(Please note, not edited/checked/PR-ed. You may run into a questionable grammar or two. If you happen to spot them, please let me know in the comments below. Thanks in advance!!)
Professor Evans’ words left Min-jung speechless and in contemplation. Not only her, but even the good General chose not to say anything, instead waiting for the professor to continue with the narrative.
Evans deeply sighed and awkwardly made his way towards General William’s large desk. The old age had caught up with him, it seemed, and he was having a slight trouble walking. If it weren’t for the cane, he might have asked someone else to help him with the presentation.
Next to the obligatory computer monitor on top of the desk, there was a USB docking station. The professor produced a slim flash drive out of his pocket and carefully slotted it in one of the unused ports.
“Major, would you be so kind to operate the computer for me, please? I fear my illiteracy in all matters pertaining to modern technology will be the final nail on the lid of my coffin.”
Evans lightly shook his head and apologized as Podolsky wordlessly began operated the interface to open the documents stored on the flash drive.
While that task was under way, Min-jung thought of something and inquired the group.
“So, is it correct to assume that I’m the last person to be informed of this development? Or you haven’t contacted other stakeholders yet?”
General Williams took a long puff of his cigar, his eyes not particularly focused on anything. “Major will send the relevant summaries to the President, Secretary of the State, and to the members of the Congressional oversight committee as soon as we’re done here. Right now, we know there’s been a breakthrough in the research but that’s about it, Doctor Mercer. Until the good professor clues us in, we know as much as you.”
“It’s ready,” said Podolsky as she pointed towards the vacant wall to the side.
A projector shone from the ceiling and cast a bright light on the said wall. With a remote, Podolsky then killed the lights in the office, making the projection on the wall more visible.
Evans cleared his throat and began to speak as the images flashed on the wall.
“Bring up the file named PDK-790211-NW35006r first, Major. We’ll start from there.”
Podolsky nodded and searched for the file on the screen. It took a bit of time as there were quite a few there. Eventually, she found the one they needed and clicked on it.
A photograph of a dimly lit area was superimposed on the wall. The poor lighting aside, the object in the center was clear enough for all to see – a light-brown stone wall full of ancient but vivid hieroglyphs, known as cuneiforms. On the bottom right corner, there was a time stamp that said “1979-02-11.”
Min-jung knew this photo well. While she was working on the Project Dead Kings as its lead geneticist, Professor Evans often showed her this image, among others, explaining its significance every time he did so.
“I presume that we all are familiar with this image, yes?” asked Evans. “If the memory has failed you, then allow me to offer a quick refresher – this part of the tomb is believed to contain a record, an abridged description, of a cataclysmic war on a global scale fought by what we now know as the first recognized Supers to walk this planet that took place well over ten thousand years ago.”
Evans approached the wall and by using his own walking stick, he began to slowly point out each of the mysterious symbols while explaining what they meant.
“In the great plains of Taklamakan, flanked by the two great and mighty sleeping Dragons, greatest warriors known to men, favored by the heavens, engaged in a bloody conflict that lasted ten generations. The land was ripped asunder, blood thickened the sand, and the sky was dyed black from the fumes of burned world below….”
Professor Evans took great pains to accurately translate each of the symbols, top to bottom. The photographs changed a couple of times, but they were all depicting the same cuneiform-covered wall, just the different parts of it, serving as a continuation for the narration.
“….But the war of the mortal world had to come to an end, not because of the heavenly warriors coming to form a truce, but a new threat appeared to destroy the very existence of mankind. This common enemy of the world is thus shall be named The Lord of Darkness.”
Finally, they reached the photo Evans wanted to show. He took a deep breath and wiped his brows with a handkerchief.
“It’s here, at the Northwest corner of the tomb that the majority of the bottleneck came from. Achieving the satisfying level of translation was not possible for the last three decades or so. Partly because, the known symbols are interspersed with ones which did not match with what we knew, but also their arrangement and the placement threw us off as well. What a challenge they posed for me and my team for such a long time.”
Min-jung nodded, while thinly-veiled impatience was creeping in on the face of General Williams. “Please get on with the explanations, Professor. You know we might have unwelcome guests later on. I need to extend my full attention there soon.”
Evans chuckled apologetically. “Oh, my. It’s been too long since this old man had an opportunity to prattle on. Do forgive me, General. Right, where was I? Ah, yes, stuck on this part of the wall. Ahem. So, in order to expedite the translation process, my team was tasked to devise new computer algorithms and we did go through many of them. We also enlisted many eminent experts of their respective fields but in the end, it was all to no avail.
“But then, the British contacted us last year and things became more lively, very quickly.”
“The British? Why did they contact you, professor?”
Min-jung raised an eyebrow, puzzled slightly.
“Not me, personally, but the leaders of this Project. You see, doctor, Brits had discovered a beautifully preserved underwater tomb off the coast of Southwest England around twenty years ago. However, the higher ups there chose to keep the news of the discovery from the general public as well as from our knowledge.
“But that policy only lasted until last year, when they saw fit to share what they have found with us. You should thank our good General here, as he played a pivotal role in facilitating a very favorable arrangement back then.
“And from their shared data, my team was able to finally decode the most troubling parts. We have a bit more still to translate, but we have the gist of what this wall wishes to convey to us.”
Min-jung was somewhat surprised to hear these revelations. She wasn’t really expecting the brass to inform her of every decision taken by them but still, it was disappointing to be left out of the loop. After all, at one time, she was one of the most important people involved.
Originally, she was brought into the project nearly twenty years ago, fresh off from the university. She was widely acknowledged as one of the most promising geniuses in the world of genetics and many top firms were bending over backwards to offer unbelievable benefits just to lure her away. But it was the Project Dead Kings and its ambitious undertaking that hooked Min-jung’s interests in the end.
Many things happened since then. When her expertise was no longer vigorously required for the project’s completion, she personally decided to scale back her involvement as much as possible. If they wanted her opinion, fine, she’d provide it for a fee, but if there was a huge, new development that could impact the Project itself? Well, she wasn’t really looking forward to jumping back in. She had her family to worry about now, especially her changing son.
Did she feel bitter that she wasn’t informed? Maybe. But did it truly matter? No, not really. She chose to leave, and that was that. She should be glad that General was willing to tell her this much already. Still, what would have happened if she knew of what the Brits found while she worked on the Project? What would her life be like now?
She smiled ruefully and quickly settled her thoughts. Again, it didn’t matter anymore. What was done, was done. Instead, she became curious about this tomb. There was no guarantee that an answer would be given to her, but she asked Evans nevertheless.
“Can you tell me more about that underwater tomb, Professor? Whose tomb is it? Anyone I read from the history books?”
A thin smile spread on the lips of the aged scholar. He didn’t seek permission from General Williams and just decided to tell her the truth.
“….Well, since you already know the various tombs that have been utilized in the Project, I believe there’d be no harm in knowing this one as well. A British expedition accidentally ran into a burial site while searching for offshore gas reserves on the ocean floor. Further investigation was called for and the British experts came to a conclusion that what they have was actually a landmass that had collapsed due to an unknown factor. It took a good long to fully explore the sunken tomb, but they were able to figure out that the mysterious landmass was indeed, the fabled Avalon. The legendary Avalon of arguably the most famous English lore of all time – the lore of none other than one Arturus Pendragon, the King Arthur.”
“Wow,” Min-jung sucked in her breath. “That’s…. par for the course in this line of work, I guess? I mean, almost all the other tombs of the legendary figures have been unearthed one by one, so it probably was only a matter of time before even King Arthur got his turn.”
She sighed and shook her head. The conflicted feelings she felt weren’t hers alone – even Evans felt the same back when the news reached his ears. Growing up, many kids were exposed to the various retelling of Arthurian legends and come to love them, both Min-jung and Evans included.
Maybe because the story was so relatable. Maybe it was suitably fantastical. Or, maybe it was truly romantic. Whatever the case may be, the rise and the eventual fall of King of All Britons was regurgitated endlessly via countless movie reboots, novellas, and cartoons, leaving behind a tangible footprint in the popular culture.
To Min-jung, the part of the allure laid with the fact that the whole story was steeped in uncertainty, turning it into a mythical lore. There was no verifiable proof of King Arthur’s actual existence being real, nor any of his knights for that matter. And that was just the way she liked. Less clearer the man’s history, more imposing and wonderful his life story became.
But now…. that important part has well and truly been shattered. The tomb of King Arthur was found. It was like being told the ins and outs of her favorite magic trick as a child.
Min-jung had no reason to doubt the capacity of the people who verified the resting place since Professor Evans was not refuting it. That could only mean that he too believed it himself.
“The British chose to keep the information out of public’s scrutiny because, funnily enough, they seemed to have the similar idea to us. They were doing something similar to our project, except that they had no one like our good doctor Mercer to lead them, and were not making much of a progress. Only after the numerous, repeated total failures did they open up for a possibility of cooperation,” continued Evans.
“So what happened? Were you given the access to genetic materials of King Arthur? If so, you could have called me in to take a gander,” said Min-jung, trying to sound a little peeved at her omission from what would have been an amazing opportunity for her.
The hardened military man chuckled a little. “Well, Doctor Mercer. Remember, you chose the civilian life. That limited your access. And you had left behind enough for your replacement to work his magic, so your presence wasn’t strictly necessary anymore. Besides, at the time, you were involved with another project for your current employers. We couldn’t bring you on board even if we wanted to.”
“But you have called me in today,” said Min-jung icily. “So, obviously, you want something from me.”
“Correct,” nodded Williams. “We do need your expertise on a matter of a grave importance. But that’ll come at a later stage. So, in the meantime, please continue, Professor.”
“Yes, General. Move on to the next file, please Major.” Evans coughed lightly and asked Podolsky.
The next file was another photograph, this time a close-up of a different tomb altogether. The resolution of the image was slightly superior compared to the one shown in the previous files. Min-jung could see that the several cuneiforms were highlighted, meant to draw the attention of the audience. Remarkably, these symbols were not affected in the slightest by the passages of time.
“Well, here we are, the images the British took in Avalon. As bizarre as it may seem, we all know that these ancient cuneiforms had been uncovered in the tombs of the most powerful Supers of the history. And most, if not all, tell the similar tale.
“These highlighted symbols are what caused so much pain for us. But as you can see, they are better preserved here, enormously helping with our efforts to complete the translations. Now, we have nearly achieved that goal.
“Previously, we only knew of what to call the threat – the Lord of Darkness. We also knew this being was so powerful that the entire world had to band together to defeat him or her. This startling record could also be found in a select number of the tombs belonging to the confirmed Supers.
“What we couldn’t be sure of was the conditions leading to the emergence of the said Lord of Darkness. Of course, we speculated over this matter for years but, with most of the symbols left untranslated back then, the truth remained far too difficult to unravel. The tomb I discovered in 1979 is the most known intact examples found so far, yet we no longer have access to that burial site – a pity.”
Evans shook his head wryly.
Both the professor and Min-jung turned to look at General Williams, who had rather a displeased look, as if the Professor’s words reminded him of something quite unpleasant from his past. Major Podolsky, on the other hand, remained impassive and cold by his side.
Seeing this, Min-jung just smiled wryly and decided not to say anything. After all, this matter about the tomb in question was for the politicians to resolve and not for a scientist like her. Not only was it a wrong profession, but also way above her pay grade, so to speak. Although, having said that, her current monthly pay was probably highest in the room at the moment, the beauty of not being a Federal Government employee.
“Because of the limitations imposed, my team had to take liberties here and there, thus leading to some unanswered questions as far as to what this Lord of Darkness is supposed to be. But now, with these better-preserved examples from Avalon provided by the Brits and their take on the meanings of the cuneiforms, we were able to decode far more and have gained a better understanding of the entire picture.
“Thus, we have made the amendments to the previous translations. We need to revise the level of the threat. Here,”
The Professor pointed at one of the symbols that seemed a little like a bamboo stick with a pair of dots hovering around its middle.
“We didn’t know what this was. Now, we think it serves one of two functions. In this case, it’s a sentence modifier. This symbol changes the singular noun The Lord into a plural, Lords.”
There was a collective sharp intake of breaths in the room. Even Major Podolsky seemed slightly ruffled.
“Lords? More than one? Seriously?” Williams loudly grumbled. “Christ on a pogo stick. One is already bad enough, but now we might have to contend with more than one at the same time?”
Evans had a deep, sullen face. “Well, General. The bad news continues. We always thought that the eponymous Lord of Darkness would arise from among the current crop of Supers – as the de facto Supervillain surpassing all the others. But now…”
The old Professor shifted the end of the cane to another symbol on the projected image. And then another obscured symbol. And to another one. Those were obviously in worse shape than the first symbol pointed out by the Professor.
“….With these parts now roughly translated, we might not be necessarily looking at that…. simple limitation anymore. This symbol changes the entire structure of the sentence, and now its meaning is – Lords of Darkness shall rise from the masses of the common souls, called forth on their destructive paths by the divine commands of the Gods above.”
“….That is quite different from what we know,” Min-jung slowly murmured. Previously there was no mention of the Gods nor the masses in the translations.
The first bit about the souls, to her at least, made no sense. What did it mean, masses of souls? Did it mean a big crowd? And Evans also said “common” souls, so it could mean that a Lord of Darkness might spring out of anywhere where human beings lived. That was as broad as it could possibly get.
The second bit, though, took the cake for being the most illogical of the two. Her scientific mind had deciphered a long time ago that pretty much every religion she was exposed to was full of nonsense. So all these talks of gods and heavens were lost on her. But she could understand that it was a perfectly fine way to describe something beyond the scope of knowledge for the ancient civilizations. Relying on the illusory gods to explain away seemingly supernatural events was pretty easy to do, after all. And there was an added bonus of being able to control a crowd that way as well.
“Are we assuming that, now, anyone can become this world-threatening existence as a result of the quirky genetics? The Lord of Darkness that possess such powerful abilities that the most active Supers have to band together to stand a chance?”
Williams groaned and discarded the cigar with a disgusted face.
“Whew, boy. Well, no matter. This project got greenlit so we can handle situations like this. One Darkness Lord or two or whatever – we’ll deal with them when the time comes. I’ll just ask for an increase in the operating budget. Money solves most problems, anyways. Speaking of which….”
Williams looked over at Min-jung and tossed three thick file folders marked “Top Secret: For Highest Clearances Only” in large red letters.
“You were originally not supposed to see those, but I got the necessary clearance for you. Tell us what you see, Doctor Mercer.
“Those files are the most up-to-date files for our three escaped participants of the Project. Before this incident, they were beginning to exhibit a range of strange phenomena and behavior. Not just three of them, but all twelve of them. Our eggheads couldn’t make heads nor tails of the whole thing.
“And now, they have escaped and are allegedly heading this way – for what purpose? For revenge? For information? We need to know. We need to know what triggered their sudden disobedience from the project.
“All the compiled medical data for the three are there. Files for the other participants are here too, but for now, those three takes the precedence over the rest. Figuring out what’s gone wrong with them – that’s the reason why I called you in. Just that, the timeline has moved up a notch since that decision.”
Min-jung hurriedly thumbed through the pages, taking in the records within, until her eyes stopped at the date where the changes began. Her heart skipped a beat then.
A thin line of sweat slowly traveled down her back.
This…. this can’t be. This date….
She quickly checked on the other two folders, only to confirm that the changes were observed on the exact same date as the others.
It was the date of Jack’s ordeal on the highway R-35 Northbound.
There was one certain Greyhound bus heading towards a city in the West.
It was not as packed with passengers as the operators would have preferred. The competition was fierce for the rights to ferry the common man, as it transpired. But as long people got to their destinations with the least amount of hassle, no one cared.
None of those hitching a ride seemed eye-catching in any shape or form. Simply put, they were normal, regular folks going to a big city for various reasons. Some were chasing after their dreams, some were going back home, some were planning to visit their acquaintances, and some of them were on the run, from their past, from the oppression of their lives, from the law, even.
In the case of three teenagers who sat towards the rear of the bus, though – to find the truth.
At a glance, they were like any other kids their age. One Caucasian boy and two girls, one Oriental and the other, difficult to tell initially, but maybe from one of the Mediterranean countries. They were kitted out in jeans and simple, nondescript shirts, with baseball caps firmly pulled down to shield their faces from a closer scrutiny.
The boy had a sickly pale skin and a short, slim build. He wore a simple pair of frameless glasses lending him an air of an intellectual. Under the cap, golden locks were visibly tucked in. His soft blue eyes continued to scan the interior of the bus and the other passengers.
The Oriental girl was leaning back against the seat, seemingly asleep. Her glossy black hair cascaded down to her shoulder, hiding a pair of thin cords that led to both her ears. If one were to listen real closely, a low hum could be heard from the hidden earphones. The girl had a small piercing on the upper lip as well as on her nose, giving a kind of punk-like air.
The other girl was well built physically but still managed to come across as quite slender. But her square shoulders and lean, straight limbs that rippled with taut muscles imparted an aura of a star athlete. She had her shoulder-length dark brown hair tied in a single ponytail.
One thing for sure, though – all three of them were a bunch of good looking people; enough to earn them top-paying gigs in the modeling industry if they were keen.
The trio silently rode on the bus, impassive and disinterested, at least outwardly so.
But if someone who was an expert at reading faces could see them right now, then this expert would have thought that these teens were in a highly stressed, deeply vigilant mood.
Occasionally, the athletic girl, who was sitting near the windows, glanced outside as if to check the surrounding cars and their occupants. Her deep green eyes seemed to glitter like a pair of polished emeralds as she took in the various cars and trucks around the moving bus.
The Oriental girl suddenly opened her eyes and gazed at the other two.
“There’s a radio chatter. They know we are headed this way.” She leaned towards the other two and whispered softly.
Her voice was crisp and clear, almost like as if she was singing. It was pleasant to hear but at the same time, didn’t seem real at all.
The boy frowned and pushed up the glasses on his nose. “We should be still around 50 miles or so away from the city in question. About time they caught onto our scents. However, it’s still too far for us to walk the rest of the way. I sure know I can’t.”
The athletic girl sighed. But the fierceness in her eyes didn’t wane one bit. “What a bother. And we’re so close already, you know!! Well, Lei can hotwire a car with her powers, right? So, no problem there, right? Riding on a bus is so boring, you know? Let’s get off, like, now!!”
The Oriental girl, Lei, and the glasses-wearing boy groaned and shook their heads.
“Cleo, don’t be unreasonable. You want us to jump out of a moving bus? Maybe you’ll be fine, but Lei and I won’t be,” said the boy.
“As long as the car isn’t too old and have some form of electronic controls, I can drive it,” said Lei. “We shouldn’t have taken a bus, though. It’s taking too long to get to our destination this way….”
Cleo the athletic girl nodded. “Right, right. We shouldn’t have, you know. We should’ve just gone with the car we got from the Facility. It’s Erik’s fault, you know?”
Erik the glasses-wearing boy groaned. “Those cars are Low-jacked. We would not have gotten away at all if we stayed with that car, Cleo. I told you this already, didn’t I?! Okay, whatever, that’s not important right now.”
He massaged the bridge of his nose and adjusted the glasses.
“We need to be extra careful from now on when we are so close. They have somehow locked on to our current heading, so no doubt they will be keeping an eye out on all the usual methods of transportation. We’ll get caught quickly if we continue riding on this bus.”
The three of them then slowly looked around their surroundings. The daylight entering the bus illuminated the interior and they could see everyone here. On the outside, the bus they were on was traveling down the Interstate. The traffic was moderate, the sky was blue, and the world seemed rather peaceful.
Erik knew, though, that such a facade wouldn’t last long. The secrets he carried, and indeed by his friends, could pretty much tilt the apple cart beyond redemption if he chose to go down that route. But will he? Erik wasn’t sure yet.
What he was sure of, was the next course of the action they had to take.
“Okay, at the next rest stop, we get off and find an alternative. Agreed?”
Quietly, the girls nodded at Erik’s suggestion.
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