The flimsy wooden door flung open and slammed against the wall, Marshall quick behind it, wicker basket in hand, grabbed the door and slammed it shut.
John Allard looked on bemused. He had learned long ago not to get caught up in every bit of eccentricity that Marshall brought to him.
“Well hello to you too, how was your camping trip?”
Marshall paced in a circle, sweating, mouthing something as he worked through what to say.
“Well out with it, did you find some other career defining dig site while you were supposed to be relaxing?”
Marshall stopped in his tracks and looked at John.
John waited for a moment and when Marshall didn’t answer he decided to just get into his business with Marshall.
“Okay well, since the world is apparently upside down now, the university sent us a request to see if we needed any more funds, if we were lacking anything that would help speed things up. I was actually thinking that a fifth steam engine could help, we’ve got a lot of power needs now with all of the new housing we’ll see when we break into the major tomb.”
They had started referring to the original tomb as the minor tomb, and the presumed much larger one at the bottom of the shaft, the major tomb.
“The cat followed me.” Marshall said, ignoring whatever John had been talking about.
“Ha, what a scamp, I can’t believe he has hung around this long.” John said with a smile.
“No, okay listen to me. So I followed the stream, I thought I’d hike out for a few days, camp and relax for a day or two, and then come back. You know fish in the stream along the way so I wouldn’t have to carry much food of my own.” Marshall said almost breathlessly.
“So I followed it to where it dives underground at the edge of the dig site, and then I continued over land, expecting it to come back out at some point, and it does. About a day's walk from here.”
“Oh that's great, good thinking, I’m glad you finally got a few days rest away from here.” John was saying when Marshall shushed him. John was taken aback, but Marshal pushed past the indignity. “So I was following the stream, and fished a couple dinner sized fish out of the river for Ghost and I as the sun was setting.”
John couldn’t possibly see where this was going and was starting to get annoyed.
“The cat glows” Marshall spat out, his mind in too many places at once.
John broke out laughing. “What?”
“The cat glows” Marshall had focused now and was staring at John.
“I gave one of the fish to Ghost, and you know I’m shit at starting fires, and I just had a small lantern with us, so Ghost was sitting over there away from me, finishing eating the fish, and he started to glow.” Marshal stopped and was clearly waiting for a response.
John tried to think of what to say, but it was so absurd, he just shook his head.
“Maybe you need more time away mate, It's been what? six months since we’ve been here? And another month at the first sig site, maybe you need some time out of country.”
“Are you not hearing me? I said my cat, glows in the dark.”
John could scarcely believe he was getting pulled into this, but he decided to play along.
“Okay, what color does he glow.”
Marshall thought for a moment. “Like a dull azure, oh, like those Jellyfish that the biology department brought back from the tropics! But very faintly, I would have missed it if I had a fire going.”
“Okay, so maybe it’s some local adaptation cats have here to some local environmental stimuli.” John said, and Marshall started to nod along.
“Ya okay, that makes sense.” He said, and took a seat, seeming to start to calm down.
Ghost meowed from the wicker basket, so John let him out, and he began rubbing against their legs.
“Okay. But what if the environment they are responding to is down there. What if that river goes through the major tomb before coming back out, and thats why he didn’t react until we got down steam.” Marshall said, an edge of dread back in his voice.
John shrugged “Sounds like another Pertzman Prize to me, and this time in biology, that’d really stick it to those guys, getting one in their field too.” he smirked.
They stood at the bottom of the shaft, which had been expanded to accommodate more people. It had taken five months of digging to reach the wall of the major tomb, the anticipation was palpable as the workers attached winches to the break points they had hammered into the wall. At the foreman's sign, the steam engines drove the winches at full throttle, the smell of overheated lubricant, the sound of straining metal filled the air. All at once it erupted in a cacophony of violent sounds and an explosion of debris and smoke from the tomb wall.
Marshall's ears were ringing, his arm covering his face pelted by chunks of rock. He slowly lowered his arm and saw a cloud of smoke around where the winches had attached to the wall. As it cleared, a perfectly black hole revealed itself, the major tomb was open.
It appeared they had broken through the ceiling, so ladders were lowered, and lanterns passed down one at a time. John Allard and Marshall stood in the gloom of a large coorador, their lanterns failing to light it adequately. More workers came down the ladder behind them. The ceiling was maybe two stores above the floor, and the corridor was about as wide as it was tall.
The walls were perfectly smooth, the floor as well except for two grooves that ran down the corridor into the darkness.
“Hey” Marshall said in an instinctual whisper. “Look at the grooves in the floor, there’s metal in them.”
John looked, and sure enough, there was metal filling part of each groove.
“Huh, that’s the first metal we’ve seen in this entire dig site.” John said, but Marshall was already making his way down the corridor.
They followed the metal grooves for several dozen paces until the two groves split into six, two of them continued on straight, two of them diverged to the left and two right, into perpendicular corridors. Marshall followed the grooves to the left, and found just a few paces into that tunnel, that they split off again, and again, each twelve paces apart, into short, much smaller dead end rooms with circular seals on the floor.
“This is it,” Marshall said in a whisper.
“What is it?” John said, now standing shoulder to shoulder in the oppressive darkness.
“I don’t know, but whatever this whole tomb was constructed for is buried right there, under that seal.”
After a pregnant silence, Marshal spoke “Get the cutters, let’s see what's in there.”
The major tomb was lined with high powered gas lanterns now, one of the steam engines had been reassembled down by the closest seal and was running at full steam now. The rest of the science team was standing further back as the cutting team worked. Lots of material had been removed and for the moment, piled in the corner. It was a variety of rock types and various metals.
Finally one of the cutting team signaled to kill the engine, and the room fell silent. Marshall and John moved closer, peering over the edge of the three foot deep hole in bewilderment. The foreman of the cutting team came over.
“Whatever that shit was on top was mighty hard to cut through the boss.” he took his gloves off and wiped the sweat from his brow.
“But once inside, it looks to be all the same. It’s a cylinder of rock on the outside, wrapped around a cylinder of metal, wrapped around a cylinder of some sort of rock and powder mixture, wrapped around another cylinder of metal, and finally, at the center, well I don’t rightly know, but it looks like some sort of metal again.”
He shook his head. “The metal at the center is nearly impossible for us to cut, the bits we have been able to chip off are extremely heavy.”
The foreman dropped a badly brutalized bit of metal into Marshall’s hand, and Marshall was shocked at how heavy it was for its size.
Marshall turned the chunk of metal over in his hand and saw nothing remarkable about it, save for it’s unusual weight. He pocketed it, and hopped down the three feet or so they had managed to make in the last several hours. The rest of the workers clear out, obviously time for a break.
It made no sense. Everything about this tomb complex screamed important. It screamed Don’t forget me! And yet, when we get to the bottom of it, these stone obsessed builders, had gone to such lengths to preserve… some chunks of metal?
Marshall felt weary. Like he had just gotten to the top of a mountain, to discover there was no mountain at all. All of this, months of effort, and there’s no bodies, no sacred scrolls, or ancient works to behold. Just some rather large hallways, and some metal buried in holes. He was thinking he might be ill at the thought of such a let down, when to his right, one of the workers who had been sitting at the nearby wall, vomited.
Two other members of the cutting team went over to him and began to tend to him, but he slumped over and vomited again.
Marshall looked at the foreman and signal to get the man out of here, then spoke up loud enough for everyone to hear him.
“It’s been a long day, we’ve got a team mapping just how far these tunnels go, lets say we fuck off the rest of the day, and get back at this tomorrow.”
There was some muted cheering, but much of the focus was taken by the sick crew member now being supported by two teammates back toward the ladder.
Marshall sat in his bunk room, staring uncomprehendingly at some of the weekly expense reports by the dying light of a lantern he had neglected to refuel recently. His mind still down in that dimly lit hole, trying to make sense out of this whole place when there was a light rap on the door.
“Come in,” he said without looking up.
John came in with a rather serious look on his face, Marshall noticed out of the corner of his eye and asked “What now”
“We got two more seals open.” John said.
“And it’s just damn rocks and metal?” Marshall said knowingly.
“Ya” John said quietly.
“Well there’s something like 2,000 of them down there, so we’ll keep opening them until we find something. Maybe the university will send us some more steam engines to do it quicker.” Marshall said in a mocking tone.
“No, I don’t think so.” John said quietly again.
Marshall finally looked up from the paper he hadn’t been reading.
“And why not?”
“The workers won’t go down there anymore.” John said meekly.
“What, well pay them more, we have basically unlimited funding” Marshall said forcefully.
“It won’t work, the worker from yesterday…” John paused to compose himself. “He died. Badly.”
“What do you mean?” Marshall said, caution in his voice now.
“I mean he kept throwing up, and he had... burns on his hands, and it was bad okay Marsh, it was real bad. We kept him isolated in the medical tent so no one could catch whatever it was. But word got out.”
“One guy catches the jungle flu, we can’t derail a multi million dollar...” But Marshal saw John shaking his head.
“Other guys from that first crew are sick now too, not as bad, but throwing up and stuff. And a few guys from this morning's crew say they aren’t feeling good either.”
Marshal gave a dismissive wave of his hand.
“It’s just sympathy sickness because one guy actually got sick.”
John shook his head and looked away for a moment.
“Marshal, how do you feel?” John finally said
There was a moment of silence and Marshal responded “I’m fine, just tired, been burning it at both ends ya know.”
John kept shaking his head. “You don’t look good, Marshal. Have you eaten since yesterday?”
Marshal pulled a skeptical face. “Oh come one, I don’t know, I’ve been busy with these expense reports. I don’t know. I guess not.”
John looked at the floor. “Neither have I.”
Marshall tried to put some more oomph in his words. “We’re both tired, we just need a good night's rest, and then we can figure out what we’ve found here.”
John nodded his head slowly and they sat thinking about nothing.
A rap on the door ripped them from their reverie, Marshall wasn’t quite sure how long they had been staring off and not talking, but he got up, a little unsteady and opened the door. The courier looked taken aback for a moment like he had seen a ghost, staring into Marshalls face, he shook himself out of it and asked “Sir, are you quite alright?”
Marshall made some face that told the man he wasn’t in the mood, and the young courier handed him a small leather satchel.
Marshall took it and closed the door, sitting back down carefully before opening it.
“It’s from the chap at the linguistics institute, it seems they had a breakthrough on our translation.”
Life seemed to breathe back into the two men as Marshal unfolded the letter.
He cleared his throat and began to read.
Esteemed colleagues, I hope this letter finds you well and quickly, as it may be a guide as to how you proceed in this project.
After consulting with several colleagues abroad, we have what we believe to be an accurate translation of your minor tomb’s text, it is at follows:
This place is a message... and part of a system of messages... pay attention to it!
Sending this message was important to us. We considered ourselves to be a powerful culture.
This place is not a place of honor... no highly esteemed deed is commemorated here... nothing valued is here.
What is here was dangerous and repulsive to us. This message is a warning about danger.
The danger is in a particular location... it increases towards a center... the center of danger is here... of a particular size and shape, and below us.
The danger is still present, in your time, as it was in ours.
The danger is to the body, and it can kill.
The form of the danger is an emanation of energy.
The danger is unleashed only if you substantially disturb this place physically. This place is best shunned and left uninhabited.
- Sandia National Laboratories. Deep Geologic Nuclear Waste Facility, EST 2138
I know not what they were so fearful of, but I pray that you find caution in your endeavors, and a safe return to your adoring faculty, and loving family.
Archer A. Kennings
Marshall folded the letter with a shaky hand and set it on his desk. His other hand rubbing the smooth heavy stone in his pocket.
He took the stone out of his pocket and both men stared at it, tightness in the chests.
The tension and dread so oppressive in the room that John Allard could hardly breathe.
From under the bed a meow, and Ghost jumped up on Marshall’s lap, rubbing his head against the outstretched arm.
Ghost circled twice and settled on to the motionless lap, every inch of his hairless body glowing a brilliant azure in the dimly lit room.
Note about this story
This story was inspired by a 1993 report from Sandia National Laboratories about the problem of warning future generations about the dangers buried in deep geological nuclear waste repositories.
The problem with nuclear waste from most of our fission reactors, is that it will take around 10,000 years for it's radioactivity to decay to acceptable levels. No civilization, culture, or language in human history has lasted that long. If the predecessors to the Egyptians needed to send us an unmistakable message, but we don't know who they are or what they wrote or spoke, how would they have done it?
In Egypt, when British explorers found the pyramids which were only a few thousand years old, they didn't understands the culture that existed when those were built. That the builders never intended, nor wished for anyone to enter them ever again. But we did it anyway. How could they have told us not to?
That is the problem the Sandia report tried to solve. How do we warn generations thousands of years from now about the dangers, without them mistaking the messages as a reason to dig and explore there.
All of the warning signs in this story come straight from the Sandia report, even the glowing cats.
You can read about the report here, and see depictions of some of the warning signs, such as the disks, and the minor tomb.
Someone has even written a song already about the glowing cats in order to start the cultural memory that a glowing cat is a bad thing. Although sadly, the cats them selves have not been created yet.
There are plans to build deep geological repositories by various countries around the world, but in 2021 Finland became the first country to actually break ground and begin building on.