The Scorpion Archipelago (Chapter 14)

 

Perth, Western Australia, October 31st 1997, 6 am Western Pacific Time

 

It brought indescribable comfort to hear a voice – even a disjointed, crackling one – from civilisation.

“Who’s that? Is that you, Catalina?”

For a moment the girl could imagine how people in countries that had been overrun by the Nazis must have felt as they tuned in to the free world on their hidden crystal sets. “Dirk, oh thank God – yes, it’s Catalina.”

The signal must have scrambled again.

“What’s the matter girl? I lost that.”

“It’s bad, Dirk, it’s bad!”

“Shit, what’s wrong?”

“Some members of the party are dead.”

The signal was coming through like someone was standing at the top of a mountain in a high wind. So much for sat-phones, thought Dirk; a good old-fashioned radio would have been no worse.

“…are dead.

The Aussie’s blood ran cold. “Repeat. Did you say somebody’s dead?”

“…obbie…Ja…issing.”

It was getting worse, but he had heard enough. “Sit tight. I’m coming to get you.” He cut the link; it was playing havoc with his nerves and tricks with his ears.

Fuck! What the hell had gone wrong? He’d been planning to check over the plane tomorrow, but he’d have to get over there now, even though it was early morning. That way he might be able to get to them in ten hours or so. He shook his head. If he had heard correctly someone was dead and…no, stop, he told himself. Deal with the facts. He was Australian, for Chrisakes!

But then again, there was no point denying the intuition, the creeping coldness that had touched his skin when he had first set eyes on those forsaken islands. It had been more than the fear of boredom, which had made him fly home again – he squeezed his eyes shut – to his shame. Overall he liked to think that he had bottle, but some places just felt wrong and Mother Nature, for whom he had the utmost respect, had her reasons for letting certain things lie hidden. No, he would stick with what he knew, which was checking over his plane and conducting this rescue mission.

 

 

Scorpion Archipelago October 31st 1997 1.45 am

 

From a distance the boat might have appeared to be skimming from wave-top to wave-top like a giant orange pebble, but in reality the impact of each crest jolted through the passengers and threatened to hurl them into the choppy waters. They each hooked an arm through the safety rope.

“So what’s the plan?” shouted Jim above the crashing waves.

“Fuck knows,” said Cobus without letting his eyes stray from the target ahead.

“Actually I have one,” said Pete.

Cobus was again impressed by the man’s ability to stay focussed under such trying circumstances. Perhaps that calmness was what adrenalin sports gave you. “Shoot,” he said.

“Well yes, that’s part of it.” Pete gave a wry smile. “Of course, we may get there and find the temple’s now guarded. But, making a big assumption here, which is that we can get in there and still follow our trail through the labyrinth, I suggest the following: everything we’ve heard suggests that strange artefact we saw on the altar is the key to the lives and the worship of these bastards. So, we get in there; plant some of the explosive on the altar. Then we show them a bit of what we’re capable of – a touch of firepower; take a few of them down. They’re like the bloody Jocks, still wearing kilts and waving swords. They’ll be terrified of the sound and the effect of guns. When we have their full attention we make them bring us Jane. I’m sure we can make ourselves understood.” He looked at Jim. “You’ve also got a smattering of some Central American languages, if I’m not mistaken.”

“Yes,” said Jim, “but going back to what you just said, what about Robbie?”

“I’m afraid it’s too late for him.”

“What?” He looked at Cobus for clarification.

“Ja, sorry mate,” said the Afrikaner, “we didn’t want to say anything in front of Catalina or the Professor, but if you’re unlucky you’ll see what’s become of Robbie.”

“Yes, that’s one Jock who’s not going to be waving a sword anymore,” said Pete.

“Oh, for fuck’s sake, Pete,” said Jim.

“Sorry, old man, but I’m all out of compassion. My fears are now just for my wife.”

“Ok, look, I can understand that…hey, why don’t we just take all these freaks out and then hunt through the tunnels ourselves; search the rest of the island if need be?”

“Man, we’ve been in that labyrinth,” said Cobus, returning his attention to the approaching shoreline. “You start wandering round in there, you’re likely to be doing it for a very long time.”

“So what do we do if they refuse to bring us Jane?”

“Exactly what we do if they hand her over – kill everyone and blow the fucking place to pieces,” said Pete.

“And if we don’t find her?” Having to shout above the engine and the sea gave their conversation an added air of desperation.

Pete said nothing for a while, just looked into the distance, and then said: “That’s something I’ll have to live with.” Now his gaze refocused and he gave an intense, rather telling look at Jim. “But if you want my honest opinion, I suspect she’s dead already.” There was nothing the others could say. “We’ll still look for her of course. At least we’ll know, if we’re to believe the legends, that in destroying the k’ib, we’ll destroy the horror of this priesthood.”

They were silent again in the roaring darkness, then Jim said: “God knows how the Professor must feel. This place has been a dream of his for half his life; how he must be wishing it had turned out to be a chimera. Instead of which it’s a reality that might have cost him his daughter and another young life.”

“And his credibility,” said Pete coldly.

“How can you say that, man?” said Cobus, with an abrupt turn of his head. “Look, I know that you’re upset, and that’s totally understandable, but wasn’t that a bit harsh?”

“No. The man’s a scientist, but he treated this thing, this endeavour, like his own little secret; brought an ill-prepared team to an uncharted part of the world…”

“It’s called exploring; the spirit of adventure,” interrupted Jim. “With all your activities I thought you’d appreciate that.”

“Yeah, well my activities didn’t risk the lives of those I hold dearest. Or anyone else’s loved ones, come to that.”

 

Something about Pete’s protestations of love for his wife was grating on Jim, but there was nothing he could say. Part of him wanted to scream, “She didn’t love you! If fate hadn’t taken her, I would’ve,” but a combination of guilt and decency prevailed. Besides, what did he know? One lust-fuelled hump by a waterfall did not a romance make. What was it he experiencing now; a frisson of frustrated sexual jealousy, exacerbated by the fact that, though she might have grown to love him, he would never have proof of that, not even the memory of the words from her own lips? Was he being consumed by the knowledge that, like a secret lover at the funeral of a mistress, he could inflict eternal damage with one damning word, but would be the more damned for doing so? There was something discordant in Pete’s grieving avowal of revenge, but until Jim could be sure that his own judgement was not impaired, he would have to stay silent.

 

It was gone two o’clock in the morning and dawn was already starting to lift a tired eyelid as the boat scraped onto the shingle. Cobus led the way, less cautious now, through the trees towards the temple. A few yards back from the clearing they dropped down and the Afrikaner crawled forward to take a look.

“Still no guards,” he said. “Still at worship. And I thought the Dutch Reformed Church was devout.” He came back, removed his pack for a moment and unstrapped one piece, an automatic rifle, clunking the magazine into the place and stroking the barrel with satisfaction verging on recidivism. “Ja, that’s what I’m talking about.”  He loaded a semi-automatic pistol and slid it into his belt. Then he grinned at the others and said to Pete: “Ill-prepared, were we? C’mon, tool up.” They followed his example, caught up a little in his energy field. Cobus then checked that the PE4 plastic explosive was in the rucksack before pulling it on again. “I suggest we make our way to the tunnels and have a listen. I’m not totally happy with what we’re doing here; we don’t really have that good a plan – it’s all a bit haphazard – but we can’t wait. But I tell you what,” he patted the semi-automatic again, “I’m happier than I was.”

“What happens if we meet any of them in the tunnel?” asked Jim.

“Then that’s the decision made for us,” said Pete. “We kill the bastards, and then we carry on killing.”

“As Cobus said, we haven’t really thought this through, have we? We’ve just come rushing over here like Rambo, armed to the teeth…”

“Well what would you suggest?” Pete was out of patience. “Wait for them to have their first course off the second menu. Well I, for one, couldn’t just sit around. What we do have here, at least, is the element of surprise. After all, we haven’t got a fucking clue what we’re doing, so they’re never going to guess.” He gave a perfunctory grin and added: “Anyway, Rambo usually does alright.”

“He’s right,” said Cobus. “The last thing they’ll be expecting is for us to come over here; come into their labyrinth. It doesn’t looked like they’ve even realised we’re onto them. We are literally taking the war into the enemy camp. Plus we’ve got twentieth century technology on our side.” They all looked at each other. “Okay, whatever we’re doing, let’s do it.”

They left the cover of the trees and crossed the clearing towards the looming temple door at a trot. As they looked up at the glowering architrave, Cobus and Pete exchanged glances, realising that what they had taken for carvings of skulls before were the real thing. Then as they stepped inside, Jim stopped in amazement, unable it seemed, despite the circumstances, to keep the lens cap on the photographer in him. But the magnificent statues held no fascination for the other two, with the claustrophobia of the labyrinth and its grim secrets still fresh in their minds.

They hurried Jim along, though he, like them an hour or so earlier, stood in shuddering awe before the colossal, malign edifice that guarded the entrance to the labyrinth. Again they nudged him, till they stood once more at the greedy mouth of the tunnel that they knew had consumed one, possibly two, of their party.

Jim swallowed hard. “Looks grim,” he said. Then a graveyard grin twisted his lips. “You can lead.”

“I found another of these in the equipment,” said Cobus, handing Jim a head-lamp.

Then Pete said: “Hey Cobus, is this mother of a statue also made of rock-salt?”

The Afrikaner went over to the carved monster and, taking a knife from his pocket, cut its surface. “Ja, like all the others.”

Pete looked up the colossus. ”That’s a hell of a lot of salt. If that came down, it would block this entrance, wouldn’t it?”

Cobus gave a nod of complicity. He then removed his rucksack and pulled out some of the PE4, which he placed at various points around the base. When he was done he ran the wire and detonator round to a few yards in front of the statue, before coming back and slapping his palm on its bulk. “Let’s hope they don’t follow us out. It would be a shame to destroy something so old.”

Pete shook his head. “Followed or not, we’re bringing that bastard down. Let ‘em live on in their tunnels if they want, but they’ll have to mine this salt all over again if they want to come out to prey.”

With that, they switched on their lights. Cobus moved to the head of the tunnel and listened. “Nothing yet. Let’s go.”

Moving forward, they were relieved to see that the pieces of black and yellow tape were still in place. They stopped every few paces to listen. Then Jim whispered: “What if we meet this thing you say you encountered?”

Cobus tapped his rifle. “I reckon this will take care of it. I think we were probably a bit spooked by everything. In fact the tunnels don’t feel so bad the second time round.”

“You’re right,” said Pete, “they’re only terrifying.”

Sometime later Pete stopped and said: “I think we’ve come further this time without hearing anything, though I couldn’t swear to it. I wonder if they’ve dispersed, and if so, where?”

They looked behind them in the tunnel, and then Cobus, who was leading, said: “Well, I think I hear something now. Voices.”

“Yes,” whispered Pete. He strained to listen. “But that’s no incantation.”

They continued forward, till they came to what they believed was the crawl-hole in which they had hidden. Cobus said: “Let’s count how many paces from here to the hall. If we need to duck down here again we’ll know where it is in the dark.”

They switched off their lights and saw, somewhere ahead in the darkness, the glow that they knew emanated from the torches of that horrific inner sanctum. Cobus moved forward on foot, counting as many paces as he could before he needed to drop from the potential sight of enemy eyes. The others followed suit.

They were about to crawl to the edge when they froze at the sound of one voice that crawled under their skin and emulsified their blood. When they could force themselves forward again they lay flat and peered into the chamber – they had given up thinking of it as a sanctum – in time to see two dripping heads, which, it was clear, had only recently taken time off from their bodies, being placed on either side of a pulsing object by a tall, powerful man of immense and frightening presence.

“Jesus!” said Cobus and Jim together as they recoiled. The former crossed himself. His voice was shaking as he tried to bolster his wits with some irony. “I tell you, man, I’m going to give up looking over that ledge. Not that I’m planning to make this a regular trip.” He tried to smile, but was brought up short. Two heads! But Pete’s words helped him realise Jane’s wasn’t one of them.

“Incredible,” said Pete, who was the only one still looking, “the heads are still talking! And that thing – what did Tariq call it, a kib or something – seems to be getting brighter.” The others crawled forward again, their faces looking only marginally healthier than the two on the altar. “Hard though it is to swallow, the story must be true. That thing must be keeping them alive, just like it did the old man.”

Now Jim noticed the other horror on the impaling stake and put a closed fist to his mouth before managing to talk. “I saw some shit in Rwanda, but this…who is this freak?”

That was when something occurred to Cobus. “Hey, we forgot to mention this kib thing to the Professor. I guess with everything else going on…”

“I didn’t forget it though,” interrupted Pete. The pulsing light was bright enough now to throw alternate light and shade on his features – a touch of Hitchcock in a real horror story. Then he broke away from looking, though a gleam, reflecting more than the k’ib, still shone in his eyes, and said: “That thing means fortune and fame, guys. But you’re right; it hardly seemed the right time to mention it in camp earlier. Anyway, to answer your question, Jim, I think Cobus and I have a feeling we know who this is.”

“Ja,” said Cobus, “or at least what it feels like to be stalked by him.” He shuddered, then said, “and I bet our recently deceased friend the king knew only too well how it felt. Man, what a nightmare.”

“Of course! Tariq’s letter mentioned him. Yes, from the way the others are grovelling before him, he’s the high priest all right,” said Jim.

“Do you understand what he’s saying?” asked Pete.

“No idea. Like a lot of ancient languages, we can only guess at how they were spoken.”

But now they were alert and focussed again, as the priests turned in silence and headed towards the two tunnel entrances on the opposite side of the chamber.

“Where do you think those lead?” asked Pete of no-one in particular.

“Maybe to some sort of monastic cells,” answered Jim. “I hope it’s not a short cut back to the temple; otherwise we’ll be outflanked. Let’s hope this is some sort of idiorrhythmic set-up – when they’re not all kidnapping and sacrificing.” He gritted his teeth. “Poor Robbie, dying in this god-forsaken darkness at the hands of these bastards. I just hope…” He stopped himself, looked at the back of Pete’s head, and said nothing.

“What’s idio…whatever that thing was you said?” asked Cobus, changing the subject.

“It was the way of life for certain ascetic monks from centuries ago. They would live in their separate cells, then gather once a week. I’m hoping these bastards are…”

“Hey, you two.” Pete’s urgent whisper drew their attention and they ducked down just as the hooded figure below lifted its head to look around. They could almost feel his gaze probing the darkness like a searchlight. When they dared to look again he was still standing in that pose. Then, as if he had made up his mind about something, he strode away and followed the other priests down one of the tunnels.

“This is our chance,” said Pete, getting to his feet.

“Those fuckin’ heads are still talking,” said Cobus.

“I’ve got a couple of their CDs,” said Pete. The others looked blankly at him. “Talking Heads.”

Jim turned away, his features unreadable.

“You’re a fuckin’ enigma, man,” said Cobus, disbelief in his voice.

“Not one you want to solve.”

“I dunno. We’re surrounded by blood and gore, looking for your missing wife and you crack a shit joke like that. I put it down to a defence mechanism, but I tell you what, if that’s the famous British stiff upper lip, I’ll just let mine quiver.”

Pete looked down. “I…maybe you’re right. I hope I didn’t offend you.” There was silence for a moment. “Anyway, I want my wife back more than you can know. It just doesn’t feel like she’s here. That might sound strange.” There was no response. “But let’s find out for sure.” He started to move towards the head of the steps.

“Does this smell like a trap to anyone else?” said Jim.

“Maybe,” said Pete, “but what choice do we have? C’mon.” The last word was impatient and he made his way with extreme caution down the steps. Then he stopped and looked at the tunnel entrance behind him. “Hey, it looks like they’ve had to put some wooden supports there. Perhaps the rock’s not that stable. Let’s make sure we put some explosive here. And these steps are wooden. Obviously this chamber was carved naturally and the tunnel simply dropped into it.”

“You’re right, man,” said Cobus. “I’ll put enough PE to blow the steps as well, and then our arses are covered if they try to chase us.”

“Good man.” Pete helped the Afrikaner off with his rucksack as if to show Jim that the two of them were still in tune.

They waited till Cobus was finished, not wanting to split their strength, before coming down to the altar, all the time looking both at the tunnel they had just exited and the ones to their left. They approached the k’ib, with its gruesome sentinels.

“Wish I knew what you guys were saying,” said Pete to the heads. He turned to the others. “More PE4 I think.”

Cobus cut further strips of lard-like plastic explosive and they placed two narrow strips of it either side of the k’ib. Now, after discussion with Pete, he led wires back to the foot of the steps and placed the detonator there.

Jim had been distracted; his attention drawn like a fly to the tattered, ripped remains of what had once been Robbie McCulloch. When the image of the processed meat in a doner kebab shop came to him unbidden, he knew his mind was starting to claw its way towards the edge of reason. The incessant murmuring of the two severed heads only strengthened the impression of lurking insanity. With their vocal chords torn, their words were the sibilant ranting of lunatics. Jim tore his gaze away towards what the others were doing with the detonator. “Shouldn’t we put that right at the top of the steps? Don’t want to bring the roof or the steps down on ourselves before we have a chance to get out.”

“No, here is good,” said Pete. “There’s a ten second delay once we’ve pressed it,” he looked at Cobus, who confirmed this fact with a nod as he finished with the wiring, “so we’ve got time to get away. They won’t understand what we’ve done and they’ll chase us. By the time they get to the steps, they’ll walk into the explosion and the blast from the altar will take them out as well. With luck the force of it won’t get to us up there.”

“With luck?” He shrugged – he was not a munitions man. “Okay, but what if the blast doesn’t get them or destroy the steps?”

Pete showed the two rifles he was carrying; his and Cobus’s. “That’s where these babies come in.  Even if the blast doesn’t kill them, they won’t know what the hell’s going on. They’ll be terrified and confused and we can pick them off. In the meantime we hit the other detonator at the top of the steps and leg it.”

“Won’t that blast follow us down the tunnel?”

Cobus chipped in. “Nah, man, I’ve put the PE4 so it’ll bring down some rocks from above the tunnel, but the blast will go out into the chamber.” He fingers opened like an anemone to illustrate the path of the explosion, then he grinned.

“And Jane?”

Cobus grin faltered and he looked at the floor in atonement.

“Look around you, Jim.” It was Pete. “We can’t exactly go wandering around looking for her. If they don’t bring her, it’s for one of two reasons; either she’s not here, or she’s already dead. I have to accept that as her husband. Why can’t you? Whatever we do, even if we come back when the dust has settled, even if she is being held in some dungeon in a drug-induced trance, we have to get rid of these monsters first.”

Jim wanted to say so much, but it was not his right and he just gave a curt nod.

 

“Okay,” said Cobus, looking at the lower tunnels and wanting to move on, “let’s do something to get their attention.

“Right,” said Pete. With that he launched a tae-kwondo kick at the front of Jim’s right kneecap, shattering it. “That should do it,” he said as the photographer collapsed screaming. With a swift movement he grabbed the rifle that fell from Jim’s grasp.

 

“What the fuck…?!” shouted Cobus and started to advance on Pete.

“Uh-uh.” Pete sounded to his own ears like he was admonishing a naughty child, though the gun he raised in Cobus’s direction would have been considered a bit over the top as child-care goes.

“Oh God!” In a horrific, slow-motion moment of clarity, the Afrikaner reached for his rifle and rucksack only to find them both in Pete’s possession. Pete saw in Cobus’s eyes that the myriad pieces of the puzzle, meaningless on their own, were linking, too late, into the semblance of a picture.

“Yes,” said Pete, the gun still pointing at Cobus, but his words directed at Jim, “you didn’t really think I was going to let you get away with fucking my wife?”

Jim was groaning, words still impossible through the blaring pain.

“What’s he talking about, man?” asked Cobus. Pete saw confusion in the big Afrikaner’s eyes, but something else too; the shame that came with an undeniable frisson of hope – that one’s own life might yet be spared at the expense of another’s.

“I saw them, yesterday evening, up at the waterfall.” He looked at Jim for a moment. “Good, isn’t she?” He was met by another groan that might have been an oath. “Well, I hope it was fun while it lasted.” He caught a movement out of the corner of his eye and brought the gun around again towards Cobus. “Believe me, I’ll kill you,” he warned him.

“Hey listen, man, it takes two to tango.” When Pete nodded in agreement with Cobus’s statement, he saw further enlightenment dawning on the big South African. “But you already know that, don’t you? That’s why you’re not bothered about saving her.”

Pete pursed his lips as if considering. “Partly. And partly because I’ve already killed her.

Even Jim rose for a moment from his sea of crashing pain. “What did you say?” he gasped; just for a few seconds, the psychological trauma outweighed the physical agony.

“Yes, she’s a lovely, permanent addition to the island now.”

“You’re sick.” Jim’s words were meant for Pete, but addressed to his own knee – the pain could not be ignored.

“And you’re dying. You know that now, don’t you? You’re not leaving this chamber alive.”

“For fuck’s sake, man,” said Cobus, “is it worth that?”

“Oh absolutely,” Pete assured him with almost surreal sincerity and politeness.

“How did you do it, man? We were on guard last night.”

“Ever the opportunist, I guess.” Pete broke off to look across at the lower tunnels, but there was no movement, so he continued. “I happened to be awake, contemplating exactly what I was going to do about the star-crossed lovers, when I heard some noise and looked out to see the two of you run off.” He considered something for a moment. “You know, tai chi may look gentle, but it teaches you how to kill very swiftly and silently, and it’s one of many martial arts I’ve studied. Once I’d done with her, I just carried her off, dumped her deep in the woods and returned; funnily enough, just in time, I think, to frighten off our two other would-be kidnappers. By the time you guys came back I’d got my breath back and…Bob’s your uncle.” Again he broke off to look across at the tunnels. “Well, for some reason your screams don’t seem to have attracted much attention.”

“Why do you still want their attention,” asked Cobus. “You’ve done what you set out to do.”

Pete ignored him. “Time we made a bigger noise – although on second thoughts, I’ve got a feeling this might do it.”

He stepped across to the altar and picked up the k’ib. There was an immediate horrible, ominous roar from one of the lower tunnels; like nothing on earth, it seemed to freeze the very marrow in their bones.

“Yup, that did it,” said Pete, stuffing the artefact into his rucksack, though not without feeling the peculiar pulsing. “Time we weren’t here.” Cobus stepped towards Pete with intent. “No, Cobus, don’t do that. Instead, please press the detonator.” Cobus looked shocked. “Do it for your old friend Jim’s sake. You wouldn’t want them to find him alive.”

“You fuckin’ cold-hearted bastard, I’m not doing it!”

“Simple then, I just kill you and do it myself. There’s your choice.” He relished the Afrikaner’s dilemma. “I thought so.” Then Pete’s face set into a snarl. “Do it.”

The initial preternatural roar from the tunnel had been reinforced by others.

“I really would advise you do it now, Cobus.” Pete’s words were dry; he had thought things through and seemed calm. “There’s only a ten seconds delay don’t forget.”

Cobus looked at Jim in utter helplessness. “I’m so sorry, man.” Then he turned to Pete. “Oh for God’s sake, shoot him! There’s no guarantee the explosion will kill him.”

Pete pointed the gun at Cobus’s head. “You’ve got two seconds.”

“Shiiit!”

He pressed the two red buttons together and the two men tore up the steps towards the tunnel, throwing themselves flat just before a blast wave hit them, as the altar and steps were blown apart. Behind them, like a freakish hailstorm, shattered rocks clattered to the ground.

Pete got to his feet in a flash. “Get up, Afrikaner.” Cobus rose, looked back to see dust and stones filling the space of the chamber, and then stumbled on down the tunnel. Pete pressed the second detonator. “Move!” Both men raced on, hoping that Cobus had done his work well, and the blast from explosive at the tunnel entrance would not follow them. There was boom, followed by a wave of hot air, but it seemed their plan had been successful. Only one of them took any satisfaction from that.

Then, despite the ringing in their ears they became aware of voices ahead of them somewhere down the labyrinth.

“Somehow I don’t think we killed all of them,” said Pete, though his ironic tone could not mask the chill inside him.

“Give me my gun, man,” said Cobus. “At least I can help fight them.”

“Oh yes, of course, what a ridiculous oversight.” He pointed his rifle at Cobus. “Just get fucking running,” he growled.

They switched on their head-lamps and ran past several junctions where they heard voices but knew they had got past their pursuers for the moment. Of course the priests might have known ways through the network of tunnels – short cuts leading from the lower levels – but it seemed for a moment that the two men had got away. Then a group of figures emerged from a side exit just as they ran past it. Grasping fingertips brushed them; they heard the slap of bare feet on rock as the hunters chased them. Pete stopped, turned and levelled his gun. Before he fired, he saw cruel, grim faces from another time, with dark eyes framed by straight black hair, living versions of the statues in the temple – six or seven of them. He fired a burst, which sent chunks of flesh and gouts of blood flying into the darkness; bodies staggered and fell. He fired at those coming through from behind, but even as they, too, collapsed, the ones who had been hit first started to haul themselves to their feet. He opened fire on them again, and they jerked and juddered once more. Yet the others were recovering now.

It’s the k’ib, thought Pete. If it can help two severed heads to have a conversation, what are a few bullet wounds?

He sent one last merciless burst of fire into the pack.  He turned, to see Cobus standing watching the horrific spectacle open-mouthed. The two of them ran for their lives.

“They’re never gonna stop, man,” panted Cobus over his shoulder with still some element of satisfaction in his voice. “You want the k’ib, you’ve got them as appendages.”

“Not if I can get far enough away from them. They’ll die without it. Look at our friend the king.”

The sound of feet behind them was growing louder. The way ahead seemed clear, but they had lost track of how far they had still to go, they were slowed by the need to watch for the coloured tape way-markers, and the pursuers were, without doubt, gaining – driven, Pete assumed, by their absolute need for the k’ib. Without it, they were going to die. He guessed that focussed one’s attention. In distraction, he wondered what made these men – were they men? – want to continue living. But he, too, felt strong. Hadn’t everything he’d done tonight been the adrenalin fix to end them all? Fear always gave the ultimate turbo boost. Plus he had touched the k’ib; stood in its aura.

He dared another glance round – it was not a pleasant sight; not only were the priests still in hot pursuit and gaining, they bore the violent marks of where he had shot them, like bodies which had risen from a battlefield having been strafed. Set against the darkness behind them, they were the stuff of nightmares, gaping wounds barely concealing their insides. He had to slow them down, if just for a few seconds, though he wasn’t sure how many bullets were left in the first magazine. He pictured stopping to fire again, and the hollow click of an empty chamber being the last sound he heard before they fell on him, ripping the k’ib away and carrying him off to heaven knew what grim fate. He had listened to the Professor’s reading of Tariq’s tale with more attention than he let on, having already seen and set his heart on taking the prize, so knew that, without water to unleash its mysterious powers, the k’ib was just a bauble that could not help him right now. The pursuers must have built up reserves of strength through centuries of exposure to it, and that was what kept them coming on, as if their batteries were still charged.

Pete still had Cobus’s gun, of course, but he didn’t know what lay ahead in the temple, so would not to waste those bullets here. He had also been picturing different scenarios during the boat crossing, so had a contingency plan. What was it they said about successful people? They were good at visualising their achievements in advance. At a tangent, he remembered the old joke about the two men being chased by a lion, and one stopping to pull on running shoes; when his companion said: “You’ll never outrun a lion,” he’d replied: “I’m okay as long as I can outrun you.” So now he fired three shots, two of which hit their target, ripping into the back of Cobus’s legs, causing the Afrikaner to collapse with a startled shriek of pain.

Pete’s momentum carried him past the stricken South African and he looked back at him for a moment, then beyond him to the group of blood and gore spattered priests, who had stopped in respectful fear of the death stick; they had felt its venom and could feel it still. “Test your scrummaging skills now, you fucking rock-spider,” he said to his wounded companion.

Through his pain, Cobus said: “You’re gonna rot in hell, man. That’s three deaths you’ll be carrying on Judgement Day.”

“Actually two. Jane’s not dead. I just wanted Jim to believe she was before he died; wanted him to despair, and to recognise that I had the power; over her; over him. Anyway, I’ll take my chances with my judges. Meanwhile, I’ll get my skinny arse out of here as yours appears to belong to someone else.”

Before Pete turned, leaving Cobus to die, he saw the grim faces of the priests as they started to advance again, and fired the remaining bullets from his gun down the tunnel in their general direction. Then he ran, having bought himself perhaps a few valuable seconds while Cobus tried to fight them and they vented their rage on him, perhaps thinking even that he had the k’ib.

He had no idea how much further he ran – judging distance was an impossibility – but at last he saw a less dense darkness ahead and felt cooler air against his skin as he burst out into the temple, heart thumping, eyes bulging both with the effort of running for his life and of peering down the dichromatic kaleidoscope of the tunnels. He looked back towards the tunnel entrance and pointed the second gun towards it. But his pursuers were nowhere to be found. Now, for the first time, he experienced a more primal level of fear. These…priests, acolytes, whatever they were, had been following the k’ib. Why would they stop now? They would know by now that Cobus did not have it. Had they fallen back to make way for something worse than themselves? Did they perhaps fear what waited in the temple? He uttered a hysterical laugh at the way he was developing an imagination, but still, he could not shake the feeling, that ‘something worse’ – and there was only one thing it could be – was very much alive. Adrenalin junkie though he was, Pete had no desire whatsoever to meet the Grim Reaper.

And even as he thought about it, the temperature in the temple dropped. He looked around at this cavern of the grotesque, the features on the statues sliding and dancing in the uneven torchlight; was the reaper already here? Had he escaped by some secret passage to wait here? One thing was for sure; standing and thinking about it was bottom of the useful list right now.

It was getting colder – was he cooling down after the sprint through the tunnels, or was something else at play here? And had it become darker? After all, his eyes should have been adjusting to the half-light. But this was not imagination, because now he noticed that the torches around the walls of the temple had started to go out, beginning with those closest to him.

At the same time a sound reached his ears; it was indescribable and getting closer – appeared to be coming from the tunnel, but he could not be sure. The guttering and then extinguishing of each torch continued and Pete decided to combat his growing fear by firing a few rounds into the tunnel, the deadly familiarity of the repeated explosions almost melodic compared with the soundtrack of this awful place. When the report died down there was silence again – until another torch went out with a soft pop.

A voice screamed, but this one in Pete’s mind, telling him to move or die. That was when he remembered the detonator and the plastic explosive they had left at the base of the huge statue. He ran round to it, pressed the two buttons, and then fled, yelling at the top of his voice and firing bullets around him wildly, half-expecting figures to emerge from their hiding places in the shadows of the other statues. Behind him, the torches continued to die. Any moment he expected a cowled shape to step out and block his path. So he was shocked to a standstill when he emerged unopposed into the nascent daylight beyond the temple door.

Boom!

The delayed explosion roared, and he could just make out, in the darkness at the back of the temple, the first tottering steps of the monolithic statue as it started to collapse.

But there was no time for feeling relieved; he knew something was following him and could almost have believed it was the vengeful soul of the beast-god, released from the prison of its statue. On fatigued legs he ran, knowing the dark man was coming; feeling his fingers of shadow reaching out towards him; his ancient, stinking breath, putrid from gorging on human flesh, making the hairs on the back of Pete’s neck tingle in the delicious expectation of being touched. He knew that if he stumbled even once, over a root or rock, it would be all over for him. Not until he had scrambled down to the beach and across the shingle to the inflatable did he dare to stop and look around. He could see nothing, and nothing suited him fine.

   He looked up and down the beach – no sign of life. Had any of them got away? He hoped his theft had drawn them all back into the temple or tunnels and their doom. Part of him wanted to go back and look through the temple portal, but what if some of them had survived and were watching him now from the trees, scared of his firepower, and waiting to destroy the boat so they could keep him here while they thought of a way to disarm him. There was no point in going back. All that mattered was that Jim and Cobus were dead. If some of those freaks had survived, they would not last long without the k’ib. Now he remembered his prize, opened the rucksack and removed it. What the hell was it, lying inert in his hands, made of some unidentifiable metal or element? When he had picked it up from the altar it had been pulsing, proving that water did indeed power it somehow. Maybe it also performed some complex ionisation of the air, affecting the oxygen you breathed. Pete shook his head; if that were the case, who the hell were these guys who, when they weren’t ripping each other’s heads off or eating each other, invented a machine capable of something he could not begin to understand. What a sucker punch – perhaps the most incredible invention in the history of mankind and you were too scared to let anyone find out, or unable to get off your piece of rock long enough to make it worthwhile.

He looked up, imagining several pairs of vengeful eyes watching him from the tree line. Nothing. He held the artefact up above his head and showed it to the island. “Your secret’s safe with me!” he shouted in mockery.

There had been no time to think over the financial benefits it might bring, but it was possible he would have eternity in which to work it out. The only problem he could foresee was if he ended up looking like the Caped Crusader back there; it seemed eternity had a price. But he would cross that bridge when he came to it.

Pete looked up at the lightening sky. A pall of smoke and dust had issued from the mouth of the temple and was rising against the dawn. The last of their merry band, old Sutch and Catalina – assuming Jane was in no state to feel merry – might have noticed it by now and be wondering what the hell was going on. Time to get away from this place of death

He saw the wooden boat sitting where the two would-be kidnappers had left it on their return, took aim and fired several holes into it. With the rifle-butt he smashed the holes wider, before getting into the inflatable. He knew it had to be low on fuel and for a moment regretted his rash decision to smash the other boat, which would have been easier to row back than his own, but to his relief the motor started up.  With a last look over his shoulder at the scene of his greatest triumph so far, he set off back towards base camp.

The short trip seemed surreal, as if he was travelling forward through time from a forgotten, dangerous place into a world full of opportunity. The daylight having almost returned in this southerly latitude, he could make out the figures of the Professor and Catalina on the beach. He saw the old man sink to his knees. Had he realised that, not only was there no sign of Jane on the boat, there was just the lone figure of his erstwhile nemesis. Pete knew his return would be of no consolation to Sutch at all.

“Just the two of them,” said Pete to himself, in a tone that would have puzzled anyone listening.

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The Scorpion Archipelago (Chapter 13)

Scorpion Archipelago – Temple Island – 31st October 1997

He had forgotten many things over the course of several millennia. Memory had become a soup; a sludge into which everything was stirred. From time to time, the odd thing bubbled to the surface. All that really mattered in the dark brew of his life was the k’ib.

Until recent events, he had long forgotten how he came to stalk this labyrinth, drawn to the torchlight only by the beating of the drums or the chanting of the acolytes offering obeisance and sacrifice. They looked so different from him. He had little memory of the man he was – until the brew had been stirred again he had even forgotten his original name – but at some distant point in his past he had become known as `Ak’ubal, because, like the night, men knew he was coming and dreaded his arrival. For him, the darkness in the tunnels was preferable to the horror in men’s eyes. He knew they feared him now as one might fear a loathsome, bloated spider that crawls forth to kill while others watch in morbid fascination. And despite his fearsome power, no one hated him more than he had come to hate himself.

Yet it had not always been so, and he had been reminded of that just hours ago – was it hours? – time had no meaning for him anymore. Something in the tunnel, as he responded to the calls of his acolytes; a feeling – perhaps a barely perceptible scent, so fleeting it might have been imagination – had taken his thoughts back into the light; and he had known the simultaneous joy and dismay of remembering; the danger of looking back.

It was almost too much to bear, though nothing could compare to the fire, which had flared from the ashes of his soul just days ago, as the acolytes had called him to the outer temple. He had stood blinking, weak like a child, in the daylight. For the first time since he abandoned the world outside, he was standing on the shore again. The smells and sounds had coursed through him with a power bordering on destructive. And the memories; of centuries before, confronting an army; facing them down; challenging a king who…

“…stands before you as your ruler and demands your obedience. The cult of the priests has grown too powerful and corrupt. I am here to set that right.”

   He heard this address to the other priests as he stood in the shadows of the temple entrance, the gravitas of the words enhanced rather than diminished by the powerful, background surge of the eternal tide on which this army had arrived; and he felt the hesitation of the acolytes in the shuffling of their feet. Strong though they were in arm, they were weak in mind, relying on his leadership. None of his followers could boast his physical and spiritual strength. He had not allowed it. And now they were confronted by an army, four or five hundred strong as far as he could see, though for all their swords and finery he knew that they had not fought a serious battle in living memory – and to the people of those islands that meant a long time.

   `Ak’ubal was merely waiting for his moment, like an actor wishing to make an impact by his entrance. He knew his appearance was baleful – some whispered he was already dead and such was his bond with the k’ib now, it was hard to tell whose heartbeat was the stronger. If a man cannot tell whether he is alive, then either he is no longer a man or he is dead.

   “Where is Kaz’khar?” The name, uttered by the king, was alien to the high priest’s ears, but brought with it such a tsunami of memories and emotions that it threatened to overwhelm him. “Where is the man who would take my place?”

   Word did get around. It followed in the footsteps of traitors.

   “Here I am.” As he stepped out from the temple, he seemed to bring its darkness with him; a black wake. Deep in the shadows of his cowl his face remained hidden, except for a cruel, thin-lipped mouth. His followers parted before him like corn before the wind, and the opposing army rippled in expectation. He felt their uncertainty; smelt their fear – a scent all too familiar to him. But the king, nobility itself, stood his ground. The priest saw how his fingers flexed, sending ripples along his forearms, as though grasping already the hilt of his sword. They might have been equals in strength, for now, but there was no doubt that the k’ib gave with one hand and took with the other, and sometimes `Aku’bal’s body struggled to contain the dark strength he had been given. The king, on the other hand, seemed in rude health, though of course he owed that to the gift of blessed water bestowed by the priesthood. Perhaps it was true what they said about the water. It did not give, but drew on what was already there. However, though the man before him might be dangerous, `Ak’ubal knew he would win the day. Where was the sport in that?

   For a time they stood in silence, just the whistling wind and whipping waves as backdrop to the challenge. A guttering flame, which might have been Kaz’khar’s soul, kindled at the sound. Then, to the astonishment of all, the high priest bent a little at the waist and made obeisance, before saying:

   “Our lord is most welcome. Too long has he stayed away from the holy ground.”

   “Ground stained by too much sacrificial blood,” growled the king. “And were that not enough, word reaches me of insurrection and ambition, combined with a secret so powerful that it makes a mockery of your so-called divinity.”

   The high priest had straightened during this pronouncement. “Ah yes, where is the maggot they call Ta’rhik?”

   “A maggot, as you call him, that tired of feasting on human flesh, rejected the corruption of the priesthood and remained loyal to his king.”

   “The very same.” The contempt in ‘Ak’ubal’s voice was almost slime-coated, so thickly did it issue from his throat. “But a maggot nonetheless, as you concede.” He saw the king’s jaw muscles clench at this deliberate and disrespectful misinterpretation.

   “This can still end peacefully.”

   The priest pointed with a bony, but powerful hand towards the king’s men. “Easy to say, with an advantage of ten men to one priest. But we do not stand here seeking a fight. We are unarmed.”

   “You lie. I would wager your swords have newly seen the whetstone, and were we to look below that grey-cowled robe of yours we would find armour. Indeed, were we to search this island, we would find the accoutrements of war.” The king allowed the scowl to fall from his features for a moment. “But, put that all to one side and we can still exist alongside each other. Give me the k’ib.”

   The man once called Kaz’khar did not waste time with denials. “I see Ta’rhik has advised you well, and doubtless he has told you where the k’ib is kept.” He turned his body, bowed again slightly and gestured towards the temple with one arm. “Go seek.”

   The king’s face betrayed indecision for the first time. “Bring it to me.”

   “I will not, for the lack of trust shown in me.”

   It had been a clever move by the priest, for his king, so confident and strong to this point, could not allow himself to appear in any way unmanned. He squared his shoulders. “Then stand aside. I fear not the ghosts and demons with which you seek to terrify our people.”

   ‘Ak’ubal looked at him, and the king caught brief sight of a pair of hooded eyes that bulged and gleamed as if they had spent too long in darkness. “They are not to be feared,” was the priest’s ambiguous response.

   The king beckoned to his captain. “Ready the men. Bring half and leave half here to prevent anyone escaping.”

   Suddenly the voice of the high priest boomed out, and he saw the impact of it on all who heard. The soldiers saw his ancient, scornful eyes looking out from beneath his cowl and they were afraid. “No man save the king may enter our temple. Death to all that do so.” He saw the soldiers hesitate. Their fears, beliefs and superstitions ran too deep. Now `Ak’ubal could see the cornered look in the king’s eyes, though the latter was not beaten yet, and took the advantage that he thought he had still.

   “Very well. Captain,” the soldier straightened, “ensure no man…” – here he looked at the priest – “…or creature follows me.

   “My lord.” The soldier nodded his obedience.

   With that the king drew his sword, and with a set jaw that could not mask his trepidation, he strode into the temple. The soldiers watched till the last glints of daylight off his crown disappeared.  

  

   Morning turned to afternoon and then to dusk. With the failure of their king to reappear, the soldiers’ courage started to fail them, though they did not desert their posts. `Ak’ubal knew this and waited, watching unease go rotten and turn to fear. He knew their resolution was straining against its leash and pulled the fraying rope tighter, instructing the priests to strike up the peculiar, skin-crawling ululation that was the preparatory chant for sacrifice. No man dared bid them be quiet. It grew colder. At last, as the sun started kissing the ocean, the high priest turned to the soldiers. “Your king has entered a labyrinth in which he is doomed to wander forever, unless I deem it otherwise. You know by now, in your hearts, that he will not return.” He pointed past them. “I bid you look your last upon your home and the sun, for you will see neither of them again.”

   With that he cast back his cowl and every man fell back, even his acolytes. He knew what he had revealed by throwing back the curtain. “Now I know why I no longer wish to see my reflection,” he whispered to himself and sent forth a laugh that all present wished he had not; a sound that, in itself, would render an island uninhabitable for centuries. Had there still been birds in the trees on Temple Island, they would doubtless have fled in a flurry of cries and beating wings. Though he wore no armour – the king’s guess had been wrong, unaware that the high priest knew no fear – he carried a sword, which he drew now. It seemed to blaze red in the sunset. He looked across at the other priests and nodded once. They too threw off their robes to reveal shining breastplates, vambraces and swords. At another signal from `Ak’ubal they set upon the cowering army, who fell back, defeated without striking a blow. The surf boiled red as the priests hacked, slew and hacked again. One of them turned to the high priest, though he averted his eyes as he spoke.

   “Shall we capture some for sacrifice, my lord?”

   `Ak’ubal stared ahead. “No. Kill all. We shall reap the harvest elsewhere.”

   Not a single soldier was spared – a blessing, had they but known it. Those bodies that did not float out to sea were hurled into some of the boats in which they had sailed across. Now the high priest addressed his acolytes, who stood blood-stained and proud, full of energy despite being fifty men who had slain five hundred. “Load the ladders and yourselves into the other boats. How perfectly has that traitor Ta’rhik done our bidding for us, ensuring we now have a fleet in which to make our crossing? As soon as you are in deep water, hole the boats with the bodies and let them sink.” He raised a finger, to take pause for a moment. “Except the captain. Keep his head to display to the people. Show them the price of disobedience. Let it be the last lesson they learn as free citizens. Then round up every man, woman and child you can. Load them in the boats and bring them here. Those for whom there is no room, let them live in their doomed city…for the moment. Bring all provisions you find; we will feast well.” He gave that chilling laugh again, before his expression changed and he looked over his shoulder. “Oh, and post two men at the door of the temple, lest our former ruler should, by some chance in a million, ever find his way out again.” He smiled, revealing startling white, sharp teeth. “And now, I have hunting of my own to do.”

   With that, the high priest returned to the temple and plunged into the darkness of the labyrinth. First he had returned to the inner sanctum to reassure himself that the k’ib had not been taken, though he suspected he would have felt that in his obsidian heart. Then he stalked the tunnels.

 

    That had marked the start of a timeless hunt.

A part of him had grown almost to pity his adversary. There had come a time when he found his quarry’s armour, discarded like a snake’s skin, no longer of any use, just a noisy hindrance. `Ak’ubal had called into the darkness:

“Why do you still run; still hide? You are trapped in this lightless world, with no torch to offer hope, no food to sustain you and no hope of dying as long as the power of the k’ib chooses to keep you alive – if this can be called a life.”

That was when, almost on a whim, he had discarded his own torch. Had he wanted to even the odds? Perhaps his life would have ceased to have meaning if he no longer had a prey to stalk. Whether the irony of those final words occurred to him now – could this be called a life – he did not know. His thoughts wandered a mind every bit as twisted and dark as the labyrinth.

His eyes had grown accustomed to the dark, as did, he assumed, the king’s. At last, the high priest himself had become lost in the ways of the labyrinth, or rather, became one with its shadowy confusion, as his obsession cast a veil across what remained of the dim light of his humanity. Now even his priests avoided him, but they too were lost souls, knowing no other way than to obey him; he had replaced their gods. So they summoned him ritually, like some demon of the underworld, their chanting his only guide through the tunnels; their obedience so blind that, knowing his hunger now was only for human flesh, they sacrificed their own. The harvest of citizens had long ago dwindled to nothing and even those who had been kept in perpetual slavery to work the barren land or fish the sea had gone. Now the chosen victims, drugged with amala, took the step that he could not, and ended their ancient misery.

That desperate, decaying relic of a way of life had breathed again, when the acolytes brought flesh and blood from the new world, and he had felt some strength return to the part of him that might be mortal as he feasted.

The first sighting of the huge bird some moons ago had thrown the priests into a state of terror, and he had demanded to be told if it ever came again. When it did, two days ago, he was not scared. He had witnessed man’s progress through the eons; knew that an unfathomable length of time had passed since his people reached these islands and that man would have moved on in his thirst for knowledge, whereas the priesthood had stood still, trapped by its old ways and an ancient, vast ocean. `Ak’ubal had long ago ceased to be wise and had become one with the shadows – dark with knowledge. He was not afraid; as he watched through the distant-eye that one priest had brought back from a trading trip, he saw men and women disembarking from the bird – clearly some sort of flying ship. Astounding! Man had grown great. Then, as he had watched them reach the shore in their strange boats, he had at last felt a frisson of fear. Who were these people? One thing he knew; where man goes, man follows. Part of him longed to join them, but this new age of magic would hold no place for the likes of his priesthood. His only chance – their only chance – was to kill the new invaders and keep safe the secret of the lost kingdom, and the k’ib.

That very night he had sent two scouts in one of the two remaining boats – the fleet they had acquired after the defeat of the king had long since rotted, as the priests knew little of the sea and the upkeep of boats. To his dismay, the scouts returned to the temple with one of the new settlers as captive.

“This will betray our presence,” he had rasped in the whisper that he knew filled the other priests with fear.

“We had no choice, my lord,” they had quivered in response. “He woke even as we entered the camp, and would have roused the others.”

He had gestured for them to drag forward the prisoner, who had already regained consciousness and struggled, though his puny body had been no match for the acolytes. There had been such terror in his eyes as `Ak’ubal had leaned towards him and said: “Who are you?” No response. “Why are you here?”

A helpless, horrified shaking had met both questions.

“Should we use him, my lord, as bait to bring in the other fish?” asked one of the other priests.

“No.” The priest considered something. “Did the others see you?”

“No, my lord.”

“Then they will not know where he has gone. We will take them one by one.”

“They may post guards now.”

“There are six of them; two of them women, one an old man, but I do not doubt, as they have mastered the art of flight, that they will have weapons of great power beyond our understanding, so we should be cautious.  Let us hope, when they discover this one missing, that they think their enemy is around them on the island of the citadel. Let them turn their backs to the sea.” `Ak’ubal had stared at the prisoner and seen him quail, before looking back at his brotherhood. “For now the fate of this man shall be that of all first captives in our history of combat. The gods demand it.”

He had seen the wolfish grins spread across all the faces in the flickering torchlight as they remembered what this meant, and then a chilling ululation had issued from their throats.

Two more of them had come forward, stripped the prisoner, and then seized his legs so he was held spread-eagled on the ground, while another acolyte had come forward with a stake the length of two men. In reality, `Ak’ubal did not know whether this part was indeed demanded by the gods, but it had become his preferred method of sacrifice. He seemed to draw strength from the victims’ prolonged agony; the slow death that ensued as a mighty hammer drove home the stake, impaling the unlucky captive upwards between the legs. Done skilfully, it had been known for the wretch still to be alive when the first limb was ripped away. This captive had not been made of strong stuff and had died early in the act. As for the other priests, he suspected they watched with a mixture of relief and despair. The priesthood had once been one hundred strong. The full moon still required a sacrifice and a few years before, they had run out of victims from the dungeons – not that those unfortunates made much of a meal centuries after their capture. This sacrifice was a reminder to the watchers of the fate each had escaped for the moment, but would be theirs in the fullness of time.

And then a remarkable thing had happened. The high priest had felt new life and power surge through his ancient body as he had ripped off the victim’s arm and consumed this foreign flesh. And he had seen the truth; the error of his belief that these new settlers should be killed. Fresh blood was needed to save the priesthood from extinction. And not just in their stomachs; more important – in their veins. New flesh was needed to yield; not to the knife or impaling stake, but to his body and will, so that he could cease to be `Ak’ubal, and become Kaz’khar, high priest of a proud movement once more. Otherwise, there was no escaping the fact that the priesthood was dying, even were it to abandon its ancient, cannibalistic practices, which judging by the bloodstained mouths around him now was not about to happen.

He had risen from his throne, after they had made their lengthy obeisance to the altar, and said: “Hear me my priests; this – ” here he gestured towards the half-eaten corpse, “ – has tasted good. The gods are pleased. Can you not feel the new power inside us?” There had been a murmur of consent. “This race is strong. We must breed with them. Let us think on how best to bring them, impregnate the women, and make the priesthood strong again.”

An old, long-forgotten beast rose within him as he pictured the women spread-eagled and being impaled, but not by some sacrificial stake.

****

   However, at this moment it was his anger that needed appeasing, having discovered that two priests, seeking to satisfy their own desires, had returned to the island of the citadel without his knowledge to capture one of the women. Another of the acolytes, doubtless wishing for favour in `Ak’ubal’s eyes, or hoping to postpone his own death, had informed him, and for the second time in two nights, the high priest found himself summoned from the labyrinth. His bitterness – he knew no other state of mind now, only degrees of rage – deepened with the late arrival of the two guilty men, whose tardiness merely confirmed their shame. They quailed before him now.

   “Fools, why did you float a decoy?” he demanded, still hiding the full extent of his rage, after the priests had sought to explain their actions, claiming, of course, that they had tried to capture the woman for him.

“They had posted guards, my lord?” The two men shook.

“Now they know the threat lies across the water from them, not on their own island. You have betrayed us. They may come with their weapons.”

“But we would have succeeded, my lord, had we not been disturbed by another of them emerging from the trees. But he did not see us; their weak eyes cannot pierce the darkness. Are they truly to be feared, mighty one? Would a master race still sleep in tents? Nor did we see boats, my lord. They cannot follow us. ”

`Ak’ubal rose from his throne and descended the steps. “I bade you only to think on how best to seize the women. Clearly your minds have grown weak and are no longer capable of thought. And I have seen their boats. You would call me a liar in this gathering? Do you truly believe that they are not to be feared; that I am wrong?”

Both priests shook their heads in vehement denial and their eyes flickered around, not daring to look at his fearsome face, while doubtless also seeking in vain for an escape route. “No, my lord,” said one, “we beseech you.”

“But I know your plots. You took one of the women for yourselves, and would fill her with your seed in the hope of supplanting me with your own line. Where have you hidden her? Why were you late when all were summoned here?”

“Please believe us,” said the other. “We only…we were ashamed of our failure and feared to show ourselves.”

`Ak’ubal placed his hands on the first priest’s shoulders. He moved them inwards, almost caressing the man’s neck. “Calm yourself,” he said, and then with a sickening, tearing sound pulled upwards, removing the head. He looked at it and said: “Do not lose your head.”

The other priest started jabbering and backing away, but he found no escape through the acolytes, who pushed him forward again to his fate. When he had finished, the high priest placed the two gruesome trophies on either side of the k’ib on the altar. The eyes of the two victims continued to move and the mouths to speak, such was the power of the k’ib. This gruesome show could last for an hour or more and never failed to amuse `Ak’ubal, but its primary purpose was to serve as a warning against disobedience.

However, this night he wanted more than amusement and he addressed the others: “In the belief that you are all equal fools I will go with you tonight and seek the woman these traitors have hidden. If we do not find her then…” he put out a hand and touched the k’ib, in which the pulsing appeared to strengthen, “…our beating hearts will, at next moonrise, make their first journey across water since the day of our arrival on this shore. Once again, it will signal a new beginning.”

 

The priests turned at his signal and filed from the inner temple through the lower tunnels that led to their cells and onwards to the cliffs on the opposite side of the island; they had been built as an escape route should the population of the citadel have ever realised that five thousand people could end the reign of one hundred priests. But `Ak’ubal waited behind, looking at the k’ib pulsing beneath his fingers. It sharpened vague memories already awakened by the taste of new flesh.

Then he looked up. There it was again; the presence he had felt earlier in the tunnel when he had been summoned; smells he could not recognise, mixed alluringly with some that he could. It disturbed him. He would be alert tonight, watching, waiting – more Kaz’khar than `Ak’ubal – strengthened by fresh blood and new purpose, for the first time in…he cocked his head, but time betrayed his memory once more.                 

                                                                       

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The Scorpion Archipelago (Chapter 12)

Scorpion Archipelago Base Camp October 31st 1997 12.20am

 

Once again, as the inflatable had whined off in pursuit of the other boat, looking as fragile as their hopes when it bounced on the waves, the Professor had been close to giving in to despair. He saw now that the loss of his daughter would succeed where all other setbacks in his life had failed; it would destroy him. No amphora was as precious as her life, returned safe and sound to him and nothing more ridiculous than ambition in an old, tired heart. Jim had placed a hand on his shoulder and said:

“That Cobus is a tough nut. I’m sure he and Pete between them can bring her back; if indeed she has been taken.”

Then Jim had wandered off towards the box of guns. A wise idea, thought Sutch; keep yourself busy. At least one of them was thinking straight. Jim had an old head on young shoulders, or better put, a practical one, since an old head had got them all into this mess. Had he taken the same liking to her as she had to the young photographer. Was the feeling mutual? Was Jim now going through his own private agonies, albeit nothing compared with Sutch’s?

Now he watched Catalina go to sit with Jim. The girl had been very quiet during most of this trip. She might have thought of herself as intrepid prior to this, but once the proverbial had hit the fan she had discovered otherwise. She had lost a friend and might lose another. There was every chance she was rethinking her ambitions for the expedition and they panned down to one stark aim – stay alive. Sutch wished he could give her absolute reassurance and security, but he was having a tough time just keeping himself together and it was no surprise that she sought strength instead in the company of a younger man, who was loading a gun; who lived in the present, not the past.

With that, Sutch returned to his tent, to continue with something he had started earlier, but abandoned, perhaps unwisely. Why had his mind refused to accept that myths and legends had an inevitable a core of truth? Had that not been the basic tenet of this expedition? He knew, now, he had just been acting like the three wise monkeys rolled into one. So he pulled out Tariq’s letter and started to read it again in detail, or at least the first page; the one he had concealed from the others after skimming through its contents.

This part was not so much a letter as a brief history written during the merchant’s final voyage and Sutch saw, too late, that keeping these details from the team had been unwise, even though they might have been dismissed as some fairy-tale. He saw, also, that the amphora brought with it a legacy of lies. From the moment he had set eyes on it, he had withheld information from people – Candice, Dirk, Arthur, the team. Did the amphora turn you from the path of truth? Tariq had lied, or at least bent the truth, on more than one occasion. As he considered the consequences of his own actions and read again the details in the letter, Professor Edward Sutch regretted that he had proved a worthy heir.

“In the anticipatory excitement of reaching my journey’s end, floating towards my Valhalla, and in the hope that you will find my body, here is the true story of how I came to be who I was on the day you met me. My people fled, not for the first time in our history, from persecution in the fourth century after your Christ was born, led by a mighty king and his powerful shaman, who promised that for us there would be, somewhere, a promised land. We preferred to take our chances with the sea than try to withstand the forces of so-called progress. We left what is now called South America and perhaps half of us were lost before our ships beached upon the archipelago, on which you now stand if you are reading this. We might have landed better elsewhere, but freedom, and land beneath your feet, count for so much.

    Most scratched a living together, but man being man, some things cannot change. The priests chose to inhabit a separate island, the largest one at the end of the chain that is now named Escorpion Archiepelago. Here they discovered a perfect place to conceal their secret, both wonderful and terrible, like so many hidden treasures.  They wandered deep into the network of mountain caves and found a spring of fresh, clear water; a suitable place to build their altar and continue with their dark practices. Once more they could channel and corrupt the power of the Earth goddess. 

You see, throughout history the priests moved from tribe to tribe, race to race, holding the  people in thrall by dint of their immortality, and one, the high priest, whose name, even now, I cannot utter, seemed to have existed since the beginning of time. It was rumoured that he was the oldest man alive, and had fled civilisations from the earliest of times when fear had led men to revolt against his power. For, unbeknown to commoners or kings, he possessed an object for which secular men would kill had they ever learned of its existence. Though his strength was beyond that of other men he was still mortal, and would not have withstood the onslaught of an army raised to seize his prize. The artefact, called a k’ib in my native tongue – meaning water jug, but not to be confused with your amphora – seemed able to harness the universal structures, truths and life-giving forces that are inherent in water, endowing all who drank it with these gifts. And more; it took that innate power and charged with its eldritch energies the very air one breathed, though there was a limit to its reach – only those on Temple Island would have felt that strange effect – and it relied on water to awaken it, just like a vampire needs blood.    

   The k’ib enabled the priests to perpetuate the myth of their holy powers as they continued with their claim of being able to bless water with life-giving forces. The high priest himself said this grail – I use the word advisedly, if technically it is incorrect – was a gift from the gods. None of us knew enough to disagree.”

 

“More half- truths, Tariq, more lies.” Sutch shook his head. “You said the spring itself imparted the powers.” Even as he muttered to himself, the Professor grew more desperate, feeling like he had been lured by the beauty of a web, only to discover its deceit – every way he turned now he was held by more strands. And Tariq, though it pained Sutch to admit it, had spun the threads. Perhaps he had been powerless to do otherwise. Perhaps it had been inherent to his nature, just as a spider is driven by instinct to lay its trap and perform its gruesome rituals, because it was clear to the Professor that Tariq must have been a priest. He told here of things ‘unbeknown to commoners or kings’. It seemed to Sutch that the water of life, rather than the amphora, was the breeding ground of lies. So having drunk of it for more than a thousand years, was Tariq powerless to do other than deceive? Because despite everything, the Professor still believed the old merchant had been, in essence, a good man.  

   “Now the high priest forbade all settlers other than his acolytes to live on the sacred island. The ordinary people feared the ageless priests and did their bidding without questioning, so that the high priest grew more powerful than the king. At first there was an uneasy truce. The people of the archipelago, while quarrying for stones, stumbled upon caves full of rocksalt. Everywhere, except on Temple Island where certain slaves were employed in carving an edifice fit for the priests – they mined it in vast quantities and the king sent them forth to trade, building great ships from the plentiful timber around us. I believe that time and legend has transmuted the rocksalt into precious stones, but as you know, salt was of enormous value back then. As a result we wanted for nothing. Here, too, the myth of the priests was perpetuated, for they supplied water for the departing ships, knowing their crews would always return; eternal life is a delicious poison. And a priest would travel on every ship to ensure no man dared betray our kingdom.

Likewise, the inhabitants of our citadel were granted a ration of blessed water that kept them young and healthy, but not as strong as the priests. Still, as with all kingdoms that grow rich there was a desire for overall power amongst the leaders. Ambition attacked; a cancer thriving on the healthiest cells. Certain ancient religious practices were resumed, notably human sacrifice. Throughout our history there was a fear amongst the priests that our lack of children would give away our dark secret because they would not age, and how do you raise a child for all eternity? It was a terrible darkness that hung over us – to have to live without the joy of new lives amongst us – and I regret deeply my part in it. This was one of the reasons the king commanded the building of the walled citadel; so that his people could choose to raise a family and the priests could not simply go among the people and claim the young. But still they would come to the wall of the citadel and demand one life for each full moon.

   The unfortunate volunteer – or terrified victim – would be chained at the appropriate time to a pillar down at the harbour, on top of which a fire would be lit to signal to the priests to collect their booty.”

   Sutch shuddered as he recognised the marker he had found. There had been no fire, no victim held in chains, but he had been summoned just as surely to claim his prize.  

   “The high priest himself had almost passed into mythology during the course of a thousand years. Some said he had become dark and terrible to behold; others that he would not leave the object that gave him his power and stalked the tunnels of the temple. Yet more said that his heart and the k`ib now pulsed in unison. Whatever the truth, the cave beyond the magnificent temple they had built was turned by the priests into a labyrinth; some said it was to prevent the theft of the k`ib, others that it was to keep the dark lord contained.  

   At last it came to the ears of the king that the high priest was planning to come forth and take both the citadel and the kingdom from him. One priest, sickened by the reawakening of the sacrificial cult, broke ranks and betrayed the high priest’s plans and the secret of the source of his power. So the king, an enlightened leader and a brave warrior in his time, led an army across to Temple Island. The priests bade him enter the temple and take the k’ib for his own. He was never seen again.

   Then the priests, numbering but fifty, took on the king’s force of five hundred men and slaughtered them. At once they boarded boats and headed for the citadel. I was lucky. Along with my friend the fisherman, we were amongst the few who escaped. From the ocean we watched powerless as the priests scaled the walls with ladders they had prepared and the citizens fled, some choosing to hurl themselves from the cliffs, rather than face the wrath of the holy men. Others we saw captured and led back to the boats. Their fate I know not, but I can guess. With the power of the k’ib keeping them alive, they would have fulfilled the requirements of many a full moon. I care not to dwell on it.

   I return now to honour the dead by dying among them; because I escaped while they died; because this wild place was my home for a thousand years; because I have wandered too much since, for any other place truly to be called home. And I return in the hope that, with four thousand full moons having passed, the gruesome banquet of the priests might be over and they will have died at last.”

   Sutch knew in his gut that Tariq was the one who fled the priesthood, driven by the shame of human sacrifice; that he had brought the corruption of the cult to the attention of the king. How the Professor wanted…needed to believe that.

And then, any sadness about Tariq, or his lies, or his fate, was pushed aside with a jolt that might have stopped his ageing heart.

Temple Island is alive!

   Oh God, let it not be so!

Had two more lives been sacrificed, as surely as if Sutch himself had dragged them down to the harbour by a full moon?

He read the last words on the parchment that shook in his hands.

   “Please believe me, my dear Professor, when I say that I have agonised over whether to allow you to find this place. But every man must find his dream and the dead must be allowed to speak again.”

Now Sutch was shivering. He was beyond redemption. What had he let those boys head off into? He had been even more of an arrogant fool than he had known.

Could it really be so? No – he would not allow himself to believe it. Hobgoblins and dark lords and waters of eternal youth. He tapped the paper, needing to feel something real. There, Tariq himself summed it up; all the precious stones of legend were nothing more than good old prosaic rocksalt. So what if the king was never seen again? Small wonder, when he walked into a network of cave tunnels. Probably got lost and fell to his death somewhere. Human sacrifice –  for sure, that was real enough in South American culture and elsewhere. The rest were bedtime stories; that was all.

There were other anomalies too. If indeed those shamans had survived, how the hell had they managed it, trapped in the anachronism of their ancient ways? Had they kept some of their prisoners alive as slaves; sent them to fish; made them till the soil; held them in unending bondage? Or had modern civilisation somehow drifted onto TempleIsland and left enough of a footprint to enable it to stand its ground alone?

But as his finger continued to tap on the paper his fears, like ancient priests, would not go away. This document was found in the hand of a dead man who had been writing with a twentieth century biro; a man with no guarantee his words would ever be read. Why would he have continued to lie?

Where the hell was Jane?

He shook his head, angry with himself for allowing his thought to wander from her plight.

The occasions when he had been around to read her to sleep were too few, yet there had always been a strong bond between them. It might have been forged in the fires deep beneath the earth’s crust, but had found its ultimate expression in a shared love of discovery and a shared perspective – that everything about man was transient. Jane would have acknowledged that each time she dug up the ruins man had built on the surface – yet another crumbling example of the Ozymandias principle, just as he knew it for sure, whenever he sat on, or sank below, the vastness of the ocean. Perhaps their love had been strengthened by absence; the privilege of the father who comes home to the clean and well-behaved child. But Candice never complained.

Darling Candice, so far from here.

A hand tapped on the flap of his tent and he heard Catalina’s voice. “Professor? They’re coming back.”

He looked at his watch and saw that he must have slipped into some kind of reverie. And now he could hear the distant, mosquito-like whine of the inflatable.

 

He came out in time to see the boat scrape to a halt in the surf. At least the two men were alive and appeared unharmed. Then his stomach lurched as he saw them reach into the boat and lift out a third figure. But he knew with horrible certainty that it wasn’t Jane. Something was wrong. He heard Cobus shouting:

“Get one of the spare sleeping bags, quick!” As they carried the figure across the Afrikaner continued: “Put it by the fire. I don’t think this poor bastard’s got long left. Let’s make him comfortable.”

As they brought that bag of bones towards the fire, Pete looked across at the Professor approaching and said: “I think we found your Temple Island.”

“And my daughter?”

Like a Hydra seized by remorse, all heads looked down.

“No sign,” said Pete at last. He glanced at Cobus. “Nor of Robbie. But that’s better than…”

“Yes,” said the Professor, the light and shade flitting across his features; feigned optimism in a windblown sky, “yes, of course. No news is good news.” He reached them, looked around, distracted, before turning to the figure they had brought ashore and winced. “Who is this poor creature?”

“Got absolutely no idea,” said Cobus. “Like Pete said, we found what we assume was a temple. At the back of it was a network of tunnels, like a labyrinth. He seemed to be hiding there. We’ll fill you in on everything in a minute. First, while we’re trying to save his life – though I think we’ve passed the point of no return – let’s see if we can make out what he’s trying to say.” Cobus looked at Catalina, whose face bore the exhausted lines of utter mental defeat. She was staring in horror at the dying man. “Catalina.” No reaction. “Catalina!” She dragged her eyes away from the horror towards her friend. “You’re a bit of a linguist. He’s saying a couple of things over and over. Can you make them out?” She hesitated. “C’mon sweetheart.”

Gathering her scattered wits and slippery courage with visible effort, the girl stepped forward. They had eased their guest’s body onto the sleeping bag – getting him into it seemed a task too far. His eyes kept rolling upwards. Catalina knelt by him and listened. She bent her head closer, seeming caught between pity and revulsion, but academic curiosity won out, as she struggled to interpret his dry whispers. “There are sounds,” she said, “similar to some Central American languages, but the inflexions are different.”

The man’s gaunt skull was turning from side to side, his skeletal fingers resting on his chest, but picking at the air.

“I suspect he’s gone quite mad,” said Pete, “and if he’s been where we’ve just been for any length of time I’m not surprised.”

Catalina raised her hand to silence him as she strove to hear what the man was saying, her ear almost pressed to his mouth.

“He’s not just gone mad.” It was Jim’s voice. He had been standing silent; the Professor noticed how his eyes had been scanning the forest. But now he was looking at the figure and they all gasped as they saw how its condition was worsening, impossible though that seemed. “He’s dying before our eyes.” The remaining skin was desiccating and creasing even as they watched. Sutch could see Tariq’s description of the old fisherman’s death brought to substantive reality – to life seemed an inappropriate phrase under the circumstances – and knew at once that this man before him had lived for centuries. In God’s name, or the devil’s, how much of that life had been spent lost in the labyrinth of which the others had spoken? Could he be…? Of course!

Catalina backed away in revulsion. “What’s happening to him?”

“Time is catching up with him.” The Professor looked at the fading figure with sadness.

“What do you mean?”

Sutch said nothing, though he felt questioning eyes turn towards him.

“Did you catch what he’s saying?” asked Cobus.

Catalina shivered. “It’s hard to say, but I might have got lucky.”

“How so?”

“Well, the Maya spoke any number of languages. There wasn’t a Mayan language as such. But one of the languages I do recognise is a variation of Tzotzil, and I’m almost sure that’s what he’s using; as sure as I can be, anyway.” She looked at the others. “I thought I heard ‘king’ or ‘kingdom’, ‘darkness’,” she shrugged, “‘kingdom of darkness’ perhaps. And ‘lost’. ‘The lost kingdom’? I’m really not sure.”

Just then, a smile seemed to form on the skeletal face. Perhaps it was just the approach of the death rictus, but there was the faintest hint of serenity on the tortured features.

Sutch was moved: “It’s as if, after all he’s been through, he welcomes death, here, under the stars, by a campfire, surrounded by concerned faces.” The Professor bowed his head, thinking of Tariq.

Suddenly, Jim shuffled his feet in impatience and hefted his rifle. “Why are we wasting time here? We haven’t found Jane…or Robbie.” The latter name seemed, to one set of ears at least, to have been added as an afterthought.

The Professor felt a flush of anger rising in his cheeks. “If I, as her father, can take a moment to show respect for what I fear this man may have gone through, so can everyone else.”

“Yes,” said Pete, giving Jim a pointed glare.

Sutch felt Cobus watching him and heard him say: “And what do you believe he’s been through, Professor?”

Sutch held up a rolled parchment. “Despite everything, I’ll allow myself the time now to tell you. I couldn’t bring myself to believe it, but faced with this, I think I have no choice. Furthermore, I think it’s important that everyone understands what we might be up against.” He unrolled the parchment and started to read.

****

 

“Let me get this straight,” said Pete. “You believe this dying man here was that king? You, the world-renowned scientist, believe that out there, on that piece of rock, is the secret to eternal youth.”

Sutch could not be sure whether Pete was settling old debts by ridicule, but decided he couldn’t blame him. So he tried to give an objective answer. “I don’t know that for sure, but based on the words we think he might have been saying, it could be true.” He looked at them. “You haven’t told us what you saw.”

Pete stayed silent, but Cobus spoke up. “Hard to say for sure, but we did see a group of men. They were chanting in front of some sort of altar. I…didn’t look for long.”

Pete interjected. “We kept our heads down. Didn’t want to risk being seen.”

Sutch almost bristled with vindication. “So we have a labyrinth, and we have a group of men who appear to be worshipping something. I’d say there’s a fair to middling chance Tariq’s story might well be true. Then we have a seemingly ancient man who is wasting away before our eyes and – possibly – whispering something about a king. Is this him? Was he lost in that labyrinth for a more than a thousand years? Did the priests who invited him to enter and search for their ‘grail’ post guards to prevent him ever leaving. Imagine eternity in the darkness; the power of that grail keeping you alive; no food; no water; unable to do anything but run and hide – eventually too weak except to crawl – and hope that you might find your way out.” Sutch exhaled shakily. “Surely death would have been preferable.” He saw the glance exchanged by Cobus and Pete.

“It could be worse than you think,” said Cobus, shuddering as he thought of the labyrinth.

Catalina was shaking. “Worse than that?” she said, close to tears. “When death already seems better?”

“We felt something when we were in there.” Cobus looked down, as if he did not want to face it again, or let others see its impact in his eyes.

“Something?” questioned Sutch.

“Ja”  He groped for the right words, but settled on the simplest. “Darkness; evil. They might sound dramatic, but the words fit. We felt it approaching in one of the tunnels, and I’m not ashamed to admit we also hid. I can’t be sure, but it seemed to stop at the entrance of our crawl hole, and then moved on.” He pointed. “And that’s where we found our friend here.”

Catalina sank to her knees. “Oh God, how awful.” She was weeping. Pete reached down and placed a hand on her shoulder, then lifted her to her feet. She buried her face in his chest and wept. Pete looked uncomfortable, distracted even, but put his arms around her. He whispered in her ear. The gesture made Sutch feel ashamed. He might well have been guilty of not giving his son-in-law enough of a chance; not seeing through the brashness.

“Well, old girl,” said Pete to the top of Catalina’s head, “it’s not going to get easier in a hurry.” He gave a slight nod in Cobus’s direction.

“Ja,” said the Afrikaner, “we came back to get armed. We need the semi-automatic rifles and pistols, lots of ammo, and the explosives.” The Professor felt a moment of atavistic regret, but he suppressed it. Some things just had to be. It would be another sad episode in modern man’s response to the ancient and unknown, but on this occasion the time for understanding was short. One way or the other, he needed to know if they had his daughter and Robbie. He saw Cobus looking at him. “I’m sorry, Professor.” As if the young man had read his mind. “But I’m sure you’ll agree – saving a good life now is worth a thousand bad ones. And if we are looking at a race that possesses the sort of gift, or curse, you’re describing we might need one hell of a lot of weaponry to kill them.”

“Absolutely,” agreed Sutch. “How many did you say there were?” In all that had happened, and with time short, there had only been a disjointed exchange of information so far.

“About fifty, but we can’t swear there weren’t others – maybe on some of these other islands; who knows? But somehow I don’t think so, especially having heard Tariq’s letter now. Perhaps there were more priests, but they ran out of sacrifices and started eating each other.”

“Tariq didn’t say they ate each other.”

“Nah, you’re right. I meant it as…never mind, it was inappropriate.”

Sutch felt for the young man, who looked like he wanted to find the nearest and quickest route to the earth’s core. “That’s ok, Cobus. I know you were just trying for some comic relief. Sorry I picked you up on it. This is all too heavy for words, isn’t it?”

Indeed the Afrikaner had touched on a fundamental question; one they were all avoiding answering. If Jane and Robbie had been taken, then why? What was the raison d’etre of the priests? They had once been shamans to a civilisation, but what were priests without worshippers?

Cobus made a swift move onto safer ground. “Anyway, we go over there and we take the bastards out. And we blow up their fuckin’ temple…sorry Professor…” even now the apology was for swearing, “…and their grail with it.” He hesitated. “After we find our friends, of course. Jim, Pete, c’mon. let’s load up.”

“I’m coming with you,” said Catalina.

“No,” said Pete, a firm word accompanied by a glare, “you stay here.”

“No way.”

“Way. With due respect to the Professor here, we can’t take him with us and we’re not leaving him on his own here.”

“I’ve backpacked in the Outback; I can fire a gun.”

“Catalina, sweetheart,” said Cobus, “you’re not coming. Some of us have shot more than dingoes.” He caught the look she gave him and said with as much encouragement as he could: “But as you say you can handle a gun, guard the camp and the Professor,”

The three men headed towards the boxes of weapons, but then Pete hesitated long enough to stroke Catalina’s hair. “I know you’ve been through a lot and I’m sorry for being abrupt, but you know it makes sense. And make no mistake, you have a responsibility here.” Then he pointed. “Oh, and by the way, I think he’s just died.”    They all turned and looked at the figure on the sleeping bag. “Think that sums up the seriousness of our predicament, that we just failed to witness the death of one of the oldest men on earth.” Cobus, Catalina, the Professor and Jim all crossed themselves. “But unfortunately, it’s possible he’s not the oldest, so we still have a problem.”

“Peace at last,” said Sutch. As he bent forward he realised there were no eyes to close, so he took his bandanna and placed it over the skull of the king, whose reign of perhaps sixteen hundred years on this archipelago had just ended. “What have we come to,” asked the Professor, his voice full of reproach, “when we argue while a man dies a few feet from us?

“We’ll give him a decent burial when we return,” said Cobus.

“No,” said Jim. The others looked at him. “This may sound strange under the circumstances, but we should take him back to civilisation with us. In the meantime let’s put him into that sleeping bag and let his old bones at least rest.”

“He’s right,” said Sutch. “I know my daughter would want there to be something positive and ground-breaking to come from this expedition. This man’s bones may yet have an extraordinary tale to tell.”

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The Scorpion Archipelago (Chapter 11)

Scorpion Archipelago October 31st 1997 12.20am

 

“I don’t think we could catch them even if we tried,” said Pete, looking through the night vision goggles. “They must be incredibly strong; they’ve nearly reached the island. Maybe they’re on some other sort of drugs.” He said the last sentence under his breath. Cobus risked a quick glance at him, and then, almost despite himself, grinned as they shared a rare, indeed unique, moment of complicity. It had been a risqué thing to say, but Cobus could tell the guy was using that very British defence, the combination of stiff upper lip and graveyard humour, to keep himself strong and he could only admire that.

“Just think,” said the Afrikaner, “we might be in pursuit of the last survivors of an ancient civilisation.”

“You don’t believe that crap do you?” was the terse response.

Cobus pursed his lips. “I didn’t, but then who the hell are these guys?” There was an embarrassed pause. “You’re right. I dunno why I said that. Who gives a shit, right? The only important thing now is your wife’s safety. Lucky the sea’s become a little rougher; it’s got to have slowed them a bit and hopefully they won’t hear us until we’re on them.”

Pete looked ahead through the goggles. “The sea might be rough, but it also means we’re not gaining on them.”

There was about a mile and a half between the two islands and they could see that the mystery boat would reach its apparent destination very soon. The two men were aware they didn’t have a firm plan.

Cobus spoke. “You do realise, if we lose these guys…”

“This is not necessarily a search and rescue mission? Yes, I’m aware.”

“I’m sorry man. I know we don’t see eye to eye, but I wouldn’t wish this on anyone.”

“Thanks.” Cobus heard Pete exhale. “Look, I’m not pretending Jane and I had – sorry, have - a perfect marriage, but I want to get the old girl back. At the same time I know I can’t risk everybody’s life to do it.”

“Ja, I’ve a feeling these guys don’t take any prisoners.”

“Perhaps not the best phrase under the circumstances.”

“Ah shit, man, sorry. You know what I mean.”

“Won’t this FUCKING boat go any faster?!”

“It’s not us, man, it’s them. This is effectively an inshore lifeboat, so it’s not slow, but we wasted too much time arguing on the beach, and underestimated how fast these guys can paddle.”

The boat was being thrown around on the rollers despite the relative power of the motor. In the starlight of that southern sky they could just about see the sleek lines of other boat cutting through the water and heading towards a large area of exposed shingle. Seeing that the quarry had nearly reached its destination, Pete looked again through the goggles. A few seconds later he said: “They’ve just landed.”

Although they had both known it was coming, there was an ominous ring to that bald statement of fact.

“And can you see her?” Cobus cursed himself silently for not having brought another pair of goggles with him.

“It’s difficult to keep these things trained on them, but…there’s only two of them walking. Wait – they’re carrying something. Fuck, these guys must be strong. If that is a…if that’s Jane they’re carrying, one of them has just slung her over his shoulders like a sack of potatoes, even though they’ve just paddled at that speed. Now they’ve disappeared into the trees.” Cobus gave Pete a concerned look. “I’ll try to keep a note of where.”

“Shit, man, if I hadn’t been so stupid.” Cobus slapped his hand against the dinghy.

“Don’t beat yourself up so much. Any of us would have done what you did.”

Unexpected as it was from a man whom he had thought was a prick, Cobus found Pete’s conciliatory approach only made him feel worse. It had happened on his watch; that was the bottom line. He tried to focus now on the job in hand. It was the only way he knew. He had witnessed friends blown into pieces by mortars and landmines before, and if he had allowed himself to think about it then, he would never have made it back home.

About a hundred yards out from the beach Cobus said: “If we’re going in, then we’re at the point…”

“I know,” Pete interrupted, “we’re going to have to cut the motor; run black and silent. Let’s do it. We can’t help her if we’re caught. As we said before, we don’t know how many of them there are or whether they’re watching us even now. They certainly seem big strong boys.”

They killed the motor and picked up the two emergency paddles from the loops on the sides of the boat.

The stretch of shingle looked horribly exposed, in contrast to the furtive shadows of the forest beyond it, which were alive with the suspicion of possibility. They beached their craft and picked up the rifles. Pete slung the goggles back in the boat.

“I’m just going to let my eyes adjust to the darkness. Besides, I need both hands on my gun.” They peered into the shadows. “Doesn’t feel fantastic, does it?” he said with massive understatement.

“Na, man. Look, I’ll leave it up to you. You wanna turn round?”

“Would you?”

“I guess not. “

“In that case, let’s go.”

They removed the safety from their rifles.

“Do you still have an idea where they went?” asked Cobus.

“They disappeared with such ease, I’m sure there must be a track. Yup, I think I know roughly where it was.”

They touched fists and moved off. Both of them could think of people they would rather have been with when moving into the slow jaws of death, but only suicides really get to choose their end, and even they do not always know the finer details.

After a few paces, Cobus whispered: “You know, I thought we might meet a reception committee of blowpipes, spears or AK47s better, but the reality – the absence of any sign of life – is worse.”

The sound of blackness and the colour of silence were encapsulated here, at the end of the earth and both men were wondering how much of that they could take, when Pete raised a hand: “Is that a break in the tree-line, over there?”

They crossed over and found not so much a path as a tunnel, where undergrowth and overhanging branches had been cut away. With just a brief glance at each other they dived in, running, just running, fearing to stop, lest their flow of adrenalin stopped with them. But then Cobus did come grinding to a halt: “Am I imagining it, or is there some kind of light – a flickering – up ahead?”

“No, I think you’re right,” said Pete. “At first I thought it was just the result of my own blood pressure.”

Both of them lifted their guns in readiness and went forward, though much slower now. They seemed to be approaching a clearing in the trees. Then both men stopped again and drew in hissing breaths.

“You’re kidding me, man,” said Cobus.

“What the fucking hell…?” was Pete’s equally prosaic response.

“I think we might have found TempleIsland.”

Ahead of them, incongruous in the middle of the forest, was a rock-face forty to fifty feet high, in the base of which was an opening, which appeared to be the entrance to a cave, but had been hewn into a square portal. Someone had even gone to the trouble of carving faux pillars alongside the entrance. There was also a riveting but gruesome adornment to the tympanum, where someone with great skill  had carved myriad skulls, which looked on like an audience at the devil’s own cabaret. The huge doorway was flanked by flaming torches, which created the glow on which they had commented. Still staring at that gaping maw, Pete said: I think we’ve also found where Jane is.”

Cobus nodded. “And Robbie.”

They looked around. There were no guards; no signs of the lives which had kindled those torches.

“It may seem a superfluous thing to say under the circumstances, but I don’t like this,” said Pete

“Ja, feels like walking into a trap, or the lion’s den.” Cobus agreed and turned to Pete. “Listen, man, I say again; your decision – on or back?”

“Has to be on. D’you know, even if they didn’t have my wife, it would feel wrong to turn back here.”

Cobus just nodded, less convinced perhaps, and they moved with cautious speed across to the doorway, peering through from opposite sides. They withdrew their heads.

“Did you see what I just saw,” asked Cobus, hardly believing his eyes, “or are we back to those drugs again?”

“I’m not one hundred per cent sure what I did see.”

“Didn’t look to be anyone around.”

They ducked inside. What they found astounded them, and it was rendered all the more surreal by the flickering light from more torches, which confused their eyes and gave the illusion of movement to the stonework.

They were in a huge natural space, doubtless once a cave, which had been worked into some regularity of shape so that it resembled a rough-hewn cathedral. Cobus reached out and touched the nearest wall. “Rocksalt,” he said, putting his fingertips to his tongue.

On either side of them huge staircases, carved from the very rock itself, led down into the main body of the hall. Along the walls, seeming also to be fashioned from rocksalt, were statues of naked figures, most of them appearing either to be in agony or supplication. Were they saints or sinners? In a moment of peculiar detachment, which freaked him out, Cobus thought how much certain figures resembled a member of the old glam-rock band Slade, with their square fringes and long hair. Inappropriate though it was, he felt laughter trying to force itself through and decided that, perhaps, he was feeling a bit hysterical. However, one look at the far end of the hall killed any laughter, as he saw the piece de resistance; an enormous statue of some indeterminate, snarling beast that exuded malice, emphasised by the interplay of light and shade on its features.

“Where the fuck is everybody?” said Pete. “And if I didn’t know the answer already, I’d be tempted to ask what the hell we’re doing here.”

“Ja, doesn’t score high on the feelgood factor here,” agreed Cobus. “C’mon, you take the far steps and let’s go down. A split target is tougher to hit. There must be some way through at the back. I don’t sense anyone here. Guess they don’t expect too many tourists round these parts.”

It was soon evident that Cobus was right and they were alone in that vast place with its hostile statuary and the conspiratorial whispers of the torches. They looped round to meet in the middle of the hall.

“This is giving me the creeps, to put it mildly,” said Pete. “And we don’t even know they came in here.”

Splitting again, they looped around the back of the huge, sneering beast-god.

They both saw the opening at the same time.

“Aha! What’ve we got here?” said Cobus.

Pete peered into the darkness of what seemed to be a tunnel entrance, about eight feet across. “I don’t know, but it makes the rest of the temple feel like a sanctuary of peace and light.” It was as if the blackness came at them in waves; the flickering torchlight barely touched it. “Don’t think even the night-vision goggles would be to be a lot of good in there.”

“Nah, but I know what will be.” The Afrikaner removed his rucksack, dug around inside and pulled out some 40 LED head-lamps.

“You’re not Batman are you?” was Pete’s dry response.

Cobus grinned and lifted his pack. “My utility belt. I always have a couple of these lamps with me, for whichever date is foolish enough to come out into the bush with me.” He peered at the tunnel. “Looks pitch black. No point going for secrecy at the expense of safety.”

They fitted the lamps around their heads, switched them on and then, the very definition of reluctance, stepped into the tunnel.

“This looks like part of some original network of passages at the back of the cave,” said Pete as they took their first steps in a world devoid even of shadows. A few paces further on, he stopped and said: “Except this – ” he looked around “ –  has clearly been hewn by man.”

They were at an intersection.

“Part of the mines, d’ya think?” said Cobus softly. “The ones the Professor mentioned on the plane.”

“Don’t much care,” replied Pete. “I know I shouldn’t admit it when my wife’s life is at risk, but I’m fighting a very strong urge to retreat.” He looked left and right. “The question is which way do we go? I don’t much fancy getting lost in here.”

From a man of action, Cobus’ silence spoke volumes. The darkness was almost tangible against their skin and their fear leached out to meet it through their pores. At length he spoke: “Shit, I should have brought a compass. I just haven’t been thinking straight. These islands have completely fucked my thought-processes.”

“That makes two of us.” Pete’s tone was grim, but then he added with irony: “I just can’t understand why we’re a bit shaken up, standing in some primeval, shadowy temple, having just pursued a boat that might contain my wife, kidnapped during a night-time raid by an unseen enemy.”

Cobus put a hand on his shoulder. “You wanna go on, man?”

“Okay, let’s give it a go.” He looked at the crossroads again. “Let’s just go straight; ignore any diversions.”

 

But soon, they came to a fork in the tunnel where ‘straight on’ just couldn’t be defined. Then Pete had a thought. “Hey, you got any of that marker tape in your utility belt?”

“Ja, I have!” Cobus pulled off his pack again with a winning enthusiasm. “Good thinking, man. I had this pack on when we found the old city.”

“Let’s stick a piece every ten paces. I know it’ll slow us up, but we’re no good to anyone wandering in these tunnels forever.”

Of course, Cobus did not voice it, but it seemed to him the adrenaline junkie might have met his match. “We’ll put the tape where, hopefully, no-one else will see it. If we’re…not alone, or whatever, we don’t want anyone seeing twentieth century tape and knowing we’re in here.”

“You really think they don’t know already?”

There was no response.

The roof of the tunnel was about two feet above their heads. Having taken an arbitrary left fork at the previous junction, they leapt up after every ten paces and stuck a small piece of tape that would reflect their lights.

Suddenly they came to a three-way intersection and stood, hopeless and bewildered. Pete raised his hand. “Just a minute,” he whispered. “You hear that?” They stood still. Above the rushing of blood in their ears, there might have been faint noise akin to the distant thrumming of an engine. They moved to the head of each tunnel in turn.

“I think it’s coming from here,” said Cobus by the left-hand tunnel. Pete joined him. They looked at each other and felt the chill of fear brush past them like a spirit, raising goose-bumps on their skin.

“You’re right. C’mon.” They marked the entrance and moved on.

Silent now, as if words might shatter their fragile courage rather than bolster it, they lost track of time and, despite the tape, had no real sense of place. All they knew was the resonance of the sound somewhere ahead and the cones of light they threw before them as they moved at an increasing pace. Despite their need to push on, they stopped to peer with caution into the black fissures that split the smoothness of the walls from time to time – they looked nothing more than crawl holes, but someone could have been lurking in the shadows. The sound was a thread they had grasped at in their blindness, preferring the devil’s guiding hand to their own clutching at nothingness. It could have been a hundred yards or a thousand they travelled, but then Cobus hissed: “Shit!” and they found themselves at a marked intersection. Both men stared at the mocking piece of tape. “It’s led us round in a fuckin’ circle. How can that be happening if we’re following a sound?”

“It could be echoing. Or maybe this place is just playing with our minds. I suggest we mark the entrance with a double piece of tape.”

“What good’ll that do, man? We’ve still got to go down the same tunnel. It might be further ahead that we went wrong.”

“Well, if we end up here again we’ll know which way not to go…oh, I see what you mean. FUCK!” Pete butted the air in frustration and shouted, not caring whether he was heard or not – if someone was toying with them, then it made no difference. He frowned. “Wait a minute, there was one intersection where we really weren’t sure which fork to take. The sound hasn’t grown any louder since then. We’ll take the other fork. We’ve got nothing to lose except our way.” They looked at each other yet again. Pete frowned. “Did that make any sense?”

“Fucked if I know,” said Cobus.

“As long as we’re both confused then.”

Suddenly they both burst out laughing. It was more hysterical than anything else, but somehow they sensed it needed to happen if they were to carry on.

“I don’t think…” – Cobus had to stop while he wiped his eyes – “…it served any purpose at all.” He smacked Pete on the arm. “Man, if you’d told me yesterday that we’d be pissing ourselves laughing together I’d have shot myself.”

They calmed down and followed Pete’s hunch; sure enough the sound seemed to grow in intensity. It felt now like any laughter had been well and truly left behind in the tunnels.

“Man, I hope we don’t come across any more of our tape now,” said Cobus. “If we do, I think we’re fucked.”

“I believe that is the technical term for it,” said Pete.

They moved on, gazing nervously at any tunnels that joined their own, hoping not to experience the desperation of seeing a little piece of reflective yellow.

And their luck held, till they found themselves confronted by a different intersection of three tunnels.

The hairs stood up on the back of their necks; not because of the choice that confronted them, but because the sound had started to take on definition. In the confusion that was their sensory world right then, it was like being able to see pitch and tone. And they knew; this was no devilish engine thrumming in the heart of a mine, but voices chanting in unison.

“Fuckin’ hell, man.” No other words were needed from Cobus, and he was speaking for both of them. They tested all three entrances.

“It’s coming from here,” said Pete from the middle entrance – I think.” The sound seemed to echo around them.

They were about a hundred paces down the tunnel when Cobus said: “Kill your light a moment.” This they both did, and noticed that the Stygian darkness was no longer so intense. There seemed to be a glow ahead, and with each step towards it the voices grew louder. There was another sound too, unless their ears were playing tricks; the faint babbling of water.

“The outside world?” suggested Pete, more in hope than expectation.

“Nah, man,” whispered Cobus, “I reckon we’re right in the heart of the shit.”

They crept forward and could see the end of the tunnel ahead, beyond which was an as yet indefinable space filled with flickering. Getting as close as they could on foot, they crawled the rest on elbows and knees. They could tell there was a drop ahead and soon it was apparent that this was the top of a set of steps.

“No sentries posted,” commented Cobus.

“You’ve said it yourself; I don’t think they’ve been expecting anyone to drop by.”

Flattening themselves against the floor of the tunnel, both men slid forward. Cobus peered over the edge, then jerked his head back. “Shit, man, shit, shit, shit!”  He buried his forehead in the crook of his arm.

Pete had not seen anything yet and stretched his neck further forward. “My God!”

As Cobus had put it so succinctly, it was the heart of the shit. There were perhaps fifty men, wiry yet muscular, bare-chested, their lower bodies clothed in ragged kilts that might once have been magnificent, and they were in kneeling in ranks, facing what appeared to be an altar or other object of worship; a pedestal studded with stones or gems that caught the firelight from the torches held by the supplicants. And on the pedestal was an object, perhaps a hand span across, too far away to see in detail. It seemed to pulse with light sporadically, though it was made of something that might have been brass, maybe gold, and stood in a stream of water that rose from the top of the pedestal before flowing down its sides and draining away through the base. All strange and wonderful in its own right, but what had caused Cobus’ reaction was the object standing next to the pedestal; a rough stake of wood about ten feet high on which was skewered the body of Robbie McCulloch, or at least what was left of it.

Cobus had seen enough sights during his time in the army not to release the contents of his guts onto the floor of the tunnel, but it had been close. Sudden anger blazed in his eyes. “The bastards!”

He made to get up, but Pete held him down. “Cobus!” he hissed, “Get a grip.”

“But that’s my friend down there.”

“These,” Pete shook his gun, “are not machine guns, they’re rifles. And those guys down there look big and mean enough to me. You might get a few of them, but they could rush us; maybe even surround us in the tunnels. It’s too late for Robbie.”

“But not for your wife, man. She might be next.”

Pete looked at him and clenched his jaws. “I know. God knows I know. But we said at the start we might not be able to launch a rescue this time round. What use are we to her if we’re dead?”

“I don’t get it. How can you say this?”

Pete pushed with anger at the Afrikaner’s shoulder. “You think it’s easy for me? But we don’t know for sure they’ve got her.”

“Oh yeah, man, she just went walkabout, like Robbie.”

“And she might have done just that. You’ve been a soldier; think like one. We’ve done a recce, we know what we’re up against. Now we get reinforcements. We’ll fetch Jim, and we’ll come back with automatic weapons. Plus some of that plastic explosive the Professor tried to hide. We’ll give these mother-fuckers something to pray for. We’ll threaten to blow up that precious object of theirs, whatever it is.”

“So we’re coming back in broad daylight?” Cobus was not happy about this at all.

“Don’t be stupid.” Pete glanced at his watch in the firelight. “It’s only one o’clock in the morning. Even at this time of year we still have a bit of night-time left. We’ll get back to the camp, grab Jim and the guns and heads straight back here. With any luck these bastards will still be at worship and we’ll have the higher ground – take them all out if they don’t hand Jane over. Anyway, we haven’t got enough ammo. Neither of us was thinking straight, and we didn’t grab any spare clips.”

Cobus smashed his fist on the ground in desperation. Then he seemed to get a grip on himself. “Ya man, you’re right.” He put a hand on Pete’s shoulder and looked at him with great intensity. “Sorry I lost it there. I tell you, I see you in a whole new light. Your wife could be in there, but you’re thinking straight. Not like me; I haven’t used my brain all night. I dunno what this fuckin’ archipelago had done to my head.”

 

They headed back, switching on their lamps once they were away from the grisly chamber, and sought out their pieces of tape in the light. Then something stopped them in their tracks.

They looked at each other; questioning; afraid.

“You feel that?” asked Cobus.

Pete nodded slowly. “Suddenly I don’t want to be seen,” he said with deliberate understatement.

They looked around them in the darkness. No way out.

“What you reckon, man? Back to the chamber of horrors?” asked Cobus.

The question needed no answering and they headed on towards the source of their growing unease; a presence somewhere ahead of them. Then to the left of them they spotted what they were hoping for; one of the niches in the tunnel wall.

By now, a disturbing mixture of cold and heat was oozing down the tunnel towards them.

“Quick, in here!” hissed Pete. They flicked off their lights, then Pete squeezed in sideways, unsure at first how far he could go, but managing to push his way twelve to fifteen feet in. “C’mon!” he urged Cobus, whose backpack had prevented him from getting into the crevice. The Afrikaner removed it with a clumsy, anxious fumble, and then forced his way in; a tougher operation for him, as he was perhaps twenty-five pounds heavier than Pete. Still he made it in, dragging his pack, and then both of them stood silent; waiting.

At first they only felt it, but then they fancied they heard a soft tread of feet. Whatever it was, its approach was marked by an aura of malevolence that was all the more sinister for the gentle footfall.

Now they couldn’t be sure, but the presence seemed to pause at the mouth of the crevice. Both men tried to hold their breath, then realised that they had already stopped breathing. Cobus turned his head – a slow, terrified twist. He fancied he saw eyes straining through the darkness towards him, and he shut his own, telling himself it was to avoid the remotest possibility of any glistening reflection. The reality was he had gone the way of the child that hides under the blanket in the hope the monster can’t harm him. He was sure the thundering of his heart would give him away, like some bizarre twist of the Edgar Allan Poe story.

At last the spectral presence moved on.

Only when the feeling of menace had faded at last – when they sensed that the deeper darkness within that lightless place had gone – did they dare to move.

On leaving the crevice, they stood and looked down the tunnel in the direction of the departing shade.

“I think our decisions to hide and to leave have just been vindicated,” said Pete, the morbid dry wit a shield against the terror. “I’m not so sure about the one where we said we’d come back. What the hell was that?”

“Fuck knows,” was the Afrikaner’s terse response. “But I felt its dark soul, whatever it was. Got to admit, for the first time in my life I’d be happy just to run from something.”

Suddenly Pete shot across the tunnel with a cry and fumbled for his light, while Cobus, in a confusion of reflexes, raised his gun and pointed it blind into the darkness.

“What is it, man?”

“Something grabbed at my ankle.” Pete found his lamp switch at last and turned it on – which was when they discovered they were nowhere near done with the horrors of the labyrinth.

Lying in the opening of the crevice, looking up at them in desperation was a figure straight from the liberation of Auschwitz. It – they assumed it was human – pleaded with hollow eyes, which had seen the Day of Judgement and been found unworthy. One skeletal arm lay extended into the tunnel while the other attempted to reach in their direction. As this husk of a human being, weighed down by savage, crushing weakness, tried to crawl towards them, they could hear his bones scraping on the stone floor and the sound almost put fur on their teeth. To describe the cobweb of rags on his body as clothes would have been stretching imagination. Despite their horror and revulsion, both Pete and Cobus felt the profoundest pity for the obvious, prolonged suffering of this human being, on whom that epithet had as tenuous a hold as his rags.

He was trying to say something, in a grating whisper that told of one who had lived a comparative eternity in silence.

“I don’t know what the hell he’s saying, man,” said Cobus, “but I think I can translate it anyway.”

“Yes,” said Pete, the word catching in his dry throat, as if it was coming out in sympathy, “let’s get this poor bastard out of here.”

The man was incapable of standing and they helped him to a position where they could lead him out supported on their shoulders. The feel of the non-physique beneath their fingertips made them wince. Cobus rummaged in his rucksack and produced a lightweight fleece, which afforded him protection against direct contact with bone as much as it eased the man’s pain. “Three hundred grammes – his body should just about be able to bear this,” he said.

They continued on their way, slow despite, or perhaps because of their burden. Although sharing an unspoken acknowledgement that they wanted their own carcasses away from the place that had spawned this being, they knew his suffering had to be off the scale, and took care not to hurry him.

Cobus glanced over his shoulder as they neared the tunnel exit. “I think our luck’s holding; we don’t seem to have been followed.”

And then they were out; first into the twilight of the temple and then into the outside world.

“Thank God!” said Pete, raising his face to the night air.

Cobus looked at the stars. “Never seen them looking so bright.”

It was a moment’s respite only and they moved on till the black fingers from the temple entrance no longer brushed against their necks.

“C’mon fella,” said Cobus, as he and Pete adjusted their shoulders under the armpits of their gaunt companion and carried him through the forest over the worst of the shingle, though he groaned with pain at the pressure of their hands. They placed him with gentle handsinto the boat, pushed out into the surf and started the motor. Neither Cobus nor Pete looked back; there were a number of reasons, chief amongst them being the fear that one glance might have been enough to convince them not to return. The skeletal figure did, however, turn his fragile neck and a peculiar expression crossed his bony features. He said something, recognisable only as being the same two or three phrases repeated.

“Sorry, old chap,” said Pete, “haven’t got a bloody clue what you’re saying.”

They rounded the headland that hid their camp from view and in the distance saw the campfire was now blazing. Their passenger was something of a paradox, becoming both more agitated and weaker. He was slumped against the side of the boat and his mutterings were growing in intensity. Meanwhile his breathing had become as ragged as the rest of him.

“This might be stating the fuckin’ obvious,” said Cobus, “but I don’t think he’s got long left.”

“His voice doesn’t seem to be getting any weaker,” said Pete with evident irony and some irritation. It was as if the man was investing the last of his strength in his message.

“It’s no good, buddy, we don’t understand a freakin’ word.” Then a light clicked on in Cobus’s head. “But Catalina might.”

“Oh yeah?”

Pete’s comment had a dismissive ring and Cobus bridled a little. “Hey, I know she looks good in her dry-suit, man, but she’s also bright – one of the best in her field. And what might help us is the fact that she’s studied Botany, so she has an interest in the life and work of Schomburgk…”

“Yea, I was just thinking that – good old Schomburgk.”

Cobus allowed Pete his sarcasm. “He was a German botanist. No, I hadn’t heard of him either, but Catty was going on about him. Anyway, her interest meant she spent a lot of time in South America. Along the way, a bit like…your wife, she’s become pretty good with ancient languages. It’s one of the things they shared…sorry man – share. Look, I may be clutching at straws, but back at the ruins, wasn’t it you who mentioned something about the Mayan civilisation?”

“’Twas I, though God knows where that came from.” Pete’s self-deprecation seemed genuine.

“Ja, you did. So did the others – when we found that section of wall. So perhaps Catalina may be able to make out what he’s saying. And if there is some South American connection there, remember – Cat’s family was originally from Argentina.”

There was no response from Pete. Cobus looked at him. Mention of Jane had affected him. He seemed lost in thought. The Afrikaner had to acknowledge once more how tough it must have been for the guy to walk away, knowing his wife was being held in that monstrous place.

 

Indeed Pete’s thoughts were with his missing wife, but also with that strange artefact they had seen in the temple. Some force had been emanating from it. In the shock of seeing his dead and mutilated friend, Cobus had perhaps not felt it, but Pete had. And with an inherent certainty he knew it would be a prize worth having. That black force in the tunnel knew it too; was part of it, because the air around it had throbbed with the same pulse, beyond the hearing of those whose hearts were not alive to its darkness. They had to be linked, as inextricable as light and shade. The others could have their piles of bricks; he sensed something greater was waiting for him.

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The Scorpion Archipelago (Chapter 10)

Scorpion Archipelago October 30th 1997 2pm

He was cold now. Nothing seemed to warm him; not the campfire, the blanket, the tot of whisky or the afternoon sun. An hour before, the thought of a letter from his old acquaintance, the sound of his voice on parchment from beyond the grave, would have made him glow inside.

The others were also in a state of shock, the letter having chilled each of them in different ways. But in all six minds one image was common; that of a horribly emaciated dead body hiding in the ruins of a city in a stagnant forest, issuing a warning none of them understood. In some ways the written words were superfluous; the very discovery was enough of an ill omen, like waking to find a dead magpie on your doorstep.

The youthful eighty year old that had been Professor Sutch just hours before seemed to have gone the way of his friend, Tariq, as if a blanketing doom had smothered him. In the silence he stared into the fire, and then unrolled the parchment again.

My dear Professor Sutch, Edward, forgive the rolled-up parchment – old habits die hard, as do old men of the island kingdom. The latter I have discovered to my cost. I am much further along the road to death than I was when I sent you the amphora, a gift that has turned into a curse. How I wish now you were not coming here, though I know you will. That was why I entrusted the amphora to you. I knew I had whetted an appetite that was hungry for knowledge, so you would seek out this place and keep it alive, if only in the history books. I needed someone to be the keeper of the secret, so that it did not die with me; a secret I kept for two hundred and fifty years.

   Having talked to you forty years ago of the place that was my home for more than a thousand years before, I felt a sudden longing to see it again before I died. I took a chance, hoping they were dead – the priests. Believing they must have simply lost the will to live in this remote and blasted place. But they are still alive and it seems they have heard my boat. In an attempt to deceive them I set it on a course to the west of here and left the engine running while I slipped overboard and made my way to the shore. But they have followed me. Evil minds are suspicious and not so easily fooled.”

Here the script became ragged, barely legible.

‘Oh, I am wracked with pain. It is as bad as I feared. As you have come so far as to discover my body, a man of your intelligence will know by now that it was not some natural disaster from which I fled all those years ago. I warn you now to leave and beg your forgiveness for my lies. You may ask why I never came back to my home before. I could not. There would have been no forgiveness for me here, only slow death. Besides, there was a world to discover – is it not a strange irony that you had that whole world to explore, but sought only mine.

   It is hard to explain why the melancholy of the Southern Ocean lived on in my blood, enough that I should want to die here. 

Temple Island is alive – alive with death. You must flee. Pass on the secret of this place when you are ready to come back better prepared. I thank whichever god looks over me that I am about to die, and pray that he will protect you.

  

  Your Tariq’

 

What had Pete said, cold but succinct, as the Professor had read the letter to the others? “This Tariq’s not just a linguist, he a good story-teller, ‘cos he’s sure spooked me, whether I believe him or not.” The story would have amazed them all the more, had Sutch not chosen to keep certain details to himself. Luckily no-one had asked to see the letter, or they would have discovered just how much he had held back.

At last Jim broke the silence. “So let me get this straight – there was no cataclysm, no tidal wave, or volcano.”

“No,” said Sutch. “Just before we found Tariq I expressed my doubts to Jane.”

“Well then, what do you think happened to this kingdom?”

“It would be pure speculation, without being able to explore all the other islands. And that’s too big a job for this little party. Too dangerous as well, by the sound of it.”

“I tell you what,” said Catalina, “whatever happened here, you can count on this ‘TempleIsland’ playing a part.” She shuddered and looked around. “Perhaps we’re on TempleIsland now,” she continued, voicing everyone else’s fears. “God, I wonder whether Robbie’s disappearance is tied in with this.”

The day’s various finds had conspired to overshadow the fate of the young Scotsman, but now the mention of his name was like a rumble of thunder, reminding them of the storm clouds overhead.

“My dream has become a nightmare,” said the Professor gloomily, “one I’ve dragged you all into.” There were some half-hearted denials. “How often do we warn to ‘be careful what you wish for, because it might come true’?” Suddenly, he stood up decisively. “I’m going to call for Dirk. We’ll spend this one last night here together and he can come and pick you all up tomorrow.” He could almost feel the relief flooding from the others, except Jane.

“Meaning what, as far as you’re concerned?” she asked

“I’ll stay and continue to search for Robbie on this island, or in case he comes back, while you can organise to return as soon as possible with a bigger team. I won’t rest until we know what became of him and what TempleIsland is all about.”

“Father, don’t be…”

“Enough! I’ve decided. Would you have him return to the camp to find we’ve deserted him?” He stalked away to his tent and Jane knew better than to follow at that moment.

****    

 

“When we were out on night manoeuvres,” said Cobus, prodding absent-mindedly at the fire, “we used to say there was something duplicitous about a campfire; bright and warm, offering comfort within its circle of light, while it draws in a deeper darkness beyond it; revealing the back of the cave, yet filling it with dancing shadows.”

“Thanks,” said Catalina, “I didn’t believe I’d be able to eat or sleep before you said that, now I know I won’t.”

Jane started to hand out mugs she’d been brewing. “Well, here’s the famous British panacea for all ills, a cup of tea.”

Indeed, that seemed to calm them, to the point where they realised both how ready for food and how exhausted they were. But still, the image of Tariq hovered in the shadows at the margin of the firelight, like Banquo’s ghost, waiting to be offered the spare place where Robbie would have sat. After dinner Cobus said:

“We’ll take it in turns to sit watch, in pairs. We’ve got a positive arsenal in that gun-box there. Anybody thinks they’re gonna come wandering in and helping themselves to…anything tonight is in for an attack of lead poisoning. I’ve been here before – in Zimbabwe, when their army decided they could use a few recruits from their friendly neighbour South Africa, so I’ll be on all night. Who’s gonna take the first watch with me?”

“I will,” said Jim immediately.

“After two hours I’ll wake you, Pete.” He looked at the others with a wry grin, but his comments were still directed at the playboy. “I’m guessing you’re a bit of a night owl.”

“But why should you have to sit up all night?” It was Sutch, who’d returned from his tent, having had a chance to get things straight in his head.

“Sir, I’m the only one who’s shot a gun ‘ere. I mean to kill…people.” He didn’t sound ashamed; it was the reality of a bush war and though the words struck a chill in everyone, the whole team recognised a stark truth – better to have that experience on your side in the silent darkness.

“Sounds like you’re perfectly qualified to me, then,” said Pete. “Boy, I bet that’s the ultimate adrenalin fix.”

The firelight only emphasised the contempt on the faces of Jane and Cobus. The latter now looked at his chronometer. “So Professor, you gonna try Dirk again in the morning?”

“Yes,” replied Sutch in resignation. “I guess I couldn’t really expect him to be sitting by the phone.” The unanswered ringing tone had been one of the loneliest sounds the Professor had heard in a long time.

“Okay everyone;” said Cobus, “let’s try to grab some sleep. We’re armed; we’ve got a fire. The biggest difference of all to last night is that this time we’re ready for any trouble.”

“Yes,” said Jim under his breath, when the others headed to their tents, “but from what?”

****

Unfortunately the possibility of danger wasn’t enough to keep Jim awake, and he felt himself being shaken.

“Jim?” An urgent whisper from Cobus.

“What?” A sleepy response accompanied by a sudden, guilty jolt into a sitting position. “Shit, sorry.”

“Never mind that now. Look.” He tried focussing his bleary eyes. “You see them?”

He did.

Out on the water, towards the eastern arm of the bay, were two faint lights.

“Is that a ship in the distance?” Jim asked rhetorically, and then provided the answer. “Can’t be, eh? The movement isn’t right.”

“Ya, the lights must be much closer to bob like that – it’s not a rough sea.”

Those lights were moving south and would soon be hidden by the arm of the bay. There was no sound that they could pick out above the rush of the tide, but the speed of approach suggested wind or manpower was driving the vessel.

“C’mon,” said Cobus, “let’s not lose them.”

“Let’s wake the others,” said Jim.

“Nah, let ‘em sleep for the moment. We need to move and also, we might scare everyone unnecessarily. Besides, this way we’ve got an element of surprise. If this is trouble coming, it might be scared off if the camp comes to life, with six people stumbling and blundering around. We’ll move faster if we’re just two. No offence mate, but I’m the only one who’s used to this sort of thing, so trust me. Bring your rifle. C’mon.”

“I’ll bet you our friend Pete has done some hunting in his time.”

Cobus looked at Jim. “Ya, but he’s also a prick.”

That was that settled then. They moved cautiously across the shingle towards the softer, quieter ground around the margin of the forest.

“They’re probably wanting to land in the forest and creep up on us through the trees,” said Cobus. He gave Jim a knowing look. “I’m guessing we know what happened to Robbie.”

“Yes,” said Jim. “We just don’t know why.”

The lights, which they had to assume were on a boat, were about to disappear from view. The pair’s way was hindered by roots and low-hanging branches. “C’mon man, we’ve got to hurry,” urged Cobus, breathing hard every two words or so. “If we get to them before they land we can take ‘em out. If they beat us and disappear into this forest, which we’ve got to assume they know well, we’ve got a problem.”

“I’m doing my best,” said Jim, as he slipped on a wet root.

The lights were gone. Cobus and Jim were struggling, their faces and hands covered with cuts from lashing branches. Jim, less sure-footed than his friend, was bleeding and bruised on his knees and shins from countless stumbles. Now they rounded the promontory that marked the end of the bay and ran through the surf.

They were just in time to see the lights reach the shingle by the forest edge a couple of hundred yards or so ahead of them – it might have been much further, but the swaying lights, which seemed to be attached to some sort of mast, hypnotised and confused their eyes. Cobus raised his hand to stop Jim. “Can you see anything?”

“To be honest, Cobus, I can’t even see the boat yet.”

Suddenly Cobus punched his thigh in anger. “Poes!”

Though he didn’t understand the word, its anger was clear enough to Jim. “What’s wrong?”

“There are night vision goggles in the inflatables. I’m such a fuckin’ idiot.” Now the Afrikaner turned his attention back to the lights. “There’s something not right ‘ere. Let’s go. Keep low, and don’t look at the lights; try to see beyond them.”

They ran forward hunched. When they’d covered about three quarters of the distance Cobus raised his hand again. “Stay here and cover my back. I’m gonna see what this is all about.”

Jim watched Cobus’s shape grow indistinct in the starlight, and then, faint but audible, he heard the word “SHIT!” and the Afrikaner was sprinting back across the shingle. “Get back to the camp man, quick! It’s a fuckin’ decoy!”

“What?!”

Cobus bolted past him. Jim turned and followed.

“Man, they’re clever, but I’m stupid. It’s a tiny boat with two storm lanterns fixed to it.”

“How the hell…?”

“They must know the tides here, man. But there’s no way that would have floated all the way across from one of the other islands.” He held his rifle in both hands as he ran and gestured with it now towards the blackness of the sea. “They must have been out there all along. Fuck, I’ve been a doos.”

   They hadn’t realised just how far away from the camp they’d come. They shouted as they ran, but the surf and the distance killed their words. As they got closer it looked as if nothing was wrong, but so it had the previous morning.

“Let’s get everybody up and armed,” said Jim. “We need to be on our guard.”

Cobus didn’t answer, but he didn’t need to. They both knew that their enemy was skilled and if there intention was to kidnap someone they would already be finished and away.

They were nearly there now and could see that their shouts had, at last, stirred the sleepers. Catalina was the first up. “What’s going on?”

“We saw some lights on the water,” panted Cobus, “but they were a fuckin’ decoy. We thought a boat was coming and went over to where it landed, but it was just a trap. Get the guns.” Sutch and Pete were also up, looking and sounding confused.

“What’s happening?” asked the Professor.

“We’ll tell you in a minute. Open the gun box first…sir, please.”

“Where’s Jane?” They all looked at Jim, who was holding open the flap to her tent.

“She wouldn’t just have wandered off,” said Catalina shakily. “Not tonight.”

The Professor looked ashen-faced. “You’re right,” he said. “She might have defied a thousand curses in her career, but this place – it’s different. It’s got us all scared.” He turned towards the trees. “JANE!”

“Oh my God,” said Cobus, “this is all my fault. If I’d woken all of you as Jim suggested before we went after those lights…”

They peered out across the water towards where they knew the nearest island stood, but could barely make out its bulk.

“Listen,” said Jim, “none of us could guess we’d be up against something like this. Whatever it…” His voice trailed off and he raised his hand. “Hey, I’m not sure, but is that something out there?”

“Where?” asked several voices.

“Wait a minute.” It was Cobus, who ran across to one of the flight boxes and rummaged inside, before returning with a pair of what looked like bulky, hi-tech field glasses. “Night vision glasses,” he said in response to the others’ looks. Then he looked shamefaced. “If I’d remembered the bloody things before, we wouldn’t be in this mess.”

“Spilt milk,” said Pete. Cobus looked at the man. The South African had such respect for the Professor, and so little for the quintessential arrogant English rake, that he’d forgotten the man must be worried about his wife, no matter what domestic issues they might have. Cobus had learnt the maxim during his time in England and was taken aback by Pete’s magnanimity. “You tried to do what was best. Now let’s just find my wife and bring her back.”

Cobus nodded with new-found respect, and then trained the goggles out across the water, screwing up his face as he tried to locate his target. Then his features dropped again and he tensed. “There is something out there. It’s a boat.” There was a murmur of fearful anticipation from the others. “Looks like two people in it. Don’t think either of them’s Jane, but it’s hard to tell. They seem to be heading towards that other island.”

“They must have her,” said Jim. “To have got her away from the camp like that without a sound…how’d they do it? Might have drugged her.”

“Yes,” said Pete, “Rohipnol. Very popular in ancient civilisations.”

Sutch looked at him. “I hardly think this is the time for your cynical wit. My daughter’s missing and…”

Pete turned on him. “My wife, too. Isn’t that a coincidence?” Sutch said nothing, perhaps the wisest move for a number of reasons, amongst them being the fact that he might have questioned his son-in-law’s sudden concern for Jane. Pete held out a hand towards his father-in-law. “The keys to the gun box, as Cobus asked. I’m not sure why we’re all standing around unarmed.”

Cobus looked apologetically at Sutch. “Sorry, Professor, but I think he’s right. While you’re sorting that out, I’ll get the boat ready”

“Hold on,” said Pete, “we can’t just jump into a powered dinghy and chase after these guys. We know nothing about them.” He looked at the Professor and said with less-than-subtle irony: “If they’ve got drugs they may have guns. One hole in the side of our mobile paddling pool and we’ll all be stuffed. And that’s if they decide not to pick us off through a telescopic sight.” He pointed to the shadowy hump of the other island. “And yes, I know we’ve also got guns, but there might be five hundred of them over there. I say we follow, but carefully.”

“By which time my daughter may be dead,” said Sutch. “Or is that your alternative plan?”

Something blazed in Pete’s eyes, even in the lambent glow of the dying campfire. “Maybe it’s yours, so you don’t have to have me as a son-in-law.” There was a nervous gasp from the others at those harshest of words, but Pete wasn’t holding back now. “We don’t know they have Jane – and old man or not, I’ll take you apart if you ever…”

“For God’s sake, stop it!” It was Catalina, whose nerves seemed stretched to the limit by all that was happening.

“Hey everyone,” said Jim, “let’s calm down. Let’s not do their job for them.”

“So are we just going to sit here and let them – whoever they are – pick us off one by one?” asked Sutch rhetorically.

“That’s not what I’m saying, and you know it,” said Pete.

Cobus had stopped in his tracks when the row kicked off, but continued now on his way to the boat, speaking over his shoulder as he went. “I still think we should go now, and we may even have an element of surprise helping us. They’ll be expecting us to be confused, scared; they certainly won’t be expecting pursuit, as they won’t know we’ve seen them.” He pulled the cord that powered the pump on the inflatable. “Also, though I hate to admit it, Pete may be right. If there’s five hundred, or even fifty of them, six of us with rifles are not going to overpower them. So we’ll go carefully, not gung-ho. Do a recce, then decide. Also, I don’t think we should all leave the camp.” Now he came back across to the others, who said nothing, just waited to hear; needing a leader; needing direction. “Who’s to say that isn’t another decoy boat out there – though I don’t think it is.” With what still took him a great effort, Cobus put his hand on Pete’s shoulder – he needed him onside right now. “I must say I admire how you’re managing to think straight under the circumstances.”

Pete looked down and said nothing. The silence that ensued spoke volumes, but nobody was too sure what it was saying. “Like I said,” continued Cobus, “we do have to act now. Jim and I will go.”

“It’s my wife, for fuck’s sake,” spat Pete.

“Ya, sorry man, you’re right. You come with. Jim, you stay back and guard the camp. Apart from anything else, two men in the boat is enough. We’ll be faster.”

“We won’t be if we don’t get moving,” said Pete. He looked long at Jim. “She’s my wife, and none of you know what she means to me.” With that he grabbed a rifle and started pushing the boat out into the surf.

“She’s my daughter, too.” They turned and looked at the Professor. “So you go and bring her back.” The three younger men might have been butting horns like male mountain goats, but amid the huffing, puffing and flying stones and dust they’d all overlooked the fact that he was the only man who commanded Jane’s unequivocal love. But he was old, and in his voice they heard how close he was to being broken.

Quickly Cobus grabbed his pack – something he’d always done instinctively when setting out into the unknown, ever since it had taken a bullet from a rebel sniper and saved his life – and leapt into the boat to start the engine. “Let’s get the bastards.”

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The Scorpion Archipelago (Chapter 9)

Scorpion Archipelago October 30th 1997 5am

 

“Robbie! Robbie!”

Cobus had risen early, a habit he had acquired during his national service. The others all stirred. Catalina jumped up at the urgency of his voice.

“Oh my God, where’s Robbie?” Now they were all up. “Perhaps he’s gone to the pool for a wash.”

“If he’s up early, man, I think that’ll go against the habits of a lifetime, from what I know of him at Uni, but let’s go look,” said Cobus. The soldier in him surfaced. “Professor, with all respect, you save your energy and stay here. I sense something funny and don’t want to leave the camp unguarded.”

With that, Cobus, Jane, Catalina and Jim set off at a brisk pace. When they reached the lake, despite the urgency of the situation, Jane could not help feel a moment’s thrill and guilt as she looked at the rock over which Jim had bent her the previous evening. She could almost feel the moss on her hands – and other things besides. She didn’t dare look at him. But more pressing matters quickly pushed her lewd thoughts to one side. Robbie wasn’t there.

“Stupid bastard’s gone walkabout,” said Catalina.

“Look,” said Jane, “he might just have gone along the coast a-ways.”

“Ja,” agreed Cobus. “Jim, did you see anywhere yesterday that he might have got into trouble today?”

“Ah…um, no. Actually I didn’t go very far.”

That’s certainly not true, thought Jane, who had to stifle a smile that would have been as inappropriate as her behaviour last night. Again she wondered what demons were driving her now. Was this what happened when the cork had been in too tight for too long? That image directed her thoughts to the amphora and, as one of the least superstitious of archaeologists, which made her a tough cookie indeed, she was shocked to find herself wondering whether that jug had contained some sort of djinni which she had released by translating the inscription.

“I got a bit distracted by the sunset on the water,” continued Jim.

“Okay look,” said Cobus, “it’s early. I might have woken everybody for no good reason. This place makes it difficult to sleep. Maybe he got up and has gone for a wander. But he knows what sort of time we would get up, so I would say, if he’s not back in an hour or so, then we start to worry. There’s no point trying to find him if he’s in this forest somewhere, though why he would be here is beyond me. We made about four miles yesterday in six hours.”

“We can’t just ignore it if he doesn’t come back,” said Jane.

“And I’m not saying we should. Of course we’ll look for him. I just meant we should wait a little longer and try to eat some breakfast; we’ll need our strength.” He looked around him then shouted in anger: “Robbie, you poes!” It was the strongest oath an Afrikaner could utter.

 

They returned to camp and waited, trying to force down some food. Then Pete said: “Gonna have to face it folks; he’s not coming back.”

“Ya, he is,” said a tense Cobus, “he’s just being a bloody idiot.”

Pete lit a cigarette in that self-aware way of his, stuffed his hands in his pockets and said: “C’mon, he’s not popped down to the local off-licence, he’s not gone for an early morning swim – he’s not gone anywhere. He’s been taken.”

The combined intakes of breath from the others had an almost theatrical effect.

“What are you talking about?” said Jane. “If you can’t say something sensible don’t say anything.” She looked at her father, but his silence to that point and his downcast eyes showed that the weight of responsibility, the guilt, was a weight on his shoulders already.

“Oh come on, sweetheart, if he got up before our rock-spider here,” he gestured towards Cobus, who bristled, but said nothing, “he got up at the crack of dawn.” Now he pointed towards the forest. “In there it would’ve still been as black as Newgate’s knocker; hardly the place for a little constitutional. And that…” His thumb jerked over his shoulder towards the sea. “…is as cold as hell, if hell is cold. I can vouch for that, having bathed my feet in it yesterday. I’ve checked, and none of the inflatables are missing, so he hasn’t gone island-hopping. If he’s buried in the sand I trust you’ll find him, Jane.”

“There’s one little flaw in your argument,” Jane retorted. “Who took him?” There was a general murmur of consent, though it contained an undertone of curiosity, as if they all hoped the dissenter had an answer; something they could reach for.

Pete removed one hand from his pocket and took a long, deliberate draw on his cigarette. Jane felt her jaw muscles clench; somehow he had manoeuvred himself into the spotlight.

He shrugged. “Ghosts. Whoever built that?” He pointed to the totem. “I don’t know. I’m just pointing out the obvious conclusion, which I think the intellectuals among you are trying to avoid. At least one of you was voicing this very concern yesterday.” He didn’t bother to look at the Professor, but everyone knew what he meant.

Sutch seemed to feel the pressure of eyes avoiding looking at him. “He may be right. We don’t know who or what is, or isn’t, here.”

The others all glanced at each other and once more Jane felt deep concern for her father. He had been quiet since yesterday, by his own standards. If this was what happened when you followed a dream, she thought, she would just keep on digging. She threw him a lifeline back to his old self. “What do you suggest we do, father?”

He sighed. “Well, I think it’s pointless racing off on some erratic search and rescue mission.”

“We could radio for help,” said Jim.

“I’m not sure how much that would achieve. From the air these islands…well, you’ve seen for yourself. They just look like giant pieces of broccoli. You’d never find one man out here; not without a very large team, which would take some time to assemble and get out here. You saw how Dirk had to strip the plane to get both us and the kit on board. And yes, planes could fly over the sea and search, but if you were out there in those temperatures you’d be dead by now.”

Jane saw Catalina screw her eyes shut.

“I’ll tell you something else,” said Pete, “if a plane arrived here now, I, for one, would be wanting to hop on and head back.” Jane looked hard at him, but instead of ignoring it, which he did most times to wind her up, he turned on her. “What? Don’t give me the evil eye. I’m just voicing what everybody else is thinking. Let’s face it, nobody wants to be here -” he turned, “- including you now, I suspect, Professor. Your stubbornness brought us in pursuit of some fairy-tale, which doesn’t appear to be ending with everyone living happily ever after – or even just living.”

Cobus couldn’t contain himself any longer. “Show some fucking respect, man, which is how we treat our betters where I come from. Why don’t you shut the fuck up, man? Whatever’s happened to Robbie is not the Professor’s fault.”

Jane tensed, but Pete appeared to take the insults in his stride. “Well who else is to blame then? He suggested we didn’t need to keep a watch last night because there were no signs of life on this fucking island.”

Jane heard grudging acknowledgement from everyone in the ensuing silence. This was bad.

It might have ended there for the moment, but Pete flicked his cigarette butt in the general direction of Cobus’ feet. “And anyway, why don’t you make me shut the fuck up…Cobie.”

Cobus took a step forward. “I’ve packed against prop forwards, man, who’d have your skinny arse for breakfast.”

“Yes, I’ve heard about Afrikaners and your liking for arse.”

Cobus took another pace and Jim stepped up. “Guys, what are we doing here?”

“That’s what I was just asking,” said Pete.

“You know what I mean.”

Cobus pointed a finger past Jim at his tormentor. “I’ve faced up to fuckin’ guerrillas, man. Don’t think you scare me.”

“Whadya do – offer them your banana?” said Pete.

“Okay, Cobus, okay,” said Jim. “Let’s leave it.” Jane could see the anger in his green eyes and wondered for a moment why he didn’t back the student, but at that moment he cast her a look of apology that said: “I’m sorry, but I’m suffering some atavistic guilt for having fucked the other guy’s wife.”

“Look,” said Jane, “let’s just all take five minutes to absorb this and think about what to do.”

Cobus and Jim wandered off in one direction, the photographer’s arm round the South African’s shoulders. Jane took Catalina another way, while Pete simply pulled out another cigarette.

Catalina turned to the older woman. “I’m sorry, Jane, I’m a plain-speaking Aussie and I’ve gotta ask you; is that what life with him is like? How did you end up with him?”

“A combination of hormones and naivety, I guess.”

“Ah yeh, I mean, he’s good looking enough.” Jane saw the girl blush; she’d reddened enough of late herself to identify with that uncontrollable feminine blight. It would have been quite sweet if Pete hadn’t been the cause and if she couldn’t remember having done the same thing years ago. “But provoking your dad like that when he must be feeling bad enough about what’s going on…”

“I guess he was just telling the truth – as he saw it anyway. Perhaps he did utter one or two things that the rest of us didn’t dare to.”

“I suppose. But there’s telling the truth and then there’s rubbing it in. What about a little respect for his father-in-law.”

Jane put a hand on the girl’s shoulder and stopped her. “Look, there’s no good pretending. It’s pretty obvious to you all that our marriage isn’t the happiest. And my father? –  well, if I’m honest, he’s never hidden the fact that he doesn’t have much time for Pete.” Inwardly, Jane applauded Catalina’s attempt to act surprised at the non-revelation.

“Jim should’ve let Cobus teach him a lesson.”

“Catalina, firstly that would have achieved nothing. Secondly, it wouldn’t have worked out that way.”

“Whadya mean?”

“Pete was reeling Cobus in. You may or may not have noticed that he’s a bit of an adrenalin junkie. Extreme sports are where he, and most of his debts, are at. There, and at the casinos. But he also gets his kicks, literally as well as metaphorically, from martial arts; jujitsu, tae kwondo, you name it. And he’s good. Possibly the last thing Cobus would have remembered would have been taking his first and only swing. I guess that was among the reasons I married him. A woman likes to feel her man can protect her.”

Catalina seemed impressed. “Yeah, that’s always good – till you tire of each other and he gets jealous. Who’s going to take him on then?”

Jane simply nodded.

 

“Okay everybody,” said Sutch a few minutes later. Jane’s words had galvanised him; he knew he had to make something happen. They grouped together again, though the tension was as tangible as the silence of the forest. “This is what I think we should do. We know that trying to find Robbie here will be like looking for…actually I’m growing tired of having to use the needle and haystack simile. And deep down, I don’t know about you, but if we’re going try, I think this island is as good a place to start as any. Having said that, I would like you, Jim, to take one of the boats and make a trip around the other islands, just to see if there’s any obvious sign of activity, past or present. I know we don’t have lots of fuel, but I don’t want to think we didn’t try. If you see something, don’t attempt anything alone. Report back and we’ll go suitably…prepared.” He looked in the direction of the gun case. “The rest of us will continue from yesterday, except our main hope as we go will be to find our friend.” He paused. “I’m now going to say something that you may think callous, but that is as far from my intention…as we are from our homes.” He looked at each of them in turn. “Rightly, or wrongly, we came here to achieve something. If we give up on it now, and heaven forbid we never see Robbie again, his loss will have been a total and utter waste of a life. If, on the other hand, we find this lost kingdom, I will ensure that Robbie’s name lives on. Indeed I will twist history, with your compliance, and he will be the one who made the discovery. This will be renamed McCullochIsland. But let’s not give up on him. Before we proceed, does anyone disagree vehemently, have a better idea, or think that we should simply go home?” There was silence. It didn’t necessarily signal consent; possibly it meant they disagreed, but not vehemently; had ideas, but not better; wanted to go home, but wanted to be able to look in the mirror. Maybe Tariq’s universal truth applied; wondering was sometimes better than knowing. “In that case, we have work to do; a kingdom and a colleague –a friend – to find.”

He saw Jane smiling through her tears; her pride shone through. Was he worthy of it? Finding the truthful answer to that question would have needed an even larger team, to hack through the twisting creepers of hypocrisy that he felt were hiding the ruins of his soul.

“I think we should have someone guarding the camp,” said Jim. “Just in case.” He saw them look at him with concern and added: “You know, in case Robbie returns and wonders where the hell we’ve all gone.”

****

 

Rather like the moment when he’d found the key that had opened the door to the world of dreams, Sutch was struck by the suspension of time that followed their second discovery. They’d been pushing forward for perhaps an hour. Jim had left to make a circuit of the archipelago and Catalina was watching the camp. For the briefest of instances after the machete clanged against stone, there was a vacuum, then excitement and disbelief followed, like litter dancing in the slipstream of a car. They all turned their head towards the sound. It was Jane’s machete, which ironically had been hanging loose in one hand as she’d used the other to push aside a branch. “Oh my God,” she said as she peered down.

The Professor came stumbling over to stand by her. Jane hacked at the shrubs and there it was; a tiny section of wall, no more than seven or eight blocks of stone; not the most imposing piece of architecture, but wondrous in the eyes of the team. Sutch took the bandana he’d been wearing beneath his hat and wiped feverishly at the lichens and moss. “Look, look how they’re slotted together, like those…oh, what are they Jane, those Mayan sites in South America?”

“You mean Tikal and Naachtun – or Masuul, to give it its correct ancient name.”

“Yes. You were involved in excavation work there for a time.”

“I see what you mean.” She frowned. “But at Naachtun the walls were defensive. The Mayan city states, like Tikal and Calakmul were always attacking each other and Naachtun sat right in the middle of them, so they built walls to protect themselves. But why would they need to do that here, miles from anyone or anywhere. Yet these blocks do look typical of the large cut blocks they would have used,” she ran a hand deferentially over the stone, “fitting perfectly, without any need for cement.”

Pete had stepped up. “What did I say – a series of small walls.” In his moment of triumph Sutch could have happily swung his machete at Pete, but before he had the chance his son-in-law seemed to see just how he’d needled him and, for whatever reason, changed his tone. “Actually, I’d have thought you’ve just answered your own question. If the Mayan people were always attacking each other, perhaps the separate islands formed there own kingdoms and built their defences accordingly.” He reached for a cigarette. “And does it strike anyone else as strange that the Mayan civilisation also famously just disappeared?”

Father and daughter looked at Pete and found themselves in the pretty unique position of thinking that he might just have made a very valid point. Then Jane withdrew her notebook from her rucksack and started to sketch.

“Cobus,” said the Professor, “have you got the tape?” Cobus immediately threw down his pack and withdrew a large reel of yellow and black tape, along with some metal tent pegs. “Mark this out. Then I think we’ll need two small teams. Jane, you and I will continue upwards.” He thought back to the recent argument at the camp. “Pete, you come with us. Cobus, when you’ve finished head back to camp and wait for Jim. He must be due back very soon if he’s not back already. Then send him and Catalina up and you take a break. Tell them to follow along the line of these stones and see whether there are other fragments, as if it were indeed a city wall.” Cobus looked disappointed, so Sutch went up to him and said in a low voice. “I’m letting you go back because I trust you to get it right and also look after the camp properly.” He saw the young man’s face brighten a little. The implied criticism of Pete had probably helped. “There’ll be plenty of work this afternoon.”

When Cobus had gone, Jane looked up from her sketchbook and said to her father: “I think this must be a defensive wall, you know. A lot of the Maya still lived in thatched farms. I’ve not dug up too many dwellings with walls as thick as this.”

“Okay, c’mon Jane; Pete.”

“Hang on, I’m still drawing.”

“Haven’t you finished yet? It’s just a few stones.”

She snapped her notebook shut. “Yes father.” “She smiled and he returned it. For a while at least Robbie’s disappearance was washed over by the waves of discovery, though that meant, of course, that it would resurface when the tide went out again.

Suddenly, it was as if scales had fallen from their eyes; tired eyes that had been seeing only the dripping, sodden green of the forest. Now everywhere they looked bricks and pieces of masonry peeped from their hiding places on the ground.

“There must have been some track or road, long since overgrown, that led up from the harbour,” said Sutch, “and now that we’ve entered the city limits what treasures we’re finding. Look!”

Jane stood open-mouthed. Repossessed by nature, but still spectrally visible was an arch. Even Pete let out a long whistle. “Congratulations, father-in-law. If I’m not mistaken, this looks very much like the culmination of forty years’ research.”

They went to it and simultaneously put their hands on the stonework.

“Unbelievable,” whispered Sutch in awe.

“It’s almost Byzantine in style,” said Jane. “That’s amazing; not at all like Mayan architecture. Look at the detail on the keystone. Is that one of those,,,oh , what the heck were they called?”

“Chupacabra?”

“Yes, those things people claimed were aliens; te goat-sucker – sucked the blood out of farm animals.”

“It could be,” said the Professor.

“These people may have come across from the west coast of South America originally. The forest appears to have done us a favour. It’s protected a lot of the detail from the sea air and the wind. This is magnificently preserved.”

“Oh my word, just look!”

As if they had adjusted the focus on a camera lens, their eyes were able to pick out all manner of half-collapsed structures beyond the arch. The forest was littered with the ruins of houses, both plain dwellings and more extravagant villas, and much grander structures that might have been municipal buildings. There were isolated arches, devoid of the stonework they had been supporting; the rib-cages of a dead civilisation picked clean by the vulture of time. Those arches were in a variety of styles; rounded, square, Gothic, as if this were an architect’s workshop.

   “It’s eclectic in the extreme,” said Jane as they wandered amongst the ruins of temples and markets in the diffused light beneath the forest canopy, “such a confluence of styles and influences.” She put her hand to her forehead in puzzlement. “This is so weird. Naachtun is known for its varied architecture, but that was a reflection of changing political allegiances and the impact of regional styles. But here, we’re looking at a right old hotchpotch of influences in a kingdom that kept the outside world at bay.”

“Perhaps that’s what happens,” said Pete, “when your merchants sail to various distant ports and return with tales of what they’ve seen. Nothing develops organically.”

Not for the first time Jane and her father looked at him in surprise.

“Fair point, darling.” said Jane, the term of endearment slipping out before she could prevent it – and how she wished she could. She was shocked; couldn’t remember the last time she’d called him that, and she could see from his face that he couldn’t either.

“No need for tape here,” said Sutch with a laugh, totally oblivious to the moment’s awkwardness.

The three of them moved on, amazed, through a huge, moss-covered plaza. Then Jane pointed to three stone pillars at the far end. “Aren’t they…”

“The same as the one down by the camp,” said Sutch. As they got closer they could see there were hieroglyphics on these too.

“These are almost certainly stelae. The Mayans used to record their history on them. My God, it’s all pointing to this island as having been peopled by them. If that’s the case, then Pete’s earlier comment is…well, no-one has ever explained why such an important and advanced civilisation just collapsed. What we do know is that wherever they went they built huge cities; as big and complex as anything in the known civilised world, and they seemed able to adapt to and exploit whatever environment they chose to live in. But then they just seemed to…I don’t know…up and go.”

“Kinda spooky, huh?” said Pete. He lit another cigarette. To Jane it felt like an affront to the majesty of the ruins, but with yesterday’s adultery still tingling in her loins, she bit her tongue. She was still trying to recover from what she assumed was her guilt-induced use of ‘darling’ moments before.

Typically, just when she’d hoped Pete would act like a Philistine that morning, as if that would have somehow justified what she’d done, he’d chosen instead to make sensible, salient comments. It seemed for a moment that the disrespectful cigarette might help to redress the balance, but when he spoke again he seemed determined to frustrate her. “I wonder what these people worshipped.”

“The Mayans had any number of gods, most of them pretty bloodthirsty. As you mentioned the other day, the cult of human sacrifice was strong.”

“I’m betting that image of Cobus back there,” he jerked his thumb obliquely in the direction of the first arch, “that Chipolata, or whatever you called it, wasn’t content with goat’s blood. It seems to be everywhere.” He pointed around them. “It’s like a day out in Natal.”

It had been too good to be true after all, thought Jane.

“I suggest,” said the Professor after he and his daughter had exchanged raised eyebrows, “that we uncover the full extent of this site before we start analysing the detail. I think we’re a bit overcome by all this – I know I am – and it’s a lot to take in. Also, let’s not forget that we’re now the vanguard of a much larger expedition that I’ll now have to organise.” He turned to his son-in-law. “Pete, I think I’d like you to take next shift of guarding the camp. Send Cobus and Catalina up here and also Jim, assuming he’s back,” Pete looked at him pointedly, “if you wouldn’t mind.”

“Not at all.” The way he pitched his cigarette to the floor gave that response the lie. “I need another bloody coffee anyway.” He turned and started to make his way back.

Jane watched him go and, despite everything, felt uncomfortable. Part of her still wondered who the hell she’d been when she’d married him – though as he swaggered away, with his open, sweat-stained shirt clinging to his bulky pectorals and latissimus dorsi she forgave, as well as regretted, her youthful indiscretion – but another part winced at the less-than-subtle dismissal by her father. It smacked of being sent to the back of the class, especially as Cobus had only just been sent down to rest. She wished her father had left things alone for the time being, especially as the only person to have done wrong in the last twenty-four hours was Jane Sutch, the adulteress.

“Oh, Pete!” shouted the Professor. Pete stopped, but kept his back turned. “We’ll make the next change after four hours. Otherwise we’re not allowing ourselves enough time here.” Pete turned his head slightly, gave a curt nod and wandered on again.

 

Just over an hour later Jim and Cobus arrived at the ruined citadel.

“Any luck?” asked Sutch.

“’Fraid not,” said Jim. “I saw nothing worth investigating.”

“Where’s Catalina?”

Jim looked down. “She said she’s going to stay at the camp. I think Robbie’s disappearance has unnerved her.”

“Ya,” said Cobus, “She said she wasn’t ready yet to spend more time in the ‘forest of the dead’, as she called it.”

Sutch shifted awkwardly on his feet and then turned back towards the ruins.

“Nice one,” whispered Jim to the South African.

“Ah shit,” hissed Cobus. “Me and my big mouth.”

Jim was sweating profusely because of the climb and the heavy bag of equipment. “You guys got any water?” he asked. “I only brought photographic stuff.” Then, despite the circumstances, Jane watched Jim’s eyes grow increasingly wide at the sight before him. He pushed his hat back off his forehead and whistled. “This is incredible! National Geographic, Royal Geographical Society, start putting the zeroes on your cheques now.” Even in the excitement of the moment, he noticed the coolness of Jane’s fingers lingering against his as he took the bottle of water from her. He turned to her father hastily and embarrassed. “I want to thank you, Professor, for giving me this opportunity.”

“The thanks are all from me, dear boy, for agreeing to come on this hare-brained, ill-planned expedition…” Sutch paused and looked around, then gave a big grin, “…that turned out so…” He’d been about to say wonderful, then remembered himself. Instead, he called Cobus, who was also staring open-mouthed at the frayed majesty all around them, and the four of them embraced, although the shadow of their missing colleague flitted amongst the ghosts around them

Jim was the first to come to terms with the practicalities of the situation, and slipped into professional photographer mode, pulling out a telescopic tripod and a clutter of lenses, from which he selected a 200mm for starters.

Jane was ready to settle down with her notebook, when her father said: “No you don’t. You and I are going to wander on a bit, my girl.” Sutch was so excited, he didn’t notice the disappointed undertone to Jane’s protest, but dutifully she left Jim behind followed him and they nudged, pushed and hacked their way forward for what seemed like another half mile.

They had moved away from the grander central area of the plaza and the imposing temples and palaces.

“I think we’re entering what might have been the commercial and residential areas of the city,” said Jane. “These buildings seem increasingly humble. I reckon they’re dwellings – or the shells of them anyway.”

“An interesting word – shell; very apt,” said Sutch, looking around with a hint of sadness in his eyes. “Shells they are; things of beauty that tell a substantive tale of their former occupants, who either abandoned them or were ripped from them.” He paused, clearly moved, then whispered in awe: “I never thought I’d find the Marie Celeste on dry land.”

They passed yet another home containing numerous artefacts of pottery and fungus-encrusted wood, all of them pointing to lives put on hold with an immediacy that spoke of some sudden and dreadful event. Now Sutch felt obliged to enter the house and straighten a toppled stool. “Astonishing,” he said as he looked at the wood beneath his fingers. “Even the woodworm has fled.”

In building after building lay the flotsam of a sunken civilisation; more pottery and mouldy wooden furniture, jewellery, combs, bottles, goblets; all manner of things that revealed a people whose love of trade and material possessions was at odds with their apparent sociophobic desire for secrecy.

 

All of this was veiled, to a greater or lesser extent, by a forest that had swallowed its prey, but only partially digested it.   At length the buildings and detritus became less frequent and the land started to rise more sharply. They could hear a dull pounding and sighing that they knew came from the waves at the base of the cliffs.

“There were always one or two, even back then,” said Jane. The Professor, who seemed to be mulling something over followed her gaze distractedly, then saw, perched further up the mountainside, what appeared to be the remains of two houses of lavish proportions, peeping out from the trees.

“Oh, you mean those who want to live at the top of the hill looking down on the plebs,” he said.

Then Jane noticed his face revert to a frown. “What is it, father? I recognise that look.”

“Well, at the risk of sounding gruesome, I’m missing bodies here.”

“Surely they’d have decomposed centuries ago…” she stopped, “…no, you’re right, there’d still be bones. Or are you talking about cemeteries; tombs? I take your point.”

“No, they wouldn’t have had any…” He stopped.

“What do you mean?” She saw an evasive flicker in his eye, but didn’t pursue that line for the moment. He was old enough to have earned the right to deal with things in his own time, and the time clearly wasn’t now.

“Even assuming everyone fled from some cataclysm – even if everyone somehow scrambled up this precipitous slope and then threw themselves from the cliffs in despair – there’s no sign of a wall of water having passed through the city, even if it were capable of getting this far – and that would be one hell of a wave, I can tell you. Rather like the terminal moraine of a glacier, you’d expect the debris of human life to have been pushed along and deposited as the water receded. Yet it looks like everyone just went out for a stroll at the same time. We’ve seen pottery and other artefacts lying where they belong. And as for the buildings, well-built though they are, there’s no mortar holding the stones together. Hit by a force as powerful as a tidal wave or an earthquake, there should be more damage.”

“You’ve said this before, father. So what do you think happened?”

He looked at her and smiled. “I have no idea. And maybe I’m completely wrong for doubting. Anyway, I think we’ve come as far as we need to. Let’s head back to Jim and Cobus.”

They turned and Jane gave a cry of alarm. Though she’d seen such things many times before, the unexpectedness of its discovery in this place shook her.

“What is it, Jane?”

She pointed.

Behind a small, isolated section of wall, curled in a foetal position, was a body that, with the desiccated fragments of skin on the back of the head and neck, looked like nothing so much as an unwrapped mummy, clad in a dirty brown djellaba that camouflaged it beneath the overgrowing vegetation.

When their legs felt capable of supporting them again, Jane and Sutch made their way over to the find.

“Perhaps I wasn’t missing bodies so much after all,” said the Professor.

Jane’s soft voice quivered. “You sure have a habit of making things happen, father. Look for ancient, undiscovered civilisation – find one. Wonder about absence of bodies – find one. Please don’t think ill of me ever.”

“That what you call graveyard humour?” He put an arm around her, smiling, and then moved nearer to the corpse. “Strange.”

“Um, technically I think that’s what’s known as an understatement.” Jane held back, frustrated by her weakness, but unable as yet to overcome it. The body had spooked her, but not as much as her own had recently, as if every suppressed, distaff nerve was being pulled taut. She looked up and around, and the irony wasn’t lost on her – ever since they’d discussed coming to this place of death, and especially since they’d been here, she’d never felt more alive or aware.

“I meant the clothing. It looks in perfectly good condition.”

They squatted and Sutch reached out a tentative hand to pull at the corner of the garment where the shoulder would have been. The body collapsed with a horrible, bony rattle onto its back.

Now Sutch gasped, then reached over and took something from the clawed hand.

“Seems to be a parchment of some sort.” Then he spotted something on the ground by the body. As he picked it up, he had to fight the urge to drop it immediately. He held it in shaking fingers towards Jane. “And this, if I’m not mistaken, is a very obviously twentieth century pen with ‘Marriott Hotels’ written down the side.”

Jane backed away and felt the onset of hysteria as an incongruous mixture of bile and laughter fought its way up through her chest. She put her hands on her knees for support.

Then the sound of running feet caused her body to jerk, as if all her taut nerves had contracted further. To her intense relief she saw Jim, who’d heard her previous scream. She collapsed against his chest.

“Jane, are you okay? Where’s the Professor?”

“I’m here.” Sutch rose from behind the wall, feeling in his old, creaking limbs a certain consanguinity with the lone corpse. He had the rolled parchment in his hand; though it wasn’t his to take, he felt this dead stranger would have granted him leave. He was wrong on two counts, and the force with which this revelation hit him as he unrolled the document caused him to stagger; the parchment was his to take – in fact it was addressed to him – and this was no stranger.

Cobus arrived now, having been a little way behind Jim when he’d heard Jane’s scream. He was just in time to see Sutch’s distress and hear Jim’s question: “Professor, are you alright?”  The Afrikaner had some first aid knowledge, acquired during his time in the army, and seeing Sutch turn white he wondered whether it might now be needed in administering CPR.

“Father!”

“It’s…” the Professor hesitated, “…from Tariq.”

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The Scorpion Archipelago (Chapter 8)

Scorpion Archipelago October 29th 1997

 

What it brought was warm sunshine, and though there was not the level of humidity one would find in a jungle, it became oppressive once they were under the blanket of the forest. Despite the early night and fresh air, most of them felt weary, their dreams having been invaded, on a subliminal level at least, by the watchful darkness.

Jane spoke between hacks of the machete. “I can see…why you wanted…us to…have these,” she said to her father as she fought her way through an obstinate thicket, then paused for breath and gestured with the blade. “When you said forest I envisaged a clear floor, but I’ve never seen such a twisted, gnarled, knotted place. It’s like Fangorn or Mirkwood.”

“Where?” said Catalina.

Jane raised her eyebrows in mock exasperation. “Oh, the youth of today. Haven’t you ever read Tolkien?”

Catalina moved to metaphorical safer ground. “The trees haven’t grown that tall, I guess because of the wind, cold and darkness at certain times of the year. But they seem to have compensated by spreading and growing thick. And if there were any volcanic activity in this island’s history it would be very fertile here with the potassium and other minerals. Look just how profuse these ferns are.”

“Of course the sixty-four thousand dollar question,” said Pete, keeping his voice low, “is whether we know we’re heading in the right direction.”

“I’m sure the Professor knows what he’s doing,” said Jim.

You would. “Uh huh.” He hacked with feeling at a bramble.

“Well, we’ve found signs of human life, plus what we think was some sort of harbour. It makes sense to head straight inland from there.”

“Yes, but aren’t you all overlooking one thing? If this were a harbour, surely there’d be dwellings around it. I mean, I’ve not yet seen a harbour that wasn’t surrounded by human habitation.”

“Maybe,” conceded Jim, “but if there were an underwater earthquake followed by a tsunami hitting the coast, it might have swept everything before it. Buildings further up might well have survived. But also, people always build on higher ground if they can, for any number of reasons.”

Jane’s little glance of approval at Jim didn’t go unnoticed, and that same glance took in the way his sweat-soaked shirt stretched across his back. She wondered what the hell was going on with her, having worked with any number of well-muscled teams of perspiring men before. Even her husband wasn’t in the worst shape, thanks to his various leisure activities. But just now she’d imagined her nails raking down Jim’s back. Sure she was attracted to him; had been from the moment she had set eyes on him. But her desires seemed to have attained some lycanthropic, feral quality that was straining to escape. Had it been a peculiar foretaste of this, a few nights before, when she stood in her bedroom assessing her figure? Was something at play here over which she had no control?

 

They were starting to tire and struggle as they pushed their way uphill, picking or hacking the best path they could through the tangle of tortured roots, brambles, ferns, bushes and low-hanging branches of this eclectic forest, slithering up the damp slope while the soil sucked at their walking boots; there seemed to have been plenty of rain in the recent past, which had worked its way down the mountainside. Moss was everywhere, slimy beneath their hands as they slipped and used tree trunks or boulders for support; it hung from branches and rocks like the embodiment of a green pestilence. The only flowers they saw were pitcher plants, and when Catalina looked into the first few they came across, there were no insects captured inside. “Is there no life in this pissing place?” she muttered. The lack of breeze beneath the canopy added to their general discomfort, as if even the elements had died. The aura of lifelessness was rendered all the more obscene by the contrasting abundance of undergrowth.  There seemed to be an underlying sound of water running, but it might have been a trick of the sodden landscape. Otherwise there was only silence. Jane spoke for all of them, even the Professor, when she stopped again and said:

“Why anyone would see this land and choose to settle here is beyond me.”

“Maybe it looked different then,” ventured Jim.

Catalina chipped in: “No, I think we can assume a forest like this would have greeted the first settlers.

They stopped again for some water, grateful to remove the rucksacks, which had dragged them down into the cloying mud, and used them as seats in the absence of any dry spots.

Catalina, hands resting on her knees, looked up and around. “Nothing,” she said.

“Mmm?” Cobus looked at her then followed her gaze. “Ja, man, that’s what I was saying last night – there’s nothing. No bird song; no insects buzzing; no nothing.”

“It doesn’t feel right, does it?”

 

Jane heard this and looked in her father’s direction, to see what impact the comments might be having on him. What she saw worried her. He had been quiet all morning; said more or less nothing, rather like on the flight. In fact, since he had spent most of the morning at the back of the group she might almost forgotten he was there, were it not for the ever-present filial bond. Now he looked drained and did not appear to be taking part in any discussion or making any observations. Was time catching up with him at last? Was this one expedition too far? She moved over and sat next to him. “Are you okay, father?”

“Not really, no.”

She put her hand on his arm. “What’s the matter?”

He took a deep breathe. “Janey, I’m getting this peculiar feeling I shouldn’t be here. None of us should.”

She tried to sound reassuring, though it was tough in the face of such an abstract observation from her pragmatic father. “Oh, that’s just this place,” she said, looking up at the trees. “Do you remember what the Romans said about the Teutoburg Forest? It played with their minds.”

“I remember what happened to Varus.” Jane realised the slaughter of three crack legions by barbarians was the last thing her father needed to be reminded of right now. He made a tired gesture in the direction of the students. “They’re right – this place does have a peculiar feel to it. It’s dead, but somehow…alive at the same time. Perhaps it’s alive with the dead. Who knows how many souls were lost here.”

“Father…”

He talked over her. “Suddenly – no that’s a lie; it’s not the first time – I’m wondering why I’m here. Have I just been a foolish old man with an obsession, determined to prove myself right? Has my vanity put us all in danger?” He turned to his daughter. “Why exactly have I brought us to this God-forsaken place?”

“Oh father.” She put an arm around him. “You are feeling down, aren’t you? We’ve been in more forsaken places than this.”

“Maybe you have, my girl, but I’m used to the ocean, which is alive, and moving, and breathing.”

“And pitiless,” she countered. “What about those shipwrecks you’ve encountered?”

He smiled, his mind’s eye moving beneath the waves. “Full of fish, barnacles, anemones; life.”

“And death on occasion, father… and death.”

“At least there I can see the dead.”

“Well I am feeling very much alive.” She spared her father the details of her disinterred libido, which had been buried deeper and for longer than King Tut.

“And I, for the first time, am feeling very much my age.” She’d known it. “This forest feels suffocating, like one of your tombs. Jane.” He looked at her with a frankness that brooked no flippant response. “Am I just an old fool who’s brought us to the edge of the abyss?”

“No. Look, to return your analogy, you found the needle down in the bay. We’re just following the thread.”

“As long as it doesn’t lead us into the labyrinth instead of out of it.”

She took his hand and smiled. “Well, the Minotaur is something I don’t believe in. But if there’s something to find here, we’ll find it.”

But not that day. They strained, sweated, hacked and scrambled their way through an untold area of forest and returned to the camp late afternoon when fatigue overtook them, despite the energy bars.

Before hitting camp again, however, there was one moment of rare pleasure and relief when, believing they could hear water moving, they cleared a path through the trees and discovered a delightful pool into which tumbled a sparkling cascade of water. The beauty of the scene was enhanced by a more practical consideration. They had been wondering where they were going to find more drinking water, and somewhere to wash away the sweat and dirt of the day’s labours, before stale body odour became an addition to the pleasures of the trip. This al fresco shower, just a quarter of a mile or so from the camp, was the one blessing the island granted them that day.

They were standing near the base of the little waterfall, and everyone dipped their hats in the stream before putting them on again and gasping at the cold that gripped their veins.

“It’ll take a brave person to jump in there,” said Cobus.

“Och, ye’ve not spent enough time in Scotland, ye jessie,” said Robbie. “Ye should try a dip in the North Sea.”

Jane stooped to take a handful of water and in doing so she slipped on one of the moss-covered rocks. Jim was a couple of feet ahead of her, having moved in closer to take some pictures, and caught her as she stumbled towards the water. As he helped her straighten up his face registered surprise and puzzlement.

“Thank you,” said Jane, “I’m such a klutz.” She retreated to the safety of the flatter ground.

Despite that discovery, it was a subdued party that set about its various tasks in the camp in the early evening light. Jane was pleased to see that the three students sat by the Professor. They had a thousand questions for the man who had mapped most of the world’s oceans during his life. Pete had wandered off and stood with his feet cooling in the surf, enjoying a cigarette and, Jane noticed, taking nips from the hipflask he had brought with him.

Jim seemed restless. “Hey, so no-one wonders where I’ve gone,” he said, “I’m just going to wander along the shoreline a bit; see if there’s any good photo-opportunities. And who knows, there might be another totem, or an easier route up onto the tops. If I’m not back in a couple of hours feel free to come and look for me. I’ll certainly be back for dinner.” He smiled. There was a general acknowledgement and he headed off along the edge of the bay.

Jane came and stood by Pete. “Not quite what you’re used to, is it?”

He took a long draw on his cigarette and looked sidelong at her. “Nor you, I wouldn’t have thought.”

“Oh, you’d be surprised. People think that X marks the spot in archaeology, but it rarely does. Swap thick, impenetrable forest for endless square miles of sand. And deserts shift over the course of time. There’s a lot of monotonous, back-breaking toil. It’s not all doorways with curses above them – just a lot of cursing – nor Howard Carter’s wonderful things glittering in your lamplight for the first time in millennia.”

Pete glanced back over his shoulder and drew on his cigarette again. “Old man seems a bit down. Do you think he’s realised how fruitless this might be?”

Jane sighed in irritation. “You know, everyone seems to have forgotten – and I include my father in this – that we’ve already made the most fantastic discovery; that obelisk there. No one knew there was life here. That’s an absolute sign of it. It’s wonderfully exciting.”

“Yes,” said Pete in a voice that conveyed only ennui, “I’m sure it is.”

“Okay, it’s not sky-diving from twenty thousand feet, or climbing free-form, but if something had been a puzzle to you for forty years you’d be thrilled at a glimpse of the solution.”

“Sounds like my life, old girl. That’s been longer than forty years and it’s certainly been a puzzle.” He grinned and despite herself, Jane did too; his dry wit, when not being directed with sarcasm, could still make her laugh. Then he looked at her. “Maybe I’ll find some answers while I’m here.” He pitched his dog-end away. “Look, all I’m saying is he doesn’t look very excited. Perhaps it’s dawned on him that, whatever’s happened here, this is a place of death. The only puzzle or secret as far as I’m concerned” he looked around, “is what the hell made anyone want to live here?” There was a brief silence. “Anyway, he’s not as excited to be here as some people.”

“What do you mean?”

He looked long at her. Jane knew her sunburnt skin wouldn’t hide the blush she felt rising. “You ask me that a lot. But this time you know damn well what I mean. You’ve been like a hormonal teenager ever since Jim and his amazing zoom lens turned up.”

“Well, I’m…it’s exciting to meet somebody so famous in his field.”

“And in his barn and his hayloft, I imagine.”

“You’re impossible.” She tried to fake some jollity. “Judging people by your own standards.”

“Maybe.” There was a peremptory note to the word. He looked at her. “Anyway, I’m dog tired.” He tapped his hipflask. “I think the old Glenfiddich has mellowed me out a bit.” He leaned forward before she could prepare and kissed her on the lips, his mouth was hard against hers, like he meant it. “We must do this again sometime; talk. And if there’s anything else you want to do again…” he pointed to his tent, “…just come and open my fastening.” He flicked the brim of his walking hat and went on his way; an urban cowboy in a wild place.

Jane looked around and saw the students watching her. Catalina looked intrigued. Doubtless she was watching with a woman’s eyes and knew exactly what was going on. That was something Jane would have to deal with.

It wasn’t long before she could hear Pete snoring from the tent he had chosen to pitch a short distance away from everyone.

A few minutes later she said to the others: “I’m going back to that pool to wash and freshen up.”

“You be safe,” warned the Professor. “Do you want someone to come with you?”

“No, that’s the last thing I want,” she laughed at the thought, “as I’m going to strip off.”

Cobus wanted to make a crude comment, but held back. He was still in awe of these people. Jane grabbed her field toiletry bag, which was pink and frilly as a deliberate concession to her femininity during all those times when she was surrounded by colleagues and circumstances that led her to doubt it. She also took a change of clothes; the red plaid shirt and Levis she had purchased during the stopover in Singapore and worn during the flight to Sydney to try to – appeal to Jim? – feel civilised.

It took her about fifteen minutes along the now comparatively clear path they had hacked. When she reached the pool, with its collection of strange weathered rock attendants, she was quick to strip and dive in. The icy water shocked her to the core, but she persevered, washed in a hurry and then – a strange action given the isolation in which she found herself – tied a towel around her.

Her timing could not have been better. Moments later, Jim stepped into the clearing. She turned to face him.

“Ah, you came,” she said in a voice that quivered with the force of the pulse in her throat.

“Yes. What’s going on, Jane?” From his pocket he produced the folded-up piece of paper that she had pressed into his hand when she stumbled earlier in this very spot. He read: “I must see you. Be at the lake an hour after we return to camp.” What’s it all about?”

“This.” She stepped forward and kissed him with pure hunger. Then she backed away, breathing hard. “I’m sorry; I don’t know what’s come over me.”

His breathing was also heavyow. “There’s a very crude joke there.”

“Hah!” With that she pressed herself against him again. He pulled the towel from her and his hands moved up, finding her breasts.

They found the rest of each other pretty soon after that, with no questioning of whether they should. The intensity of the sex astonished them both. Afterwards Jane stood with her head resting on his chest. “I don’t know what’s happened to me since I met you.”

“You archaeologists,” said Jim, “always unearthing things you don’t fully understand.”

She laughed. “What I do know is that I’ve wanted you from the moment I met you, but the feeling has grown every hour since, till it’s almost out of my control.”

“You’re a very attractive woman, Jane, but you’re married, so I never really thought much more about it. But when you kissed me just now, it seemed absolutely right to seize the moment. I can’t explain it any better than that. And it’s taken my breath away to discover how much I must have been suppressing my desire for you.” He looked around. “Perhaps it’s an affirmation of life in a lifeless place.”

“For this island, read my marriage. Perhaps that’s why I did what I did a couple of nights back.”

“What was that?”

She looked down. “I’m ashamed to admit I had sex with Pete.” Now she looked up at him again. “But I imagined it was you. You’d filled me with such desire that I had to have you then, even when I couldn’t.” She circled her nails playfully on his chest and looked him in the eyes. “So does all that mean you wouldn’t want me as much if we were back in England?”

“Probably.”

His eyes gave the lie to his words and she slapped him playfully on the chest. Then her lips curled in a lob-sided, arch smile. “Well then, we don’t have much time to experience everything there is; and what might have been.” She kissed his chest, and then he felt the tip of her nose moving lower.

 

They arrived back at camp from their separate directions. Not everyone was fooled.

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The Scorpion Archipelago (Chapter 7)

North of The Scorpion Archipelago  October 28th 1997

“Jesus, it’s the fucking Lost World, isn’t it? With any luck we’ll find dinosaurs still rule and we’ll have big game hunting with a difference.”

Jane’s knuckles were clenched white, in part through the ostentatious and unnecessary crude language from Pete, which showed disrespect for her father as well as underlining the ever-present simmering tension between the two men. Worse though, was that in his Rabelaisian way he had a point. She knew it would be wrong to underestimate his perceptiveness. After all, he had sensed well enough that her lust of a couple of nights before was not coincidental; had recognised, in her need for silence, other desires being satisfied. How else could she explain his mocking words after she had thrashed her way, sotto voce, to a voracious climax: “Was that good for you too, Lois?” Perhaps her anger now was for herself at some subliminal level.

Looking from the window of the plane, she, too, didn’t know how to react and had to wonder what the hell might be down there. Even from a distance the islands were unwelcoming, exuding the latent violence of a sleeping monster. The canopy of trees that softened the contours of the looming mountains was a dust-sheet thrown over the contents of a long-abandoned room; what ancient secrets or horrors might be concealed? Would anyone, even a people fleeing from deprivation or tyranny, really choose to settle here?

She prayed her father had not been spun a yarn, and if he had, why? Sure, it had made for unusual in-flight entertainment on the way from Perth as he told them the tale of Tariq and the amphora. Jane could understand why he had waited till they were en route before telling it. She knew everyone had been mulling it over since; a returning fisherman flees from his homeland, a place unknown to civilised man, when he sees it has been consumed by fire and lava. One of his few possessions, an amphora, passes down through many generations till the last of the line, knowing he is dying childless, gives it to an outsider, along with the revelation that the engravings on it hold directions to that long lost kingdom. There is a secret that will only be revealed if the recipient of the amphora finds the kingdom, if indeed it still exists; a place of fabulous wealth, where the people mined precious stones that bought them all they might ever need.

On its own it might have been an enchanting tale, as long as it didn’t turn out to belong to the Arabian Nights, which were not the basis for heavy funding of exploratory expeditions. Jane had not tried to read the expressions on anyone’s face, and didn’t intend to, in case she saw respect for her father replaced by incredulity or indulgence. But what right had she to hope for unquestioning belief when she, herself, didn’t know how she felt? Of course Pete had simply snorted, not bothering to hide his disbelief, but he was here now, and her father’s comment that this was a one-way ticket could prove to be double-edged; they were stuck with him.

There was no real mystery to her growing contempt for her husband. In the early days she had mistaken his cavalier approach to life as charming and debonair, instead of the spendthrift, raffish reality. Her family was well respected, and that had opened doors for him. Once marriage had bound them together, the tie had turned out to be a rope, at one end of which she tried to forge ahead, conquering the steepest slopes, blazing a trail, only to be held back by a pull on the line; the need for assistance.

And then, one night, over the ridge of the summit, Jim had appeared. Nothing had prepared her for the way time stopped when he walked through the door; or rather the clock had started afresh, with her wanting him; wanting to be possessed by him. Parts of her body tingled right now as she remembered how she had come time and again at the thought of him inside her, her husband’s body a mere tool – she had to smirk like a schoolgirl at that one – to fulfil the desires her imagination had sent into overdrive. What the hell was all that about? She was Jane Sutch – she had never taken Pete’s name – known for her affinity with the past and the dead. Yet she recognised that one smile of greeting from Jim had represented the drawing of a blade that could cut the rope, severing her from everything that had held her back.

She sneaked a sidelong glance at him. Perhaps five years her junior, but that didn’t matter; she was a hormonal teenager and, compared with the things he had seen and done, her achievements were like a pass grade in domestic science. She remembered his discussion about Rwanda at that first dinner:

“It was a privilege to be invited back by the transitional government to present my record of the horrors of the genocide. They wanted to use that as a forum for reconciliation. Do you know, some of the perpetrators are now helping willingly to rebuild the homes of their victims? Amazing!”

Jim had stated it all as facts, without bombast or arrogance. He was someone aligned towards the future. That seemed appropriate to Jane. She loved her work, but needed a private life away from the past, with its dust and death. He wasn’t striking or handsome in a classic way, but had open, honest features and sleepy green eyes. She nurtured the desperate hope that he didn’t feel he was here under false pretences, chasing ancient heirlooms and the ghosts of folklore, or that her father had allowed his pursuit of a dream to cloud his judgement. But Jim was being funded by the Society, doubtless earning top dollar for this jaunt. And after all, the rugged scenery approaching from the south would surely provide some fantastic photo opportunities, irrespective of whether they did find evidence of the fabled island kingdom.

She gazed just a little longer than she should at Jim’s profile, unaware that she was the focus of similar attention.

Gradually the scene unfolding before them became the focus of everyone’s thoughts. The general mood dipped as they had flew past the two oppressive fangs of rock. The Professor turned in his seat, looked at Jane and pointed:

“Hell’s Gate,” he mouthed and she felt her spine shimmy as she remembered the translation.

They were homing in on the slender, lumpy scar of the archipelago in the middle of that featureless sea. Flecks of white below became waves that had travelled unhindered across hundreds of miles of cold, unforgiving ocean. To a man or woman, the chill they felt was down to more than the utilitarian nature of the plane’s interior. The buffeting the Cessna was receiving in the strengthening wind was not helping their spirits.

That the mood overall had remained buoyant during the flight was thanks, in great part, to the presence of the three students; hardy souls who had been only too willing to join the expedition without knowing where they were heading. They alone had seemed to accept things at face value as they had listened with deference to the Professor’s tale. For them, two guys and a girl, this had the makings of a big adventure; in fact it was already. They were young and as far as Jane remembered, bad things don’t really happen to you then and, above all, not when you are led by a luminary like her father. He had earmarked them after asking some loaded questions in their respective departments at their universities, and holding a disingenuous discussion with Jane, who also lectured at Kings College, Cambridge. Later he had explained how, having told each of them that he would be calling them that day, he phoned them all a little before his dinner party and checked their availability, leaving no time for them to rush off and tell anyone. Given the types of people they were, their acceptance of a place on the team had been almost a foregone conclusion – their types being enthusiastic, trusting and, on the whole, skint. Jane listened in on them, curious as to how they were dealing with all this, but also to get to know them a bit; without arrogance she knew they were too in awe of their older companions to dare talk to them yet, which made it all the more ironic that the muscular presence of the two guys in particular was reassuring.

“Man,” said Cobus, “it looks freezing down there. And I thought the waters off the Cape were bad.”

“Four minutes,” said Robbie.

“Four minutes what? You bloody Scots are tight with your words as well.” The Afrikaner gave Robbie a playful thump on the shoulder that might have injured a lighter man.

“Till ye die. Without a survival suit that’s how long it would take. We had a guy go overboard just south of the Arctic Circle on naval manoeuvres. Had him out the water in two minutes and his body temperature was already critical.” He grinned. “Mind you, that’s par fae the course for most Scottish kids who grew up with holidays on the coast.”

“Ja, why did you leave the Navy, man? I mean, it’s not like you have National Service, like we do in SA.”

Jane saw Robbie’s brown eyes grow darker as he focussed into the distance for a moment. She knew from the discussion with her father on the flight from London that Robbie had been travelling the world after his stint in the Royal Navy, fallen in love with and married a Polish girl, then brought her back to the UK whereupon she’d finished with him, having achieved her aim of UK citizenship. Heartbroken, he had been unable to settle in a job and become a mature student in her father’s Oceanography department.

“I realised that I loved the sea, but not the discipline.” He turned to Cobus. “How ‘bout you? You were in the army; didn’t fancy staying on?” Robbie took some of the Afrikaner’s long blond hair in his fingertips. “The sodomy get ye down – as in, not enough of it?”

“Hey, you poes!” Cobus cracked him on the back of the head, and then looked around in haste just in case anyone knew enough Afrikaans to understand his strong language. Part of the diaspora of white South Africans following the end of apartheid, he joked that he was a real rock spider – both a proud, rugby-playing Afrikaner, but also never as happy as when enthusing about rock strata, hence his chosen study path of Geology. “Don’t go accusing us Southern Hemisphere forwards of the same behaviour as you poncey Northern Hemisphere backs. We’re not the rugby world champions for nothing, man.”

Robbie rubbed his head. “Yeah, well, we all know you guys win by resorting to violence.” He looked past Robbie. “And by keeping Argentina out of the Tri-Nations tournament, eh Cat?”

The raven haired girl sitting in the row behind broke off from gazing out of the window, though the oppressiveness of what she had seen there still lingered in her green eyes. “Sorry? What did you say?”

Her Australian accent seemed incongruous issuing from the dark Latin beauty of that face; looks which had not gone unnoticed by any of the men, much to Jane’s chagrin. She had just about stopped herself from linking a protective arm through Jim’s, except her jealouscope had picked up that the girl was not casting any sort of interested glances in his direction.

“No good asking her, mate, she’s a Roo,” said Cobus.

“Australian by birth, but Argentine by blood,” said Catalina with a haughtiness she deemed appropriate to her origins.

“So your folks swapped a vast empty southern landmass for…another vast empty southern landmass,” ribbed Cobus.

“But I’ll always be a Puma,” she responded, referring to her beloved Argentine national team. With a dismissive shake of the head she turned back to the window, while her two tormentors exchanged glances of mock-penitence and schoolboyish giggles. “Call yourselves mature students,” muttered the girl, though not without a fledgling grin.

Jane could not help wondering about Catalina. To be fair, she seemed unaware of the reaction she caused and earlier in the flight had been holding an animated conversation with her fellow students, but there followed a gradual breaking off from the general discussions, and as the plane drew further away from twentieth century civilisation, some dampening of spirit had clouded her expression. It was puzzling in a girl who had spent weeks of her holidays on trails in the Australian Outback with only herself for company, and with a thirst for knowledge which had first drawn her to Jane’s attention. She had been the star student in the Botany faculty, though she managed to combine her studiousness with a touch of feistiness. When she had quit Botany at the end of her first year, after a long talk with Jane, to study Archaeology, Jane had been delighted. This was someone she would be only too happy to mentor; the girl had real potential.

However, right now, the usual gleam in her eye had dulled, as if the battery of a liquid crystal display were running low, and Jane could only attribute that to the view from the window.

Someone else had withdrawn into himself, Jane realised. She looked at her father sitting hunched by his window. He needed her support at what was a major life-moment, even for someone as revered in his field and, well, as old as Edward Sutch. Jane moved over to sit by him and adopted a positive tone that in no way reflected her mind-set.

“Well, father,” she patted him on the leg, “it’s ironic, isn’t it; a hotchpotch of itinerant people gathered on a small island that once ruled an empire on which the sun never set, and heading off in search of a kingdom on which it might never have risen -all because of the reputation of one man; you.”

As soon as he looked at her, indeed even as the words left her mouth, she thought: mistake.

“Yes,” he said with soft anxiety in his voice, “and I’m feeling the weight of that responsibility.”

“I know.” She rubbed his arm and said nothing for the moment, just cursed herself in silence.

He looked back out of the window. “What felt like conviction, when I solved the conundrum in my study, feels much more like a whim when faced by the threat of the landscape and the enormity of the Southern Ocean.”

She squeezed his arm now. “It’ll be fine. It’s just a short trip. Don’t lose it, father; you’re a sailor at heart – and the figurehead of this expedition – so your gut feelings will be taken as omens by others, and if our hired hands suspect for one moment that you’re beset by doubts…”

But who was she kidding? The thought of it was eating at her already and the deepening silence in the plane told its own story about the reality of adventures.

Perhaps Dirk had noticed the torpor – they had spoken last night about his first reconnaissance flight a few weeks before. But he at least had concrete matters to attend to – his concern now was the landing. Maybe as much for his own sake as for the others, he tried to lighten the mood. “Hey everyone, this is your captain speaking. Please return your stomachs to the upright position. Sorry if it’s getting a bit rough back there, but this is nothing, eh Professor?” He looked at Sutch and gave a thumbs-up signal. “The Doc and me, we were in a Cessna C206 when we came down here last. This here’s a C208 Grand Caravan; a much sturdier bird. I hope the smokers among you appreciated that when I had to choose between making the plane non-smoking or non-toilet I chose the latter.” There was laughter, in the main through gratitude for the comic relief. They had all made use of the facilities provided in the form of some empty plastic bottles and a curtain. “Ladies, I hope you’ll understand if I don’t shake hands. After all, it’s been a rough flight.” More laughter. “I hope you’ve all jettisoned your handiwork – don’t want that flying around when we land. Gives a new meaning to a drop in the ocean, don’t it?” Toilets were not included on this aircraft, which was a very rugged floatplane with plenty of room for equipment, especially as some of it was stored in the underbelly luggage pods, but with the extra fuel tanks adding weight, any additional ballast would be offloaded, including bottles of urine. Having also reduced some of the weight of gloom, Dirk continued: “And now let me show you all where we’re not attempting to land.”

The archipelago was almost upon them and the details were looming larger. They could see just how dense the forest was; how in many places it came right down to the water’s edge. The Professor leaned across to Jane. He had been quiet for so much of the journey that his whisper startled her. “That,” he nodded towards the window, “is why I brought three fit, enthusiastic young people with us. It’s going to be hard work, even though I have an idea already where we should start.”

“Believe me, father, enthusiasm soon wears off when you’re confronted with hacking your way through dense forest. And who knows what lives in there.”

“Oh, very little I’d have thought.” He didn’t sound that convinced. “This is an isolated piece of land.”

“Yes, pristine forest, untouched by human hand, its eco-system completely intact. I’m sure there’s nothing creepy or crawly in there.”

He ignored her sarcasm. “My feeling is, most wildlife would have been destroyed by whatever natural disaster T…the returning fisherman saw. And some species would have died out through being cut off from any major landmass.”

“Either that, or the strongest, fittest and fiercest have survived, just like in Oz. We might find things no man – with the possible exception of a long-dead race – has ever seen.”

They were right over the islands now, crossing the largest one. Rain clouds clung to the treetops like enormous dusty cobwebs.

“Okay good people,” Dirk shouted over his shoulder, “just so you don’t feel too bad about things; here, as promised, is a quick look at what you’ll be missing – so look on the bright side. And hang on to yer hats; the air currents get a bit jiggly and temperamental…right about now.”

They all gasped as the ground beneath the plane suddenly fell away to a sheer cliff decorated by what looked like lacy frills hundreds of feet below, which they could see were ferocious breakers, and above which wheeled gulls and other birds that might have been cormorants. Jane looked away, her head wheeling like the gulls and her stomach dropping down that dark cliff-face.

“Wow!” said Robbie, the exclamation a mixture of excitement and fear, “I hav’nae seen anything like that since I scrambled up Buchaille Etive Mor.”

“Would you mind repeating that in English, man?” said Cobus in his broad Free State accent.

“You can talk. And aye, I would – I’m Scottish,” said Robbie with the playful disdain that marked much of the conversation between the two men. “But as ye’ve clearly not been tae God’s ain country,” he was laying the accent on thick now, “it’s a mountain on the eastern approach to Glencoe. At the front it’s a sheer climb, but ye can get up from the back and then, when ye stand on the summit ye’ve nothing but a two thousand foot drop between you and Rannoch Moor below. It helps ye understand what vertigo’s all about.”

Dirk arced the plane round again, and then continued to shout over his shoulder. “Okay everybody, now listen up. We’re landing round on the other side, not of this island, but the next one. It’ll be a bit choppy. We’re quite far out, but I can’t take a chance with the rocks. Then we’ll get out the inflatable boats and hopefully, if I’ve got it right, there should be a nice channel for the boats to get through to the shore.”

Jane was about to say something, but decided against it. However, Catalina spoke up and betrayed her increasing nerves, while at the same time voicing the exact concerns her mentor had swallowed in an attempt to keep the mood calm. “‘Hopefully…if you’ve got it right…inflatable boats…rocks.’ Does anyone else feel less than reassured by that?” She looked around, but before anyone could answer Dirk chipped in again, his voice full of humour, for which, whether it was forced or not, everyone was grateful.

“Strewth, Sheila, I’m ashamed a fellow Roo is whingeing. I’d’ve expected it from one of the Poms, but I was told you were made of strong stuff.”

Catalina tried to smile as the others laughed, but her concerns remained. “I just don’t think rocks and inflatable boats go all that well together. Besides, the sea is rough. How are we supposed to row a dinghy out there?”

“Relax Sheila…”

“Please don’t call me Sheila.”

Mocking noises followed from Robbie and Cobus. They were playful, but the girl looked upset. This didn’t bode well for the coming days and Jane felt responsible. Catalina had been her unknowing recommendation and she did not want that to turn out to be a misjudgement. She looked in Pete’s direction, wondering whether he would join in the general mickey-taking, but he was just slouched in his seat taking in the view outside, a hand resting over the arm of his seat, an unlit cigarette balanced between his fingers. The pose looked almost studied, but for a moment Jane saw the man she had once believed she loved.

Dirk spoke again. “These inflatables are not dinghies as you know them. They’re like mini inshore lifeboats, twelve feet long and six feet wide.”

“It’s called a six feet beam,” said Pete without looking away from the window.

“Yeah, whatever.” Dirk ignored the pedantic correction. “Anyway, they’re powered by a thirty horsepower Mariner outboard motor and can do fifteen knots. I’ve got ‘em ready to go in the back there, complete with twelve gallons of fuel in the flexible tanks, so they should be good for three hours.”

Something was nagging at Jane during this conversation; something she had overlooked perhaps? She couldn’t put her finger on it.

“I’m impressed,” said the Professor, reminding everyone that he was still there. Just the way he uttered those two words, alert and humorous, gave Jane hope. Perhaps now that the waiting was over and the time for action was here, he felt better,

“And I’ve had ‘em adapted so that you can deflate them once you’re ashore. Well, they are orange, and I know you didn’t want to be noticed from the air, Prof.”

“So those damned paparazzi won’t get their scoop then,” was Pete’s dry response. The throwaway line landed in silence. He looked around at them all and grinned. Behind him Dirk made a repetitive gesture with his hand, which caused suppressed smiles – even from Catalina, Jane noticed – and all seemed well in the world again. The irony of Dirk’s gesture didn’t escape Jane and she blushed once more as she remembered that she had started proceedings with Pete two nights before with the very same hand movement, and not on fresh air. It distracted her from her continued attempt to overcome her mental block; the feeling that she had a point to make.

“The boats inflate using the same principle as the airbag in a car. So they’ll be ready for use again in the blink of an eye.”

“Thank you, Dirk,” said Sutch. “What would I do without you?”

“Swim.” There was laughter all round. A crisis appeared to have been averted; for the moment at least.

“Now, unless you want that last part to come true, be ready for a swift disembarkation. I’m gonna bring the old girl down now, so please all get belted up. As soon as we’re stationary I’d like you to open the doors and drop the boats, but keep a bloody good hold on the ropes. You can see now why you’re all togged out in the dry suits. Oh, and put on the crash helmets. We’ll be rocking and rolling down there.”

“What about the gear?” said Jane. “How the hell are we going to get all of that into the boats? Does this thing have an anchor?” The nagging sensation was getting louder.

“The water’s rough, but it’s not deep at the point where I’ll be stopping. You’ve got most of the stuff you’ll need personally in the rucksacks; I’m a good packer, so they’re light. All of you – yes, you too girls – have got disposable razors in there, loo paper, survival bags, waterproof matches and malaria tablets, to name but a few things. I’ve put the camp kit in those flight boxes there.” He pointed to three large yellow cubes. “They’re adapted to float, so you can tow them in.”

Now it hit Jane, but before she could say anything Dirk turned the plane once more and started the approach. She thought it better not to distract him while their lives were in his hands.

“Will this tub make it?” It was Pete again.

Dirk raised his eyebrows, and then said: “If you’d had time in the air you’d know this is a very rugged, reliable floatplane. I’d appreciate it if yer didn’t call her a tub.”

Pete sucked on his cigarette then put it back in a studied manner into the packet. He had kept it out to wind up Dirk, who made it clear he hated the habit. “Actually I do have plenty of hours. Used to fly a DeHaviland Turbo Otter, taking people out for fishing trips into the wilds in Canada. Compared to that machine, which was inspected rigorously, this is a tub.”

Dirk glanced at Catalina and raised his eyebrows again. Jane noticed that, whoever Pete was trying to impress it was not working with the girl. She had a face like thunder. “Don’t you worry Sheil…sweetheart. She’s a sturdy bird. I like a sturdy bird.”

Nevertheless, it was a white-knuckle ride of a landing. There wasn’t much to line up with, but it went smoothly enough. At least there was plenty of room. Dirk had brought planes down on improvised landing strips while under gunfire.

They opened the doors. A maelstrom of noise, spray and disorientation greeted them, and the next moments were spent in a confusion of backpacks and flying boots as first the inflatables exploded like aggressive orange flowers, then the struggling passengers sought to disembark from the pitching plane into the rolling boats. The sea was calm by the standards of the Southern Ocean, but its surging power surprised everyone except the Professor, who had spent most of his life in its embrace. The plane had all the grace and stability of a new-born giraffe.

“Shit,” said Jim as he staggered and banged his head on the plane’s doorframe. “Anybody’d think this craft was made for the air, not the sea.”

The throwaway nature of the comment was lost in the general melee, which turned to panic for a moment when Cobus stepped into one of the boats, lost his balance and went over the side. But he was quick to bob up again and got himself back on board. The dry suit earned its corn. “Don’t worry,” shouted the South African, “it’s only a Martini moment – I’m shaken, but not stirred. And let me tell you, it’s too cold in there for any Great Whites.”

At last they were all aboard the inflatables, with the flight boxes attached by plastic straps. “Okay,” said the Professor, “let’s head straight for the bay over there.”

“What about Dirk?” said Catalina.

“He’s not coming with us.” It was Jane. She had sussed it out in the end. Everything Dirk had been saying had the air of someone who was not going to be hanging around.

Robbie turned to the plane, but Dirk had disappeared inside under some pretext. It seemed like avoidance of the moment. “Professor, why not?”

This was a blow. The rugged, experienced Aussie was a man whose air of confidence rubbed off on others. His departure was not the best start to the trip, but it also made a lot of sense. “He’s going back to Perth, Robbie.”

“Why?” asked five voices in unison.

“There isn’t a safe anchorage for the plane. Besides, Dirk’s a pilot. By his own admission he’d just be cooling his heels here during that time. He’ll come back for us in five days.”

“But we could use the extra muscle power,” said Jim.

“We’ve enough for our purposes,” said Sutch, his glance at Jane a silent request not to contradict him. “There is another minor reason as well. Satellites would spot a plane sitting out on the water and I’m paranoid enough not to want us noticed yet. Anyway, this is a preliminary visit. At some point, all being well, we’ll come back, properly equipped to deal with whatever we find this time.”

“I’m sorry, Edward,” said Pete, “but that statement suggests we’re not properly equipped now for whatever lies ahead.”

It seemed Sutch hid his annoyance, not wanting internecine warfare breaking out in front of strangers. And of course there was the little matter of it being a perfectly valid observation. “Look, let’s get moving. Once we’re ashore I’ll deal with everyone’s concerns, but I’m sure you’ll see that we’re more than adequately kitted out for this initial foray.”

Jane and Cobus started up the respective motors and everyone turned towards the plane as they prepared to set off. Dirk was nowhere to be seen.

“It’s a superstition of his,” said the Professor. “The last time he waved someone off they never came back.”

As they headed through the channel picked out by Dirk, the water seemed to grow quieter. Soon the boats and boxes grounded on the shingle. The team disembarked and dragged them a few yards further in, to where they could see the tide didn’t reach. As Sutch’s feet crunched on the black sand he turned to the others. “Well there’s definitely been volcanic activity here.”

Having waited till they were safe ashore, the plane now set off, picking up speed and pulling out of the water. Some of the party waved, not knowing whether the Aussie saw them or not, but then they had their own situation to think of. Sutch walked across to one of the yellow boxes. He opened it and removed a flight case, which had joined their journey courtesy of Dirk at the very last moment. He took a set of keys from his jacket pocket, opened it and the top folded out in two directions to reveal customised compartments filled with rifles and pistols.

“Now that’s what I’m talking about,” said Pete and reached towards the case, but Sutch nudged it and the spring-loaded top snapped shut, causing Pete to withdraw his hand at speed to avoid injury. He looked hard at his father-in-law, who smiled. “No, you’re right. Keep it under lock and key. I’m sure when some thirty foot anaconda, or a jaguar, or,” he pointed in the direction of the brooding forest, “whatever other prehistoric hybrid is lurking in there attacks, we can appeal to its better nature. Maybe offer it a fucking cappuccino.” He stalked to the water’s edge and stood looking at the plane, as it faded to a dot in the sky.

As the drone of the engine became so faint that no-one could pinpoint the exact moment they stopped hearing it, Professor Edward Sutch experienced a frisson of fearful self-doubt. He hoped he had done the right thing in agreeing to Dirk’s decision not to stay, and wondered whether he had given the Aussie the perfect excuse when he made known his paranoia about the plane being spotted.

He could not know that it had already been picked out on his first visit a few weeks before.

Robbie, Cobus and Catalina had started emptying the boxes, finding the tension between the Professor and his son-in-law a bit uncomfortable, but also feeling exposed and wanting to set up camp. Without mentioning it to each other, everyone felt like a thousand pairs of eyes were watching them from the forest.

Once Pete realised that there was no supportive wife standing by his side, he turned and came back to the boats. Picking up his kit bag he started rummaging in a side-pocket for a cigarette. “Okay to light up?” he asked of nobody in particular. “The flame of my lighter won’t act as a beacon, attracting spy planes from all points of the compass?” Then he noticed that Catalina had produced a mobile phone from her bag and was in the process of trying to obtain a signal. Fuckable, but stupid, he thought. “Keep trying,” he said to her, snorting smoke through his nostrils as he walked by, “I think the mast is on the far side of the island.”

Catalina looked up, did a double-take, then blushed and popped the mobile back into her bag before anyone else noticed. She looked in desperation at Pete’s departing back, hoping he would turn again and see that she got it; repair in some measure his opinion of her, which was not the greatest, judging by his acerbic comment. But she knew, she had been stupid. Did technology do that to you; cause atrophy of the most important muscle in the body – the brain? She prided herself on being self –reliant; well, in most things. She had trekked for weeks in the Outback with maps and no radio, with not a GPS unit in sight, but just now she might as well have been draped across a car bonnet in a bikini for all the impression of intelligence she gave. Now she saw Jane staring at her and her blush deepened. “I know, it was stupid. I guess we all get conditioned to…being…” Her voice trailed off as she realised that Jane wasn’t staring at her, but past her. “What is it?” She looked over her shoulder.

Sutch had been waiting for someone to see it and wondered if Jane’s skin now had goose-bumps, as had his when he first spied it through his zoom lens on that preliminary flight with Dirk.

Jane dropped everything she was holding and walked across with her mouth open to stand in front of the object, her head now tilted to one side, reminding Sutch of the first time his little girl had observed a butterfly close up.

It stood just inside the edge of the forest, half-hidden by ferns and the tangle of low-hanging branches, and camouflaged by a coating of lichens; a printer’s obelisk, telling the reader that the book they were opening might seem obscure, but here was one footnote, at least, to guide the reader.

The Professor had followed Jane across, and was likewise awestruck. Time, wind, rain and moss had all but obliterated what might have been a face near the top of the pillar, which stood about twice the height of a man. Jane moved closer, took a handkerchief and wiped it on part of the surface to remove the mould, though not without difficulty.

“My God!” she said, “I recognise some of these symbols.” She looked round at her father, who nodded and returned her knowing look.

“The amphora.”

The entire company had joined them now and stood amazed. Jane turned to Sutch and gave him an almighty hug. “You were right, father; to believe.” He saw realisation dawn on her and she gave him a playful thump on the arm. “You knew this wasn’t a wasted trip, didn’t you? Just wanted us all to sweat a bit. So that’s why we’re making base camp here. Boy, it must have been hard to keep this a secret.”

You have no idea, my girl, he thought, what I’m keeping from you still.

“Yes,” he responded. “So at least we know that civilisation, however primitive, has visited this place. And that in itself is enough. But now, who’s to say that we won’t discover the secret of which the old man spoke?”

Jane hugged him close again, though not before he caught the doubt in her eyes. What and whom she doubted did not bear too much scrutiny at that moment, and if he was frank with himself, he preferred to leave it like that for now. Then she turned back to the totem-like structure. “What do you think it is? A drum-idol. I’ve seen them on Pacific islands, supposedly containing ancient spirits? But they’re normally in groups.” Now she tutted in exasperation and said: “Am I stupid or what? It’s made of stone; how could it be a drum-idol?”

Jim spoke up. “No, look. There seem to be some sort of metal rings halfway up. Could be a mooring post,” he suggested. Perhaps the sea came higher once upon a time.”

“Maybe,” said Sutch. “A major geological event could have affected the tide line.”

“A totem pole?” said Robbie.

“Or a whipping post,” said Pete. “Or worse?”

“What do you mean worse?” asked Jane, turning on him. Sutch could tell straight away that she regretted her display of disdain. Any time Pete got under someone’s skin, it was a little victory for him.

Pete took a long drag on his cigarette. He may have been excited by the find – who could tell – but he was not going to allow any cracks in his veneer of studied nonchalance. Sutch knew it was for his benefit and, by inference, Jane’s. “Look, even the most advanced of ancient civilisations worshipped gods who demanded human sacrifice. Maybe the unlucky ones were left chained here till the tide covered them, or the rats got ‘em.” Nobody said anything, not even Sutch. If his son-in-law was making a point of needling them, his tactics were spot-on; making observations that might well be correct.

It hit them now, to a man and woman – oppressive silence of the forest before them. It had given them one tantalising glimpse of the secrets it might hold; that was all they were getting for free.

Jim returned to the boxes that held his camera equipment and stood now taking shots of this ancient artefact. As he did so, he spoke. “So what made you come to this particular island, Professor, or did you just get lucky?”

“No, when I did a recce with Dirk it struck me that this bay didn’t look to be naturally formed. For me the tidal currents wouldn’t have worn it this way – wouldn’t you agree, Cobus? You’re a geologist.”

The Afrikaner flushed, flattered to have been asked something by the renowned academic. “Ja” was all he could come up with.

“Ah,” said Pete, “so you really are a rock-spider.” The colloquial, perhaps a touch derogatory term for a boer needled Cobus when coming from Pete, so Sutch moved on.

“And as we flew past a second time I got lucky and found our friend here. I think once we look at the arms of the bay more closely we’ll find that, whoever these people were, they decided this channel,” here he pointed out to sea, to the way they had come in, “was one of the few safe routes in and hewed the rock accordingly to build a harbour. This pillar could be a mooring post, but if we don’t find any others I’d doubt it.”

The sea breeze beat in their ears like myriad bats. It was time to focus on some positive action.

“Okay,” said Jane, who had organised countless camps in the past, “let’s check the equipment and make this place feel a bit more like home.”

“Ah, maybe now I’ll find out what I’ve been missing all these years,” said Pete, who looked up from opening his rucksack to find one pair of glistening eyes glaring at him and all others focussed too intently on what they were doing.

“A bit more like the nerve centre of the operation,” continued Jane. “Where do you stand on fires, father?”

“In a scout camp in the morning,” quipped Cobus, to the amusement of most of them. Jane pursed her lips then gave him a light cuff on the head.

“You planning a career as an after-dinner speaker when your rugby days are over, are you?” shouted Robbie to the Afrikaner, to be met by a pair of rolled-up socks aimed at his head.

Sutch, contemplating the original question amongst the banter, knew that a fire would be essential to buoying up spirits. This was a forbidding place, certainly an unwelcoming one. In his desire for secrecy he had contemplated banning a campfire proper and just using the stoves, but reality had kicked in some time ago. They were in a remote part of the Southern Ocean with no regular shipping lanes or flight paths to concern them. Paranoia really was a guest who would not stop eating; Sutch, as the host, needed to show him the door. Besides, he had proved already that people had been here and one of the most respected photographers had captured the evidence. That alone warranted the return trip that he would lead. His was the discovery, his the achievement. That could not now be taken from him. It was important not to lose sight of that. His other hopes for this trip might, after all, turn out to be nothing more than a pipe dream. It was why, on the plane, he had withheld for now from his story the element, in all senses of the word, of water. The secret of eternal youth – not something to discuss, he felt, if one wished to continue wearing jackets with holes in the ends of the sleeves.

“Father?” Jane could see the distance in his eyes.

Sutch blinked. “Fire’s good.”

Jane nodded at the three students.

“Okay, you guys,” said Catalina, “let’s see if we can find some wood.”

Cobus and Robbie looked at her, and then saw that she was grinning, so saved themselves the embarrassment of pointing out the forest.

The others checked through the kit. Catalina, who was a veteran of trekking, started pulling items out of one of the yellow boxes and nodded her approval of each in turn:

“Harrier Softie sleeping bag – Mountain Equipment breathable waterproof – North Face light fleece – Duofold base layers – hot and cold climate Berghaus hiking gear – heavy duty Scapa walking boots. No expense spared here. Campingaz stove – various cans of food. How much water do we have, Professor?”

“Sixty three litres.”

Catalina did a quick calculation. “Nine litres each.” She was too respectful to say anything, but Sutch saw the look of concern:

“Enough for three days. Dirk and I had to think of the weight in the plane and decided that either we’d find a stream or have to ration. You’ll find water purifiers and iodine droplets for stream water.”

Now Catalina produced a rolled up piece of leather and opened it to reveal a carefully packed machete and ice-axe.

“Each rucksack contains one of those,” said the Professor.

“Hmm, that would have been interesting at Heathrow,” said Jim. His personal specialised equipment consisted of a Canon EOS 50 camera with a 70-200mm lens and a bag full of Fujichrome film. He looked across at Jane as he saw her take a battered Nikon from her rucksack and she pulled a face of mock shame.

“Looks well-travelled,” said Jim.

“Well mishandled and mislaid as well,” she said with a grimace.

“What are those?”

Jane had produced her precious notebooks. They contained her on-hand observations from twenty years of archaeological digs and bore the scars to prove it.

“Never go on a dig without them. I’ve got this old-fashioned, pseudo-Victorian approach; sketching and noting the things I see. I hope one day they’ll find a place in the archives of the Royal Geographical Society. I love delving into the records.”

“Me too.”

“It’s a kind of hobby for me.” She stopped for a moment and looked into the distance. “Something about the sepia prints and pen-and-ink drawings appeals to the…” she hesitated “…romantic in me.”

“Perhaps they encapsulate a time when there was still a world to explore; when it seemed a brave thing to do and was, above all, subject to chance.”

Jane gave a rueful smile. “Perhaps it’s because I’m better known for my dealings with the past and the dead that I envy those who’ve unearthed the mysteries of life.”

“Like I said at dinner the other night, you have an ability to bring the past to life. Your work under modern-day Alexandria is fantastic.”

Sutch sat smiling at them, wondering whether this trip might bring him at least one unexpected reward – a new son-in-law. Then he shook his head and turned to his goods and chattels. He had come with minimal equipment, relying more on the others. The one thing he had ensured accompanied him, which was in some ways a mistake as he was loathe to let it out of his sight, was the amphora, packed with loving care – indestructibly, he hoped – in a small flight case. But he knew he was not the lightest equipped – that was Pete, who had brought cigarettes and a Zippo lighter, as well as a hip flask. He was, in Sutch’s eyes, the very definition of someone along for the ride.

Unbeknown to the Professor, Pete was carrying a bit more baggage than he might have been prepared to admit to.

They were all delighted to find the Coleman tents. “They’re just like me, man,” said Cobus under his breath to Robbie and Catalina; “erect with one quick flick of the wrist.”

“I’d have thought you’re more like the Softie sleeping bags,” said Catalina.

“Ja, I’d keep you warm at night for sure.”

Last, but not least was the safety equipment. In addition to the arsenal of rifles there were flares, whistles, lanterns, GPS tracking systems, brightly-coloured, heavy-duty survival bags, ropes, and another sort of lifeline, which the Professor produced like a rabbit from a hat.

“Is that what I think it is?” asked Jim.

“That depends what you think it is.” Sutch was looking a little smug.

“A satellite telephone.”

“Correct.” He could almost feel the ripple of relief pass through the camp. “Well, you didn’t think I was going to leave us completely cut off, did you?”

Jim took the equipment from the Professor’s hand. “Light and compact,” he said, and then looked at Sutch with raised eyebrows. “That means expensive in my experience. I had one similar to this in Rwanda. I was glad I was only renting it for a short period.”

“You’re right,” said Sutch grinning. “That’s why I pulled a few strings and, shall we say, borrowed this from my team in the western Indian Ocean. Otherwise it would have blown most of the budget.” He looked at the others, who had gathered round. “This means we have worldwide voice communication through a network of satellites. But I warn you now, this is not meant for you to impersonate ET. Emergencies only, okay? So hopefully we never have to use it.”

“Good old Dirk,” whispered Sutch to himself. Having supported many an expedition or exploratory team, the Aussie had known pretty well what to provide to cater for most needs within the budget, even down to the tin of cigarillos that Sutch had just discovered at the bottom of one of the cases; he liked to puff on one from time to time. With the tents pitched, a fire lit and Jane in the process of organising the stoves, he lit one now and stood looking at the pillar. For a moment he half-expected to find a symbol at the top of it, like the acorn on the West Highland Way markers, showing him that he was on the right track. Well, stranger things are happening, he thought to himself. Perhaps there are more of these leading the way in.

And that was when it struck him. He turned and looked towards the sea. This might indeed have been a way marker. Perhaps there had once been an iron basket or brazier of some sort at the top, which contained a fire or lamp to guide boats through the narrow channel. Maybe.

Maybe.

Standing facing the sea, Sutch relished his first moment of supreme contentment, finding it hard to believe that, just a few weeks ago, he had been preparing a lecture on the impact of overfishing on coral reefs, and this mystery kingdom had occupied a recess labelled ‘Pending’ in the very back of his mind, while heading his way, courtesy of FedEx, had been a big boot that would kick him out of his comfort zone and onto this narrow strip of shingle at latitude 50 in the Southern Ocean.

The last two words generated a sudden chill and the moment of contentment passed. He headed to his tent to get a fleece.

Cobus approached Sutch, now that he didn’t feel he would be disturbing him. “Excuse me, Professor.”

“Please, call me Edward.”

“If it’s all the same with you, I’ll keep it at ‘Professor’. I feel more comfortable that way; must be down to my time in the army. And I haven’t earned the right to be on first name terms yet.”

“You’ve earned the right, as you call it, by being here on this beach with us.”

“That’s just a stroke of fortune. If it’s all the same with you…”

“As you wish, young Cobus. Anyway, what were you going to say?”

“I was just wondering what the plan of action is?”

“Good question, Cobus, good question. The truth is there isn’t one. We’re at the bottom of page one. We have to write page two ourselves. Tell me something; as a geologist, what did you make of the cliffs? Describe them to me.”

“You mean apart from sheer and bloody frightening…excuse my language… and a bit more than a grade one scramble?” Sutch laughed. “Well, they were granite.”

“And the weathering?”

“Smooth as a baby’s bottom. Must have taken…” he paused, and then gave up bothering to wonder, “…God knows how many years, even allowing for the power of the wind and the sea down here.”

“That would be a challenging climb, don’t you agree?”

“You kidding me? No handholds, and then that overhang for the last hundred feet. Amazing man…sorry, Professor,” he looked embarrassed. “Those are some waves coming in down there.”

“How do you think the cliffs were formed?”

“Who knows? We’re not far from Antarctica. Maybe the icecap once stretched out to here and the glaciers wore them down. In fact thinking about it, the cliff face is smooth, but there are some marks that could be striations from a glacier.”

“But whether by glacial or other means, you think we’re talking erosion here over a long time.”

“Ya, absolutely.”

“You don’t think the land fell away in a recent volcanic eruption, I mean in the last three hundred years.”

Cobus rubbed his chin. “The beach looks like volcanic sand, but that could have been carried a long way in the air. If there was volcanic activity here, it was a long time ago.”

Sutch nodded, all the time remembering Tariq’s tale. “Yes, I agree. I mean, the way those waves come in is a bit like Hawaii, isn’t it, as if they’re in full flow, unbroken by any continental shelf that reduces their height or impact, so while there’s a chance the land has fallen away, or this archipelago has risen from the sea, as a result of volcanic activity, even three hundred years ago, mankind would have known of something of that magnitude. Even then. The forces that shaped this island are far, far older than that.”

Comprehension lit Cobus’ face. Jane and Jim had both picked up on this conversation and moved closer to listen. “Are you saying…?”

“Yes, the land here may have fallen away millennia before,” continued the Professor, “yet Tariq spoke of the island looking as if it had been hit by a wave of some sort. He told also of streams of lava. But from what you’re saying, and what I believe, I can’t help feeling something else is at play here. Nothing quite fits.” Sutch stopped and frowned, and then he tried to sound positive. “So if this is a harbour there’s every chance that between here and the far side of the island we’ll find something of the original settlement. Even if there were a giant wave, it would have to have been incredibly powerful to surge up these mountains, and drive everyone and everything over the cliffs.”

“This could just be an unfinished tourist resort,” said Pete from his place by the fire.

“I’ve seen modern Greek towns in a worse state.”

Sutch ignored the attempted witticism and looked at Jane. She returned his troubled gaze with one of her own. He thought he knew why; always concerned for her father’s reputation, she might have been concerned that, if Tariq had bent the truth, just what was her father to believe? If those were her concerns, they mirrored his own. The thing Jane didn’t know – that none of them knew – was just how much his mission depended on belief.

Sutch spoke again. “Anyway, thank you for your valued input, Cobus. For now, I guess the question of what destroyed this civilisation is less important than what was destroyed. That’s what will occupy us during our time here.”

“So Professor,” said Cobus, still glowing from the compliment, “going back to our original conversation, I assume,” here he pointed to the darkening fringe of the forest, “we just take our pangas and hack our way in.”

“I’m afraid you’re right.” He turned to the others. “So, as the summer down here will be granting us a long day tomorrow, I suggest we all garner our reserves of energy with a good night’s sleep; and before that we grab something to eat. What have we got, Jane?”

“How would I…” She stopped, having caught the wink from her father. “You had me going there.” He knew she was a hunter-gatherer, not a domestic goddess. Years in a male-dominated field meant she had scrapped with the best of them. A homebody she was not. “A corned beef hash or equivalent is the best you’ll get from me.”

“My daughter could wipe out entire civilisations just by cooking them an omelette,” joked Sutch. He received an appropriate glare.

“Ok, what’s for dinner then, Catalina?” Robbie joined in the fun and got pursed lips and a narrow-eyed frown that could not quite conceal the girl’s grin.

“Don’t worry, Catty,” said Cobus. “We all know why the Outback is so empty. Everyone’s run from your tucker.”

“Where are the machetes when you need one?” said the butt of the jokes. Jane looked at her for a moment. Despite seeming to cope with the abuse, there was some sadness or discomfort rippling below the surface still. Jane made a mental note to talk to her later.

“Well she knows it’s a machete anyway,” said Robbie. “I could’ve sworn I saw her trimming her nails with one.” He got no response.

By now the Professor was rummaging around in the food supplies. Suddenly he burst out laughing and produced a vacuum-packed kangaroo steak. “As I said, good old Dirk.”

****

They decided that one person should keep watch that night to keep the fire alive, in case any wildlife had been attracted to the smell of food. The fact was, though, the forest seemed devoid of any sound and was all the more menacing for it, as if its dead eyes were watching them. Its presence weighed on Cobus as he took the first watch. In his experience, night-time was when jungles and forests came alive – for better or worse – but there was nothing; not the scurrying of a mammal, the chirp of an insect or the croak of a frog. He found also that his heart was racing, but not through fear. When you had already represented your province at 1st XV level in South Africa, and been at the bottom of a ruck on the wrong side of the ball, not much scared you. No, it was as if he had an excess of adrenaline. It appeared Catalina felt the same, because after an hour’s fruitless search for sleep she joined him.

“Can’t sleep, man, eh?” said the Afrikaner.

“Nah, I’m fidgeting a lot. Feeling a bit restless. Plus I don’t like the silence.” She gestured with her head towards the trees. “Even the sea can’t seem to suppress it.”

“Doesn’t feel right, does it?”

“I’ve spent a lot of time in the rainforest on Tas. I’m not a great lover of snakes and spiders, but I can tell you, I’d prefer the sound of slithering or scratching or crawling.”

Cobus put an arm around her and she moved in against it, her need for some comfort clear. “Oh well, down here it’ll soon be morning. Let’s see what that brings.”

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The Scorpion Archipelago (Chapter 6)

CHAPTER SIX

London September 22nd 1997

“Impossible. The board can’t postpone the programme at this stage.”

“But I just need a holiday.”

“The trouble with you, Edward, is you’ve never been a good liar. Even complete strangers know when you’re not telling the truth. Since I’ve known you forty-five years, you haven’t a hope in hell. So, what have you got up your sleeve?”

The Professor’s attempt at an ingenuous expression was thwarted by the smile that was tugging at the corners of his mouth. So he dropped into his lap with a thump the hands that he had been about to spread in an ‘I don’t know what you mean’ gesture. Instead he nodded in acknowledgement and said: “Something. I just can’t tell you what. Not yet. But more than as a director to a director, as one very old good friend to another, I tell you the Royal Geographical Society will be the first to know.” He picked up his coffee mug again from Sir Arthur Tennyson’s desk. “Indeed I’ll be approaching you for funding.”

“Funding for what?” Tennyson’s eyebrows required more of his hairdresser’s time these days than his balding head; they flew so low they were almost performing aerobatics when he spoke. Yet they could not disguise the gleam in his eyes as he probed his sometime bridge partner.

Sutch put down the mug again, pulled his chair closer to the desk and leaned forward on his leather-patched elbows. Then, all the jollity in his expression slid into sudden, unexpected earnestness. “Arthur, I would tell you if I could, but I fear that even you, my dearest old friend, would be hard pushed not to think me a fool and a dreamer. But I believe I am on the verge of discovering something unique and, in the process, fulfilling the dream of forty years.” He leaned back again. “Look, I don’t want to waste the Society’s time or funds. Heaven knows the days are tough enough. But I repeat; you will be the first to know. If I find what I’m looking for I’ll want the best man with me to photograph it – capture it for the glory of the Royal Geographical Society and its archives.”

“You mean young Bolton. He won’t come cheap.”

“Believe me, if my little jaunt goes well, he’ll be paying me for the privilege of taking photographs. I’ll need him to sign a confidentiality agreement.”

“He’s freelance; that’s not something I think we can insist on if we want him on board.”

Sutch waved a dismissive hand as if shooing away a fly. “Oh come on, Arthur, use your clout.”

The director leaned back and sighed. “I’ll do what I can, but it’s one thing keeping one person quiet. This sabbatical you’re taking – God knows you could just take a holiday and disappear – will make people suspicious, particularly the press.”

Sutch paled. “The press!”

“Edward, you always did underestimate your standing in the scientific establishment.”

Sutch rubbed his face. “Oh dear. You’re probably right. It’s an old-fashioned sense of duty that makes me follow the right procedure. Ok, I’ll just slip away. Arthur, I really need you to keep any hounds off my scent. It’s one of the reasons I’m having to be so Machiavellian with you, my oldest friend. It’s called plausible deniability.”

“You set up the Shoals of Capricorn Programme, for heaven’s sake. The Mascarene Ridge has been on our agenda a long time. You know how important it is.”

“That’s why I don’t like just disappearing. But it’s not important compared with this.” Sutch slapped his hand on the arm of the chair. “Every member of that team is more than qualified to start without me.”

Sir Arthur Tennyson knew that if Professor Edward Sutch was starting to lose his temper – or what passed for his version of it – then the matter in hand was of enormous importance to the academic world. He had never known his colleague and friend to display anything more than pique – with the honourable exception of his opinions about daughter’s marriage – but he could fulminate with the best when discussing the impact of overfishing. This ‘matter’ had to be of significance for the scientific community. He’d not seen Edward slap the arm of a chair in a long time. “Very well, in the face of such passion,” he grinned, “or should I say Sutch’s passion, I’ll do what I can, but it won’t be easy. As you say, members of the Society will start sniffing around. If they catch a whiff of you behaving out of the ordinary, it will be as if they’ve seen someone standing with a theodolite in some virgin part of the Valley of the Kings. You know what they’re like. And that means the press will come running.”

“Arthur, I repeat, I need you to keep them off my back.”

“I will, Edward, I will.” Tennyson gave the side of his nose a theatrical tap. “I don’t know who our mole is, but someone around here does more digging than your daughter. How is she by the way? Haven’t seen her in a while. Is she back in the land of the living?”

One look at his friend’s black expression, and Sir Arthur cursed himself, knowing he had touched on the old wound of the son-in-law again, even before Sutch responded with: “To adapt an old saying, ‘there is a great deal to be said for being among the dead’”.

Time to move on, thought the director. “Can’t you give me anything to work on? I mean, for all I know you’ve discovered the head of the Colossus of Rhodes. You don’t think holiday-makers would perhaps notice your flotilla?”

Sutch came out from under his cloud again. “That’s the point, Arthur. This is just a recce I’m doing; confirmation, some notes, a few photos – it’ll be like an SAS operation; lowest possible profile. Once it’s done I’ll approach you and the other members of the Society to organise the heavy artillery.”

Sir Arthur smiled. “This must be big news, old friend.”

“Possibly; possibly not. I’m hoping to find out.”

As Edward Sutch prepared to leave the director’s office, Sir Arthur put a hand on his shoulder. “I don’t know what you’re getting yourself into, Edward, but at your age many men are reflecting on the colour of their whisky in the firelight.”

“And I was, Arthur, I was. And maybe it looked a bit too much like fossilised amber.” He looked thoughtful, and then turned to his friend. “You know, as a man of science I never thought I’d be saying this, but I guess fate took a hand.”

****

Somewhere over the Southern Indian Ocean – September 30th 1997

“Big bitch, ain’t she?” The Antipodean voice crackled through the headphones.

“I assume you mean the ocean, not the plane,” said Sutch, trying to show wit in adversity. He had sailed, swum and dived in most of the seven seas, but flying thousands of feet above them had always made him uneasy, even in huge commercial airliners, never mind the Airfix kit in which he was now trapped, his hands gripping the edge of the seat between his knees.

Dirk looked across at him and laughed, his bluff Aussie features folding up into myriad sun-baked lines, and said:

“Aww, this is a smooth one for down in these latitudes.”

“Really?” Sutch was seeking reassurance; when Dirk then turned serious for a moment he wished he hadn’t.

The Aussie gestured out of the window. “She makes me nervous too; the sea. Been flying tourists into the Outback for a few years now; this is the furthest I’ve flown over water for a long time, perhaps ever. Forgotten how anxious it can make you on a grey day like this; snarling waters below you. The Indian Ocean, eh? Wonder how many tourists know it can look like this. There ain’t much solid between here and the Antarctic. I tell ya, Prof, even with the extra long-range and wing-tip tanks, and the stainless steel auxiliary ferry tanks I put in where the back seats used to be, this baby will be close to the limit of its juice by the time we get refuelled.”

Sutch had been trying to force his fingers loose from the seat-edge, but that last word sent them into further lock-down. “Refuelled?” He tried his best to sound calm. “You didn’t mention anything about running out of fuel. Where exactly are we supposed to find…”

Dirk waved his hand in the general direction of the horizon. “Aww, somewhere in the French Southern and Antarctic Territories.”

“Somewhere? Is this a wind-up, Dirk?”

The Aussie winked at his passenger. “Don’t worry, Prof, this isn’t somewhere I’d wanna ditch.” He patted the steering column. “And this is a Cessna C206. She’s a strong bird. You can let some blood back in those knuckles.” He laughed, and once he had relaxed a bit, Sutch could not help but join in.

After a few minutes silence and more stomach lurching, Dirk said:

“Ok, Prof, I’m very flattered that you sought me out for this trip and curious as to why you offered double the usual fee. You gonna enlighten me?”

Sutch paused; felt awkward. “It really is very hush-hush, Dirk.”

“Aw, c’mon Doc, I can keep a secret. You’ve known me long enough to know that. Besides, where I’m usually working the only ones listening would be black and white and woolly.”

Sutch took a deep breath. “Well, let’s just SAY…!” The last word was shouted in accompaniment to another sudden drop in altitude. “Are you doing this deliberately to frighten an answer out of me?”

“Aw, it’s a little windy up here.”

Sutch came to a decision. “Okay Dirk, you really must keep this to yourself; I can’t emphasise that enough.”

“You got my word, Prof.”

He looked at the pilot. “Well, that’s always been good enough for me. Satellite images suggest that there may well be drilling opportunities near the Scorpion Archipelago.”

I’m lying already. You found the right man, Tariq.

“You’re shitting me!” Now Dirk looked embarrassed. There was something olde worlde about the Professor and he did not like swearing in front of his venerable passenger. “Sorry. You mean, out there, in the middle of some of the loneliest waters in the world?”

“Needs must, Dirk. The world’s current oil reserves won’t last forever.”

“Yeah, but how …?”

“Precisely what I’m taking the first step towards finding out. Don’t forget, the archipelago was possibly once a much larger landmass and the area may be unsuitable from a geothermal point of view. But I’m an oceanographer, not a geologist. I’m just having a preliminary look at the suitability of the area from a logistical point of view. When I return I’ll be checking to see whether there could be adverse effects on marine life. Of course they’d have to use floating platforms and they also want to know if I think it’s feasible.” He looked across at Dirk. “Personally I think our planet’s been exploited and plundered almost beyond the point of sustainability. I see this as a jolly good chance to stick two fingers up at the oil companies; firstly by taking their obscenely high pay-out for doing the work,” he patted his co-conspirator on the shoulder, “and then telling them there isn’t a snowball’s chance in hell.”

“Good on yer, Prof.” Dirk nodded in the direction of the horizon. “Much as the vastness of the sea frightens me sometimes, I wouldn’t want to see signs of a permanent human presence out here.” He didn’t see the change of expression in Sutch’s eyes, though he would have struggled to interpret it. Likewise, it was lucky he missed the previous look of shame in those same eyes; as Sir Arthur Tennyson had said, everyone knew when Edward Sutch was lying. Dirk grinned. “I could’ve lied for you.” Sutch felt himself redden. “You could’ve just paid me the money, stayed in Perth for a couple of days and I’d’ve told them we made the flight.”

Sutch laughed, relieved. “A nice thought. I know an excellent bar there, though thanks to your hollow legs I’m not sure I would remember how to find it. But I have to provide reports and some photographs. I also need to check the feasibility of landing a float plane like this near enough to get equipment onto the islands, and if any of them are suitable staging posts for an oil operation.”

Already Sutch knew that, if he were to go ahead with a preliminary covert expedition, he would not want planes moored up in full view of satellites. Small boats could at least be hidden in coves. But a boat trip, even from the Kerguelen Islands, would eat into valuable time, so he might yet have to turn to Dirk. But the big Aussie was a man he could trust. Of course Pete knew how to fly – an essential pre-requisite for the would-be playboy – and he would have a job arguing the need for an additional pilot past Jane. She would see it as another snub; a lack of trust.

Dirk frowned. “Remember what I told you back in Oz? If we have to land this little girl today, we’re gonna be eating up a lot of fuel. But hey, what am I worrying about. If we do have to bring it down short of the refuelling points we’ve got a radio.”

Sutch grimaced, and not simply at the thought of this rattling Cessna coming down and tossing around on the ocean. He really did not want anyone knowing his whereabouts. But there was no choice. It seemed they would have to refuel. Then he decided that he was being a bit paranoid and perhaps even arrogant. He doubted anyone outside his field of expertise had ever heard of him.

“We’ll see, Dirk. If we can get away without a landing and you can bring her in low enough that I can take a couple of decent photographs, that might do.”

“I think we’ll find out soon enough.” Sutch followed Dirk’s gaze to the horizon.

Just visible, there they were nevertheless; the outriders of a civilisation, perhaps. Ahead, still small in the distance, probably about half a nautical mile apart, were two jagged towers of rock, which looked as if the land between them had been sliced away like a loaf of bread. The gateway to the Scorpion Archipelago.

Sutch didn’t know this area well; in the latter part of his career his work had been based in busier parts of the high seas, mapping waters where shipping lines often still relied on marine charts from over a hundred years ago. Through financial necessity he had indeed, from time to time, worked with the oil companies. As a man of science he had a practical mind, which recognised that security for his family had to share an uncomfortable bed with altruism. But now, he was heading towards some of the most isolated and pitiless latitudes on the planet, with very few commercial shipping lanes and flight-paths. This was a tribal priestess of a sea; wild, beautiful and untouched.

Still, he knew enough about the region to slap his forehead now in exasperation. Of course! He should have put two and two together and remembered these twin spires, fangs of rock thrust up from the Southeast Indian Ridge by some primeval volcanic activity. Hell’s Gate they may have been to many, but not to a sailor for whom they were a signpost home. Jane’s translation had spoken of a door. Sutch cursed his myopia.

The true size of the stone towers could be gauged by how long it took to draw near them. At last the Cessna buzzed past one of them, reduced to insignificance by its bulk. What had been a mere jag on the horizon had grown to a massive hunk of granite that would dwarf a cathedral and, despite the battering of the seas, would probably outlast Christianity. The plane juddered a touch as warmer air reflecting from the vast, flat side of the slab caused a thermal.

“Well that wouldn’t make much of a staging post for even the craziest expedition,” quipped Dirk, but the humour in his voice was strained. The size of the rock had unnerved both men, making them feel inconsequential and transient, which of course they were.

On they flew, knowing there would be no further physical landmarks till they saw the coastline of the archipelago. Sutch’s palms were still sweating, only now it wasn’t through fear of flying.

****

The islands themselves were almost lost in the grey swell and swirl of the horizon. Distant white flecks first caught the eye. Just being able to see those breakers from that distance told both men how big the waves were and how steep the land against which they crashed. These were waves hitting a landmass at full speed and height, unbroken by any continental shelf. There would be no landing place, for plane or ship, on such waters. But the Cessna’s easterly approach meant they could tell that the waves were only on one side of the island chain; the south. To the north the waters were calmer.

The two men were so mesmerised by the islands that they became disorientated. Suddenly, as if they were staring at a colour-blind chart, they realised that they could make out details. They were almost there. The glance they exchanged was full of significance.

“This is not a good place, Professor.”

“No.” It took a lot for Sutch to admit that about his first sighting of the promised land.

“It’s like someone’s broken off a little piece of Cape Horn and dropped it here.”

He could be more right than he knows, thought Sutch. What if these were the remains of something much bigger that had simply fallen away, taking anything of significance with it, leaving a now with no past. ‘Discouraged’ didn’t do justice to how he felt at that moment, as he contemplated the logistics and questioned the sense.

The Scorpion Archipelago consisted of nine islands forming a narrowing crescent that curved in on itself at the end, almost like a scorpion’s tail. Nature held sway now and it was hard to imagine it had ever been otherwise; that she had ever relinquished her hold. Only time would tell. ‘Archipelago’ was perhaps a rather grand term for this crescent, which covered an area of about thirty miles in length, the smallest island being the sting in the scorpion’s tail. Nevertheless, it was an impressive, fearful sight, the more so for being dwarfed by the unending sea; a last stand made by a disappearing landmass against overwhelming odds. The southern sides of each island were vertiginous cliff-faces, slicing down to the thrashing and thundering waters of the Southern Ocean, which tried to reclaim its birth-right hammering in anger at these stubborn survivors. The northern faces of the mountains sloped down more gently, smothered by forest. The canopy of trees made it almost impossible to discern anything below, and only at the fringes of the islands was the environment less hostile and secretive, with shelves and lips of shingle and black sand. Here the sea was gentler, but through the calmer waters jagged rocks were visible, stretching out into the ocean. The two men looked at these with resignation.

“Don’t think we’re gonna be landing anything here,” said Dirk. “Are these crazy sons of bitches you call paymasters seriously contemplating drilling out here?”

“Well you know, Dirk, as I said, my recommendation will be no, but the oil companies are getting more reckless.”

“Looks to me like these islands would only be bases for supplies at best. There wouldn’t be any great inducement to spend r&r time here. Think the only way you’d get ashore here is with inflatables through some of those clear channels down there.”

Sutch went silent, finding it hard to come to terms with his disappointment. This was an even more hostile world than he had imagined. The islands weren’t that big, but still, looking for any evidence of a long-gone civilisation would mean…well, he was already tired of the haystack analogy. The forest seemed thick and impenetrable. But then again, one had only to look at Machu Picchu to see just how effectively nature could hide unrecorded history once mankind finished strutting and fretting its hour. Below them now was the natural balance, which man so often saw as chaos.

To Sutch, it seemed inevitable that he would need to bring a big team after all. He could not imagine coming here in secret with a small group, not the one he had in mind anyway, and sweeping all nine islands. Even completing a thorough search of just one would be an achievement in the time he had projected, given the apparent density of the forest and the lay of the land.

This moment had turned into something of a paradox. Part of the Professor argued that he should be seeking gentler pursuits at the grand old age of eighty, while another sprite within him, one he knew he would never subdue, insisted that, as he was nearing the end of his broadcast, why not try to sign off the transmission in style. And after all, if he found even one fragment of a broken pot or a human bone it would be a big deal for archaeologists, historians and anthropologists everywhere, not to mention OAPs.

And it was in these last thoughts that he recognised how this bleak place had already managed to eat its way under his skin like a parasite and infect his logical thought processes. He had a sickness. How else could he explain his certainty that he would return?

The need for some inspired guesswork about where to start looking was given added urgency by Dirk’s voice crackling in the headphones: “I tell ya, Doc, we’ve got enough fuel if you land now, but that’s about it. Unless you want to become a permanent addition to the landscape here.”

The islands at the sting end of the scorpion’s tail were precipitous on both sides and possibly too small to be of any importance. A people seeking a new home would need the biggest area available. Also, the waters around the largest of the islands seemed deep and black. Might the land have fallen away to the most dramatic effect there, perhaps taking those very people and their civilisation with it?

“Let’s think big, Dirk. We’ll go for those great lumps over there.”

“The sea’s too rough for a landing on this side, Professor, and I reckon a hundred yards out is about the closest I’d get on the other side. What d’ya mean ‘go for’ anyway?”

Sutch shook his head. “I don’t want you to land, Dirk, just make a couple of passes so I can take some pictures. You know, for the record? And if they do decide on bases out here, I need to show them the best possibilities.” That he was looking for somewhere to base his own small team remained his secret for the moment. He wondered how Dirk would feel about being part of that.

“Hope you’ve got a steady hand with that camera of yours then, Doc; it’s gonna be a bit bumpy.”

Sutch held up what looked like a palm-sized camcorder and pointed to it. “This little chap is gyroscopically controlled. It’s military technology. It doesn’t matter how bumpy the ride, the picture will be good enough.” The Cessna lurched suddenly and Sutch almost dropped the camera. He looked at Dirk and tutted in frustration, mixed with not a little trepidation. “The camera will be good enough; the question is, will the pilot?”

“Sorry Doc, the shape of these islands is playing a few tricks with the air currents. Okay, I’m taking her in.”

They flew past the implacable cliff-face of the largest island. It was black and threatening, creviced and seeming close enough to touch. The Professor flicked on the camera and it started to beep.

“ ’Sit supposed to do that?” Dirk looked across when he got no answer, to see Sutch looking rather sheepish.

“Oh dear. I think I might have forgotten to charge it.”

“You what!”

He looked at Dirk in apology. “It’s okay, we should have enough time left on it.”

Dirk twisted his mouth. “And you had the nerve to criticise the pilot.”

As they passed the end of the cliff face the plane gave a violent lurch once more, a plaything of the prevailing wind. Dirk looped around, banked the Cessna and then came in at no more than fifty feet above the rocky waters on the northern side.

The forest would have been impenetrable to the eye even if they weren’t flying past it in a blur. Sutch knew already that it didn’t matter what pictures he took; his irrational decision to return had been made and the choppy waters below him were those of his own personal Rubicon, though he could not be sure on which bank he stood. He was hoping it didn’t prove to be the Styx instead.

Still, something caught his attention and caused him to squint as they approached the second island, which was about a mile and a half from the first.

“My God!”

“What is it?” Dirk didn’t look at his passenger as he was concentrating on keeping a steady height above the waves, some of which were getting pretty big even on this calmer side. He’d seen air-sea-rescue crews mistime leaps out of helicopters, expecting to drop a hundred feet into stormy seas and having the wind knocked out of them as giant waves climbed to within a few feet of the machine. His question was greeted by silence. “Professor?”

“In a moment, Dirk, in a moment.” They flew past the island and Sutch was sure. He was going to film that with maximum zoom on the next sweep. And it would not be the plane causing his hands to shake, for sure. He turned to Dirk and put a hand on his shoulder. “Sorry for being abrupt, Dirk.”

“No worries.”

“I want you to make that pass of the second island again. But before we do there’s something I need to tell you as concisely as I can.”

****

The Aussie’s mouth had opened with incredulity and remained that way for most of the Professor’s brief exposition. When it moved, it was to say: “You’re shittin’ me! Sorry, you’re kiddin’.”

“No, I’m not, and I want you to know, Dirk, that it is a sign of the tremendous trust I have in you that I am telling you this. It’s also a sign that I want you to come back with me. I’m sorry I lied before, but you must understand, I thought you’d think I was losing it.” Sutch turned from looking at the Aussie’s shocked face towards the window. “Talking of coming back, shouldn’t you be turning the plane?”

Dirk realised that in his amazement he had lost track of what he was doing. He started to bring the Cessna around, and then looked, full of doubts, at Sutch. “Come back. To this place?”

“Yes. Not an inviting prospect, is it?”

“’Bout as inviting as spending a night in a sleeping bag on the banks of the Mara River.” Sutch remembered Dirk’s story about a close encounter with a Nile crocodile, but hoped that saying no was not an option for a man for whom flying tourists across the Outback had provided a good living, but never replaced the excitement of supporting expeditions and humanitarian teams. However, it seemed he was wrong. “Aw, dunno, Prof. The here-and-now’s more my thing. No disrespect, but I’ve never understood that need to…” he sought the right words “…commune with the dead; literally or metaphorically digging them up. I guess I just think mankind’s priority should be to help those who, through no fault of their own, seemed about to join them.”

“Well anyway,” continued Sutch, “we mustn’t get ahead of ourselves. But what I saw back there has got me very excited. Bring her in from a bit further out this time, so I can explain what I think we’re looking at.” They dropped to fifty feet. The Professor pointed. “There! You see that bay?”

“You mean that cove there?”

“Precisely. It looks a bit like Lulworth Cove, on the south coast of England. You remember? Where we had that stunning rhubarb crumble that time.” Dirk grinned. The Professor had that old school way of making people feel like they were down home in the most unlikely of circumstances. “Except the geology and oceanography here are all wrong. It’s the currents; they wouldn’t wear the rocks in that way. Nor would those rocks erode in that pattern. To me this looks man-made.”

“No fu…no way. Surely.”

“Someone has built this up; turned it into a harbour.”

“Well we’re coming up on it quickly, so you’d better get that camera ready.”

Sutch switched it on again, having left it off to save the remaining power. As they made the second pass, and he peered through the zoom lens, something else made the hairs stand up on the back of his neck.

****

…BEFORE THE STORM

He became aware that his eyes were squeezed shut; also, that the room had grown cold, as if the history of the Southern Ocean lived on for this one night far away in the north.

It had been important to remember, but now the excitement was tinged with dread; a fear of what they might find; of what they might not.

Sutch got to his feet. The chill seemed to have invaded his bones. He thought of Candice lying warm in bed and couldn’t wait to join her.

“What are you doing, you foolish old man?” he asked himself out loud as he thought of dragging his eighty year old body from that bed in a few hours time and hauling it across two hemispheres. Pursuing a dream? It seemed the unlikeliest of answers at this late hour.

The clock in the hallway struck eleven. To Edward Sutch it seemed suddenly that he had heard the chimes at midnight.

Mid October 1997

The old man struggled to breathe as he fought his way up the slope. In the oppressive humidity beneath the canopy of trees it would have been a tough climb for a younger man, never mind one in his condition.

He had not expected this, but perhaps should have foreseen it. In panic he glanced back and through an opening in the trees saw them disembarking from their boats far below. He was not scared of them and what they might do to him; it was too late for that, but he needed to find a sanctuary nonetheless; somewhere he could buy himself enough time to scribble a warning – add it to his journal – and hopefully where he could lie undisturbed until the note was found by its intended recipients. He had to find it soon. This was a race against time. After all, he was dying.

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The Scorpion Archipelago (Chapter 5)

CHAPTER FIVE

Winchester: August 29th 1997

“What?”

“Nothing; just smiling.”

“I can see that, but at what?”

“I don’t know. It doesn’t have a label.”

“Well then it can’t be worth knowing about.”

“How can you say that?”

“I label every tiny fragment of bone and pottery I find on my digs. Something must be truly worthless to have no label.” Her little smile was blotted out again by a frown of concentration as she turned her attention back to the amphora. As she leaned on the table and stretched her neck forwards the Professor noticed how the lines around it were pale compared with the sun-blasted brown of the rest of its still-graceful length. He could smell the patchouli-scented moisturiser with which she attempted to stave off the effects of years spent first at Alexandria University, then in the heat and dust of, amongst many other places, Giza and the Bahira Oasis. It was one of her few concessions to femininity. Make-up was for high days and holidays. With her short hair, jeans and checked shirts she might have been the son he never had, were it not for the softness of her blue eyes – a blessing from her mother and an oasis in themselves.

“You know, my dear,” said Sutch, “for someone who’s spent so much time underground you’ve caught the sun rather a lot. You should take more care.”

She didn’t look at him as she replied: “Just like you have, father?”

He rubbed his hand with a rasp across his weather-beaten face. “I have to give you that one I suppose, although in men it’s seen as character.”

“Besides, like life in general, it’s only at the end we go underground, remember?”

“What, even in Alexandria? The whole ancient city lies beneath the modern one. People are forever falling into it. What do you need to dig for?”

She shook her head and continued scrutinising the amphora, though her little smile told him she was pretending to ignore his wind-up. “Where did you say you got this?”

“From a market stall in Mogadishu. Well, I didn’t get it from there; that was where I first saw it. The merchant has sent it to me.” He took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. “Amazing really. Fort…a while back I spotted it. Now it arrives all boxed up, addressed to me at the RGS. The old merchant says he’s dying and he wants it to have a worthy home.”

Jane looked at him. “That is strange. You must have made quite an impression.”

Careful, you old fool, he chastised himself; when were you last in Mogadishu? He pointed to divert attention from himself. “What I assumed were simply designs, here, he insists are characters or runes from some ancient language. I’ve already had it carbon-dated and the data confirms it’s at least sixteen hundred years old.”

Jane’s mouth turned down as her eyebrows rose in semi-acknowledgement. “He could be right – about the characters. I’ve seen similar lettering in southern Mexico and Central America.” She didn’t see her father’s sharp little glance in her direction.

“That is interesting.” He paused, noting how his intonation sometimes matched hers, or was it vice versa. “I’d like you to do me a very big favour.” She looked at him. “Translate it. I’d be as much use as a…what do they say these days…chocolate fireguard? But we still need to work on it together – and in secret.” He tapped his nose for emphasis.

Her hand on his cheek was cool. “I’m sure you’d be of great assistance to me.” A pause. “Father?”

Sutch knew from her reaction that his excitement showed despite his best efforts. He had to let her in on part of the secret at least. “I can’t tell you much more for now, but it’s my belief that the text on this vessel contains information about tides and ocean currents, longitudinal and latitudinal readings.”

“Who told you that?”

“The old merchant.”

She put her hands on her hips, and then dropped them straight away, as if regretting that stereotypical female gesture of annoyance. “So he’s already translated it.”

“No, but what he knows about the provenance of…this piece leads him to that conclusion.”

Jane sat down on the edge of the desk with one of her bold, rather unfeminine movements. The amphora rocked in a gentle, but threatening way and the Professor reached for it in a panic. “Sorry father,” she said, seeing his distress. “I’ve spent too many years in macho company to be delicate; in too many hot, dusty places and male-dominated societies.”

Sutch puffed out his cheeks. “Yes, but I’d have thought moving around amongst the works of antiquity would have made you a tiny bit cautious. Anyway, back to the matter literally in hand,” he held up the amphora, “we need to work quickly.”

“Why the hurry? I thought this was an unexpected visitor in need of a home.”

“I have my reasons.”

She narrowed her eyes and gave a tight-lipped grin. “Hmmm, getting secretive in our old age. Okay, I’ll take it away tonight and…”

“No!”  She looked taken aback and he raised a hand in apology. “Pardon my abruptness.” He dropped the raised hand and patted her on the leg. “What are your plans for the next couple of days?”

“Well, I’m due back at the Fitzwilliam Museum tomorrow, but I can get back from Cambridge to here in perhaps three hours if I leave early. Then I have to attend the Supreme Council of Antiquities in Egypt, but not for another week.”

“Tell the Fitzwilliam you’re indisposed.”

“I’m never ill.”

“Time you were then. Come and stay with us for a couple of days.”

“Father?” she protested.

“It’s important.” He pointed to the amphora. “If this is what I believe it to be, you will be telling Dr. Hawass and the Council that you’re not going to be joining them for some time.”

She, too, pointed to the amphora. “I hope this jug here is easier to decipher than you. But look, I can’t just stay away from home for two days. Pete…”

“…can look after himself.” Again he knew his face gave him away as he felt the darkness fall. He glanced up to see Jane frowning at him, her pale eyes glinting.

“That’s something he can’t do.”

“Only because you don’t let him when you’re there. What are you trying to prove? I mean, what does he do when you’re not there?” The Professor had his own answers to that question, but that would be a step too far. “He’s big and ugly enough…”

“Father, don’t be like that.”

The Professor’s eyes widened and he opened his hands; knowing the gesture looked as unconvincing as it felt. “What? It’s just a turn of phrase.”

“That’s disingenuous of you.” She stood up, walked across to the old fashioned globe in the corner of her father’s study, which she gave a spin just on the frustrated side of angry.

Sutch watched her and, as ever, felt the keen regret. But she was proud, fierce, highly intelligent and found it difficult to accept that there was an element of her life where, just perhaps, she might have made a mistake, or indeed lost control. He sighed. “My darling Jane, if you will help me with this, believe it or not, you might be unlocking for me a door that I’ve longed to open for years.

She turned and frowned. “I don’t understand. You’ve never mentioned anything before. I thought you said you’d just received this.”

Sutch was thrown for an instant, but soon gathered his wits. “Janey, how often do our paths cross, where we can sit down and have a good old chat about our lives? And besides, believe me, if I were to tell you, now, the nature of this…” he hesitated, “…obsession of mine, you would consider me an old fool, though I was quite a bit younger when it first took hold of me.”

His head dropped slightly. She came and sat on his lap, no longer the world-renowned archaeologist, just his little girl. “That’s something I could never think.” She paused. “Look, I’ll clear it with Pete and come over for a couple of days.”

He smiled and put an arm around her. “And I’ll tell you what I’ll do. If you can help me with this, and if I, as a result, can unlock my door, I’ll invite you and Pete to dinner to examine what’s behind it.”

She put her arms around his neck and leaned back the better to look at him. “Deal.” A kiss on the cheek and she stood “All of which means that I must nip home to Hampstead to collect some things, and I’ll be with you tonight.” She was nearly at the door when she turned again. “Father, please don’t be so hard on Pete. He’s not a bad man. But as the other one in my life, I guess he feels he has a lot to measure up to.”

She blew him a kiss and was gone.

“None so blind,” muttered Sutch under his breath. If he had his way he would slam his open door in that wastrel’s face. His Janey would be better off for it. But somehow he knew that chancer would still barge his way through. He smelt trouble brewing, but for the moment there was nothing he could do.

****

Winchester:  September 21st 1997

Three weeks later, Edward Sutch leaned back in his chair and puffed out his cheeks. That promise of dinner still stood, having been an open invitation for nearly a month. But dear Candice was several steps nearer to receiving a shame-faced request to put on her apron, because thanks to that afternoon’s research three interlocking puzzle-pieces now sat on his desk.

He eyed them from left to right, laid out like an equation; the amphora, the piece of paper containing the fruits of the labours of several long evenings spent with his daughter, and the diary of Henry Black. None of them meant much on its own, but put them together and ‘x’ became less of a variable, even if it did not yet mark the spot.

So why was he delaying? Was it the final stand of a man of science; the pragmatist who didn’t believe in buried treasure? Strange for someone who had spent most of his life afloat on that great repository of sunken secrets, the ocean. Perhaps it was his fear that everything spread before him might add up to nothing, and his dream would fade. What had Tariq said; wondering was often better than knowing?

Or maybe he was just savouring this moment of fulfilment and everything that had led him here.

He picked up Jane’s work; the scent of her patchouli moisturiser was to those sheets of paper what the spices of the East had been to Tariq’s letter, so he could almost hear her voice:

“What? You’re not happy with it, are you?” He senses her bridling, but the frustration he knows must be showing on his face is not directed at her.

“No, no, no, Janey,” he protests, “on the contrary, you’ve done wonderfully to make any sense of it.”

She’s still unsure; irritated. “If it’s not good enough, perhaps you could have given me a bit more help, like you said you would.”

He pats her shoulder. “In the end, I left you alone on purpose; didn’t want to influence you, except for helping with the odd bit of technical jargon. Sometimes these things are clearer to an outsider.”

Her tone becomes milder. “Well actually, it makes no sense to me at all.”

“But it does to me,” he reassures her, “from a navigational point of view, allowing for a certain amount of superstitious clap-trap and deliberate obfuscation in the language.” He sits down next to her and points to the sheets of paper. “See here; this describes a technique that was in practice for more than a thousand years. Ancient sailors couldn’t read longitude, so most mariners of that time measured their journey from home against the stars using a knotted rope. All the distances are here.” He leans back and sighs, releasing his frustration cautiously. “Unfortunately for us it doesn’t tell us the starting point of the journey, which might have been any port in the southern hemisphere.” He assumes it was the main port of the still-mythical island kingdom. Even though he and Jane have taken an educated guess at the modern names of the stars and constellations, it has still left them with a lock they can’t pick.

Sutch had almost smashed the amphora in frustration on the night they finished their work together; he had so wanted to be able to share his secret with her as a reward, but then, some days later, in a moment of either genius or desperation, as if fate, in which of course he didn’t believe, had nudged him, he had remembered the writings – assumed to be ravings – of Captain Henry Black.

Plenty had been written about Black, not much of it agreeing with his own opinion of himself. From what Sutch could tell, he had been an adventurer, a mercenary and privateer like his great friends Sir Francis Drake and Sir Martin Frobisher, heroes of the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. He claimed to have taken part in that epic event, though there was no record of him, but given some of his acts of piracy on the high seas he may simply have wished to remain anonymous. Drake and Frobisher would have understood. Many of their deeds were given an undeserved gloss by Elizabethan historians and they had gone on to lead wealthy and esteemed lives. The same could not be said of Black, though what he did seem to have in common with them was his brilliance as a sailor, his command of the tides and the loyalty of his men.

Mad, or drunk, or both, he’d been jettisoned by Drake, who had abandoned him in Lisbon as a man might scrape shit from his shoe. Black had responded by leaving his post and plying his trade of piracy full-time. From time to time he would heave-to in some port, to replenish his supplies of drink and venereal diseases, the effects of both apparent in some of the writings in his bombastic journal; or at least that had always been the assumption of the cognoscenti. Black had considered his book enough of a contribution to posterity to have some copies made. The whereabouts of three of them were known, and Professor Sutch, a keen collector of rare maritime artefacts, was the proud, yet perhaps embarrassed owner of one, which he had pulled that evening from its hiding-place on one of the higher bookshelves in his study.

Like everyone else he had disregarded it as part fact, part fantasy, and had dismissed as the product of a fevered mind – until now – the chapter dealing with Black’s pursuit of a sleek, black trading ship that arrived laden with an undisclosed precious cargo at the port of Zanzibar. Sutch could have kicked himself from Winchester to the Barbary Coast now, for not having made the connection before between that ship and the ones he had heard described in tales during his own wanderings.

When Black described the eyes of the crew, Sutch had shivered in recognition:

“I am not easily unmanned and know not if the gesture still affords me protection after the life I have led, but I crossed myself, for young and old alike carried something ancient and, dare I say, eldritch within them that peered forth from the windows of their souls.”

More than anything else, it had been the look in Tariq’s eyes, benevolent though his features were, that had started to convince the Professor, perhaps only in his subconscious mind, of the truth of the old merchant’s story. Those eyes now took on a more sinister aspect in the dying light of a late September evening, as branches tapped bony fingers against the study window in a breeze that brought autumn’s rumour whispering by.

As a man who had seen the hold of a strange ship being filled to the gunnels with traded goods, Black had been unable to resist the urge to follow when it weighed anchor and left Zanzibar, setting out across the Indian Ocean.

Drunk or mad he may have been, but Black was an experienced mariner and he had still kept a detailed log of his ship’s course in his journal, alongside the pages of prose. It had become apparent to him, and to Sutch as he read the notes, that the course set by the other ship was designed to confuse. That the traders had spotted him pursuing them was beyond doubt.  

Having re-read the piece, the Professor removed his glasses, rubbed his eyes and at last made his shaky way across to his beloved collection of maps and atlases.

“Where are you? Where are you?” he mumbled to himself as he shoved documents and dusty tomes to one side. “Aha!”

He pulled down his favourite chart of the southern seas, brought it back to the desk and weighted down the corners with whatever other desktop objects were to hand.

So, if Henry Black’s journal was correct, there could be little doubt that the search would take place in the Indian and Southern Oceans. That much Sutch had always assumed, not only because of Tariq’s account, but also because all other seas were well enough charted – on the surface a least – to leave little room for hidden, island-based civilisations; no mare incognitum as such, though of course all seas deserved that title, with less than three per cent of the ocean floor explored. But south from Zanzibar still left a lot of sea to cover.

The link was the whirlpool, because it was mentioned right at the end of Jane’s translation. If he was right it marked a key reference point in the navigation records of the lost people, and a cunning one, because the great eddying mass of water was only there at certain times of the day, when particular currents converged. From that point, it was possible the islanders set varied courses to the ports at which they traded; perhaps these were etched onto other amphorae. But working backwards from the location of the whirlpool – using it as his starting point – he now believed he could find their kingdom.

“I can find your kingdom.”

He felt compelled to say the words out loud, to see whether the dream of glass shattered at the sound of them.

What had seemed, on first reading many years before, to be the fantasies of a syphilitic madman made sudden sense. Had those sailors, whether willing or commanded, sacrificed themselves rather than give up their secrets?

The thought made him break off from his chart for just a moment’s reflection. The water of life referred to by Tariq had to be a metaphor. Sutch couldn’t allow himself to believe that bedtime story. But what of the nameless threat that the fisherman and all his people had feared? Many ancient civilisations were known for the brutality of their religious practices. Perhaps the sailors that Black pursued had chosen the mercy of the sea instead of whatever awaited them at the hands of the shamans if they brought invaders in their wake. Indeed, it sounded as if one had been on board with them and he would have protected their secrets with all of their lives. In Sutch’s experience, if it was worth protecting with your life, then it was worth discovering.

And then it hit him. It – the lost land, the quest, the very idea of it – had already claimed his life, and if all that was left now was a lump of rock on the ocean bed it was worth finding, if only to claim back a part of his stolen years. To feel vindicated. To drink from his own amphora.

Sutch followed the readings from Black’s journal to the letter, or number. They zigzagged from Zanzibar across the oceans, as if the islanders’ vessel were tacking against a wind sent by the universe to defy them, and though it took Sutch almost an hour to plot the course, at last he reached the point where Black had abandoned his quest and turned back in the face of the mighty whirlpool. Now he took the instructions from Jane’s translation and, ancient though they were, plotted them on the map.

He sank down on his chair, open mouthed.

The Scorpion Archipelago!

He removed his glasses again, rubbed the heels of his palms into his eyes and stared into the pool of light that shone like a search lamp in the settling gloom of his study. It illuminated the new centre of his world.

“The Scorpion Archipelago!” he whispered in awe, moved once more to speak, as if his ageing body could not contain the excitement. Or perhaps he was trying once again to turn the dream of a myth into the reality of words. He bent close to the map, talking to the ghosts; waving his glasses and gesturing to his imaginary audience:

“Unbelievable, and yet now so plausible. A thousand miles from anywhere, never mapped by land-based cartography, only by satellite.”

He had seen those images from space once; they showed a curving line of islands just to the west of the Southeast Indian Ridge; granite mountains that fell away sharply as cliffs to the north, their southern slopes covered by thick forest and surrounded by deep, dark seas. Sutch looked into the distance for a moment and thought of Santorini, where the continental shelf fell away into an abrupt abyss as a result of volcanic activity, making the island one of the prime contenders for the location of Atlantis. Its coastal waters were black and cold, like those of the archipelago. Then, looking back at the chart, which bore the scribblings of many of his findings and theories he muttered:

“The waters in the latitude of the archipelago show high levels of plankton and the nutrients needed to sustain marine life, which might have made them suitable for fishing. Yes, yes; that much, at least, is consistent with the fisherman’s tale, and if part of the land has indeed fallen away like Santorini as a result of a cataclysmic earthquake or volcanic eruption, that could explain the aftermath of destruction he witnessed.”

In the midst of his excitement, a finger of doubt gave a light tap on the old man’s shoulder, but he pushed it away. Edward Sutch’s thoughts and words had distilled to a tiny point on a map, and he sat transfixed by that group of inconsequential islands, supposed uninhabitable and unattractive by modern man – till now. He could not be sure that they had never been visited, but knew of no reports or exploratory expeditions, and though it was not his specific field, as a member of the Royal Geographical Society for fifty years he believed he would have known. Of course there was always the chance that someone had indeed explored the archipelago, only to find there was nothing worth reporting. There was no comfort in that thought and he tried to close his mind to the possibility – a unique action that went against every tenet on which he had based his life as a scientist.

That tapping finger wouldn’t go away. What if this was a wild goose chase after all? What if there had been an undiscovered race of people, but every fibre of proof of their existence had been consumed by the sea or the earth’s crust?

He looked at the amphora for reassurance. Its solid clay, maybe the last remaining evidence of an island nation, stood solid and irrefutable on the desk. As swift as the cloud of panic had been to cross the sun, it blew away again. The warmth that followed was a peculiar sensation – alien to his substantive, academic mind, but perhaps a symptom of his ageing bones; it was faith. A smile crossed his lips and he pointed to the amphora, wagging his finger: “I knew there was something about you, from the moment I found you – or you found me. I knew you were more than you seemed. And that…” here he prodded the air with that same finger, “…is why this is meant to be. Mine might be just one of countless parallel worlds, and I found my way into yours – or vice versa. Even eighty is not too old to meet your destiny in an unexpected way.”

There was another tap, this time at the study door. He did not bother answering, knowing she would come in anyway. In fifty years they never had any secrets from each other. Well, that was not strictly true, of course. For forty of those fifty years there had been the little matter of the amphora, but hadn’t the act of hiding that from Candice really been about refusing to believe in ghosts; the same ones which had comprised his audience just now?

She wore a slight frown as she looked around the room. “Are you okay?”

“Yes my darling,” he said with a little grin. “You should be used to me talking to myself by now.” He motioned for her to come nearer, knowing that a woman’s curiosity is a part of her beauty which will neither wither nor fade. She crossed the room, her hips imparting, as ever, that graceful sway to her long skirt, and he placed his welcoming arm around her waist. She knew – and he knew that she knew – that his study was his sanctuary and he never entertained outsiders there. With his free hand he gestured palm upward towards the artefacts on the desk. “I do believe I have solved something.”

She pursed her lips. “I thought I recognised that gleefulness in your eye. I hope this doesn’t mean…”

“…that I will rush off on some hair-brained quest? Oh, Candice, you know me.”

“Mmmm.” Her lips were still pursed, but ironic humour lit her eyes. Then she took his face in her hands and kissed it. “Were our Jane’s efforts of any use to you, whatever it was you had her doing?”

“Absolutely.”

Candice looked at the objects spread before her. Sutch watched her crane her neck. The profile was clearly from the same gene pool, but the movement was imbued with more elegance than Jane’s when she had first seen the amphora. Candice was a throwback, a woman made for needlepoint and gentle pursuits. Not for her the ruddy complexion of a life spent outdoors in hot climes; seventy-five English summers spent beneath wide-brimmed sunhats had nurtured the bloom on her cheek, and only the whiteness of her shoulder-length hair suggested that quite so many summers had indeed passed. She had shared Sutch’s hopes and enthusiasm, but not the miles he had chosen to travel through his work, yet he loved her all the more for the absences. Seeing traces of her in his daughter some weeks before had brought thex smile to his face and did so again now.

With a knowing look she turned to him. “And what now?”

He pondered, biting his bottom lip, and then a light shone in his eyes. “I have a plane to catch and then dinner to organise.

She didn’t ask. Sometimes it was better not to.

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