THE HIDDEN MONSTERS OF EARTH’S PAST MAY HOLD THE KEY TO EARTH’S SALVATION IN THE FUTURE
Marty Cohen was a gifted linguist and student of ancient military strategy who stepped away from academic Egyptology and opened a woodworking shop. Away from the bitter politics and petty rivalries, he’s happy to take care of his people, play the occasional war game, and try to make a good life.
He discovers mysterious visions rob him of sleep, and then he gets summoned back to Egypt: an off-the-grid dig funded by an eccentric financier has discovered texts that may be the earliest Egypt has produced, and they’ll pay Marty silly amounts of cash just to fly out and take one little look.
Marty turned his back on the academia game, but he’s a small business owner who has to make payroll, and he can’t say no to the money.
But the texts open doors to more visions and to an astonishing journey: the ragtag team of archaeologists finds itself in protohistoric North Africa, a drying land dominated by monsters, where humanity is badly in need of champions.
And behind the war against the monster overlords lies a greater struggle: Marty and his team have been chosen to be champions of all Earth and to run a gauntlet on humanity’s behalf.
Failure will mean extinction.
Praise for Time Trials:
“This highly enjoyable novel by Rothman and Butler is full of nonstop action, buts of science, mystery, humor, and enough Ancient Egypt trivia to satisfy any history enthusiast. The quest narrative and the Dungeons & Dragons-style team structure recall familiar fantasy tropes, but the authors manage to develop the characters well, giving each of them their won distinct arts and it results in a tale that’s well worth reading. The overarching mystery keeps the pages turning in an adventure tale that refreshingly shows respect for ancient civilizations and their accomplishments. An entertaining first entry in what promises to be a fantastic time-travel series.”—Kirkus
Release date: March 7, 2023
Print pages: 400
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Our fatigue is often caused not by work, but by worry, frustration, and resentment.
Marty Cohen was tired. He had stumbled across that Dale Carnegie quote as he researched why he’d been suffering from overwhelming fatigue. Caffeine didn’t make a dent. He rose tired from sleep.
He shut his eyes, blocking out the sterile white walls, gray Venetian blinds, and alder-yellow wood doorframes of his room in the sleep clinic.
Were his problems worry, frustration, and resentment?
Maybe. He’d left his aborted academic career behind years ago, along with all the worries it had heaped on him, but his sleep hadn’t improved. He’d traded them for the cares of a small business owner. He didn’t regret the trade, didn’t resent it, but some of the struggles of a small business owner were onerous.
In particular, payroll.
He was going to make payroll this month. He had to.
He had employees who he was responsible for.
Carlos’s father had lost his job at the big box store outside New Haven, and Pedro’s wife was due . . . when? Soon.
This wasn’t like the strategy games he’d played obsessively in college, in which the number of pawns or meeples or tokens sacrificed didn’t matter, so long as the victory conditions were satisfied.
The victory conditions were the pawns and the meeples.
Making payroll. Providing a livelihood for himself and his people were what mattered.
Some sleep would be nice, too.
The whir of the clinic’s air-conditioning sounded like the growl of an unseen beast.
The buyer of the dining room set was due to come by in the morning. Marty had offered a discount for full payment in advance, but the buyer had insisted on paying a deposit and the remainder upon collecting the finished product. Tomorrow. Tomorrow, Marty would get paid, and then he could take care of his people.
Tonight, he needed to focus on his fatigue.
His primary care physician had had him tested for anemia, diabetes, high blood pressure, and all sorts of other ailments that might be the cause. But the doctor had come up with nothing, and ultimately he referred Marty to a sleep study clinic. So now here he was, lying on a clinic bed with a nest of wires attached to his scalp, under his nose, the sides of his neck, and his chest.
The doctor walked in with a clipboard. “Dr. Cohen? I’m Dr. Ramaswamy. I’ll be monitoring your sleep activity through the night.”
“Call me Marty,” Marty said.
Ramaswamy smiled. “Your chart has ‘doctor’ as your honorific. Are you a physician or—”
“No, nothing quite so practical. Your records are probably back from when I was working at the university as a postdoctoral archaeology researcher.”
“Mummies and tombs. Very Indiana Jones, I suspect.”
“Not quite that adventuresome, I was more a language nerd,” Marty said. “When I learned how Egyptian writing worked as a kid, I got so excited I ran home and started making up my own script. I drew it using images of things in my room, then I started keeping my own personal journal with my made-up language.”
“Got the bug young, eh?” Ramaswamy chuckled. “Me too, except I pretended all my action figures had serious organ failure and cut them open to figure out what made them tick. With the amount of toys I’d taken apart, I’m pretty sure my parents were praying I was going into medicine, because the alternative I suppose would be becoming a madman.”
“Never too late for such things, I suppose.” Marty chuckled. “To be honest, I suppose I was destined for the language thing. My mother’s Chinese, and her father, who lived with us, spoke only Mandarin. My father was also born in another country, so when I was a kid I didn’t even realize I was speaking multiple languages. I just knew that when I talked with my grandfather, I spoke to him in a certain way, and my dad and I always spoke in a different way. It wasn’t until I met another person who spoke Mandarin that I realized it wasn’t just some weird family thing. And of course, me looking the way I do, nobody would expect me to speak Hebrew.”
Ramaswamy’s eyebrows went up slightly, and Marty laughed again.
“Yeah, I get that a lot. You don’t often meet very many Chinese Jews.”
“That is an interesting background.” Ramaswamy looked down at the chart and said, “Well, from what I can see here, there’s nothing that immediately jumps up as a warning sign regarding a cause for your fatigue. The chart says you’re forty-two, one hundred and eighty pounds, which is about normal for someone who is six-foot-two. Blood pressure is fine, and the blood work all came back within normal parameters, though your iron is on the low end of normal.” He looked around at the monitors. “Looks like your connections are good. Did you have any questions before I lower the lights and we begin?”
“Do you really think this will help figure out what’s causing my fatigue?”
“At a minimum, it’ll get us closer to an answer. By gaining a better understanding of your sleep cycle, we’ll know if your sleep patterns are contributing to your fatigue. From there, we’ll take a crack at solutions.”
He tilted his head toward the TV hanging from the ceiling. “If you normally fall asleep with the TV on, go ahead and keep it on. We want you to do what you normally do. And if at any time you need to go to the bathroom, just say so. Someone will remove and reattach the sensors as needed.”
The doctor stepped out of the room and turned off the lights, so that the only light in the room was coming from the TV screen.
The TV was on a news channel, and Marty nudged up the volume to hear what the reporter was saying.
“The rash of earthquakes across the globe have seismologists baffled. But if the scientists can’t tell us the why, they can tell us the where—and they’ve directed the world’s attention to Israel, at a spot just south of the port city of Haifa. Regional seismograph stations have detected a massive earthquake registering 8.9 on the Richter scale, and a tsunami warning has been posted by the Hellenic National Tsunami Warning Center out of the National Observatory of Athens.”
Marty changed the channel. A dark-haired pitchman was fervently singing the praises of his new kitchen gadget. Marty closed his eyes. He didn’t want to slice, dice, or cook sous vide . . .
He lurched up in the hospital bed to the sound of his ringing cell phone. Had he fallen asleep? He must have; the TV was now showing some hard-boiled cop show.
He answered the phone.
He recognized the German accent. “Gunther?” Gunther Mueller was an archaeologist he’d worked with on many digs. “I haven’t heard from you since . . .”
“Since the greatest linguistic talent since Champollion himself walked away from the game.”
“I didn’t walk away, Gunther. I was boxed out.”
“If that’s a basketball metaphor, I think I am following you. Sorry about calling you so early . . . oh jeez, it’s like three a.m. Sorry, Marty, but it’s urgent. We really, really need your help.”
Marty rubbed his eyes with his knuckles. “Unless you need a bespoke sofa, Gunther, I’m not your man.”
“Listen before you turn me down. I’m on a privately financed dig in the Sahara, and we discovered . . . something amazing. It’s predynastic, there’s no doubt about that, and it’s not something I’m able to decipher. The guy paying the bills here is paranoid and doesn’t trust academics, though; he won’t hear about getting another professor involved.”
Marty yawned and the bitter resentment he’d buried long ago welled up within him as he recalled many of the reasons he’d left the academic world. “Does your boss not trust the academics because they stick junior faculty with all the work? Because they’re in league with fat administrators against the well-being of their own students? Because they never retire, leaving no room for young professors to get tenure? Because they hoard finds, doling them out to their favorites and the politically convenient?”
He’d been through all of those dishonest games and more. That was why he’d left it all behind for more honest work that valued sweat equity. Work where his success or failure didn’t hinge on the whims of someone higher up on the food chain, but instead on his customer’s willingness to buy the furniture he made.
“My friend, I know you’ve been burned by the folks who all too often run things, but I’d wager François has different reasons than you to distrust academia. Some of his ideas are . . . eccentric.”
“Eccentric? Does that mean you’re hunting Bigfoot? Or maybe you’re measuring the celestial alignments of the Aswan Dam to corroborate the Illuminati ideology of Gamal Abdel Nasser?”
Gunther chuckled. “Not that eccentric. Listen, Marty, this really is an amazing find. And better yet, the man has agreed to bring you here at whatever rate you ask.”
Marty shook his head. “Let me get this straight. You need someone who can read an obscure bit of Egyptian, but your paranoid boss doesn’t trust universities . . . and I’m the only person who fits the bill.”
“You’re also the best,” Gunther said. “But I already said that.”
Marty paused. The offer was tempting. He missed the adventure of being on a dig site, the camaraderie of a dig team. And the ancient texts . . . There was a thrill in deciphering writing that no one else had even looked at for millennia.
“I tell you what, Gunther. I can’t leave here—I have people to manage and train, and one of my guys is about to become a father, and I’ll need to cover for him—but if you send me pictures of the texts, I’ll see what I can do.”
Gunther sighed. “Yeah . . . I figured you might say that. But François . . . he refuses to let anyone take pictures, or even draw what we’ve found. Did I mention he’s an eccentric Frenchman? He’s worried that with any leak, the information will grow legs and this place will be overrun. And to be honest, I don’t exactly blame him. This is big, Marty. He told me to offer you twenty thousand euros as a convenience fee just to come out here. Once you get on the plane, he’ll wire the money. You can take it, come here to look at our little problem, and then fly right back if you want.”
“Twenty thousand euros? Is he serious?”
Gunther’s voice lowered to a whisper. “He’s a hard person to work for, but his checks are good. Marty, set aside the money for a moment. I’m telling you, this is the longest continuous text of predynastic Egyptian I’ve ever seen. As far as I know, the longest that exists. Marty, this is your stuff. If you come, you won’t regret this. Maybe you can publish the translations of these, and they’ll invite you back to Yale.”
“I’ve already invited Yale to kiss my ass, Gunther.”
“Then forget Yale. Listen, this guy puts Don Quixote in the shade. If he doesn’t get some answers quickly, he may shut down the dig until he can find someone he trusts who can decipher what
we’ve got here, and will sign an NDA. That’ll definitely take a while, and in the meantime, everybody here will likely be looking for a job. And some of the diggers here . . . I have a feeling they were begging for baksheesh on the streets of Cairo before coming on board.”
Marty felt his breath coming quickly and his heartbeat picking up. Was that his mysterious ailment, or was he actually getting excited about going to Egypt again?
“How long would I need to be there?”
“Need to be here? Knowing you, you’ll figure out what the primary texts say in twenty minutes. But once you do that, you’ll want to stick around. So bring a change of clothes and a toothbrush.”
Marty couldn’t believe he was actually considering this. But it was good money, and it did sound like an adventure . . .
“Can I have some time to think about it? I can’t leave immediately regardless; I have to meet a customer in the morning.”
“Think about it, but don’t take too long, Marty, okay?”
“I won’t. Thanks, Gunther.”
Marty hung up and set the phone aside. Laying his head back on the pillow, he closed his eyes and tried to clear his mind . . .
Marty was standing in a desert surrounded by weather-beaten stone structures. The wind blew sand across large fallen slabs of chiseled rock, filling his nostrils with the smell of coriander and sage.
He’d been at many ancient sites, but this place was different. There was electricity in the air, making his hair stand on end. He felt the presence of . . . something, but he couldn’t see it or identify it. He also heard shouting, but he couldn’t make out where the voices were coming from or what they were saying. They had the singsong quality of prayer, but the words . . . the words were Egyptian.
Not Arabic, the language of the present-day inhabitants, but Egyptian, the tongue of the Nile-dwellers for thousands of years before the Arabs came.
A full moon had just come above the horizon. The wind grew stronger, blowing sheets of sand from the tops of the nearest dunes. And then Marty saw a swirling dust devil forming between two of the dunes.
The tingling grew more intense as Marty walked from the ancient stones toward the swirling dust devil.
Blue sparks flashed within the vortex. It swirled and expanded, growing to almost twenty feet in height, and began to move, slowly, toward Marty.
The ancient words he’d heard hints of on the wind were more distinct and powerful now, and he realized . . . they were emanating from within the dust-filled tornado.
One word kept repeating, and he strained to hear it. But it was slippery; when he focused on it, it faded away.
The air around him shook with the power of the approaching vortex, and when it was within arm’s reach, he heard the word clearly.
Marty lurched up in bed, his breathing ragged, his heart racing, his brow damp with sweat.
Gray daylight leaked around the corners of the Venetian blinds.
The overhead fluorescent tubes snapped on, and Dr. Ramaswamy walked in. “Very good. We’ve collected lots of interesting data, including your sleep interruption and how you dealt with resuming your night’s sleep.”
Marty shook his head. “What time is it?”
“Almost six a.m. If you like, you can try to sleep some more.”
Marty shook his head. “I think . . . I’m done for today.” He felt unsettled.
Ramaswamy nodded. “That’s fine; we have enough data. We should get back to you in about two weeks for a follow-up. Middle of April at the latest.”
Marty tried to calm his racing heart. “Two weeks, that’s good.”
He didn’t have to go to Egypt. He’d get paid for the dining room set today and then have a leisurely think about whether he wanted to go visit Gunther at the site. But if he did decide to take the money, two weeks was plenty of time to get there and back again.
He had time.
Instead of driving home, Marty drove to the shop. That was one of the advantages of no longer having someone waiting at home for him. Cheryl had made very understanding noises about his frustration with the academy, but as soon as he was no longer hanging about the Humanities Quadrangle, she’d found other reasons to leave him.
He’d dated on and off since, but he knew his preferences, and they worked against him. He wanted a woman with white-collar, university-style curiosity, intelligence, and reading habits—but he wanted that without the condescension, class isolation, and self-importance that so often went along with it. In short, he wanted a bartender who read Karl Marx and Adam Smith, and such women were hard to find.
His shop was in a boxy brick building in a run-down semi-industrial neighborhood of New Haven. It was more than just a shop. The front third of the building was a display room for a few pieces Marty and his team had built, just to show what they were capable of doing, along with space for meeting customers. The middle third contained the workshop. The back third was Marty’s space.
The sun was up when Marty arrived, squinting through the trees and across the rooftops, splashing egg-yolk yellow light
across the carved and painted sign that read Marty’s Custom Furniture. The door was open, and Carlos sat behind the counter, resting his thick chest on his elbows as he read a trashy gossip magazine.
“Practicing your English again?” Marty said with a smile.
“I don’t need to practice my English, you dork, I’m from the Bronx.”
“Yeah,” Marty said, “that’s why you need the practice.”
“Doc let you out early.”
“It was just a sleep test.”
“That mean you didn’t sleep?”
“It means I slept enough. They measured me and they’ll let me know what they figure out once they crunch the numbers.”
Carlos jabbed a thumb at the dining room set—fully stained, varnished, and upholstered. “I think that’s our best work so far.”
Marty nodded, feeling a sense of pride as his gaze pored over the group’s most recent project. It was exactly what he’d imagined in his mind’s eye. “Agreed. Customer got a good deal, and we’re going to get paid.”
He headed back through the workshop into what Carlos and Pedro sometimes called “the Marty Cave.” His books were here, on a bookcase he’d made with his own hands. Army War College publications. Clausewitz and Sun Tzu, the obvious stuff. Von Neumann on game theory, which had turned out to be more about choice and economics than about strategy, to Marty’s disappointment. Thucydides, Herodotus, Polybius, Caesar.
Not exactly the kind of books every furniture maker keeps in his back room.
Marty laughed, tired to the bone.
Beneath the books were shelves full of games. War games, every last one, covering conflicts from every age of Earth’s history, but especially its ancient past. His old game table was here, too. He’d built it by hand, with help from both Grandpa Chang and Grandpa Simcha. Its felt-lined gaming surface was sunk beneath a thick wooden armrest with rubber-lined cupholders bored into it. A wooden cover could be laid over the table to close it, preserving a game in progress.
Right now, the lid was off and the table was arrayed with wooden tokens, stained various colors and buffed to a high shine, laid out to depict the battle of Lake Trasimene. Hannibal’s great genius had been in picking his battlefields, choosing time and terrain and weather that were always to his advantage. The model territory around the lake was thick with wooden tokens—along with one Smurf holding a hammer and toolbox.
Carlos. Marty chuckled and left the Smurf where it was.
Cheryl had never precisely told him she didn’t like the gaming table. When he’d invited her to play a light, two-hour, two-person Gettysburg game, she’d said, “I prefer grown-up activities.” Which had sounded very saucy, but had turned out to mean an evening of reality television and wine.
In the very back of the Marty Cave, a punching bag hung from heavy timbers. It was a canvas Everlast, beaten so hard over
so many years that the logo was completely gone. As Marty looked at it, he reflexively touched his knuckles, then his fingertips.
Calluses on the back of the hand may be the mark of the warrior, Grandpa Chang had told him. Calluses on the front mark the worker.
Marty had both.
He set himself to a light bag workout. It would get his blood flowing and wake him up, if nothing else.
Pedro showed up half an hour later. He was younger than Carlos, and thinner. He had buzz-cut hair like a young marine, and he immediately set himself to work cutting some of the recently purchased stock for their next project.
Marty finished his workout and glanced up at the wall clock. The customer was fifteen minutes late for the agreed-upon pickup time. He knew people could be flaky about time, but he didn’t have to like it.
Joining Pedro in the workshop, he put on safety glasses, set a large chunk of wood on a lathe, and began turning what he envisioned would be a leg for the next dining room table. Then he lathed a matching leg. Then a third.
Still no pickup.
At ten, Marty stepped out onto the crumbling sidewalk and called the customer.
The phone line was out of service.
He double-checked the receipt, dialed again, and got the same result. He felt flushed, and sweat trickled down his forehead.
Gritting his teeth, Marty looked at his phone. “Damn it.” He needed that money. He needed it today.
Impulsively, before he could stop himself, he dialed Gunther.
The German picked up on the first ring. “Can you do it?”
“You said twenty thousand euros wired to me the moment I get on the plane?”
“I just need your bank info and I’ll make sure it gets done. Is that a yes?”
“It’s a yes.” Marty gave Gunther his routing and account numbers and kicked at a chunk of loose concrete. A stray dog yapped at him. “When does he want me there?”
“Right away. He’s reserved a first-class ticket on an Air Canada flight leaving from La Guardia at 6:45 p.m.”
“That’s a bit presumptuous.”
“What should I tell him?”
Marty shook his head. “Tell him I’ll be on the plane.”
“Thank you, Marty. You won’t regret it. One of the crew will pick you up at the Cairo airport and bring you to the site. It’s been too long, my friend. I look forward to seeing you.”
Marty hung up and walked back into the shop. Carlos and Pedro both stood behind the counter, trying to look unconcerned.
“Any word?” Pedro asked.
“I just got another source of cash. A different customer, big one, prepaid.” That wasn’t exactly a lie, and Marty didn’t want to tell his guys that he was dipping a toe back into Egyptology. Even if it was just a toe, it might make them worry about their jobs. “I’ll get you both paid by the end of the week. We’ll keep chasing the customer about the dining room set. And hey, if we have to find another buyer, it’ll just mean we get to keep the deposit, so we get paid extra.”
The relief on both men’s faces made Marty tear up slightly. He cleared his throat.
“That sounds awesome.” Carlos said.
Marty nodded. “I’m going to disappear for a few days. I have to go meet this new customer. You guys can run the shop. And Pedro, go ahead and start your leave whenever you need to. Don’t wait for me to sign off or anything. Take care of the missus.”
“Don’t call me boss.” Marty grinned. “It’s O Great Khan . . . or Marty.”
“Thanks, Marty,” Pedro said.
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