Captain John Stock stood at the shadow’s edge of a canopy and looked out over the large mine. It looked, with men clambering in and out, armed with shovels and picks and stumbling along with wheelbarrows up and down its steep slopes, like an enormous, sunken anthill. The massive pit shared a view with the Pyramids of Giza on the horizon, a quaint contrast in his mind as he looked out over the desert. The mine pushed into the earth, the Pyramids drew away from it, and both in a scale unmatched by human conception. He wondered what the Company was paying the laborers as he watched them mine, plow and shovel away at the raw, ancient earth. He wondered how deep they might go. As deep as the pyramids were tall? Would it remain as long as these great wonders of the world, for another four-thousand years? All men die, but all gods must live.
“Beautiful land, I should say. It only needs a civilized touch. But now there’s the business with these dead men,” Basil Spence spoke in a guttural voice.
“How many, did you say?” John inquired, still looking out over the mine.
“Thirteen at our last count, all around Cairo. I’m afraid we have our own Jack the Ripper, here,” Spence shook his overlarge head in revulsion, sitting in a chair under the canopy. He held a pipe to his lips and worked them around it compulsively. “You know they found the last one with his innards torn out, guts opened up all over the streets. Disgusting.”
John put a hand to his weary head holding a handkerchief to wipe away the sweat from a hot morning. He’d been flown to Cairo overnight from his regiment at the Suez Canal, and airship travel never suited him.
“It’s not a wild animal?”
“Not from what my man can tell. Says nothing’s been eaten, just displayed for all to see. It’s very bad for business. Superstition is running wild.”
“Some are refusing to work, staying away from the mines; claiming the spirits of the dead pharaohs are upon this place,” He jabbed his pipe at the pyramids in the distance. “It won’t be long until they all quit, scared out of their minds because of those things and what they represent. I’d tear the two of them down if I could. They’re getting in the way of good progress.”
“Not much of an historian, Sir?”
“Alan was the historian, not me. But that brings me to the next problem, and the reason why you’re here. He’s missing.”
John turned his gaze to the great blob of a man sitting in his chair. Alan Isaacson missing?
“How long?” John asked.
“Coming close to a month. I’ve had men searching for weeks, but they haven’t turned up anything. Maybe the smartest man in the world, but fool enough to get lost somewhere in Egypt. He disappeared about the time that this nasty affair got going.”
“You believe it’s linked?”
“How do we know? Until we find him dead in an alley, or with a bloody knife in his hand—“
“You’re joking.” John blurted, incredulous.
“He was acting strange before he even went missing. He stopped coming to events, parties, and shut himself off from the world. His assistant is still around. That Doctor, fellow. But not talking much.”
“I’m to find him, then? That’s why I’m here?”
“This is an important task we are performing for Britain, you know,” The aging company man said, and opened his arms to the mine before them. “Nowhere in the world have we discovered such a rich deposit of minerals. For their efforts, the Egyptians get work, pay, and the benefit of good trade with British goods. If these attacks continue, however, the mine shuts down, and the factory with it. And the Company is then left useless to the British Empire. I want it settled. Lord Cromer wants it settled. Do you have a weapon?”
“I have my spin pistol.”
“Good. Keep it on you. Cairo is a dangerous place, these days. Best to be protected.”
John nodded and turned to look at the mine once more before buttoning his military coat, replacing his cover and walking back to his horse.
It was Alan who discovered the mineral deposits in Giza. As John understood the story, he’d been performing some kind of experiment with a new invention when he’d found the greatest natural source of wealth the world had ever known. But Alan hadn’t come to Egypt as an inventor or a scientist. He came as an historian. Much earlier in life he wrote three volumes on the history of Ancient Egypt which fast became the standard by which all historical works were judged. John read them as a child, and if he had any dream when he took his commission in Egypt it would have been to meet Alan Isaacson. Now it seemed, in the interwoven tapestry of fate, he might get his chance.
He began his investigation that afternoon, starting at Alan’s home. John found the house vacant, except for servants who still cleaned and maintained the residence. He asked, but realized instantly that none of them had the slightest clue where Alan might have gone. But John’s investigation had shown that Alan had been involved in some peculiar business in the months before his disappearance. According to a resident, he left with his assistant and friend, Dr. Christopher Prynne, and did not returned for at least a month. The man described a great deal of commotion, one day, as they stocked a wagon full of equipment, and supplies. But when they had returned a fortnight later, the man explained, it was in the dead of night. He described the two moving in fear and haste, never with both eyes in their work but always one to look out for someone watching. Another man, a butcher at the local market, described Prynne sometime later approaching and asking for the strangest things. He’d requested innards from various animals; livers, intestines and stomachs, from cows and goats. He’d asked specifically for the brain of a pig, but the butcher said he refused, and spat on the ground. John was particularly concerned about the last part. What had they been doing over the last several months? Why?
It was Prynne, whom John looked for when he stepped into a small tavern in Cairo. He’d heard, upon asking those living near Alan’s residence, that while Alan was missing, Prynne had been seen at a tavern deep in the city’s interior.
A thin layer of sweat seemed to coat the place, John observed, as he walked into the tavern. It was only so full, enough men for a cicada-like echo of Arabic to hang about the air. He spied Prynne in a corner of the room. He approached.
“Good day, Dr. Prynne. I’m Captain John Stock of His Majesty’s Royal Army.”
Prynne looked up. He was un-groomed, and a stench lingered about him. He observed John, glanced down to the belt and pistol he wore around his waist and back up in suspicion. John continued.
“I’ve been sent by Lord Cromer and his majesty to inquire about the whereabouts of your friend.”
“I haven’t done anything,” Prynne replied, sitting up straight for a moment before sagging under the weight of alcohol. “I don’t know what you think I’m responsible for.”
“Quite. But unfortunately, the things that I’ve heard need to be answered for.”
Prynne was resolute in defiance. He folded his arms and pursed lips under his white mustache. But the dark shadows under his eyes betrayed him. He was hiding something, John was sure. He knew where Alan was.
“Believe me when I say that I only worry about your friend, Dr. Prynne. The Crown has a vested interest in his wellbeing, and in the light of these deaths here in Cairo it’s all the more important that we know he’s safe.”
“Spence sent you, didn’t he,” Prynne reasoned. “The Crown is worried about the Company, and the Company is worried about its productivity. When the first men were found dead, do you think he even batted an eye?”
John felt the pang of embarrassment, but did his duty all the same.
“Where is Alan?”
“Damn the Company, and damn the Crown.” Prynne stood up, ready to leave.
“Do you know what the first book that I ever read was?” John asked in that moment. “It was The Histories and Antiquities of Ancient Egypt Vol. 1 by Alan Isaacson.”
Prynne stayed where he was, apparently interested in what John had to say.
“My father handed it to me when we arrived here nearly twenty years ago. He was a diplomat, my father. He helped coordinate the building of the Suez Canal. He believed that when travelling one must understand the culture, lest how would we be able to truly understand one another. It was a spectacular book; in a summer I read it three times. I was so fascinated by the history that I learned all that I could of Egypt. For the five years I was here I explored the nooks of this place, and visited tombs of the great pharaohs of old. I say all of this, Dr. Prynne, because I want you to know that there’s not a man in Cairo in greater support of your friend than I. I would move mountains, to see that Alan Isaacson is safe and well.”
Prynne sat down again, no longer upset. Instead, he wore a look of extreme dread.
“No one is safe any longer, Captain, we’re all in danger.”
“Tell me what happened, Doctor.”
The man sighed, and looked out through the tavern into the clear sky above. His shoulders slumped again, defenses finally down.
“The problem with history is, that there is never a point of clear understanding. The past is locked away behind a window of perspective from the person writing, always presenting facts in the way he understands them. The way he interprets them. Alan could never quite get over that. He obsessed for years about how he might truly find a pure source of history, and it was that damned machine that led him down this path.”
“His Terra Informer,” Prynne replied.
John raised an eyebrow. The Terra Informer was the invention Alan used to discover those mineral deposits outside of Cairo. It was a brilliant design, from the little John understood. Waves of light, or something like it, were sent into the earth and bounced off whatever they hit, returning parts of light that it didn’t absorb. The invention was groundbreaking. His discovery revolutionary. Alan became a valuable government resource overnight.
“Finding those deposits in Giza was a mistake, as you know. A happy accident, that’s led to all of this fame and fortune that he never really wanted. The man has always been devoted to his science, to his history. We’d been in Giza for months using the machine, before he decided on another location; The Valley of Kings. He found it almost instantly. It was tomb located underground, lost to the sands of time. We excavated it. We set a tent above the site and pretended we were simply wealthy travelers exploring the ancient valley.”
Prynne ran a hand over his gaunt face, and took a sip from his cup.
“Alan knew what we had the moment we finally made our way into the wretched thing. With all of the gold, all of the décor lining the walls, it was the tomb of King Tutankhamun, he said. The look on his face was incredible. He was giddy, like a child on Christmas. But it wasn’t the gold that Alan was interested in. It was the Pharaoh himself. It was mummified, wrapped in old cloth, but intact. More than any person could possibly be after a thousand years under the earth.”
“Three thousand.” John corrected him.
“Indeed. Well, we brought him back. We rigged pulleys and rope. Alan came up with a contraption; a powered winding mechanism that cut down on the work, making it a reasonably easy process. We wrapped his tomb in canvas, put it on a wagon and came back to the city. Once here, we—“
Alan broke off, bursting into a fit and shaking uncontrollably. Something between panic and fear, shame and terror.
“He’d read somewhere, done research,” Prynne said, vomiting words onto the table. “He thought we could—could revive him.”
“Revive what? The body?” John asked in disbelief.
“He’d read of a man who’d tried it once, found his research a long time ago. But he said it was all academic. Then he changed, and he felt that it might work. The body had no organs, no mind. I helped him.” Prynne was positively writhing.
“Why would he try such thing?” John asked.
“He said we might learn from him, if only he were alive!” the Doctor moaned. “He said that this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to study from a man who was there! But it didn’t work! It was a monster, just twisting and screaming on its bonds! It got out. It broke out of the laboratory in the basement of his house. It’s been on the loose ever since. I wanted to destroy it, but Alan wouldn’t think of it! I begged him, but he still thinks he can control it. He’s wrong.”
Dr. Prynne stood up. He was different. His posture resolute, his expression now beyond fear, beyond panic, and into something far more primal. John didn’t move, but followed him with his gaze.
“I’m going, Captain Stock. I’m leaving this city as soon as possible and you should too. Alan is not the man the world once knew. He’s lost his sanity, his humanity, and his cause for goodness. He might as well already be dead.”
“If he’s that lost, Dr. Prynne, someone has to find him.”
“If you insist on finishing this insane quest, you’ll find that book that you love so much will be of help.”
Prynne turned and walked away. He did not look back. John considered for a moment whether what he’d just been told were true, if it were possible. After a time he stood up and left the tavern, just as Prynne did, with a stride less determined than it once was.
The sky was blood orange when John arrived at Alan’s abandoned residence. Foot traffic in the city had lessened by the setting of the sun. In this modern age, John thought, men still responded intrinsically to the ancient impulse that the night was a time to hide away, a time of danger. Or maybe, these days, something real made the men and women of Cairo hide. John shared the impulse, but he walked into the house anyway.
He explored little. John had been to the house twice in the past day before approaching Prynne. He’d seen the foyer, the dining room; he’d walked upstairs to Alan’s bedroom and to his study. The house was a marvel of technology and engineering. Every door had mechanisms to automatically close. The clock built into the walls of the house itself was designed to draw curtains, light lamps based on the time of day.
Remembering Prynne’s final words to him, John went to the bookcase in Alan’s study. The wall was lined with books and manuscripts, some new and some incredibly old. Like every good scholar, John thought, Alan read far more than he ever wrote. In the middle of the bookcase stood his few scientific and historical works. The Modern Laws of Thermodynamic Manipulation, The Principles of Light Particles and Sound Waves, and Air Navigation in the 19th Century. At the end was what John was looking for—the three volumes of The Histories and Antiquities of Ancient Egypt.
Almost understanding what he needed to do, John pulled back on the first volume and heard a soft click. There was a clank of metal, the sound of a chain being pulled, and the unmistakable grind of gears as the bookcase jutted inward and slid to one side. A staircase was revealed in the gap made, and John took it, having already left his apprehension at the door.
Down the dark passage, John felt the air shift as he traveled below the surface of the city. He felt his way, around a corner, and then another, down more stairs until he glimpsed a small sliver of light.
“Hello? Mr. Isaacson?”
A clamber of movement, and something passed over the light that transfixed John’s gaze. Was that him? Or was it—
“Who’s there? I’m armed, you know,” said a gruff voice.
“I’m here on behalf of the British government. I’m Captain John Stock.”
John wondered if it were really him, then wondered if it could be anyone else.
“What do you want?”
John chose his words carefully.
“I’m concerned with your safety. We all are.”
“Well I’m fine. Please leave me alone,” said the voice, lurking in the tiny light. “How did you find me, anyway?”
“Your friend, Christopher Prynne. He was worried too.”
“I suppose he told you some of what has been happening? He never was discreet.”
“I’d like to hear more. How have you survived down here?” John asked, slowly pushing forward to the light.
“Rations. Some of my own design.” Alan’s tone shifted; excited to talk, maybe, about his work. “They have all the nutrients the body needs in only a few bites. Quite remarkable, really.”
John arrived at the end of a hallway and stepped into a room. It was a laboratory, filled with equipment, mechanical objects of intricate design bathed in the light of a single lamp on a table at the end of the room. Alan stood near the table. Next to him was a large frame of metal, welded and bolted together and strung with wires that ran to the floor and slithered out into the darkness. A cold shiver ran down John’s spine, and his hand twitched for the spin pistol just underneath his coat.
“I should very much like to try one sometime,” he said, noting his own shallow breath.
“Yes, yes. I’m sure you would. There’s plenty to go—but wait a minute, Mr….” He stopped, looking up at John with a fresh sense of curiosity. In the dim light of the lamp, John could see that Alan was in a horrible state. A month of untouched growth put a patchy gray beard over his sallow skin. His eyes were bloodshot and hair matted down onto his face. He looked vaguely monstrous.
“Captain Stock,” John said, softly.
“Mr. Stock, yes.” His tone shifted to that of a merchant doing business. “Why are you here? Prynne told you, eh? He told you about our experiment?”
“It was a wild tale, Mr. Isaacson. He seemed to fear your actions were… unethical,” John replied. Remaining on the man’s good side seemed prudent in this situation.
“Ha! Unethical! The man dissects bodies for a living, and suddenly I’m the unethical one?” Isaacson’s voice cracked in its passion. “Ethics are a means of control, Mr. Stock, nothing more. They change with the tide of rhetoric.”
“But history doesn’t change, does it, sir?”
“Of course it doesn’t. But we do. You see, this is what I’ve been trying to get at, Mr. Stock. I can be the first to truly capture the mind of history. Who was King Tutankhamun? Why did he die so young? It’s all impossible to guess. But here, with the melding of science and history, we have a chance to do something no one has ever done before.”
A fire was lit in his eyes, as he spoke. John watched him ramble with shaking hands and couldn’t help but wonder; was this really true, the tale that Christopher Prynne spoke?
“Alan, what have you done? Tell me that Prynne’s story is untrue.”
“Why should I tell you anything? You’ll find out soon enough.”
Just then John heard a noise behind him. In the hallway that he’d come, there was a scrape, a dragging sound, and the unearthly shift of —something—on stone. He turned to the hall in an instant and took a step back, his hand moving to his weapon. He watched the darkness. Out of the shadows, a wail, a terrible shriek came forth as the non-rhythmic noises grew louder. John planted his left foot back and drew his spin pistol from the holster underneath his coat. The revolving chamber of the weapon was full upon quick inspection, and he grabbed hold of the rip cord that dangled and yanked hard. The pistol cartridge wound tight with tension and he wrapped the cord over his arm with military precision. He waited. Alan, at the edge of his awareness, remained still.
Out of the shadow, a hand emerged waving aimlessly from the dark. Skeletal thin and wrapped in blood stained cloth, it wandered for a moment before finding the doorframe and grabbing hold. Blood trickled from the hand, seeping to the doorframe and down, down, down onto the floor. A bead of sweat trickled down John’s forehead as he looked on in horror, not knowing what kept him standing in his place. The hand twitched, flexed, and pulled into the room the six-foot bulk of King Tutankhamun himself. Still wrapped in cloth from head to foot and covered in blood, the mummified body stood wretchedly before him with a grotesque hanging mouth and knees buckled inward. It let out a scream, a howl somewhere between a yawn and the cry of a dying man.
“He won’t hurt you,” Alan said, mildly. “He’s already fed, by the looks of it.”
John looked down and saw the pale bloody color of flesh clutched in its other hand.
“He’s eating people?”
“He gets hungry, like you or me. He escaped shortly after we first brought him to life, did Prynne tell you? But he always seems to return after a few hours. He was truly horrific when he first awoke but he’s really quite intelligent, it’s just taking a little while to return him to his sanity.”
The great beast took a step forward, and John took a step back.
“He only wants to return to his cage, his home. Just move to one side, and let him pass,” Alan continued, in a sickeningly persuasive tone. “You want to know as much as I do, I can tell, Mr. Stock. Just move aside, and we can change the world together.”
For an instant, John might have obliged. For an instant his fear almost gave way to submission, as the natural human characteristic is liable to do in such extraordinary cases. But for Captain John Stock, years of military training took over. His left forearm came up to support his pistol, already leveled at the monster in front of him. He fired one, two, four, eight shots into the beast, and the cartridge expelled with the last round.
Dust splashed from the hideous corpse where the rounds entered. It swirled and dissipated into the air, but the monster remained standing. It roared again, piteously, and John reached instinctively for another cartridge.
“Wait, wait,” he said, stepping madly between them. “Don’t you see? This could change the world!”
“No, Alan,” John yelled, putting another cartridge into the weapon and pulling the cord once again. “Men have died because of this animal. Because of what you’ve done.”
John fired another shot into the head of the monster just over Alan’s shoulder, and he ducked to the side. The monster still stood and thrashed wildly at the gunshots that entered its body. John was quick to dodge the creature’s swipes and backed to the table.
He raised the spin pistol again, but the monster ran into him, colliding with such force that the pistol was flung to the side. In an instant, the bloody hands of the creature were on him, one hand to his throat and the other on his arm with a vice-like strength that pinned him against the table. In a fit of gags, John waved his free hand frantically for a weapon, but there was only one object on the table. He grabbed the lamp and swung it around to meet the head of the great beast with a crash. There was a spark, and instantly its head was alight. The fire spread to the torso, and John slipped sideways. He cradled his burnt hand, cut deep with shards of glass but he did not look away from his aggressor. The reanimated body of King Tutankhamun flailed as the fire engulfed it.
“NO!” Alan cried, who grabbed a moldy blanked and vainly attempted to put his creation out.
But the fire spread, and Alan soon found himself alight. He screamed as the fire consumed the blanket, his sleeves. Soon he flailed too, like the monster he’d created. The wild licks of flame cast violent shadows dancing around the room as they both screamed, and as the fire spread to the table, then to the room itself, John ran. Up the stairs, out of the study and out of the house he ran. He did not look back until he was out of the house and into the dark streets of Cairo once again.
He breathed heavily in the darkness, clutching his injured hand and falling to his knees. The air was cool, fresh. The house was on fire. He could tell by the growing illumination of the streets and steady warmth on his back. But John did not look back at the house. He stood, wearily, and walked away as a crowd gathered to watch. What is in the past should remain there, he thought.
He would go back to Spence, and tell him what had happened. Spence might believe him, or might not. Either way, he would be satisfied when John told him that the attacks would stop. The operation at the mine would continue, the British presence in Egypt would increase, and the Cairo would move on. Forgetting the existence of this night terror and the fear it caused.
But on that night in Cairo, though the sun had fallen and the night crept in, a light still burned out the darkness.