Chapter 10: The Wreckage of the Armstrong
The sun burned away the silver morning
mists. Jack steered the rover north, along the top of a ridge that paralleled the
looming mass of the cliffs — they hoped the extra height would enhance their
scans. Tall statues and pillars of Egyptian design, ancient and weathered, lined
the ridge. A few had tumbled and broken, but many remained erect, the last
sentries of a lost civilization. Thick, leafy vines with white and red flowers twisted
and climbed most of the columns that still stood. On their right, the rapids of
a wide and churning river ran between the ridge and the impassable wall of cliffs.
Kim sat next to Jack in the passenger’s seat and watched them with wide eyes as they passed. The flowers looked sickly, like cut blossoms already starting to wilt and rot.
“Maybe those are, like, signposts?” Jack suggested.
“If they are, I can’t read them,” said Kim.
“Maybe there’s, like a city nearby. Or something.”
“Maybe there was,” Kim said doubtfully. “A long time ago.”
“What’d’ya think happened to all the people?”
Kim didn’t answer, but she didn’t have to. Jack knew they were both thinking the same thing. They were thinking about the dusty, centuries-dead skeletons they’d found in the pyramid.
On their left, the jungle gave way to shore of moss-covered stone and a vast lake of sparkling blue-green that stretched as far as they could see, even with their elevated view from the top of the ridge. Near the shore, a pair of great beasts with long, serpent like necks watched them pass, then turned back to munching greenery from tender branches that stretched out over the water. Something in their faces reminded Jack of giant turtles.
“Abydosaurus,” Kim said. Jack nodded.
The sensor dish on the rover’s hood turned twice, and then settled back into its forward position. “Calibrating again?” he asked Dominic. He made an effort to keep his voice light and civil. That seemed like the right thing to do. For Kim’s sake, anyway. If nothing else, the mission came first. That, and staying alive. Yeah, staying alive was pretty important, too.
Dominic let out a heavy breath and shook his head. “I’ve gone over every scan a thousand times, hoping I’ll find something I missed….”
“But no way through,” Jack guessed.
“Bloody nothing,” said Dominic. The frustration was plain in his voice. Jack shrugged. That was something, anyway.
“We’re getting farther from the nexus,” said Kim.
Jack looked down at his countdown clock: Four days, six hours, twenty-two minutes. The seconds were bleeding fast.
“We have to get to that nexus,” said Dominic. “We can’t lose another day.”
“I’m wide open to suggestions,” said Jack.
The ridge was narrower. Jack coaxed more speed from the rover.
# # #
Near the shores of the lake, a pair of Skareiki warriors watched the strange object pass. When it was out of sight, one of the warriors began to drum, a deliberate and careful pattern of sound. The drummer paused for a moment, and then repeated the pattern.
In the distance, another Skareiki warrior listened, waited, and repeated the pattern on her own drum.
Moments later, a third warrior heard, and relayed the signal.
The sun was past its zenith when, at last, the thumping signal reached a cluster of Skareiki warriors gathered around the twisted, smoldering metal wreckage that had fallen from the sky. Only one of the warriors was mounted, the leader, General Skarnarak. The wind whipped his cloak of imperial crimson and his beast roared. General Skarnarak removed his ornate bronze helmet and crooked his head to listen to the sounds of the distant drums.
General Skarnarak turned his gaze to his aide, Grashsnarragh. Together, they listened as the drummed message began to repeat.
# # #
Inside the wreckage, two Skareiki explored. The taller was Sharrganaugh, the scout who had first spotted the treasure from the sky. The smaller and stockier scout, Hurangsharrk, regarded the ruined metal with unmasked awe. Such wealth! Sharrganaugh remained focused. Sharrganaugh and Hurangsharrk had watched the human creatures through their telescopes. They’d seen them unleash fire, unimaginable power. Somewhere, the wreckage hid the secret to that mighty inferno. They were determined to find it. They moved slowly, carefully, and deliberately.
Sharrganaugh pointed to the bewildering array beneath the great forward window and spoke in a harsh, reptilian tongue — hisses, growls, and chirps. “You saw the human creature. Can you duplicate the its motions?”
Hurangsharrk ran his hands over a panel of glass and some strange, smooth material Sharrganaugh couldn’t recognize. The panel was covered with bumps and shapes, some of which gave way when Hurangsharrk touched them. Hurangsharrk touched another shape, a bright red one.
A high-pitched wail exploded from the panel. Hurangsharrk and Sharrganaugh leapt back, eyes wide and fangs bared. Lights covered the panel, bright and flashing, as though the strange material had captured stars.
Slowly, cautiously, Hurangsharrk crept back to the panel. He reached forward, but his clawed hands were awkward. He touched the strange material cautious, expecting the lights to be hot. They weren’t. “The creature moved like this,” said Hurangsharrk.
His claws pounded the strange panel.
He tried to move as he’d seen the human move, but the lights were bewildering. He touched more dents, bumps, and shapes. Still nothing. His hands crept closer to a single, red control, flashing, larger than the others. He touched it.
A voice came from the ruined panel, and Hurangsharrk and Sharrganaugh leapt back again.
The voice was soft, strange, alien. It spoke steadily, almost rhythmically.
It sounded like one of the human creatures.
Sharrganaugh had not learned any speech from the few humans his people captured alive. But he would have sworn that the slow, rhythmic speech was counting something.
# # #
Outside, General Skarnarak nodded once as the drumming stopped.
“The strange humans in their metal beast are still on the ridge,” said Grashsnarragh. “They’ve stopped again for the night. They are not moving with great speed.”
General Skarnarak nodded again. “They’re heading for the Fallen City. I do not want them to reach it.”
Grashsnarragh bowed. “As you command, General.” He began to drum, relaying the order back.
Before he finished, a great boom tore the night — a sound like a thousand thunderclaps, close, all at once.
The general turned and saw — the wreckage was breathing fire, just as Sharrganaugh had reported. Inside the wreckage, he could see his warriors scrambling frantically. General Skarnarak watched with great interest. Such unimaginable power! After a long moment the wreckage fell quiet. The fire ceased. In the distance behind the metal ruin, trees burned.
A slow smile curled the general’s mouth. He turned to Grashsnarragh.
“Find out if he can do that again.”
# # #
Dominic had to steer the rover carefully. The top of the ridge narrowed, and the way was rocky and uneven. The sheer wall of cliffs still stretched as far as eye could see or instrument could measure. They were far of course; there was no way the Collins could find them — or even know they were still alive. They were getting farther from the nexus by the minute. He glanced down to check his monitors, still scanning silently and desperately for a way through.
He passed another pair of the Egyptianesque columns, both draped with a wild tangle of flowering vines. One of the columns had fallen and shattered, but the other still stood in proud defiance of aeons and elements. Dominic snapped a recording, but he didn’t bother to alert Kim. God knows she needed the sleep.
Dominic glanced down at the scan. He couldn’t read most of the weathered hieroglyphs — even Kim knew only a few — but he recognized one set they’d seen in the pyramid. Those were symbols for the Sons of Sobek — the unknown danger they hadn’t encountered yet — whatever the bloody hell they were.
The ones with the flashing weapons.
The … something the people in the tomb had decided to die rather than face. Lovely.
Dominic stole another fast glance at the scan. Here, the symbols hadn’t been carved in haste. So perhaps the long dead people had encountered the danger before they’d taken their last, hopeless stand in the tomb. For a time at least, they had resisted. Perhaps. It seemed as good a guess as any.
So what in the name of all the blazing hells happened to them? What changed?
Dominic pressed his lower lips together as he considered. Was the ancient pillar a signpost? A description? A warning?
He found himself hoping Kim had misread the ancient script. That was certainly possible. Well, unlikely, knowing Kim, but possible. There was a first time for everything.
The ridge was rockier. Dominic didn’t slow. They were running out of time.
A mist had risen off the lake to their left, and fingers of sunlight reached through the clouds and turned it to gold. It was shockingly beautiful, even if it made visibility poorer. A cluster of insects, blazing emerald green and deep, crimson red, darted in front of the windshield like a storm of shooting stars. More of the vines grew along the edge of the ridge, with their cup-like flowers of red and white larger than dinner plates, and something deep inside him, something that had slept far too long, leapt at the still and heart-wrenching glory.
For one moment, Dominic almost felt that maybe, if they never found a way through to the nexus, staying here on Eden, with all its lush splendor, wouldn’t be so bad after all.
But no, no.
The beauty was diseased. Kim had brought in one of the flowers as a specimen to study. It seemed lovely at first, until they saw widening, withering brown and black spots of blight behind the petals, spots that oozed some thick, pusy yellow-white fluid. The flower had smelled … sweet, but sickly, like a woman who wears rose perfume instead of bathing. They’d been careful not to touch the fluid.
There was a plague in paradise.
Anna, though, Anna was a healer. If Anna was here, maybe they could—
Anna wasn’t here. And even if she was here, they wouldn’t be together. Not even on Eden. That possibility was diseased, too. Jack, in his spite, had poisoned it. Jack had—
Dominic didn’t finish the thought.
The ridge ahead went suddenly dark. Dominic slammed the rover’s brakes, raising a great cloud of dust — and looked up in time to see a giant scaled and clawed foot slamming down in front of them.