From the prompt for Writers Unite! Write the Story’s July 2020 prompt. I hope you enjoy!
The Way Station
D. A. Ratliff
Mason Henley rocked back and forth as the camel he was riding followed their guide. The herky-jerky motion of the enormous beast wore him out, and he never forgot to take ibuprofen before getting on one. He valued his back too much to ignore.
The caravan stretched the length of twelve camels. In addition to the guide and his two assistants, a radio astronomer and two research assistants accompanied him with five camels laden with equipment and supplies.
Three days ago, he and his team had flown into Algiers, where they met Dr. Bernedetta Clark. The next day, they flew into the L’Mekrareg Airport in Laghouat, with connections in Ghardaia, which took them to In Salah, where their guide, Sami Taleb, was waiting. After they loaded the camels, the expedition set off for their destination, Jabal Alharam—Pyramid Mountain.
Mason chuckled, after ten hours in overcrowded planes, he was happy to be on a camel, back pain or not.
The trip was going to take nine hours, and they had knocked out six of those already and agreed to stop for the night. As Sami and his crew set up tents, he and his two assistants, River Monroe and Jackson Stewart, built a campfire and got dinner started.
He was tending a grill laden with strips of beef, while River was making couscous. He watched as Dr. Clark approached, her eyes on the food. He cut off a small piece and held it up to her. “Wanna taste, Doctor?”
Her nose wrinkled. “What is it? Not camel? My colleagues told me that’s all the Algerians eat.”
“Had you dined with us last night, you would have feasted on the best Tandoori chicken I have had.”
“That’s Indian food.”
“Yes, it is. Welcome to the internet and modern travel. River and Jack had pizza.” He held the bite of meat up again. “This is beef, strips of sirloin, to be exact.”
She took the morsel and tried it. “That’s good. Did you bring a spice cabinet with you?”
“No.” he held up a plastic zip bag. “Made my famous spice mix and brought it with me.”
“Quite resourceful, but as an archeologist, I guess you are used to being out in the middle of nowhere.”
Mason smiled. “Been on a few digs in my time. Spent a lot of time in some ancient place somewhere.” He flipped the beef on the grill. “Did you get your equipment set up, Dr. Clark?”
“Yes, part of it, and please call me Etta.”
“I’m Mason. Same signal?”
She nodded. “The same tones repeated over and over. Just as they have for the last two months.”
“And you guys suspect it’s a signal. For what?”
“That is for us to find out. The signal is originating from here.”
River stood. “The couscous is ready. I’m going to go get Jack and the others.”
The group ate dinner as the sun was setting. Sami and his team retired to their tents and rotating guard duty. Jack and River both had work to do and excused themselves. They had been scouring over the topographical maps of the area to become familiar with Pyramid Mountain.
Mason sat by the fire. He was tired but too restless to sleep. The desert night was turning chilly. He added more wood to the fire from the bundles Sami brought. Watching the wood ignite, he felt some satisfaction that at least he could make fire.
“Is there coffee left?”
Clark’s voice startled him. “Sorry, I didn’t hear you. Yes, there is coffee.” He reached behind him to retrieve a cup from a box of supplies and poured her a cup.
Taking it from him, she sat on a camp stool. “I am sorry that we didn’t have the opportunity to talk last night. The trip from the US exhausted me and, well, our mode of transportation made it difficult to talk. You have been to the mountain before, haven’t you?”
“Yes, I was part of a team that came here nearly twenty years ago. I’d just earned my Ph.D. at Columbia when a professor of mine heard from an old friend, a geologist he has known as an undergrad. The geologist, Dr. Hemsford from the University of Johannesburg, had traveled from South Africa to the Sahara in Algiers with a group of students to study the rock formations.”
“They found the hieroglyphics?”
“They certainly found what they thought to be hieroglyphics at the time. He contacted my prof, Dr. Riegel, and Columbia provided the grant for us to take a look.”
“They weren’t hieroglyphics?”
“No, at least not related to any previous glyphs or symbols we had ever seen. To be honest, I took another career direction and concentrated on historical indigenous archeology in the Americas. I haven’t looked at those old reports until I got a call from my department head at Columbia, who asked me to lead the expedition to the mountain.” He paused. “I wasn’t expecting to find out a radio astronomer would be part of the team.”
“I never expected to be in the middle of the Sahara Desert on a camel.” She rubbed her shoulder. “Not the most comfortable ride.”
“No, it isn’t.” He poked the fire. “What do you think we will find?”
She sat up, back straight. “I don’t know. Not even sure why they sent me to find out. I noticed the sequence first, but there are far more experienced people at the observatory.” She huffed a short breath. “I think I might have been the expendable one.”
“I read your bio and some reviews of your work. I don’t think expendable is an apt word to describe you.”
“Newest member of the team, so who knows.”
“The signals are coming from the mountain?”
“They appear to be. I have some portable equipment with me, and the signal is still cycling.”
“Well, we won’t know anything until we get there. Get some sleep. We need to start early in the morning. We were lucky today. The winds kept us a bit cooler—tomorrow, not so much. “
Sweat poured down Mason’s back, and he was decidedly uncomfortable. His camel lumbered along as if it was a day in the park, just not his idea of a park. Wiping sweat from his brow for the umpteenth time, he gazed around the area. The flatter terrain of yesterday had given way to mounds of hard compacted sand with deep trenches where the wind had eroded the surface. Wouldn’t be long before they would have to resort to walking to the mountain.
His eyes never strayed far from the mountain looming ahead. The cornflower blue sky was cloudless, allowing the sun to beat down relentlessly. He chuckled. The mountain reminded him of a large soft ice cream cone, twisted as if someone spun it like a top.
Lost in thought of his last visit, he nearly fell off the camel when it halted suddenly, and he grabbed the saddle horn to stay on. Sami was dismounting his camel and walked to him.
“We go no more on camels. Too dangerous.” Sami tugged on the reins to Mason’s camel, and the animal began to drop to its knees. He dismounted and went to help Etta from hers.
She looked over his shoulder toward Pyramid Mountain. “We walk from here?”
“Yep, afraid so. It should be about a thirty-minute hike to the base. Jack and I will carry your equipment, Sami and his people will carry food and water. You and River will take the rest of the tools we need.”
“Are we going to camp there?”
“Not sure. If we decide to, Sami and his guys will come back for the tents.”
“They are going to leave the camels here?”
Sami overheard her. “We leave food here. They are good camels. They know to stay.”
Mason headed toward the camels carrying their equipment. “Let’s get loaded up.”
An hour later, they stood at the base of the mountain that loomed over them. Etta was setting up her portable radio telescope, opening the small satellite dish. Satisfied she had everything in place, she flipped the switch on the battery pack, and static began emanating from the speaker.
Mason listened with his head cocked. “There is a pattern there.”
“Yes, and it repeats every nine seconds.”
“So, if it’s coming from here, where is it going?”
“The observatory has the entire array focused on the direction it’s beaming. Listening for incoming signals. So far, nothing.”
“Okay. Let’s hike around the base. The spot where we saw those symbols is around the east side.”
Leaving their guides with the equipment, Mason and Etta started toward the area where the symbols were located. River and Jack began a cursory review of the site, comparing it to the photos from the dig many years before. They were looking for any sign of an opening, if such a thing existed.
The footing was treacherous as they left a level area. What Mason remembered struck him as odd when he was there before. He gazed up at the mountain’s pentacle, wondering how the flat round rocks that capped the mountain formed. He had puzzled about the structure on his first visit, and it puzzled him now. A climb up the mountain might shed some light, but he was not in the mood for rock climbing.
They reached the area where Mason remembered finding the symbols carved. At least, he thought they were in the right place. A rockslide covered the place where he remembered the carving.
“I think the symbols are here. Help me move these?”
After some effort, they rolled away a couple of large rocks, revealing sand covering the slope. Mason pulled a brush from his backpack and swept away the sand. The symbols appeared.
“I had seen photos of these, but I didn’t expect they would be so precise—such sharp cuts in the rock.”
“Yeah, that’s what Dr. Riegel thought, definitely precise cuts. We’ve seen that before in the pyramids and at Puma Punku in Bolivia. I was fortunate enough to work on that site. The builders of that temple used interlocking stones so precisely cut when assembled you can’t get a razor blade between them. The skills existed, but we aren’t sure how or the tools they used to make them.”
“No idea what they mean?
He shook his head. “Nope. Again, I didn’t stay with the project long, but I followed up with Dr. Riegel after NASA contacted me. He said they found no reference points at all to these symbols.”
“They have to mean something.” Etta took a 35mm digital camera from her backpack and took several shots of the symbols and the surrounding area. She slung the camera around her neck and laughed. “Anyone tried pressing the symbols?”
Mason raised his shoulders and grinned. “No idea, but it couldn’t hurt.” He pressed the first symbol, and nothing happened. He pressed the rest just in case, then placed his palms against all nine symbols and pushed at once—nothing.
Etta sighed. “It was worth a try.”
“We’ll figure this out. If the signal is coming from within the mountain, there has to be a way inside. Let’s find River and Jack and see what they found.”
They decided to camp next to the mountain. Sami and his men retrieved the tents and set them up. Before returning to spend the night with the camels, Sami left a flare gun in case they needed him. Dinner was bread, cheese, and coffee brewed over a fire. River surprised them with cookies she brought.
The sky was magnificent, dusted with glittering stars from the Milky Way, its luminous and dark streams hanging above them. They dragged their sleeping bags into the open and lay on their backs, staring at the mysterious sky.
River asked Mason to recount his first trip to Pyramid Mountain. He talked about his first look at the symbols.
“I was enthralled, thinking that the symbols could be Egyptian hieroglyphics this far into the desert. Dr. Hemsford was a geologist but thought the symbols looked Egyptian. Dr. Riegel determined quickly that the symbols were not Egyptian, but I will never forget the first time I saw those nine symbols. I….”
Etta bolted upright. “Nine symbols. The signal repeats every nine seconds. What if….”
Mason bolted upright as well. “What if the signal represents those symbols.”
Her voice excited, Etta responded. “Maybe the signal is the key to opening a way inside.”
“What I don’t get is why the signal just started out of the blue.” Mason shook his head. “It makes no sense.”
“I might know.” Jack jumped up and grabbed a tablet sitting on his backpack. “Not knowing what we would find, and after being in that earthquake in Mexico last year, I downloaded a file about seismic activity in the Sahara.” He pulled up the file. “Dr. Clark, when did the signals start?”
“About two months ago, on the fourteenth.”
Jack was silent for a moment as he searched. “Got it. The same day, two months ago, there was a 5.2 mag earthquake with an epicenter about ten kilometers from here and only a half mile down. What if it triggered something?”
“It had to have.” Etta rose. “We need to go check this out.”
Mason stood. “Not until the morning. We’ll break our necks trying to get to the symbols. Get some sleep. We will do this in the morning.”
Dawn was breaking as Mason heard Etta and Jack talking. He shook off his grogginess from waking up and joined them. River handed him a cup of coffee.
Etta smiled. “Nice to have Jack along. I was trying to figure out how to lug this equipment to the symbols, and he suggested I record the sound on my phone. Haven’t used it since I left the hotel, so I have power. Can we go now?”
“Let’s stay until the sunlight is brighter and I get some coffee. Then we will go.”
She looked disappointed but agreed. While he finished his coffee, they made plans. River and Jack were to stay where they camped. Mason had a nagging thought that the flatness of the rock there meant something—an entrance perhaps. Once they agree on how to proceed, he and Etta headed for the symbols.
“Well, no time like the present. Hit play.”
Etta turned on the recording, and after it played through twice, the symbols began to glow. Both of them uttered a gasp. “It worked, Mason. It worked.”
“Yeah, but what did it do.”
A flare soared over their heads, a signal from the others. Something was happening at the camp. As quickly as they could cross the rough terrain, Mason and Etta raced back.
Pyramid Mountain had opened.
Jack ran toward them as soon as they appeared. “We heard a crack like the rock was breaking. The sides slid away, and the opening appeared.
His heart pounding, Mason walked toward the perfectly square opening. It was nearly ten feet tall, and while dark beyond a few feet, it was evident from the shiny dark blue polished floor that mother nature wasn’t responsible.
He jumped when Etta pushed past him, heading for the door, and managed to grab her arm. “Hey, no, not yet. We’ll go in, but let’s get a flashlight first.”
Etta frowned but nodded and hurried to her backpack. “I have a flashlight, water, and an energy bar. I’m ready.” Turning to Jack, she handed him her phone. “Keep this. You can open the door again if we can’t.”
Mason grabbed his backpack and turned toward Jack and River. “If we don’t come out in one hour, try to open the door. If it doesn’t, get back to civilization and contact NASA.” He joined Etta. “I’ll go first.”
They were no more than ten yards into the corridor when the opening closed. They could hear Jack and River’s anxious calls behind them but couldn’t get back to the door. Etta started to say something, then stopped when a door opened farther into the mountain, dim light spilling into the passage.
“Looks like an invitation to me, Etta.”
The opening revealed a large circular room. Their flashlights revealed murals on the walls and an empty chamber except for a round dais sitting in the chamber’s center.
“What is this place?” Etta’s voice quivered.
“I don’t have a clue. Let’s walk the perimeter.”
They were feeling their way around the wall when bright light filled the room. Stunned, they gazed at the panels depicting what could only be humanoids adorned on the walls.
“My goodness, Mason, this has to be alien.”
Mason didn’t have time to answer. A fluorescent circle of red light dropped from the ceiling over each of them, scanning from head to foot then retreating into the domed ceiling. Before either could speak, a tall, slender figure dressed in a gray tunic appeared on the dais.
“Greetings, travelers. Welcome to the Orbis Way Station. May I ask your destination?”
Etta approached the figure. “Who are you?”
“I am Automated Attendant 804. What is your destination?”
This time Mason spoke. “Could you tell us where we are and how you can speak to us in our language?”
“You are on Orbis and seeking transport. My scan revealed you are natives of Tanus. I translated your language, although you do speak an obscure dialect. Do you wish to return to your homeworld?”
Mason and Etta exchanged glances. She responded to the attendant. “No, we would like to leave the station to remain on this world.”
“Entering the station activated the portal for departure. You may not exit again. Please state your destination.”
“Could you give us a minute.” Mason waited until the attendant deactivated. “Jack will open the door in one hour.”
“And if he doesn’t?”
“Then, they’ll get help.”
“And we’ll be in here for a long time.”
Mason looked at the dais, then back at her. “There is an alternative.”
“Go through the portal? You can’t be serious.”
“Etta, I get the feeling we are not going to get out of here any other way. If there is a chance we can travel somewhere and then turn around and come back here, this might be our only way home.”
“I don’t know. What if we can’t get back?”
“If we can’t leave here, and the door doesn’t open in one hour, then it’s not going to open. We will die here.”
“But our families, our friends…”
“Is there someone close to you, someone you love?”
Etta dropped her eyes. “No, no one anymore.”
“Well, me either. I’ll miss my parents, but if we don’t do this, we’ll never see anyone again. This is an ancient way station that must have been offline until the earthquake. I don’t know what we will be walking into but it’s history making. Let’s wait to see if the door opens. If not, we go through the portal.”
Etta gave him a wan smile. “The book we’ll write—bestseller, guaranteed.”
They waited an additional hour before Mason summoned the attendant.
“I am Automated Attendant 804. What is your destination?”
Mason responded. “Tanus.”
Behind the dais, the portal, a swirling kaleidoscope of blues and greens, opened. The attendant stepped aside. “Enjoy your transport.”
Mason took Etta’s hand, and they stepped through together.
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