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As the linguists entered the room, they looked around with excitement. The room was a mass of incredibly complex machinery, reaching from one wall to another. The visitors were struck by how similar the computer systems looked to what they were familiar with themselves. But their amazement soon turned to horror as they saw the bloodstains that covered the floor.

‘What happened here?’ one of the visitors asked.

‘There appears to have been some sort of shoot-out,’ Burnett said. ‘This room hadn’t been disturbed since the incident happened, it was a completely closed environment. When we realized this, we pulled out immediately and waited until we could secure the bodies, knowing that the oxygen could destroy the organic matter. But we managed to save the bodies — which share almost one hundred per cent of our own DNA, by the way — and figure out what happened.

‘There were three bodies, two men and a woman. As far as we can make out, the woman shot one of the men, who sat in this chair here,’ he indicated with his finger. ‘Someone, most likely the second man, then shot the woman in the head from behind, pulled the man out of his chair and took his place behind the console, where he later died of a combination of starvation and lack of oxygen.’

‘But what happened here?’ another of the linguists asked, while some of the others tried to read the strange words inscribed on some of the machines around the room.

‘As far as we have been able to ascertain, this whole room was the command centre for some sort of sonic weapon. These computers are full of files, full of information, and our specialists have managed to get them operational again, with power from the generators back up top. But we’re going to need your help to decipher what we have.’

‘Is it true?’ a woman asked. ‘About what happened?’

Burnett nodded, knowing that the story was already working its way out from the enclosed research site, and would probably soon be hitting the world media anyway.

‘We believe so, yes. But let me show you,’ he said, heading towards one of the computers. He switched it on, and the visitors again marvelled at how similar it was to what they themselves used.

‘Although we can’t yet read their language, we can still learn a lot from their maps.’ He pulled one of the maps up on to the screen as he spoke, showing a world which looked familiar, yet somehow different.

‘It’s shifted,’ one of the scientists commented eventually.

‘Yes,’ Burnett confirmed. ‘A catastrophic string of disasters — possibly caused by the technology in this room — produced a polar shift, resulting in cataclysmic climate change and mass extinction. The map of the world was changed irreversibly.’

He gestured around the room. ‘This chamber, indeed Egypt itself, used to lie within the Arctic Circle. And what appears to have been the major civilization of the time had its main cities further down the eastern coast of modern-day Africa. The capital appears to have been located somewhere around present-day Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, with another major city a few hundred miles below, in what we now know as Mozambique.’

‘Like Washington and New York,’ one of the linguists said, struggling to take it all in.

‘But when did all this happen?’ the woman asked, clearly shaken.

‘From our initial investigations, we have reason to believe that the people in this room died just over two point four million years ago.’

The shock hit the linguists like a physical body blow, writ clear across every one of their faces. Burnett didn’t blame them; he could scarcely believe it himself.

‘But that means…’ one of the men stammered.

‘Yes,’ Burnett answered the unfinished question. ‘It means we are not the first.’

And if that’s true, Burnett did not add, then it also means we probably won’t be the last.