"Hell Tunnel" by Ehrad

 

Cargo
by Floyd Largent

 

Let's see now -- what's it like to be one of the people who proved conclusively that humanity's not alone in the universe? Where the hell do you people get these questions, anyway?

Wait, wait. I'm sorry. I'll tell you. The truth is, it sucks.

Yeah, I'll talk to you. Don't act so surprised. I'm stinking drunk, I'm sick of the secrecy, and this'll bloody well save me from being just a tiny little footnote in the back of a textbook somewhere. Weinstatter doesn't deserve all the glory. I'm the one who made the real discovery.

No, not the one you're thinking of.

Back when I was in grad school, they taught us that the Great Sphinx was, at heart, a prettified yardang - an elongated erosional feature made of solid rock. Add a head and legs, carve a few features, lop off the nose, and viola, you've got one of the Eight Wonders of the Ancient World. Well, it was a good guess.

So far, I've avoided talking about the Sphinx and what we found there. No nine-figure deals for me, no adulation, no product endorsements. When people ask, I say I get fulfillment enough just knowing I was part of the team that made life better for all humanity. The truth is, I've been afraid to say anything, anything at all, afraid I'd spill what I'd promised not to. But I'm nearing the end of my fifteen minutes of fame, so I thought I'd better say my piece about the Gangwasi artifact while people still care.

You know the backstory: a few years ago, Herr Doktor Weinstatter was poring over gravitational differential maps recorded by the Egyptian government, when he spotted it: an unusually large masscon anomaly centered on the Sphinx. It was exactly the sort of thing he was looking for. See, the denser an object is, the more it affects the local gravitational field. Really dense objects, like chunks of metal, cause a tiny but detectable spike. Less-dense objects and underground cavities produce a different signature. It was the latter he was looking for, and the Sphinx paid off in spades. Weinstatter was so excited he almost wet his pants. He was absolutely certain he'd found the burial chamber of some heretofore unknown king, and he couldn't wait to get his chubby little Prussian hands on it. I won't bore you with the details of the years of struggle he went through to obtain the funding and permissions he needed to mount an excavation -- he did that himself in his book. Suffice it to say that, by this time last year he and several tons of equipment were in Egypt and I, his top grad student and heir-apparent, was there with him as crew chief. Lucky for him -- there aren't too many archeology grad students who have degrees in Computer Science.

The Egyptian government was pretty excited about it too, but they weren't willing to noticeably damage one of their top cash cows, so they made us build a wood-timbered tunnel that dipped more than four meters under the sand and butted against the long-buried side of the monument. That took us twelve days. Once we'd finished the tunnel, we were required to very carefully carve a replaceable entrance no more than two meters on a side. Jackhammer time. We started that on the thirteenth day, and were going great guns until we struck metal the next morning, about a meter below the surface of the rock.

Not just any metal, either: it turned out to be a titanium alloy, twenty centimeters thick and shiny as the day it was made. It wasn't Egyptian by any stretch of the imagination; at no time did the ancient Egyptians ever have the capacity to work any metal harder than bronze. Our first reaction was disappointment. Obviously, the material was modern. We'd been duped. We just started packing it in, ready to go home in disgrace.

But Weinstatter couldn't leave it alone. He kept bleating about how there was no way anyone could have hoaxed us; there was absolutely no evidence of any of seam or joint on any part of the monument's body that we could see, either below ground or above it. The head and legs, sure. They'd been added later. But the stone comprising the bulk of the Sphinx was all of a piece. And you know, he was right. He had me half-convinced before the day was out.

Then we got back the potassium-argon dates for the rock we'd removed from the Sphinx's side as we excavated, and I was completely convinced. According to the University of Cairo, the carbonaceous basalt was about six million years old, give or take a few thousand years. Kind of young for a yardang, but not unheard of. The strontium-rubidium dates we got from UCLA a week later confirmed the K-Ar dates. By then, it was clear the Sphinx wasn't a yardang and never had been. The samples had been collected from locations thirty to eighty centimeters below the Sphinx's surface, and there was no evidence that they were intrusive or that they'd ever been disturbed from their current position. As far as we could tell, the metal had been grown, organic-like, inside a thick stone shell. Further study proved that there was no discontinuity where the rock and metal met; the titanium just graded into solid basalt. It was like nothing we humans have ever built.

We burned our way through the metal skin with oxyacetylene torches, and before we were half done it was clear that something wonderful and unprecedented was on the other side, because breathable air was filtering through and we could see light through the cutlines. We broke through at 1237 GMT on September 23, and Weinstatter made a point of being the first person through the portal.

I'll never forget it. He turned to look back at us, his eyes filled with wonder, and promptly fainted. I shoved Weinstatter aside and followed him in. Then I turned around, ran back to camp, called the authorities, and the rest is history.

The films you've seen don't do it justice. The ship is just massive, so big it puts any of our own spacecraft to shame, and it's still fully operational, even after all this time. The cold-fusion reactor still works, and will apparently continue to do so for millions of years more. We named the people who built it "Gangwasi"-- not for any logical reason, but for a stupid one. I stumbled on the threshold when I passed through the portal the second time, and I grabbed at a green pillar to steady myself. We still haven't decided if it's a piece of equipment or statuary or even some sort of burglar alarm, but whatever it is, when I touched it a deep tone rang out and a gargling whisper croaked something that sounded like "gang-wa-si." It's still whispering the same word, over and over. Probably it means something like "Hands Off!," but whatever it means, the name's stuck.

I lived in that ship for eight days before the UN troops hustled me out, having claimed the derelict for the good of humanity, and Weinstatter was there beside me the whole time. I'm not sure if I ate at all during that period. I do know that at the end of it, I was a good five kilos lighter than when I'd gone in. By then, we'd explored every centimeter of the place we could find access to. Every bit was clean, well-lighted, perfectly ventilated, and pleasing to the eye, even the cargo holds and engine compartments. I'd say the ship's at least as big as the Queen Mary, maybe bigger; the bit that's visible is like the visible part of an iceberg. Most of it's underground. The rock on the outside, as it turned out, was actually a cheap form of radiation shielding that had somehow been spun out of the fabric of the ship's skin. By the way, we did finally find the airlock. It's located 30 meters below the surface, but it's standing open, so we know something got out alive when the ship crashed.

It's the find of the millennium sure enough, the most important thing human beings have ever discovered, and I still have nightmares about it every single night. I can't deny that the Gangwasi ship has been a godsend; it's brought humanity together in a manner unprecedented in our history, and it's kicked our technological evolution ahead by several centuries. The CF reactor alone will impact human civilization more than all the inventions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries combined. But, despite the UN Accord, not everything we found on the ship has been shared with all humanity.

Weinstatter has announced publicly that the Gangwasi ship is a wayward freighter, a cargo vessel that for some reason wandered into our solar system and crashed, and he's telling the truth about that. But when he says he doesn't know what the ship was carrying, he's lying through his teeth.

We have no idea what happened to the pilot, or what he might have looked like, or even if there was one. The computer system is fantastically complex. But we do know what happened to the cargo. In each of the eighteen cargo bays 20,736 empty plastic cubbies are racked in neat rows reaching to the ceiling. Apparently they popped open when the ship was stranded, releasing their contents. The interior of each cubby is specially molded to accommodate a small four-limbed shape. Now, I'm from Arkansas. Those neatly-stacked containers reminded me right away of something I see every time I get out on the highway.

Ever get stuck behind a chicken truck? One of those flat-bed semis loaded with hundreds of metal pallets, each of which contains a dozen drawers, with a fryer stuffed into each? The Gangwasi cargo bay was like that. It puzzled us at first, 'til I cracked the computer system and found the manifest. It was written in a language we may never translate, but it was accompanied by a visual record that clearly showed the cargo being onloaded, and helpfully provided technical specs for several typical cargo units.

Once he'd fully absorbed the import of what we'd found, it took Weinstatter about thirty seconds to order me to erase the manifest and all related files. I did my best, but there are probably still traces of 'em in there. He swore me to secrecy, and until now I've kept quiet. Sure, Weinstatter may be right. Maybe this particular truth isn't healthy for the species. I didn't agree then, and I don't now -- I think it should be shouted from the rooftops. We need to be prepared, just in case. Because I've developed a new theory about what the glowing green pillar is: I think it's a distress beacon, which had malfunctioned and failed to activate -- until I touched it. Now it's working fine, thanks to me.

So what? So this: we recognized the cargo. Any anthropologist would -- hell, you're a science writer, you'd probably recognize them too. They were australopithecines. Great granddaddy a half-million generations removed, to you and me. And it's obvious they weren't passengers.

That's why I no longer sleep well. That's why I worry every single goddamned day. What happens if the Gangwasi detect the distress beacon's broadcast, after all this time?

And what if they come looking for their wayward chicken truck?



Story copyright 2003 by Floyd Largent stormwriter@stormwriter.com

Illustration copyright 2003 by Ehrad ehrad@eraduoncomics.net





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