This tale takes place in some nebulous place between 2001 and 2006 — the air or release dates for each property — but I'm being selective in what I admit to the continuity. As for our world, the two admirals are real, as is Dr. Gauci, although he is in the wrong job (and I hope he forgives me.)
Zahi Hawass, however, needs no apologies from me. You can hardly get to be more of a public figure than starring in a Reality TV show ("Chasing Mummies" in 2011). Zahi was too good not to use in this story, but he throws into relief the problem of reconciling the Stargate universe and real archaeology: both the science, and the people in it. I can't imagine either that Zahi wouldn't know, or that he wouldn't do anything about, the Stargate removed from Giza.
Egypt has changed quite a bit in the last few years. But so, really, has the rest of the world. Anyhow, next chapter, I promise, we'll finally get to the exotic and far-off land of Colorado.
The Valley of Kings, 25.44°N 32.36°E
Lara was getting tired of sand. It would make a nice change, she thought, to do some work in a sunken temple sometime. Or snow. Although you would think she'd seen enough snow for a lifetime, having walked out of the Himalayas alone at nine years old.
But this was the Valley of Kings: practically where it had all started. Napoleon's men had poked around these digs. Centurions had scratched the Roman equivalent of "Kilroy was here" on exposed walls. The discoveries that had inflamed a public interest in the ancient world, an interest that still continued today, were made here (and further along the Nile). It was here, too, that archaeology began the gradual shift from the mere collection of exotica for a Cabinet of Curiosities, to the meticulous recording of matrix and context, and the layers of analysis and meta-analysis as archeology evolved into a real science.
Not that the popular aspects had ever quite left the craft. A television crew with their reflectors, boom mics, and shiny boxes of technical gear were clustered around the Secretary General of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities as he hammed it up in front of the unprepossessing entrance of KV63. Dr. Otto Schaden and his team lurked in the background, looking surprisingly good-natured about the whole thing.
"You'll do fine with Zahi," Massouf had promised her. "Didn't you used to work with Whitman?"
"Worked with? That would be an overstatement."
"Zahi's the same kind of publicity hound. And the other kind of hound. He is an Egyptian man, if you understand what I mean."
"I understand perfectly what you mean. And in my experience, that behavior transcends national boundaries. Why am I meeting with him?"
"Because he runs archaeology here like a private fief. You dig if Zahi lets you. You publish when Zahi tells you. Or you don't work in Egypt," Massouf said.
"He's also done a great deal of good," Lara countered. "The restoration projects at Saqqara and elsewhere. He's put a real damper on the stolen antiquities trade. And he's been leaning on Berlin to return Nefertiti. More than that, he's been tireless in getting more Egyptians into archaeology, and making it less of a private game for Europeans."
The new discovery was smack between Amenmesse and Tutankhamun, practically in the middle of the main tourist causeway down the center of the Valley. The foundations of the 19th-Dynasty workman's huts were low, meandering walls of small slate-like stones. The great white slab that had first attracted attention framed a vertical shaft into the new discovery.
According to Alistair, however, there had been an earlier clue. Right at the beginning of the decade the Amarna Royal Tombs Project had mapped the valley with ground penetrating radar. Unfortunately the director of the project had been accused in a antiquities smuggling case. Zahi's office had cleared him of all wrong-doing but the potential discoveries had been lost in the shuffle.
Or maybe not.
Unlike a typical tomb, the shaft had not been backfilled. Either that, or tomb robbers had dug their way in ages ago. All that had been required was to shift a single 200-kilogram block before Doctor Schaden had been able to shine a flashlight down into the depths of the tomb. The passage was a good 2/3 filled with the debris of the passing years, but there was enough room for a determined explorer to wriggle their way to whatever had been within.
Which Massouf's friend just might have done — weighing condemnation by the SCA for exploring without permission against what Zahi was even now touting as the possible tomb of Queen Kiya, birth mother of Tutankhamun.
Of course, this didn't explain how Tawfic's crushed body had been found outside the tomb; unless gravity had chosen to reverse at an unfortunate moment and he had fallen back up through the access shaft! Not to mention that someone would have had to shove the massive block back into position across the tomb's mouth after escaping, and the only person Lara had heard of with that habit had worked about eight hundred kilometers to the Northeast. And would be two thousand years old by now.
"Lara Croft!" Zahi turned with a big smile on his face.
Lara walked up to him, noticing the cameras focusing on her as well. "You are just as I pictured you," the Secretary General beamed in approval. Then his face fell in comic dismay. "But where are your guns?"
"Dr. Hawass!" Lara protested. "What kind of an archeologist carries a gun?"
"Indy carries a gun," Zahi pronounced firmly.
And that's when Lara got it. Zahi was famous for leveraging the Indiana Jones mystique, up to wearing his similar-looking signature hat when working (the same hat was available in the museum gift shop). It was all part of his campaign to make archaeology interesting again and bring more tourists to the Giza Plateau. That, and the cult of popularity did hid no harm, either. Lara had heard he even had a line of signature clothing (the explorer-chic of jeans and work-shirts and leather jackets) coming to the Fleet Street shops some day soon. Not to mention the money he made with books, interviews, and his own reality television show.
And that's why he'd bend the rules, and let an outsider like her be part of opening a new tomb in the Valley. Because he was also willing to let a little Lara Croft rub off on him. The Lara Croft of the articles and books (which she'd had ghost-written) before she realized she didn't need the money and the publicity was potentially dangerous for her chosen line of work.
Well, she wasn't above using the tools at hand either, even if one of those tools included letting the cameras linger on her crop top and leather shorts.
"Lady Croft carries a signature pair of matched automatics in the field," he explained to his crew. He mimed a "pow, pow" bit of two-hand shooting. "Is it true," he addressed this to her, "that you fended off a Bengal Tiger once with just your pistols?"
Lara laughed shortly. "The books exaggerate a little." It had actually been a hunting pair, established man-killers both. But she had still felt bad about killing them.
"And discovered a new species of vampire bat in Mexico." He shuddered elaborately. "I hate bats." It was a credible Indiana Jones imitation. "So." He swung back to the gathered audience. "How fortunate is it that Lady Croft is here today! For in the next few minutes, the first human beings in three thousand years are going to enter the chamber within."
Of course they'd already poked cameras in, the first moment enough stones had been cleared to form a hole. But Zahi was playing this up for the crowd.
"Now, you may be thinking that as Doctor Schaden and I enter this tomb, we should be wary of spinning blades and little spears that fly out of the walls if we walk on the wrong stone." He gave a broad wink. "Despite what you may have seen in certain movies, this is not how the New Kingdom builders worked. Tombs were defended by filling the entrances with tons of rock and dirt. And the grave robbers were inside anyhow, almost before the dust had cleared."
And it was at this point he waved Lara forward. "But there is always a first time!" he pronounced with a laugh. "So we bring an expert!" He motioned for a camera to take a close-up on his face, as he composed it to a more serious expression. "Rock falls and other accidents are always a possibility," he added soberly. "These places are very old. People could die. And perhaps this time we see a large round rock roll down a passageway towards us!"
A wooden ladder had been set up. Otto Schaden, pudgy but fit-looking with a white beard, comfortably dressed in khaki slacks and shirt worn open, led the way. Zahi followed, already sweating under his "Indy" hat, and Lara followed last, ducking under the pulley already set up for artifact retrieval (although in the usual way of things, that would follow days of in situ studies first.)
It was a mere five meter climb down the shaft, then into the opened doorway into the first chamber. Cameras had already revealed the rounded shapes of more than one sarcophagus, blackened by some sort of resin or rot. It was a long clamber down the horizontal passage, as the clear space near the roof was far from high enough to permit anything but hands and knees. And then they were gazing on the contents of the first room themselves.
"This is incredible." Zahi was the first to break the silence. "Congratulations, Otto."
On first glance there were no funerary goods, and no inscriptions decorated the bare walls. At least five coffins loomed, black with resin or perhaps termite damage. Alabaster jars glowed in the lamplight like bones.
"No canopic chest or jars," Dr. Schaden observed. His voice was also hushed in reverence.
"What is your impression, Otto?"
"I think perhaps a preparation room," the older man said. "Those linen bags could be natron. The jars, too, are similar to the embalming supplies found in KV54. But these intact coffins…"
Lara knew what he was thinking. Between the ever more desperate attempts to protect their corporeal remains from grave robbers, and the political shenanigans that resulted in more than one Pharaoh having his remains scattered, his name scratched out, and his tomb re-used by another, mummies had been shifted from resting place to resting place. Sometimes they had ended up tucked into the oddest corners; shifted to unmarked sarcophagi in a tiny bare tomb was not an impossible place to find even so major a figure as Akhenaten, the heretic pharaoh.
"Otto, Otto, here!" Zahi said, so excited he could barely form words. In the shadow of the larger coffins was a small, child-sized one. And even through the coating of black it was visibly gold. This was the other side, then, of the man some called "The Pharaoh," and Lara suddenly liked him a lot more. For all the bombast, he really cared so deeply for the past he curated and the discoveries he helped make possible. It reminded her of her own love of archaeological discovery — a love she had sometimes forgot in her recent quests for answers. It was a child-like wonder she saw in Zahi, and she smiled in memory.
It was the dig at Makimuku; a word the child delighted in saying. Near Nara, it was, a place already filled with wonder. Lara had travelled enough with her parents to have no fear of strangers, and these tiny polite people were always smiling at her. The famed Nara deer frightened her, though; they were scruffy-looking, aggressive animals in search of easy handouts. But the woods were incredible with mist twining about the ancient trees and the tall forests of bamboo. And there was the river festival, with little boats floating down stream, each holding a candle like an entire night sky on the move.
They were staying on site, in temporary buildings as elegant and as complete with every necessity as the tiny efficient Japanese apartments. The previous day she'd visited Todai-ji, where she had marveled at the great cast bronze Buddha, familiarly known as Daibutsu. Today her parents had expected her to sleep in, but instead she was up early to help sift: to sift through a cart full of tailings that was sitting right outside her bedroom.
It was the tiniest flash of green, in the pink morning light that filtered through the surrounding hills. She fished for it with already grubby fingers then, already the professional, reached for a soft bristle brush to gently free it from the matrix of encrusted river sand.
It was the most exquisite little jade pendant. Shaped a bit like Ouroboros, the snake that ate its own tail, and a little more like the magatama beads — half of a Yin/Yang symbol — that had first appeared in the Jomon period, it was both beautiful and obscure. In following months, she and her parents had tried to date it, tried to pin down the period and style, and failed. Given the much more recent period of the subject of their digs, it fell into that peculiar classification that only fringe archaeologists - and non-archaeologists - used; the "OOPArt" or "Out-of-Place Artifact." Meaning it was just as likely something dropped by a recent visitor to Nara, and of no archaeological significance, as it was to belong to the Yayoi period.
But none of that mattered. She strung her little bit of jade on a string and wore it proudly as a necklace. And every time she held it, even in her darkest moments of self-doubt, she remembered the excitement and pride as she had run to her parents clutching it, still in her penguin-print pajamas.
It was her first find. She had been five years old.
The two senior archaeologists were starting to discuss the best procedures for recording and in situ conservation of the more fragile finds as excavation of KV63 continued. But Lara was feeling something of that sixth sense she'd developed about such places. Her attention went, in time, to the roughly-finished south wall.
"Doctors?" she said. "That's not a shadow."
"Eh?" Zahi saw it first, but soon Otto was nodding as well. "There's a recess there. Possibly shallow. Possibly a window to an adjoining chamber. Our lights don't reach back that far. We'll have to get a ladder in here."
"I can reach it."
They consulted for just a moment. "Nadia will kill us," Zahi said. He meant Nadia Lokma, the Chief Conservator. "Go now and make haste," he told Lara.
She needed no further urging. She leaped lightly to the edge and pulled herself up until she could look within the narrow shadowed rectangle. "It seems to go through," she reported.
"Go," Zahi said. "I will follow."
"I won't," Doctor Schaden said. "My surgery. Please, be gentle. Don't let the conservators be more angry than they will be already."
Lara pulled up. She could barely wriggle into the gap. She didn't believe the others would make it until this opening was enlarged. She triggered her light, but already she could tell something was different. The stone here was smooth, exceptionally flat even by the high standards of Egyptian stone dressers. The mail-box slot continued for ten meters or so, then opened up. The change in the reflected sound of her own breathing told her that this was a new chamber, a much larger one. Or, at least, a deeper one.
She stood. And then realized her mistake. The ledge she had reached had but a narrow flat spot, with the rest both polished and slanting sharply down. Her boots were already sliding down the incline. She swiveled, casting her light around in a desperate arc, and as the black edge all too rapidly approached, crouched and then leaped out into space…
"Enter!" Hammond shuffled the papers back into the folder and closed it, turning it face down on the desk so not even the label would be visible to his visitor. A habit born of too many classified documents: this particular folder concerned the efforts to get a soda machine or two installed into the lower levels. Which was more complicated than it might be, considering it put into conflict the need of the vendor to personally tend and restock their machines, and the needs of the Air Force to keep random civilians far from the Gate Room.
"Thank you, General." Doctor Janet Frasier was in efficiency mode, a white lab coat over her Air Force blues. "You wanted a report on our progress in finding a defense to that gas of Hathor's."
"I thought we agreed we were never going to speak of that incident again," a voice whined from behind her.
"Do you mind, Colonel?" Hammond was good-humored, but he meant it.
"General, please let him stay. He was one of the victims, after all."
Colonel Jack O'Neill drifted the rest of the way into the room. As usual, he was wearing fatigues — General Hammond didn't think he'd seen O'Neill in Service Dress once, outside of funerals and promotions.
"I've spoken with Teal'c about this," Janet Frasier continued her report as if no interruption had occurred. "He says this sort of attack is not uncommon. Some Goa'uld are even known for it; Setesh and Heru-ur, among others. The source is usually synthetic; it appears Hathor was either using a hidden mechanism, or had genetically modified herself in order to project a weaker form of the usual gas."
"In either case, eww."
"And?" General Hammond prompted.
"Well, Sir, my first line of enquiry seems to have met an impasse," the Chief Medical Officer of Stargate Command said, a little displeased with herself. "We need to recreate the drug before we can formulate an antidote. My belief is that it is an organic extract. Doctor Jackson suggests the Goa'uld may have made use of medicinal plants, possibly genetically engineered, that are no longer native to this world."
"Would an extract work as well, Doctor?"
This time Hammond gave him a look that said that O'Neill was not getting away with any behavior. He would be permitted only so much, and no more. Then he turned back to his Chief Medical Officer in expectation.
"Yes, of course," Janet said, only the look in her eyes revealing the impatience. "If you happen to capture Hathor, or Setesh, then by all means let me know and I will obtain a sample for analysis. In any case," she continued so smoothly it almost hid the way she was putting the train back on the tracks, "the contextual evidence provided by Teal'C and Doctor Jackson suggests this is but one compound of a large interrelated family. There may be useful medicinal drugs to be discovered here as well."
"Interesting, Doctor," Hammond said. "Please keep me posted."
"General!" a new voice came at that moment. "Sir!"
"Well hello, Carter," the Colonel greeted the latest. "Come to join the party?"
Hammond sighed. "This is an office, not a train station."
"Sir!" Samantha Carter blinked. "It's happened again. A big one this time; almost thirty minutes!"
Lara leaped. And her fingers closed on a narrow rail high in the polished stone walls. She gasped, now completely aware of the pit that opened up beneath her. This was most unlike the New Kingdom. "This is getting interesting," she said to herself.
At least getting back would be easy. But as she'd come this far, it made just as much sense to go forward. She traversed, then, hand by hand. The sheer stone was too slick to get a good grip for her boots, so in violation of all accepted practice of rock climbing she was suspended by fingertips only. Fortunately, she had strong fingers.
At last she was past the central pit and could drop back down. This new chamber was flat and polished and unusually square. It was as if, three thousand years ago, someone had told the stone-cutters above to stop work just as they were smoothing the chamber now filled with embalming supplies, and proceeded to cut a geometrically perfect inner tomb in secret within the other.
A skittering sound alerted her. A giant scorpion, almost luminous in a pale waxy yellow. Lara recognized the general species at once. A deathstalker, one of the most poisonous scorpions of North Africa and the Middle East. Except this one was a troglobiont, completely blind, near pigment-less. And of excessive size, especially considering how little food must filter down here.
She could see the sensitive antenna quiver. Down here in still air, it hardly needed eyes to find her. And it was hunting. Nor was it alone; Lara could hear the subtle rustling and skittering sounds coming from other parts of the room as well.
Now Lara regretted not having her guns. She could only move quickly, and keep them from closing in on her. And that meant she had little leisure to explore the hidden chamber.
It was bare of decoration, save for a ring of metal seemingly inset into the floor; a decoration complicated but geometric, with no recognizable symbols or any other artistic meaning apparent. The chamber itself was almost as bare of content; a single canopic jar, with the seal broken and lying nearby, and a low stone block marked along the top with highly simplified hieroglyphics.
Lara studied the latter quickly. They formed no phrases, instead seeming to be short words in individual groups. She was unsurprised to see the falcon, once again. The dust had been disturbed here, and not that many years ago. She reached out to brush off the falcon…and light glowed from deep within the stone, lighting up the deeply incised lines.
"The falcon…but then could this be…but is it a mechanism?" Lara's mind was flashing. She reached out again, more deliberately, touching several symbols in order. At the last moment she caught herself, and instead of following the order that would spell out "Horus," she chose the alternate arrangement that appeared to spell out "Hodur."
An invisible seam opened and a tray slid out from one side.
The deathstalkers were very close now. Lara stamped one boot, giving them a moment's pause. Then she scooped up the black snake-like object within the hidden tray before leaping to the top of the stone herself. One last look, and she was jumping towards the same ledge she had followed on the way in. As straightforward as it was, she wanted to complete that traverse before the scorpions chose to follow her.
Otto Schaden had already retreated to the surface by the time Lara wriggled back through the narrow slot in the stone wall. Zahi was visibly relieved to see her unharmed.
"Doctor Hawass." Lara spoke more formally than her usual brusque manner. "There is a second chamber. It goes back roughly twenty meters, but there is a dangerous drop-off directly behind the window. The end of the chamber is almost unadorned and does not fit the pattern of anything we've seen in the Valley before. There are also poisonous insects in the chamber. I chose to remove one artifact for study now rather than wait for the steps necessary to safely explore the chamber properly."
She brought the thing out. It was a compact z-shaped object in a dark resin-like material, looking vaguely like a serpent folded tightly on to its own tail. Her fingers found the indent she had discovered before; with an mechanical click and a clearly electronic whine it unfolded sharply like a cobra rearing back ready to strike.
"What, what? What is this thing…you found this thing?" Zahi stumbled back. Then in a flash the famous Zahi temper was on him. "Why do you show this thing to me, this child's toy!"
"Doctor, it is not a toy!"
"I know it is not a toy!" The senior archaeologist made the 180 without the slightest change in his angry tirade. "It is a thing, a thing which it does not belong! Why do you bring this out here, why to this serious dig do you find such things!"
Lara found herself getting cross in return. This is what her father had faced, when he dared go beyond the limits of the accepted archaeological reconstructions. "It is real, Doctor, it is dangerous, and it is part of our past!"
"It is not our past!" he shouted. "It is their past! Parasites! Ancient Astronauts! This does not belong!" He waved his arms in short, jerky motions, indicating the contents of the tomb. "This is distraction! I tell you this, people come up to me, they say, Doctor Hawass, they say, is it true the pyramids were built by aliens? And I say to them, you are stupid for saying this. The pyramids are just a pile of rocks. We do not need aliens to help us make a pile of rocks!"
His hands scrabbled, came up with a fragment of a delicate burial mask. They must have uncovered it while Lara was in the next chamber. "See this here, this thing of beauty. My people did that! Egyptian people did that! We created the art, the language, the way to water plants. Look here, we know the names of the architects who built at Giza and Saqqara. We see their statues, we see how they learned to build, slowly, over the years, making mistakes but learning. Human learning!"
He gave a sort of convulsive shrug — oddly compact, like all his gestures — and started again in a voice which was lower, but no less angry. "In France, in the south of France, is a place that is called Lascaux. On the walls of the cave are paintings and these paintings are seventeen thousand years old. And you know how they paint? They spread bear fat on the stone, then they blow, with a little tiny reed, they blow powdered pigment into it like a little tiny airbrush that is seventeen thousand years old. But this is the thing I want to say. They find the pigments. They find the colors the artist was using."
Zahi sat, suddenly. His voice had gone distant, taking on that awe one felt in coming to grips with the distant past. "You think, here is a caveman, speaks like Tarzan maybe, he goes into the cave and he dabs a little here and there because he isn't really thinking. Not like we do. But here it is; they find these pigments and they are lined up, in order. They are arranged. They are chosen. He thinks as well as you or I. Maybe better than some of those people up there." He gestured towards the tomb entrance.
"Humans are smart. When you say we need aliens to tell us how to build, how to paint, how to water crops, you are saying our ancestors are children. Or maybe you are saying Egyptians are children, are idiots, who need outsiders to tell them how to feed themselves. And that is why I am so angry about these things like this you show me and the fools who want to see flying saucers and spacemen in helmets in everywhere where there is serious archaeology being done. My life's work is to show the past, our Egyptian past, the past of all of us. It is to be proud to be a human being. These aliens…they are just distraction."
Lara was silent for a time. "They are also a part of our past," she said at last, quietly.
"And one day we will add them to our knowledge. Not tear down everything we know and put them up instead as some sort of new gods responsible for everything good." He also paused for a time. "Put that away," he said. "Are there other OOPArt in that chamber?" he asked, simply.
"Yes." Lara was as straight-forward.
"We will proceed as normal then," Zahi made a show of straightening up, brushing off his jeans. "No more adventures. This season is over anyhow. Too hot to dig. We will record and conserve, and unbury the rest of this chamber. It will be many years before anyone needs to look at the second chamber." His eyes brightened in excitement again. "And we have seven coffins. Seven! Perhaps one still holds Queen Kiya's remains!"