“And Zeus, fearful of his offspring by Metis, swallowed her to prevent their birth. The son, who would have become king of the gods, was never conceived, but Athena was born, fully grown and armed, from her father’s head. She thus became goddess of wisdom and of war to protect the homeland.”
“The Gods of Olympus”
Pithias of Melaneis, Euboea
c. 1170 BC
translated by Agatha Webberley, AD 2039
EPOCH 405, LEO 1066
(Summer 39, 9620 BC)
Merla Velzna had earned the right not to kill. No one else born into the Military Class had ever gained her advantage—the freedom to choose her own destiny. For eight years, digging for artifacts had given her peace. Now, for the first time in more than a decade, her military training was once again active in mind and body. Someone was following her.
Foot traffic along the boulevard leading toward the government rings was thick with workers and slaves, on their way to start a new day’s work. Merla had always enjoyed the walk. It helped her to stay trim. It also gave her time to think.
Today, her thoughts had been crowded to the side. She did not understand the feeling which came with the awareness. Her physical senses had no reason for the deep foreboding she now felt.
Bright warmth covered the early morning city. Everyone moved at a modest rate—pacing themselves in the growing heat. She did not know how long the man had been following her. He had blended into the crowd with great skill.
She had always been aware of her surroundings. When the man with the dark hood and cloak had made the same turns that she had, her suspicions had been confirmed.
But who would have her followed? Could it be the Empress? In the fourteen years since receiving the imperial dispensation to leave the Military Class, Merla had not thought about the royal family. Why would there be interest in her now? But if not them, then who?
Or had she created enemies within the Science Class? Moving from the class of one’s birth was almost unheard of. Merla was still an outsider to most of her scientific peers, despite her proven skills as an archaeologist. Her current rank as a scientist exceeded her equivalent military rank before she had left the class of her birth. Was this jealousy for her rapid advancement?
Whatever the reason, she had to find out who was behind this person following her.
Before crossing the first bridge to the outer ring, she turned onto a residential side street with few others nearby. Next she entered a narrow alley. Because of what the man wore, she could not tell much about the his build, or what weapons he might be carrying. Yet, Merla could now hear his footsteps behind her, and that told her something. He was not heavily built, but she would not have been concerned had he been. She had the skills to disarm far more formidable opponents.
After about ten meters, she turned to face the man. He staggered for a moment, seemed to collect himself, then dropped to the pavement, sitting upright. The man then revealed scrawny hands dotted with age. Those hands threw back his hood. The face he revealed carried pale, soft wrinkles. Thin strands of white hair fluttered in a slight breeze.
“Thank you for agreeing to speak with me,” he said. His voice was high pitched, but his tone was kind.
Merla paused before responding, choosing her words with care. “I didn’t agree to anything.”
The old man blinked and frowned. The expression seemed to tire him. “You’re here.” He nodded. “I’ve come to warn you.”
“Our world is about to end, and there are those!…” His eyes went wide, his mouth stretched thin—lips apart, but teeth clenched. He sat upright for a moment, his body rigid, then he collapsed forward.
Merla rushed toward him, still tense with caution. She knelt beside him and lifted his light frame onto her lap.
His face had gone slack. Drool spilled from his mouth onto his dark cloak. His chest heaved in gentle, rapid puffs. He whispered something and Merla bent over to hear him more clearly.
“They’ve found me,” he said. His voice was halting and faint. He winced in agony for a moment, then seemed to wilt from the exertion.
“What do you mean? What’s your name?” Merla shook her head. “And who are they?” She found that the man had clutched her hand with his, and she felt him trembling as if the muscles were giving way to exhaustion.
“Not important.” He gasped for breath.
Suddenly, she felt his entire body go rigid again. For a moment, his face seemed stronger, filled with a fierceness to regain what vigor he could muster. With teeth clenched anew, he pushed out the words a few at a time. “You hold future of Atlan in your hands, dear lady. Hero of Kundelé will find even greater call to heroism.”
A moment later, his eyes went wide with pain and fear, then stayed wide but now lifeless. His limp body told her that the old man was no longer conscious. But she knew the look and feel of death.
Merla had heard legends and rumors of mystics who could do magical things, like telling the future. The conviction in this man’s voice made him seem to be one with that rare talent, or to be someone entirely crazy. She hoped, for her sake, it was the latter. Her prior heroism had involved too much bloodshed. She wanted nothing more to do with the military.
Politics would not treat her with kindness if others knew she had been found with this dead body. With gentle care, she laid the man’s head on the pavement and closed his eyes. The soul had already departed and no longer needed the opening. She knew that such was, for some, only superstition, but it felt wrong to leave his eyes naked to the sky.
She stood and made her way back to the busier thoroughfare. Moments later, she spotted a priest and told him of the old man lying dead in the nearby alley. The priest nodded and went off to notify the appropriate authorities to arrange for a burial.
That done, Merla made her way back to her office in the science building of the capital’s government sector.
She had already acquired her supplies and personnel. Now, all she needed was a ship to take her crew to the dig site.
Before she had her assistant, Chendar, make the call, she sat looking out her window at the gradual arc of the circular canal. What the old man had said came back to her. More than his words, the possibility of what he had been in life filled her thoughts. Could there be more like him? Is that what he meant when he said that they had found him? Had he died from their sinister power?
Merla swallowed with difficulty. As a military officer, she had been familiar only with an enemy she could see. This portent of a different kind of enemy troubled her. Yet, if these magicians were real, she had no clue of where to start looking for them, or what to do once they were found.
She nodded to herself. Yes, my military days are long over. I don’t need to find new battles. Perhaps they did not want the old man to talk to me, but that is done. They did not attempt to stop me afterward. So, it is over.
She had decided there was nothing more about the incident to concern her, but it was more than a few minutes before she turned to Chendar to have him call for the transport.
Military Minister Pelna stroked her narrow chin and squinted at the young woman kneeling before her. “You work for Imperial Chamberlain Grelth, do you not?”
The girl nodded in quick, short movements, eyes wide, mouth open but mute.
“Good.” Pelna nodded with more thoughtful precision, then winked at young Hringe Moditsa, a senatorial page who had been learning the secrets of the Order of Kelgani. The Order had been named for the first king of Atlan, Kelgani the Great, known for his decisiveness and pragmatic approach to the problems of rule.
The minister motioned to them both. “Follow me.”
Seria Pelna led the way from her well lit office, down a long hall, lined with military guards on duty, and down a narrow stairway into relative darkness. The stones of the walls were increasingly damp and musty. At the bottom, the windowless room was lit by several torches. A thin layer of smoke gathered at the ceiling, quietly siphoned off by near-invisible exhaust ducts. In the middle stood a table with all manner of iron tools—wicked, twisted forms of metal that seemed to have only one purpose: torture.
“Young Cressa, here, is a telepath,” the minister said to Hringe.
The girl froze, eyes wide, then fell to her knees, bruising them on the wet, stone floor.
“Yes, we know your secret.” Minister Pelna offered a pleasant smile, like that of a mother to her young daughter. “But now you will spy for us.” She nodded toward a dark figure in the corner. The heavyset man stepped forward into the dim light. He covered his chest with crossed arms, thick muscles rippling underneath indulgent flab.
“Ker Balkonen is a biokinet. Do you know what that means? No? Well, I’ll tell you. A biokinet is one who can shape flesh. A good one can do this without killing their subject. A better one can shape the flesh permanently in a matter of minutes or hours. The connective tissue is somehow dissolved and reset. Muscles are strengthened, bone made sturdier. Some of our best workers have been enhanced under Ker Balkonen’s skillful gaze. And he is the best. In fact, better than most biokinets, he can shape the mind—giving us the perfect work slave, sex slave, assassin, or whatever.”
Minister Pelna squatted and looked up into Cressa’s eyes. “Your betrothed?” The minister’s nod was torture to the young woman. “We have him, or,… more accurately, the Worker Class has him. He is not as handsome as he used to be, though he is stronger. He is more dull-witted. You really wouldn’t like him, now. You wouldn’t recognize him, and neither would he recognize you. But we can change that. Change him back. Would you like that?”
Cressa started to sob. “What… what do you want me… me to do?”
“Very good. Very good.” The minister stood and turned toward Hringe. “My dear boy. Not many know of the Sorcerer Class. Only the most powerful. The sorcerers help those in power find new sorcerer candidates and to steal them away from their current classes. And only the power brokers have the talents of the Sorcerer Class to help them keep their positions of power.
“Now, Cressa Brezna is not a very talented telepath. She’s still learning. Her current position, assisting in the management of the imperial household, does not require great skill.
“Even the imperial household does not have a biokinet with the skills of Ker Balkonen. He will help you, Cressa.” The minister turned her eyes away from Hringe, back to the young woman. “You will have greater power with your telepathy. Ker knows how. He also knows how to help you hide your telepathy—to shield it from the prying thoughts of other, more powerful telepaths.”
Cressa looked up at the minister, eyes still wide, her face now frozen with an empty expression.
“You will tell us what the Empress is thinking. You do want to get your betrothed back, don’t you.” She nodded with encouragement. “Yes, you do.”
“I—I will do as you command,” said Cressa.
“Good.” The minister turned back to Hringe. “Take Ms. Brezna back to the imperial hub.”
After the senatorial page and Cressa had left, Minister Pelna spoke again to her biokinet. “What happened earlier with old Kotornen?”
“I found him, minister. When I caught up with him, he was talking with someone. I don’t know who, but I gained a good imprint of her. I will recognize her if I feel her presence again.”
“But what did the old fool tell her?”
“The encounter was too brief for me to gain an entry. Kotornen seemed to have learned a few tricks to block my entrance into his mind. I thought it best to stop him before he could say too much.”
Pelna nodded and turned toward the stairs. At the first step, she hesitated. “Ker, let me know the moment you discover the identity of the woman he talked to.”
EPOCH 406, PISCES 1977
Several kilometers inland from Puerta de Cráneos, Nicaragua
Gunter Jürgens took off his hat and wiped his brow. Almost nothing stayed dry in the rain forest. Jungle humidity made dryness near impossible, and the light drizzle made it worse.
The mound on which he stood rose six meters from the surrounding terrain. Layer upon layer had been peeled away until the pyramid top had been revealed. Now, a somewhat level circle of mud, twenty meters across, marked the end of phase one. After weeks of careful work, they now had a vertical channel opened to the ancient structure’s heart. The entire mound was sixty meters across, and stood to one side of a larger, circular island of mud carved out of the Nicaraguan jungle.
Musty smells of wet earth and decaying vegetation filled the air. Only an occasional squawk or shriek pierced the muted, gray noise of heavy mist settling against a sea of broad, tropical leaves.
Gunter looked up at the sky just as the Roanhorse shuttle appeared below the cloud cover. He knew that the shuttles were fast, but seconds to travel from Scotland still seemed impossibly short.
As the shuttle settled toward the ground near the center of camp, Gunter made his way down the muddy slope.
He looked back over his shoulder and yelled to his foreman. “Al, get the rope ladder. We’re going in.”
At the mound top, Al Montoya and half a dozen workers stood gaping into the pyramid opening. One of the workers aimed a large flashlight down the throat of the ancient building. Several large stones and dozens of smaller ones decorated the mound’s upper slope just beyond the hole that held their attention.
Of the stones they had removed, all were a medium gray granite. Each had been square cut with remarkable precision. Interior surfaces were smooth, but exterior surfaces had retained a high polish, all the more remarkable because of their great age.
Gunter’s foreman, Al, was a burly mestizo, with a square face and aquiline nose that spoke of ancient Mayan heritage. The foreman looked away from the pyramid’s hole, in Gunter’s direction. “Sí, jefe.” He took the flashlight from the worker and ordered him in Spanish to retrieve the ladder.
Gunter Jürgens was a second-generation American, on his Dad’s side. This was his dig, though he did not look the part. Boyish and handsome face, and light brown crew cut made him appear immature. He stood only 177 centimeters high—medium height for a gringo—but he carried himself with authority. However, it was more important to him that he went out of his way to treat each worker with respect.
As he continued toward the shuttle, his glance met that of Lieutenant Rodriguez. The officer had just given an order to one of his privates who now trotted off toward the clearing’s outer edge where the other guards on duty stood. Gunter gave the officer a warm, open smile. The lieutenant looked away, and turned his gaze to the site’s jungle perimeter.
Gunter chuckled. All this activity probably woke them up.
The Nicaraguan government had assigned close to two dozen soldiers to oversee camp security. Treasure hunters were always a threat at a fresh antiquities site, especially in the last few years, and almost always they were armed. Nicaragua’s poor economy had become even weaker in the new interstellar marketplace. That had given birth to a new breed of criminals, more desperate and ruthless than anything Central America had seen in decades.
The dig was under the joint sponsorship of the Nicaraguan government, the British Academy’s archaeological branch, and Roanhorse Aerospace. The aerospace company had supplied the high-tech devices used to discover the site. A warpfield sensor scan of Nicaragua’s eastern hills had revealed many interesting structures hidden beneath the forests and farmland—small villages, solitary buildings of unknown purpose, and the buried ruins of an aqueduct.
The pyramid being investigated had set off nearly all of the sophate* detection algorithms. Within a very small space was an unnatural level of complex, inorganic structure and rare elements. A special survey marker had tagged the spot several weeks before. Gunter glanced toward the marker. It now lay on a tarp protecting a stack of provisions next to the main tent.
“The proverbial ‘X,’” he told himself softly. “The treasure is almost ours. And just a short distance from a town called Gate of Skulls. How poetic.” In his mind’s eye, he pictured pirates standing around an unearthed treasure chest. The image brought a brief smile to his face.
As Gunter neared the shuttle, Jack Gillenwater was stepping off into the mud, wearing a light gray slicker and black rain boots. Jack’s rain cap made him look a bit comical, but Gunter was not feeling the humor of it.
The representative from Roanhorse Aerospace was here to oversee the treasure chest’s opening, and that made the archaeologist a little anxious. Gunter wanted to think he was in control of the dig and its findings, but with three sponsors, reality differed. So far, they had given him nothing about which to complain. Each group had left him alone, accepting daily progress reports, for the most part without any questions. This was the first sponsor visit.
Jack Gillenwater stood a tall, 191 centimeters. He had a pleasant, oval face with strong, well-defined features. There was an easy power from his movements that suggested this mid-thirties executive worked out regularly. He turned at the sound of Gunter’s approach.
“Mister Jürgens,” said Jack. “So good to see you again.”
The two shook hands. Gunter made it a short formality. Pleasantries and politics were two of his least favorite activities.
“Gus. Please call me Gus.”
“Certainly. Of course. Then, by all means, call me Jack.” The Roanhorse representative propped his hands on his hips and nodded toward the mound, with its scatter of huge, cut stones, and large flank of displaced earth. “The hill looks a great deal shorter, what with four meters shaved off the top.”
Gunter nodded, pursing his lips, then glanced upward to see the shuttle hover for a moment before vanishing into the gray sky.
Jack hesitated, studying the archaeologist for a moment.
“Please.” Jack pointed with his open hand toward the buried pyramid. “Let’s see this treasure chest of yours.”
Gunter offered a weak smile at the statement of ownership, and led the way toward the pyramid. He knew the artifact was not his, but appreciated the man’s attempt at breaking the moment’s awkwardness. Ownership had never been his aim. The opportunity to work with such a find—that was what drove him.
Now, if only the rain would stop. Again, Gunter glanced at the sky. Too many problems with the slippery mud—minor injuries, mudslides—all making the work harder, and slower. And now that the pyramid is open, we’re going to have to pitch a tent over the opening to keep the interior from flooding.
The past decade had given Nicaragua’s eastern coast a series of record rains. At times, the mud would liquefy. The frame they had constructed for lifting the upper level stones from the pyramid had been apt to sink into the mud, especially with stones weighing more than a metric ton.
Injuries had been relatively minor, except for a broken arm when the lifting frame had slipped. Thankfully, there had been no fatalities.
Fifteen trabajadores from Managua did most of the manual labor. Of the locals, only Al, their supervisor, spoke fluent English and Spanish. Amongst the soldiers, only the lieutenant spoke a little English, but he usually deferred to Al for translations.
Gunter scanned the camp’s periphery, a rough circle two hundred and fifty meters across. He noticed two soldiers talking to one another, looking in his direction. He glanced at the other guards around the perimeter. As usual, they were paired and evenly spaced along the jungle wall and several meters from the clearing’s edge.
Gunter’s cellular phone chimed and he answered. “Gus here. Hi, Toshi. We’re about to go into the pyramid.” He listened while he and Jack continued toward the mound. “Good work, Toshi. See you shortly.”
Gunter chuckled as he holstered his phone, then muttered to himself. “This is the best darn day of my life.”
“So?” asked Jack.
Gunter sobered a bit. “Lab results. We found organic material at the top of the pyramid, and under nearly three meters of soil. Dated, it comes in at a little over eight thousand years old. That’s six thousand BC.”
“That makes the pyramid very old. It was already here when the organic material was deposited. The pyramid had to have been built sometime before that—hundreds, maybe even thousands of years earlier.” He pointed toward the mound ahead of them. “What we’re about to enter might just be the oldest pyramid on the planet.”
Jack took the lead as they started up the mound, and Gunter sped his pace to keep up.
On the mound’s top, the workers had already staked out the load lines of the rope ladder. Despite the soft mud, the load lines were long enough and there were enough stakes in place to support one large man on the ladder, possibly two. Even so, Al had four men stand on each rope extension, next to the stakes to give the ladder extra stability.
At the pyramid opening, Gunter introduced Al. “Jack, I believe you’ve met Alberto Montoya, my foreman.”
“Señor Gillenwater,” said Al. “Mucho gusto.” The two men shook hands. “It is a pleasure to meet you again. Would you like to see our treasure chest?”
“The pleasure is mine, Señor Montoya.” Jack glanced down the dark hole next to them, then back to Gunter. “Is it entirely safe?”
“No booby traps, if that’s what you mean.” Gunter laughed. “But I’ll go down first.” He received the large flashlight from Al and thanked his foreman. Clipping it to his belt, Gunter then started down.
Jack watched the archaeologist descend into the darkness. In moments, all he could see was the mist-like rain that entered the pyramid’s throat.
After about ten meters, Gunter stepped away from the ladder and yelled. “I’ll steady it for you. Come on down.”
As Jack neared the bottom, Gunter spoke again. “Careful. The floor is another two meters down.”
Gunter removed the flashlight from his belt and aimed it at the platform on which he stood. Jack could see the platform’s edge give way to blackness, marking off a space little better than two meters by one.
“This is the treasure chest we’re standing on.”
With the flashlight, Gunter guided their way off the platform. A quick scan showed an empty chamber—no other artifacts or markings. One wall opened to a short corridor blocked on the other end by the small pyramid’s outer wall.
Gunter turned the flashlight back to their treasure. A simple, rectangular, gray stone box stood on a pedestal that elevated the box a little over half a meter off the chamber floor. A stone lid, nearly ten centimeters thick, covered the top of the box. Notches on the corners and halfway along the lengths of the box kept the lid in place.
For the moment, all thought of Roanhorse intrusion left Gunter. Here in the midst of such an ancient artifact, he could not stop smiling. He fidgeted like a young school boy on a first date, switching the flashlight between hands. Several times, he attempted to dry his hands on his pants.
In his imagination, he saw men and women, in a solemn ceremony, placing the box onto its stone pedestal. He was puzzled at how effortlessly they moved the massive artifact. He was also puzzled that his imagination had chosen to clothe them in modern dress.
“Doesn’t look like much,” said Jack, “at least on the outside.”
“Hmm-m-m, yep.” Gunter hesitated a moment, not sure he should say what was on his mind. Finally, he said, “Jack, I meant to thank you and Roanhorse Aerospace for sponsoring this dig. I might never have found this without—”
“Gus, don’t worry about it.” Jack held up a hand where it would show in the reflected light. “Listen. I know this is awkward having me here, but it’s not what you think. I’m giddy as hell over your discovery. But I’m also here to help in any way I can.”
“And,” Jack added, taking a deep breath, “I’m not here to interfere. You’re the expert. This is your show.”
Puffed cheeks made Gunter look silly in the dim light. He let out the air slowly. “Thanks, Jack. I appreciate that.”
Jack looked away and stroked his jaw. Then he put a hand on one of the corners of their stone treasure chest and faced Gunter more fully. “When you came to RAS Scotland, four months ago, you suspected we had technology—the kind that could help you find prime dig sites. And you were right. Yeah, but we didn’t tell you half the stuff we have in our arsenal.”
Gunter tilted his head and furrowed his brow. “I hope something to solve another problem we have. We know there’s a gold box inside this stone one. We know there’s a lot of detail inside that. But in order to get to the detail, we’re going to have to remove both lids and take the items out piecemeal. I’d like to open them in a more controlled environment.”
Jack chuckled. “Is the opening above big enough?”
“For the box to fit through? Sure, but this thing weighs several tons. There’s a lot of solid gold inside. And the stone itself—got to be heavy.”
“We can levitate out the entire stone box with all its contents. The same warpfield that drives our ships. Then take it anywhere you want.”
“That’s got to take a lot of energy.”
“Not really. It takes surprisingly little to maintain the warpfield. And, with the field’s inertial and gravitational attenuation, there’s effectively no weight to lift.” Jack nodded. “Really. It’s no problem.”
Gunter felt suddenly free of any emotional restraint. “Well, damn, Sam. That’s great!” He threw back his head and laughed. “Jack, we’re going to get along just fine. That’s a promise.”
Jack reached up for the rope ladder and started to lift himself onto the stone box lid.
“Question, Jack.” Gunter clipped the flashlight back onto his belt. “If you can have this levitated out, how long would it take to get it to Managua—to the warehouse lab?” Gunter joined Jack on the stone box.
Jack laughed. “Minutes, if not seconds.” He was still chuckling as he started back up.
Gunter’s smile was broad and relaxed as he held the ladder steady. While waiting for the okay from Jack, he looked down.
His attention moved into the object beneath his feet, and the hairs on his arms began to rise.
Everything in his life seemed to have prepared him for this trophy, yet he felt insignificant next to it. Until now, his life’s work had been supported by known history. The culture of five thousand years had always cushioned him from the unknown’s abyss. Within the stone box, time dropped away as a chasm. Now, he saw the six thousand years between the bottom of history and this object—this end to someone else’s history. He felt naked above it. Nothing lay between him and the ancient of ancients.
Closing his eyes, Gunter felt suddenly dizzy. He blinked for a moment, took a slow, uneasy breath, and exhaled raggedly. Then he looked up and saw Jack wave to him.
Glancing again at the artifact, he imagined opening its secrets. “Soon,” he whispered.
Gunter nodded and started up.
* sophate—adj. Derived from or made by intelligent beings. [sophos, skilled, clever; -ate, derived from. A word coined by Professor Max Wollenslagel, Cambridge, during the 2025 Edinburgh Conference on “Ethical Conduct in Space Exploration and Colonization,” from which the Edinburgh Accords were developed.]