part IV

Carter’s eyes trembled, the sound of his staggered breaths echoing in his helmet, as he stared up in awe inside the tunnel chamber.

He scoffed. Then laughed, looking back to the Colonel with an astonished grin. The Colonel nodded.

Before them at the end of the chamber stood a partially-exposed stone pillar embedded in the packed earth. Dozens of intricately carved symbols marked its surface.

Carter approached the jutting column, a mist building in his eyes, and carefully placed his gloved hand on the markings. His breath shuddered, and, after a quiet revelatory moment, he cleared his throat.

He removed his hand and examined the stone. “It’s a structure.”

The Colonel nodded. “And big enough to max out the depth on our preliminary scans.”

“Christ,” Carter reveled.

“I think this was someone different.”

Carter laughed and nodded, not taking his eyes off of the pillar. A quiet moment passed.

“So what do you think, Doc?” the Colonel asked.

Carter shook his head in his containment suit and turned to face the Colonel, “I mean, I don’t know--this is probably most important discovery in the history of the human race, I--where do I start? This is going to require a ton of--”

The Colonel held up his hand, “Don’t waste your breath on me. I’m only here to make sure you accept the job.”

Carter squinted, “I’m sorry?”

“The Federation took note of your contribution to the restoration efforts in Egypt and China after the War and--“

“Wait, wait, wait--“ Carter struggled to calm the rush of thoughts surging through his head.

It’d been nearly 20 years since his post-war work, and, in spite of the terrible circumstances, they were some of the best times of his life. There was little glory in digging through the ashes, but restoring priceless pieces of human history to their former glory came with an immeasurable sense of pride and accomplishment. It was important work. They were a vital few years that he missed more than he cared to admit.

“--You want me to lead the excavation?” Carter questioned, still trying to process what the Colonel’s words implied.

“Yes sir,” the Colonel confirmed.

Carter thought of Bell and the farm. The life they were just starting to build together. “I mean, I’m flattered, really--just my wife and I, we’re going to start a family, and I have my commitment to the university--“

“I understand. But your wife’s no slouch. A PhD in geo-engineering carries a certain weight of understanding when it comes to the big picture.”

“Yeah, of course, I mean, she’s--“

“And what do you think she’d say if she found out you turned this down?”

Carter sighed, “She’d say I was an idiot.”

“And, tell me, truly, Doctor, would you rather go back to grading papers on ancient cultures written by apathetic teenagers more concerned with the screens in front of their faces than the world around them or uncover an entirely new world yourself in what will end up being the single most important dig in human history?”

Carter raised his eyebrows, impressed by the Colonel’s pitch, and paused, mulling over his words. “Well...” he cleared his throat, “When you put it like that--“ Carter extended his hand. “I’d be honored.”

The Colonel firmly shook it, “Good choice, Doc. I assure you the details will work themselves out.” They turned back to the pillar. “Are you ready to change the world?”

Carter, speechless at the notion, could only grin.