The heat from the white dunes caused a mirage effect on the construction site as Harold wiped his brow again, taking a long swig from a jug of water and letting out a quickly drying breath. The wind, like the unforgiving blast of a hair dryer, did its best to absorb any leftover moisture on his parched lips.
“Take five more minutes,” said a short, black bearded foreman, indicating with a gloved finger. “And then you must push that sand over there.”
Harold swore to himself that after this job he would not take any more employment in the Middle East. Technically he was in Africa, just north of the ancient Valley of the Kings, but it felt like every place he had been since the Sea Bees discharged him because of some unfortunate business, from Iraq to Saudi to the edge of the Sainai. After this job he would finally have enough money to retire or move somewhere less sandy.
“You come with us?” asked Harabi, one of his co-workers. “We go to the snack hut. Get some hot tea.”
“No, no,” chuckled Harold with a painted on smile, still not understanding the reason why these locals loved hot drinks in the heat of the desert. “I just thought I’d go for a walk. Clear my head. That dozer is very loud. Some peace and quiet will do me good.”
“Sure, sure,” said Harabi, at least that was what Harold thought he was called. He didn’t try to learn people’s names, and that was a trait that had not endeared him to many of the people he had worked with over the years.
What Harold really wanted was a cigarette.
His drive for nicotine moving him along, Harold walked past his bulldozer and he began climbing a dune, its soft sand avalanching and fighting his trek to the summit, his big work boots sinking down into the viscous mess, and when he crossed over to the other side he abruptly sat down, feeling the warmth of the sand radiating through his coveralls. He pulled out a rumpled package of Lucky Strikes from his front breast pocket and when he shook one out the wind picked up and snatched it from him. He watched as if in slow motion the cigarette flipped end over end and then shot down the side of the dune toward a small dust devil that had formed not twenty feet in front of him.
He stood, almost in reflex, and tumbled down the dune, then tripped, then fell headlong into the sand, only to find that the sand was pulling him downward as if in a giant drain. He struggled to fight it, but soon found himself falling into a black expanse, but soon performing a gut-crushing belly flop into a giant pool of water.
Struggling to the surface, he looked above him to see a small dot of light raining a steady stream of sand and debris down toward him, until it grew smaller and smaller and filled in.
He treaded water in the dark, and something within him began to wail uncontrollably until it voiced itself audibly, and he could hear the echo of his own voice bouncing from the walls around him which sounded as if they were very far away. He began to swim in a random direction, hoping that he wasn’t swimming in circles, his mind not perplexed over the fact that such a large body of water was just under a sea of sand dunes, but rather spinning with how he was going to get out of this underground lake.
He swam hard, kicking feet laden down with steel toed boots, his waterlogged jumpsuit feeling like it was made of lead, and soon he began to tire, his mouth taking in gulps of the cool water, coming up for air, gasping and gurgling, until his foot found a rock or a surface beneath him. His foot then lost it and he kicked out for it, finding it again, and soon he was on solid ground, and soon he was wading in the direction where the water receded away from him.
He tripped on a stone, and staggered forward, splashing into the cold water, smashed his nose on the rocky surface just beneath the shallow black water, and then fell forward onto the stone shore in the darkness, his vision filled with little white stars. He rolled over and sat up, his waist and legs submerged in the water, and listened to the sound of his wheezing breath as he looked around him, his eyes completely useless in the thick darkness.
Something wet and warm was running down his mouth, and he realized when he rubbed his nose that it might be broken, as the pain shot out from his sinuses and through the back of his skull. He winced, using the remaining ounce of strength he possessed to scoot backward out of the water, listening to it slosh around him, and then he lay back on the rocky surface and tried to rest.
Darkness folded in around him without the slightest hint of light.
He opened his eyes and realized that he had probably passed out from the strain. He was suddenly thankful that he had not rolled over into the water and drowned, uttering a short grunt of approval and then raising one trembling hand to his nose to assess the damage. His face throbbed and shot new gouts of pain through his head with each beat of his heart.
He decided to stand, and shakily he did, his knees wobbling at first, his hand reaching out behind him to steady him. The darkness was not only inky black but also very cool, and he actually shivered, feeling like he had just stepped into his grandmother’s house again. The woman paid the largest electric bills during the summer because she just had to have it cold in her house to sleep. He felt around in his front pocket for his zippo and couldn’t find it, started to scream, and then remembered he had put it in his back pocket.
He opened it up, blew on it a few times, feeling the water droplets scatter across his hand, and then closed his eyes tightly as he flicked the striker.
He tried again.
He shook the zippo, blew in it a few times, banged it on his hand, and then something made a sound in the darkness…a faint whoosh.
Pausing, he listened, arms out, hoping that he was not about to be attacked by something unseen, and then he noticed that the little dot above him where he had entered this chamber was draining a little sand and light through. The sand fell and hit the water, making a faint whoosh, and then as soon as it had opened it closed again, leaving him in pitch darkness.
He held the lighter in front of him with both hands, shook it, put it up to his ruined lips and blew on it, then took a deep breath and held it while he flicked the striker again.
The immediate area around him, a smoothly curved onyx black floor that descended into the gloomy water suddenly appeared lit by the orange flame of the zippo, the images of ancient gods painted with fading and cracked paint on a nearby towering wall. The jagged teeth of one of the gods, its angry red eyes staring at him, nearly made him close the lid of the zippo.
Holding the light out in front of him, he looked around for something he could set alight, something that would possibly burn brighter than the zippo. He shined the light out toward the water and found darkness beyond, small waves washing up on an ebony shore of stone, and something far out in the gloom that glinted slightly, something like yellow metal in the distance. Turning away from the water and moving toward the wall, Howard saw a rumpled oblong shape outlined by his small flame. Moving toward it, his booted feet scraping against the stone floor, he could make out a shred of dirty cloth.
His outstretched fingers groped at the cloth, pulling it closer, and a skeletal hand slapped at his forearm making him drop the zippo which clattered on the floor, under-lighting the cold dead eye sockets of a grinning skull.
He shrieked, falling back onto his rump and skidding across the floor, one hand splashing in the cold water, and then he adjusted to a crouch, scooped up his zippo which was still lit and held it out toward the skull like some kind of talisman, only to see the remains of some poor wretch who he presumed had fallen through the same hole untold ages ago. He poked around in the cloth, pulling up a ragged shirt filled with holes and covered in thick mold that made him gag. Dejectedly he pulled one of the bones from the remains and began tearing strips of cloth, pulling his own jumpsuit up over his mouth as to not breathe in the spores. Once he had wrapped a few of the strips of cloth around the bone, a femur he supposed, he was able to get the cloth going after holding the zippo under it for a few minutes, and then he had a very bright torch.
Howard muttered a weak gasp.
Opposite the shoreline of the large cavernous lake stood a massive wall stretching up into the darkness, covered in giant paintings of many anthropomorphic Egyptian gods, all of them laying prostrate before a gargantuan form, humanoid in design, the distinctive beard of the pharaoh on its chin, but the joints at the hip, elbows and knees slightly rounded as if depicting articulation. It was not this painted depiction of the pharaoh that caused Howard to gasp, but before the feet of the king, his shins aflame, hundreds of small humanoid stick people fled for their lives. From the massive fists of the pharaoh fell many more of these tiny people, many of them broken in two followed fast by what could only be red gouts of blood gushing from its tree-trunk fingers.
Howard spent an unknown span of time pondering the painting, raising the torch higher in order to change the direction of the light, but soon his drive to discover a way out of this chamber pushed him along the wall to find the edge or possibly a door. He searched for some time but the shoreline ended depressingly at yet another wall with no sign of any egress from the chamber. He followed the wall again to look for some kind of lever or stone that looked out of place, his understanding of ancient tombs a product of Harrison Ford movies. His search, however, ended in desperation as he soon found himself sitting against the wall in front of the massive relief of the Egyptian king.
This former Navy man, rolling up his sleeves to reveal a patchwork of tattooed skin, began to shed tears and wipe at his mouth with the back of his hand. In desperation, he stood, turned to the wall, and pounded on it with his fist, the solid wall unforgiving and adamant against his feeble tantrum.
He spun and leaned against the giant mural, and that was when he saw something glimmer just beneath the surface of the water near the edge of the shoreline. He held his torch aloft, now dimming as the fire consumed nearly all of the cloth strips, and walked quickly to the glimmering object. He bent at the waist to see a three foot long rod protruding from an underwater groove. Splashing into the water, hoping that this was the secret lever for which he searched so frantically, he held the torch in one hand and reached into the water with the other.
It was covered in thick calcite, but when he put his hand under it to grip it with one hand he realized right away that it would not budge and would require more of his strength to move it…if it indeed moved. He tried to set the torch down on the dry stone of the shoreline but stumbled and dropped the flame into the water, plunging him into darkness once more. He tried to ignore it, thrusting both hands beneath the water at his submerged feet to wrap his forearms around the encrusted rod, pulling, feeling his back muscles strain with it. He would not give up. He opened and closed his eyes but could not see, as if blinded.
And then it began to budge.
He strained, pulled with all of his might, thinking that if this did not do anything at all he might go mad, might end up curling up to sleep with the unfortunate soul who had provided his light for this brief time of captivity. Perhaps he would remain here.
He pulled harder, and soon there was a noise from deep within the stones beneath his feet as the lever moved with more ease, and he could see the wall in front of him cough out a gout of dust that emitted from a line that ran directly up the middle of the mural, dividing the painting of the colossus in two. The sound deafened him, causing him to stagger backward and press his hands to both sides of his head to drown it out, but the deep grating sound would not stop, would not relent one decibel.
The wall moved, opening like some gargantuan hangar door of stone, and as it did huge flint strikers within the new found chamber shot sparks as large as Harold’s dozer out toward the water and onto the floor. Flames exploded outward, causing Harold to fall backward into the water, sitting down in it and nearly sending him for another swim. When he looked, his eyes adjusting to the sudden brightness flooding the room by the strikers, he could see the massive legs of a metallic statue standing before him, its head shrouded in a cloud of dust, its massive arms dangling at its sides.
The shins of the colossus, hollow chambers with a massive opening in front that with a bright flash shot brilliant flames that licked out toward him, and then he heard the deep thrumming sound like that of a massive heart beating beneath the ground. The water around him began to recede, and he scrambled on shaky legs as a fountain of water began to pour from far above the metallic monster, splashing down inside its titanic head like filling a massive bucket. More thrumming, deeper now but high above in the direction of its torso, and steam began to cough from its nostrils, hot and searing, as white hot fires burned in its eyes.
And then its arms moved.
A deafening sound, amplified by the concave construction of the chamber, roared out of it and caused Harold to cover his ears again, watching helplessly as the golem began to take strides toward him. Howard turned to run from it, realizing that one foot of the beast was taller than he could reach, and noticed in the growing light of the mechanical horror that the water had all but gone leaving a bowl-shaped crater, somehow drained away and poured into the impossible machine.
It began to stomp forward, each step nearly shaking Howard to the ground, and he could not rationalize what his eyes witnessed, his brain screaming to run but his legs not able to follow its orders. It stopped at the edge of where the shoreline had been and craned its massive head upward to look at the ceiling. Its heavy arms rose above it, huge fingers probing the rock, and then it began pounding on the large stone rafters visible through the aide of the terror’s glowing, burning eyes. It could reach the ceiling easily, its knees bent and its torso at an angle, and Howard realized in horror that it was trying to get out.
Rock began to fall down toward him as he stood before the giant, and he ran up the curved stone to the left of the monster, for it had not seemed to notice him at all. He crouched down by the wall, his hands covering his head in a futile attempt to prevent debris from killing him with a fatal head wound, and he closed his eyes as if by not looking at it the monster would go away.
The sound was horrible, a strange repetitive klaxon now bellowing out of the giant, the stones falling to the onyx floor, crunching and exploding, sending shards of stone into his arms and legs as he curled up in a fetal position. Soon sand poured into the chamber, and so did the light of the day, the fierce Egyptian sun, and as Harold dared to look at the colossus, he saw the beast trying to climb out of the hole it had just made, one heavy leg scraping at the wall of the chamber and the other arm pulling at the edge of the massive hole, rock tumbling down as more of it caved in.
It was only a matter of time.
What had he done?
He stood, hands balled up in to fists thrust down at his sides. He felt his knees knocking together as he looked at the beast, like a towering child trying to escape from a pit it had fallen into, and that is when he noticed something glinting on the back heel of one of its feet.
He bolstered himself, took the deepest breath he had ever taken, let it out, and walked toward the monster waving his arms and screaming.
“Hey!” he shouted. “Down here!”
It continued to try to get out, and now there were people at the edge of the pit because he could hear screams and screeching tires…and was that gun fire?
As he inched closer, he noticed a set of curved rings that protruded from the back of the monster’s foot, and in mad curiosity, he saw that they went all the way up the back of its leg. He took another deep breath, let it out in a wavering grunt, and shot forward, his mind returning to a state not experienced since war, when he had to keep his head down and stay safe, protect his buddy, and get out alive.
Before his mind could reason possible odds, he had one of the metal rings in his hand.
It burned him, the heat from the leg furnace scalding his skin. Fighting through the pain he held on, and pulled his sleeve up over his other hand with his teeth to grab on and protect his flesh from the hot metal. Just as he was doing the same for his burned hand, he was almost crushed by a back step as he gripped tight and scaled the back of the leg, climbing higher and higher, the monster ignoring his tiny passenger as it clawed its way out, pulling itself up onto the edge of the chasm. Like doing a massive push-up, it labored to the surface and soon stood astride Harold’s bull dozer. It towers over the screaming people and military jeeps that had arrived to surround the hole.
Howard shouted down at them, desperately holding on as the monster began to stride forward and smash through the feeble strength of the military. He climbed higher as it walked, pounding the sand beneath its feet on a predetermined path, a massive metal pharaoh on a journey to do who knew what damage to an unknown enemy.
Harold continued climbing the rungs, his knuckles and forearms screaming in pain from being jostled about by the monster, and soon he was nearing the waist, the hip joint grinding back and forth as it walked. More rungs ran up its back to its shoulder, but he didn’t know how he could climb there and not get caught in the oscillating ball joint. He hung on, his arms burning, and winced as the monster destroyed a fence and began moving faster, the steam from the internal engines leaving a trail of water vapor.
He heard an explosion from somewhere in front of the giant, the distinctive sound of a tank cannon, and the monster reeled backward enough for Howard to reach a rung on the torso and continue his ascent. The rungs on its back were cool, and he continued to climb even though his hand was red and blistered, because now he could see a rotating rod near its neck that looked to him like some necessary piece of this machine or at least he hoped it was.
He had to get to it.
Just as another 152 millimeter round slammed into the front of its chest, Howard reached the spinning cylinder and felt a white hot heat roiling out of it. With his last ounce of strength he leaped for it, wrapping his arms around the spinning rod which at first nearly shook him loose but soon began to slow, and then he nearly fell as the rod twisted free of him but was ejected outward, and Howard grabbed a rung with one hand as the monster slowed, staggered forward, and a jet of water blew from the socket where the cylinder had been lodged. Howard hung there, his right hand burning, his arms aching, until the monster fell forward, crushing an Egyptian tank on the way down. Howard bounced free, landing in a pile of sand.
He fought a black ooze that wanted to consume his brain, every breath a labored, wheezing effort, and soon he was surrounded by people, their white thobes (the long shirts worn by the men in this country) making them look like ghosts or angels to him.
They were speaking Arabic, shouting to him in other tongues he could not understand, and even though he could not feel his legs he smiled, his cracked lips parting.
He would not be able to return to his job.