Over the Scorpion Archipelago, November 5th, late p.m.
When Dirk bellowed his instructions about the parachutes down the plane, revealing the determination of the judge to pass sentence, Pete decided to weigh up his options. It appeared to be a rather lob-sided set of scales. The two heavies stepped forward to enforce the instructions. One of them made a point of discouraging any resistance by pulling back his jacket to reveal a Walther PPK. At the same time, Jim turned away to protect his troubled conscience, which made it obvious that they weren’t bluffing. Pete wasn’t used to the taste of fear so, at first, did not recognise the metallic tang in the back of his throat for what it was. They were going to be forced out of this plane. The bastards didn’t even have the guts to face up to what they were doing. Just a quick push, and somewhere down below two people would be left with a catch-22 situation involving living or dying. At least he had had the guts to enforce his own vengeance, and the devil took the hindmost.
Pete started to slip on the parachute, whereas Catalina sat frozen in hers, having made her last play. She looked terrified, so he could not help but admire the strength she had found to display and voice her fatalistic defiance. When she had taken the ‘chute from him she looked at him and something had passed between, but he couldn’t define it. It might have been a vestige of their old feelings for each other, but whatever it was, it had flitted away.
Now Pete’s arm became entangled in the ‘chute. He swore and tried to free it. One of the heavies went to draw his pistol. Pete had just known they would resort to weapons; they were the sort of muscle-bound numb-nuts who would rely on intimidation rather than any agility; who could bench-press three-fifty in the gym – a figure about ten times higher than their IQ. It was why he knew he could kill them if opportunity presented itself, which it had the moment Jim turned his back.
The first one came forward impatiently, still reaching for his gun, maybe with the intention of breaking Pete’s arm with it as he forced it into the harness. He had been so easy to lure in, and the chop to his Adam’s apple left him silent and choking on the floor. The time needed by the second gorilla to process this information was more than enough for Pete to knock him out too, with a taekwondo kick to the temple.
Now he had to act fast. He opened the door, grabbed the man who was still struggling to breathe and, with the roar of the outside world drowning the noise, dragged him to the door and pitched him out. The other unconscious man soon followed, once Pete had helped himself to his gun. He glanced at the cockpit – they were still facing front, protecting their finer feelings and waiting for the dirty work to be finished. He knew they would not expect the door to be open for long.
Catalina, whose nerves were stretched to snapping point, had screamed as each of the heavies took their impromptu sky-dive. Pete signalled for her to come forward, putting a finger to his lips and gesturing towards the cockpit. The comforting arm he placed around her shoulders coiled with the sudden swiftness of an anaconda, constricting her cries. He could have killed her, perhaps should have done for her disloyalty, but hell, she had been wonderful in the sack. With the speed and dexterity of someone quite used to operating in extreme conditions, he hooked her parachute to the static line. His lips pressed against her thick black hair, the scent of which still inveigled in his loins. He kissed her head. “I’m sorry.” She tried to twist round to look at him, but he resisted, not wanting to see into her eyes. Who’s salving their conscience now, Pete old boy? As he threw her from the plane, it was about as emphatic as the ending of a relationship can be. He could see her ‘chute was heading straight for the island. It seemed a suitable wild kingdom for that tempestuous princess.
Though she might not yet have been a lost soul, but there was something horrible and symbolic about her descent towards Hell; a slow drift down to the scene of her crimes, to a place devoid of humanity, peopled only by the souls of those she had killed and the memories of the sins she had committed; in possession of just enough remnants of her sanity for her to suffer. No amount of returning to nature in the vast wilderness of the Outback could have prepared her for the ordeal ahead. And her mind was not yet strong enough to withstand everything to which it had been subjected.
Then Pete shut the door and turned his attention to the cockpit. He had spent more than enough time in the company of Death. Although he could fly the plane himself, if he could avoid any more killing, he would.
Unbeknown to Catalina, she was echoing Pete’s thoughts – would she have the strength to let herself die? She doubted it, and hoped that her mind would prove fragile, granting her the release of oblivion.
The ground drew nearer.
Oh God, oh God, what was she going to do? Would she be forever cursed with hope, burdened by the will to survive; the same will that prevented her from just shrugging off her parachute and falling to her death. Except what if she didn’t die, but suffered some awful injury?
Was this thought the trigger for her screams, or had she been screaming from the moment she was thrown from the plane, discarded by the very man, the pursuit of whom had brought her to this terrible, desolate harbour, where she was doomed to wait for a ship that would never come?
The survival instinct had already taken over. She had jumped with a parachute before and used those skills now to bring herself down in the bay where she had taken her first real steps towards damnation.
However, it was still more luck than judgement that she landed in the surf just a skimmed stone away from the abandoned camp. She stood shivering, and then turned to watch the Cessna disappear with teasing slowness – she wondered whether this was additional torture and they would circle back – against a blue sky inappropriate to mood and circumstances. Again she cursed hope, knowing that it would be sometime before she would stop looking to the horizon. But she had killed – not once, but twice. Irrespective of the powers of magic, she had broken the laws of the universe they all knew, which had broken again to defy her; reverse what she had done. Besides, it was Pete who had thrown her from the plane. He would kill the others, pitch them into the sea and fly to freedom. It would take more than wishful thinking to save her now; he wasn’t coming back.
She wiped salt water from her face, uncertain where tears ended and sea began. At last she turned and, looking like a drenched crane-fly, dragged her parachute out of the waves; she would need it to make some sort of tent. The last thing she wanted was to shelter within the ruins in the dead forest. She would set up camp here on the beach, light a fire, try to take some comfort from it and hope that she might be seen.
The curse of hope.
She shuffled through the remains of the camp, remembering how she had disturbed certain things at…his instructions. A motley selection of items remained – Dirk must have retrieved most of it when he rescued the Professor – but it was a reflection of how far her world had shrunk that she was almost overjoyed to find a sleeping bag, a stove, most of the tinned food, matches. As she moved near the ashes of the camp fire, she thought the sea breeze carried with it some faint warmth and, putting her hands above the ashes, she could tell the fire had not been standing untended for long. Something tickled the back of her neck; perhaps the tip of a dagger of fear and suspicion.
She turned and saw him standing in the shade at the edge of the trees; His Grey Majesty, frightening to behold. He lifted an arm towards her, as he had done on the water when they had sunk his boat, and she felt the soft, irresistible touch of darkness against her cheek. Then he said something. The words did not pour into her ears, like the honeyed deceptions of a seducing devil; rather they were guttural, as if the very act of uttering them must have raked his throat. But his meaning was all too clear, as was the primal gleam in his eyes.
Catalina’s last screams as a sane woman issued now from her, followed by her first as the deranged queen of a lost kingdom.
He had felt his fading strength building again the nearer he had come to his ancient prize, but then they had used their weapons of the future to sink his boat. For a few moments it had seemed he might still make it, but they had departed in their strange boat and, losing hope and strength, down into the water he had sunk. Above him on the surface he saw them leaving for their world.
But Kaz’khar had forgotten how to die, and long-buried instincts drove him to the surface again, where he headed for the nearest shore, dragging himself through the waves. Without the gift he was doomed, and dreaded the avenging pains of two thousand years. The longer you lived beneath the wing of eternity, the higher you rose with it, but the fall would be deep and fearful.
And that was when he had seen the old man, the elder of these people who had overcome his ancient might. As the old man had drawn near Kaz’khar could tell that he, too, had the gift surging through his veins, and there was no mistaking it in the power of the hand that extended towards him. And the scent of the water was in the air. Kaz’khar had stared into the trees for its source; for his salvation. As if he had understood, the elder had gestured for him to follow and the scent had grown stronger; the ancient scent of memory, the memory of the life that was in the water.
And the old man had shared his gift, allowing Kaz’khar to slake a thirst that could never be denied except at the very end of all things. Strength had come to him again, but different from before. It had been strange and wondrous to feel how the water responded to the manner in which it was given. In centuries gone by, it had been a means of holding a civilisation captive, but that had meant the priesthood became a slave to it too, and to their way of life. Time had passed them by. Here, it was given as a beneficence, and marked a fresh start.
This was marked by the onset of an emotion for which the priest had no name, or at least had long forgotten. It flickered as the old man heard the distant sound of the metal bird, the flying ship, and ran down to the water’s edge in time to see his people – for it was them – and with them his only hope of rescue, disappear into the distant sky. The night-time that held sway in Kaz’khar’s soul and earned him the epithet of `Ak’ubal had given way for a moment to the glimmering of a feeble dawn. As one who had known the curse of isolation for longer than recorded history, he recognised the old man’s despair, though he could no longer feel it.
The days that followed had opened the high priest’s eyes, which had grown accustomed only to the darkness of his kingdom, his thoughts and his deeds. It was not just the wonders of the new age – strange metal eggs containing food; meat with a thin, tough skin you could see through but had to cut away; fire that came from nothing – but also those of antiquity and eternity – stars; air; the ancient need to communicate; the smell of cooked meat. That and the burial of the old man’s concubine had moved him enough to spare the invader’s life. He gave a life where it was given.
Then, two moons later, the metal bird had returned and he could tell by the gesture that the old man – a strange term from one who was ancient beyond his own recall – was inviting him to step forward into this new time. But it would have been a step too far for all concerned – Kaz’khar and the world – so he had made a gesture of his own. He had swept his arm towards the sea and sky, towards the forest that contained the pool of life, all the things that he had rediscovered; his new found kingdom. And the old man had nodded; he understood. He had signalled that Kaz’khar should retreat to the forest. There would be too much to explain. Through the trees he had seen a man come ashore in a boat, reclaiming the camp and his leader. When they had gone, Kaz’khar had re-emerged, carrying in his powerful arms the things the old man had insisted on leaving; the egg-food, meat, fire, the strange blanket like a warm shell. He had made it clear he did not want the tent. Kaz’khar would never again sleep without the sky above his head.
He had watched the bird disappear, his heart both heavy and alive…
…and it reappeared two moons later. He hid in the trees and watched in amazement as something floated down. Not something; someone. Could it be? Whatever gods he had once worshipped were to be thanked. It was a woman.
And what a specimen, with her black hair and olive skin! He observed her as she wandered into his camp. Surely this was a gift from the old man; a queen fit for Kaz’khar, High Priest. A woman able to bear a new line as he had pronounced just days before. Despite her strange garb, he saw the beauty of her voluptuous body. And it was just as it had been when he had first defied the gods and taken the gift that was not his to take, become as powerful in knowledge, as eternal as them and been forced to flee. Here was his Eve, and she would bear men who would be gods. He felt the gift flowing – his body being aroused as it had not been in millennia. He stepped forward, saw the terror in her eyes – which was as it should be – and said: “Welcome – I have been waiting.”