London – July 2018
Alex fingered through the well-worn notebook for perhaps the 10th time that day. Nothing. As always.
He wiped his brow, sweating despite the aircon inside the British Museum. Britain was currently experiencing an unusual heatwave that he wasn’t coping with particularly well. He’d much rather enjoy a cold mountain retreat than laze on a sunny beach any day. Not that others weren’t suffering similar issues. As he surveyed the crowds he could see people fanning themselves vigorously. One might have thought that living in Britain you were safe from extreme levels of heat. Not so. You’re just never prepared for it.
It was no use, the heat was making him even more irritated with his lack of progress. Ever since his parents had gone missing six years ago on a trip to Egypt, he’d been determined to find out what had happened to them. Yet despite many years of research, enquiries to local officials, and he was ashamed to admit, a few bribes, he’d got nowhere.
The official story was that they’d died when an old temple had caved in, and apparently they had been warned about the structural integrity of those place. The police report was so full of holes and missing information that he just couldn’t bring himself to believe it though. What also didn’t help was that despite now being partially caved in, the temple was a registered historical site, so the authorities refused to excavate it, meaning the bodies were never found.
His notebook, filled with years of research, and the few notes their parents had left behind, was his only hope of finding out the truth. But lately it wasn’t getting him anywhere. Closing the notebook and putting it back into his satchel, he stood up to stretch his legs. He looked around him and admired the Egyptian artefacts. This was his favourite section of the museum. He counted himself very lucky that after finishing a degree in Egyptology, he’d managed to get a research position at the museum. He’d got in plenty of trouble during his college and university days for being late handing in projects, mainly because of his obsession with his parent’s death distracting him. Luckily though, he was smart enough that he had managed to make it through with a 2:1 in Egyptology, despite his record.
Ironically, it was his obsession that had led to this job. He’d often spent his downtime in the museum and frequently asked questions of the staff about Egypt and the pieces on display. To him, the history of the place was part of the mystery. His parents had loved everything Egyptian, and so did he. A small part of his mind wondered if their studies could have somehow led to their deaths. He couldn’t see why anyone would want to kill a couple of scholars though.
Then one day, on one of his frequent visits, the lead researcher for the Egyptian collection approached him. Her name was Sally Opara, and despite being in her early thirties, she knew more about Egypt than most people learnt in a lifetime. He had spoken to her on occasion and always found the discussions to be insightful. This time however, she just walked up to him and asked him if he wanted a job. She had already looked into his past and knew about his troubles, but she said that she could see a burning passion within him and that he’d make an excellent member of the team.
Of course, he’d accepted the offer without hesitation. So now he spent his days at the British Museum, working on the Egyptian collection while fitting in time to study the notes on his parent’s death. If Sally minded his obsession occasionally interfering with his work, she didn’t mention it.
He let his mind wander as he checked up on the exhibits, casually strolling between glass cases filled with ancient sarcophagi, pottery, clothing and weapons from ages past. He thought of his parents, how they were always disappearing off on adventures, always bringing him back stories and artefacts. To him it had been exciting, waiting to see what they brought back from this mysterious place. He knew his sister had a different view though.
She was the older of the two children, beating him by five years, and when their parents had gone on their adventures it had been up to her to look after him. Instead of spending her teenage years out with friends, she often spent them at home looking after him. When they finally didn’t come back from one of their adventures she took it very hard. She was studying for a degree in Marine Biology at the time and her grades suddenly dropped from being on track for a first, to just scraping through into the 2:2 bracket. He was just finishing his GCSE’s and heading into A levels, used to taking care of himself by this point. Afterwards, she essentially disappeared into the army and he had to make it on his own.
Sighing he tried to put his sister out of his mind and continued to roam, heading towards his favourite exhibit. As he approached he patiently waited for the milling crowds to filter past. As they finally dispersed he gazed in awe at what they had been happily snapping pictures of, the Rosetta Stone.
The Rosetta Stone was found in 1799 and was by far the most visited object in the British Museum. It was originally intended as a proclamation of sorts, a decree translated into three languages for the benefit of the locals in the area, who presumably were of mixed origins. The three languages were Ancient Greek, Demotic, and crucially, Ancient Egyptian in the form of hieroglyphs. Until that time it was thought that the mystery of what hieroglyphics meant would never be discovered. However the text is almost exactly the same in all three languages, and Ancient Greek had already been translated by that point, so scholars were eventually able to translate the hieroglyphics as well. It was the proverbial key that unlocked the ancient language.
He stared at it now, marvelling how a piece of stone could so fundamentally change the field of Egyptology. Scanning the text, which he had mostly memorised, he noticed a section in the middle that made him pause. It wasn’t a particularly interesting section, mostly talking about how Ptolemy was a great ruler of Egypt and would lead them all to prosperity, but there was something about it which he couldn’t place.
He sighed and rubbed his eyes. It had been a long day at work, it was time to go home. His shift had technically finished an hour before, but he was in no rush to leave, usually he’d rather be here. But he did have to sleep at some point so he headed home.
Twenty minutes later, as he rode an escalator down to a tube station, his mind was wandering again. He noticed that someone had graffitied a face over one of the adverts on the wall. Actually, they’d gone over a face that was already there, staring at him. As he looked at it again he realised that it was one of those illusion drawings and that depending on your perspective it either looked like a face looking directly at you, or the side of a face looking to your right.
Dual faces. Dual meanings….something clicked. The code his parents had been studying, that was what he had seen on the Rosetta stone. It had looked just like normal hieroglyphics, but that was the point. He cursed himself for being so stupid, up until this point he’d been looking for pieces of hieroglyphics which couldn’t be translated because they didn’t make sense. He thought his parents had found an alternative way of translating previously undecipherable sections, but what they actually had discovered was a way to translate normally readable hieroglyphics in a different way. He guessed that if deciphered properly, the piece of script on the Rosetta stone spelt out a very different message. A message within a message.
He was so distracted by his thoughts that he failed to navigate the transition from escalator to floor. He fell flat on his face, his bag flying off his shoulder and scattering its contents over the floor. The people behind him exclaimed in protest. With no way to stop, they were having to carefully step over him without causing an even greater incident.
He started to pick himself up when he noticed that his notebook had flown a few feet away. Before he could reach for it however, someone else’s hand darted through the sea of people and picked it up.
Shocked, he rose quickly. He was sure the person had headed towards one of the platforms, although he hadn’t got a good look. He chased after them. The crowds weren’t too thick, so he was just about able to keep track of a figure pushing their way through the crowds quicker than most. But then the thief darted inside one of the trains, and before he could reach it, the doors closed. Desperately be hammered on them, but he was met with the casual disinterest of Londoners who, for them, seeing someone frustrated at missing a train was an everyday occurrence.
As the train pulled away he despaired, there was nothing he could do. All his notes were in there, everything he had learnt over the last few years, as well as what few notes he had of his parent’s studies into the code. How could this have happened? He had just had a major breakthrough and a major setback in less than two minutes.
Determined not to let this stop him, he decided there was only one course of action, he needed to go to Egypt. But he was far from an adventurer, he needed help. There was only one person he could ask. He cringed inwardly, he wasn’t going to enjoy this.
The row of recruits stood to attention, most of them far from sharply. Her eyes scrutinized them, analysing every hunch, every crease in their uniform, every nervous glance. They were far from ready, but she’d get them there.
An especially nervous looking recruit stepped out of the line. He was sweating, be it from nervousness or the weather it didn’t matter. She walked over to him, getting close, right into his personal space.
“Tell me Miller, is that shirt crisply ironed?”
He looked down at his shirt and spluttered out, “N-No Sir”.
“No. It isn’t. Is that an acceptable crease?” she said loudly, poking his chest.
“No Sir”, he replied with a bit more confidence this time. Maybe he had accepted his fate.
Her voice rose another level. “We are the British Army, we are a highly trained military force capable of anything we put our minds to. And yet, you can’t iron your shirt properly?”.
“I-”, he paused for a second, unsure of his next words. “I had my mind on our training drills today Sir, I wanted to do my best Sir, I wanted to be the best. My shirt…wasn’t as important”.
A collective intake of breath could be heard from the row of recruits behind him, as if he’d just uttered the worst blasphemy. She glared at him, her eyes burning into his, somehow appearing to rise even taller despite being on par with him at 5’10. “Wasn’t important?!” She roared at him.
Behind him the other recruits had started to whisper amongst themselves, safe in the knowledge that the Lieutenant’s fury wasn’t directed at them. They just enjoyed the show, even smirking at his expense.
“While all personnel should appear presentable at all times, your uniform always comes second to your duty and your…”, she rounded on the rest of them, “discipline”.
They had been caught and they knew it. Some of them tried to snap back to attention, hoping for the best, but many simply turned pale, realising the mistake they had made.
“We are a team, we work as one, and we support each other. We do NOT smirk at the expense of others. But apparently, none of you understand that.” She sighed theatrically. “Very well.”
“Miller!” she turned back to him. He snapped to attention without hesitation. “You are dismissed.”
He actually paused for a second, not quite believing what he was hearing. Then as his body finally caught up to his mind, he quickly marched back to the barracks, not wanting to tempt fate.
“As for the rest of you,” she said, turning back. “You will do 10 more laps of the base and then you are to report to A block barracks to collect all their laundry.” A few moans could be heard from the group. Her eyes narrowed. “And you will do the same until the end of the month!” She added. This time there were no moans. “Dismissed”.
As the recruits jogged off for their punishment, another man walked up to her, this one carrying the rank of Captain. She saluted fluidly and he returned it.
“At ease Lieutenant”, he said with a smile. “Having fun torturing the recruits?”
She couldn’t help but return a quick smile, “just reminding them of their priorities Sir, they’ll soon learn.”
“Oh I have no doubt with you as their instructor, but speaking of priorities, you have a visitor and apparently it’s an emergency.”
She frowned. Who could be visiting her? And what could possibly be the emergency? She’d only been back from deployment 6 months and the move to this training facility was even newer than that. Very few people knew where she was, there was only one person it could really be.
“Sir, does my visitor have short brown hair, rather bookish looking, doesn’t seem like he’s enjoying the heat but obviously needs to spend more time outside?”
“Now that you mention it, yes that description would fit him quite well. Is he family?”
“Unfortunately yes,” she sighed, “it’s my brother Alex.”
As Alicia walked into the waiting room Alex stood up from the table he’d been sat at, furiously scribbling in a notebook. That was what first drew her attention, it wasn’t his usual notebook, she should know, they’d had enough fights about it.
“Alicia, it’s good to see you.”
“Yeah, you too,” she replied without even a hint of emotion. “What’s the emergency?”
Straight down to business then. “I’ve made a breakthrough and I need to go to Egypt, but I can’t go alone, I want you to come with me.”
Angry welled up inside her. “You dragged me out of a class for this?! Another one of your crackpot theories about their death. Let it go Alex. I have.”
Alex had honestly expected this reaction so wasn’t put off. “This is different, I cracked the code. The hieroglyphic code they were working on.”
Alicia couldn’t help put pause, she respected the field of study and cracking that code was indeed an achievement, it had been their parent’s life’s work. Refusing to abandon her angry though, she just said, “explain”
“It’s like those illusion paintings, they look like one thing until you change your perspective, then they look like something else. Here, look.” He retrieved what looked like a ripped A4 poster from his bag, it showed a face staring at her…or was it looking right? She wasn’t sure but got his meaning. She nodded.
Enthusiastically he got out another piece of paper with hieroglyphics written on it. Under the hieroglyphics were two sentences in English, the second a lot shorter than the first.
“You see, if we translate it normally, it just says some rubbish about Ptolemy being a great ruler, but if you translate it assuming it’s code.” He pointed at the second line.
“May the followers of the Cult of- …where’s the rest?”
“I’m still working on it, I had a little bit of a set back…someone stole my notebook.”
Alicia was shocked, “someone broke into your flat?”
“Erm, well not exactly…” he looked embarrassed. “I kind of tripped on the underground and it flew out my bag. Then someone picked it up and got on a train before I could catch them.”
Alicia rolled her eyes, “so you were clumsy and some random pickpocket took the chance to grab it?”
She reached over and took his hand, her face softening, “Alex…look, maybe this is a sign. Without the notebook it’s going to be really hard to make any progress, even though you figured out part of the code. Maybe it’s time to let it go.”
Alex stared at her hand for a moment, then sighed. “I wish I could Alicia, but I can’t. I need to know what happened. Even you can’t deny the whole story was a bit fishy.”
“Maybe, but I accepted that they are gone and there is nothing we can do to bring them back.”
“But don’t you want to find out the truth?”
“And what if the truth is they were killed by random bandits? That their deaths didn’t mean anything? That after abandoning us yet again they went and got themselves killed for no reason!”
Alex looked at his sister, he could see the hint of a tear in her eye. “Then at least we’ll know for sure. Don’t you think you’ve run away from this for long enough?”
She snapped up from the chair. “I’ve not been running, I’ve been getting on with my life, and so should you.” She turned to leave, but he grabbed her hand.
“I want to Alicia, but I can’t. Please, just a few days in Egypt. If we don’t turn anything up then I’ll be able to tell myself I did everything I could at least. Please. I promise this will be the end of all this, one way or another.”
At that moment she really wanted to walk out of the room and forget about everything he had just told her. Wanted to return to her life in the army and let the past stayed buried. But she knew somehow it would never stay that way, and Alex certainly wasn’t going to give up.
She took a few deep breaths, letting her anger subside. “Ok, I’ll come”, she agreed. “My Captain has been telling me to take a holiday anyway, something about working myself to death.” She shot Alex a look before he could smile at that. “Egypt is as good a place as any.”
“That’s brilliant, our flights are already booked, we leave in the morning.”
She rolled her eyes, “of course we do”.