CHAPTER 1: The Past
THE SOLAR SYSTEM
The starship used a slingshot maneuver around the star to decelerate from interstellar speed. It was a small ship, a scout, and as the craft slowed, its sensors aligned on the signal that had diverted it to this system from its centuries-long patrol. The nose of the ship turned toward the third planet out as the data was analyzed. The signal was strange--a passive one, a uniform reflection of light rays from the system's star off something on the planet's surface, but there was little doubt the unusual effect was contrived by intelligence.
Searching out, analyzing, and then eventually reporting back concerning any intelligent life was the ship's mission. The nature of the species that crewed it was to find, infiltrate, consume, and ultimately destroy any intelligent life not like it.
Having picked up no active scanning in the solar system or signs of advanced weaponry, the ship emitted an energy pulse as it sent a spectrum of scanning signals toward the third planet to determine the source of the crude signal.
Unknown to the crew, the pulse was noted by passive sensors as it penetrated the atmosphere and reached the surface of the planet. A sophisticated computer, operating on low-power mode, intercepted the pulse, analyzed it, and projected possible courses of action in a matter of moments. In low-power mode the options were limited and the course of action was quickly selected.THE GIZA PLATEAU
The Great Sphinx glowered at the morning sun, while behind its left shoulder the smooth limestone sheathing covering the newly constructed Great Pyramid of Giza caught the rays of light and uniformly reflected them into the sky. At the very top of the five-hundred-foot-high pyramid, a blood-red capstone, twenty feet tall, glistened, an alien crown to the greatest structure ever built by human hands. The massive structure stood alone on the stone plateau, towering over the surrounding countryside, the nearby Nile, and the Sphinx complex.
The painted face of the Sphinx was sixty feet above the ground. From the front paws to the rear, it was over two hundred feet in length. It was set low in a depression in the Giza Plateau, stone walls surrounding it. To the east, in the direction of the Nile, were Khufu's Temple and the Temple of the Sphinx, where both Pharaoh and stone creature could be worshipped. A covered ramp led from the right rear of the Sphinx to the Temple at the base of the pyramid. While the pyramid was new, the surface of the Sphinx was scored by weather, having been there since the beginning of Egypt in the time when the Gods had ruled over seven thousand years earlier.
Between the paws of the Great Sphinx stood the Pharaoh Khufu, under whose leadership the Egyptians had labored for over twenty years moving stone after stone to build the Great Pyramid. The Pharaoh prostrated himself in front of a statue set before the creature's stone chest. The statue was three meters tall and roughly man-shaped with polished white skin. The dimensions weren't quite right--the body was too short and the limbs were too long. The ears had elongated lobes that reached to just above the shoulders and there were two gleaming red stones in place of eyes. On top of the head, the stone representing hair was painted bright red. Even more strangely for the astute observer, each hand ended in six fingers. The statue's appearance was in great contrast to Khufu's dark skin and hair and human proportions.
The Sphinx had been squatting in its stone depression for ages, beyond the dawn of the time of Pharaohs. Only a handful of those alive knew why it had been built or what it marked. For all but a chosen few it was forbidden to come to the area between the paws in front of Isis's statue.
Khufu had succeeded his father when he was just out of his teens and he was now middle-aged. He had ruled for almost three decades and Egypt was at peace with those outside its borders and rich within its own boundaries. The peace and wealth had allowed Khufu to implement the building plan for Giza that had been passed from the Gods, to the Shadows, to the Pharaohs over the three ages.
The vast quantity of stone needed for the pyramid had been quarried upriver and brought down by barge. Thousands had labored seasonally on it, moving the stone from the barges and placing each block in its position under the careful eye of engineer priests who worked from the holy plans that had been handed down.
The red capstone had been brought up from the bowels of the Giza Plateau, from one of the duats (underground chambers) along the tunneled Roads of Rostau where only the Gods and their priests were allowed to walk. No one knew what exactly it was, but they had followed the drawings they had been given to the last detail, from the smooth limestone facing to placing the red object as the capstone at the very top.
In the Pharaoh's left hand as he prostrated himself was a scepter, a foot long and two inches in diameter with a lion's head on one end. The lion image had red eyes similar to that of the statue, but these glowed fiercely as if lit from within. Khufu had been awakened just minutes ago by his senior priest, Asim. The staff had been in the trembling man's hand, the lion eyes glowing. He had passed it to the Pharaoh.
Khufu had thrown on a robe and dashed from his palace to his place before the Sphinx, as he had been told by his father he must do if the staff ever came alive. He was now chanting the prayers he had been taught. The statue was of Horus, the son of Isis and Osiris, the Gods who had founded Egypt at the dawn of time and ruled during the First Age. According to what Khufu had been told by his father and the priests, in the First Age, the Gods had ruled for many years before passing leadership on to Shadows of themselves, the followers of Horus, during the Second Age. Then even the Shadows had passed the mantle on to men, and the first Pharaohs took command of the Middle Kingdom of the Third Age.
Asim was the only other person in the area. He was the senior priest of the Cult of Isis and garbed in a red robe. The priest's right arm was withered and deformed where muscles and tendons had been sliced when he was a child. Where his left eye had been, there was an empty socket, the skin around it charred and scarred from the red-hot poker that had taken out the eyeball. Both ankles and calves were carefully bound to allow the priest to move as the tendons in his legs had also been partially severed when he was a child. He could not run or even walk quickly. The priest had also been castrated before puberty.
The mutilation was what was required of the head priest of the Cult and Khufu and Asim knew there was a method to the madness. The idea was to make Asim's life so miserable that while he would be able to perform his duties, he would not desire to live a long life and thus not hunger for the source of immortality--the Grail--that was said to be located somewhere below them, beyond the statue before which Khufu bowed his head. The scepter that Asim had brought Khufu was the key to the Roads of Rostau, the underground passageways that ran beneath their feet, and Asim and his followers were the only ones who had ever walked those roads.
Around Asim's neck was a medallion with an eye carved in the middle, a symbol of his office. The priesthood he was part of traced its lineage back many, many years, to the time even before the First Age of Egypt when the people lived in the center of the Great Sea beyond the Middle Sea into which the Nile emptied, in the lands of the Gods, before they were cast out and that land destroyed. The priest stood five paces behind the Pharaoh, muttering his own prayers rapidly in the old tongue that only the priests still knew, his anxiety obvious.
The quick prayers done, Khufu stood and glanced at Asim. The priest nodded. Khufu placed the staff against an indentation in the pedestal on which the statue stood. The carving had the exact same shape as the staff.
The pedestal shimmered, then the scepter was absorbed into it. The surface of the stone slid down, revealing a six-foot-high opening. The passageway beyond was dimly lit from recesses in the ceiling although the Pharaoh couldn't see the source of the strange light. Khufu hesitated, then reluctantly entered the tunnel, the priest following, moving quickly despite his crippled gait. The stone slid shut behind them.
Khufu hurried down the tunnel. The stone walls were cut smoothly, better than even his most skilled artisan could produce, but the Pharaoh, his heart beating furiously in his chest, had no time to admire the handiwork. He ruled supreme from the second cataracts of the Nile far to the south to the Middle Sea to the north, and many countries beyond those borders paid tribute, but here, on the Roads of Rostau, inside the Giza Plateau, he knew he was just an errand boy to the Gods. His father had never been down there, nor had his father's father or anyone in his line. It had always been a possibility fraught with both danger and opportunity.
The priest had not said a word since handing Khufu the scepter, as was law in Egypt--no one spoke until the Pharaoh addressed them.
"What awaits us?" Khufu didn't stop as he spoke, heading deeper into the Earth, his slippers making a slight hissing noise as they passed over the smooth stone.
Asim's voice was harsh and low. "These are the Roads of Rostau, built by the Gods themselves in the First Age, before the rule of the Shadows of the Gods, and before the rule of Pharaoh. It is written there are six duats down here. I would say, lord, that we are going to one of those."
"You have not been in all these duats?"
"No, my lord. I have only gone where my duties have required me to."
Khufu suppressed the wave of irritation he felt with priests and their mysterious ways. "And in the duat we go to now?"
"That, my lord, is unknown, as I have not been to this one. The Hall of Records is said to be in one of the duats--the history of the time before the history we have recorded. This was the time when the Gods ruled beyond the horizon, before even the First Age of Egypt. The Old Kingdom of the Gods beyond the Great Sea."
Khufu wasn't interested in history or the Gods but the future. "It is said there is also a hall that holds the Grail, which contains the gift of eternal life."
Asim nodded. "That is so, my lord."
"But you don't think that is where we are headed?"
"It is possible, my lord. It has been passed down that we will be given the Grail when the Gods come again and we will join them. Perhaps by building the Great Pyramid and finally at long last completing the plan handed down from the First Age we have earned the honor of the Gods. However, I have not yet laid eyes upon the Hall of Records or the Grail."
"Maybe you haven't been looking closely enough," Khufu muttered. Building the pyramid had certainly been a feat worthy of some reward from the Gods, he mused. Even with the Gods' drawings, his engineer priests had been fearful they could not do it. Others had tried on a smaller scale in other places, testing the design, and none had succeeded, such as the one that had collapsed on itself at Saqqara. Using the practical knowledge learned from those attempts over the centuries and the Gods' plan, Khufu had felt confident he could succeed--and he had.
They reached a junction. The path to the right was level. To the other side, the path curved left and down. Khufu had been taught the directions even though, as far as he knew, no one in his line of Pharaohs had ever actually been down there. The Pharaohs ruled above, but the Gods ruled there.
He turned left. It was cool in the tunnel but Khufu was sweating. He who had watched ten thousand put to death in one day on his orders after a battle. He who held absolute rule over the lives of his people felt fear for the first time in his life. But burning through the fear was hope, for he kept reminding himself what his father had told him--that inside the Roads of Rostau, hidden under the Earth, there was indeed the key to immortality, the golden Grail of the Gods that had been promised. And that there would be a day when the Gods would grant that to the chosen. Despite Asim's pessimism, was today the day, and was he the chosen one? After all, as Asim had noted, he had completed the Great Pyramid that season after twenty years of labor, a marvel indeed, exactly according to the plans left behind by the Gods. And he had put the red capstone up there, a thing that had come out of one of the duats down here, dragged to the surface by Asim and his priests under the cover of darkness.
The tunnel ended at a stone wall. Asim used the medallion around his neck, placing it against a slight depression in the center of the stone. The outline of a door appeared, then the rock slid up. Asim stepped aside and motioned for the Pharaoh to enter. Khufu stepped through, into a small, circular cavern, about twenty feet wide. In the very center was a tall, narrow red crystal, three feet high and six inches in diameter, the multifaceted surface glinting. Set in the top of the crystal was the handle of a sword. Khufu walked forward, drawn irresistibly toward the crystal. Asim was at his side now. An ornate sheath could be seen buried deep inside the crystal. The Pharaoh had never seen such crystal or metal worked so finely.
"It is called Excalibur," Asim said. "Take hold of the sword, my Pharaoh. Remove it from the crystal."
Khufu reached down and grabbed the handle of the sword. The sword, still covered by the sheath, slid smoothly out of the crystal.
"Now free the blade, my lord."
Khufu hesitated. "Why?"
"My Pharaoh, it will free the red capstone we just put on top of the pyramid to act outside of itself."From the Paperback edition.
Excerpted from Area 51: Excalibur by Robert Doherty. Copyright © 2002 by Robert Doherty. Excerpted by permission of Random House Audio, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.