjusted to the night, but he saw nothing. The sound came again and he turned toward the canopy. A slight breeze ruffled the tarp's edges. He let out a breath and smiled as he opened the tent-flap, stepped inside, and undressed.
Beneath the tarp, something moved.
THE coffee was thick and unpleasant. John hated when Steph made coffee. Rather than use a semi-sane amount of grounds, she always over-filled the small white filter and made what she called "mud." The description was apt. No matter how much sweetener he dropped in his cup, the steaming sludge left his tastebuds wincing and his nerves sizzling with caffeine overload.
He braced himself and took another sip. His tongue tried to crawl out through his head, but he swallowed anyway and tapped the keyboard. Steph, Linton, Al, and Blanco were back at the dig site. Steph wanted to make sure they had managed to gather all the artifacts from the hole. Linton had told her the GPR hadn't found any other material, but she was old-school--to hell with what the instruments said.