Day Three.


Substance Z

Wednesday, August 22, 6:03 A.M.


Andean Mountains, Peru

Sam studied the dagger’s gold blade in the feeble light cast by the single flashlight. He had the last guard shift of the night. The others lay sprawled behind him, curled on the flat rock of the cavern floor, pillows made from rumpled shirts and packs. Ralph snored softly, but at least the big man was sleeping. Earlier, Sam had been unable to drowse, except for a brief catnap fraught with terrifying images of falling rocks and unseen monsters. He had been relieved when Norman had nudged him to take his shift.

Sam raised his eyes from the dagger and glanced about the cavern. All around him, silver eyes studied Sam from the dozens of carved pillars, creatures that were half-human, half-animal. Incan gods and spirits. Nearby, the golden path reflected the meager light, a bright vein in the dark rock. Sam imagined the generations of Incan Indians that must have walked this trail. The footpath continued along the river’s bank deeper into the series of caves, and Sam longed to follow it. But the consensus of the group was to make camp there, near a water source and the fissure opening, and await rescue. Exploration could come later.

Glancing at his watch, Sam suspected the sun was just now rising above the Andean mountains. Down there, however, the blackness seemed to grow deeper and more endless. Time lost all meaning; it stretched toward eternity.

Though Sam tried to ignore his hunger, his stomach growled loudly. How long had it been since any of them had anything to eat? Still, he shouldn’t complain. At least, with the stream, they had water.

He just needed to keep himself distracted.

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Sam fingered the blade of the dagger, pondering the mystery of its mechanism. How had yesterday’s transformation occurred? He couldn’t even fathom the trigger that unfolded the dagger into a jagged lightning bolt. It had done so with such smoothness and lack of mechanical friction, appearing to melt into the new form. The trick was too damned convincing. How intricate was the technology developed here? Friar de Almagro’s warning of the Serpent of Eden suggested a source of forbidden knowledge, a font of wisdom that could corrupt mankind. Was this an example of it?

A cough drew his attention. Barefoot, Maggie sidled toward him. Even disheveled, she was striking. Covered only by a thin blouse, buttoned loosely, her breasts moved under the fabric. Sam’s mouth grew dry. He dropped his eyes before he embarrassed himself, but his gaze only discovered the soft curves of waist and leg.

“You must quit fondling that thing, Sam,” she said quietly. “People are goin’ to start talking.”

“What?” Sam asked, shocked, glancing up at her.

Maggie offered him a tired smile and nodded toward the dagger.

“Oh…” He tucked it away. “So… so you couldn’t sleep?”

She shrugged, sitting beside him. “Rock doesn’t make such a great mattress.”

Sam nodded, allowing her this tiny falsehood. He suspected her restlessness was the same as his: bone-deep worries and the omnipresent press of the darkness around them. “We’re going to get out of here,” he said plainly.

“By trusting in good ol’ Philip Sykes?” she said, rolling her eyes.

“He’s an ass, but he’ll pull us through.”

She stared up at a neighboring pillar and was silent. After a time, she spoke, “Sam, I wanted to thank you again for coming out on the tiles when I had that last… that last seizure.”

He began to protest that no such thanks were needed.

She stopped him with a touch to his hand. “But I need you to know something… I think I owe you that.”

He turned to face her more fully. “What?”

“I am not truly epileptic,” she said softly.

Sam scrunched his face. “What do you mean?”

“The psychologists diagnosed it as post-traumatic stress syndrome, a severe form of panic attack. When tension reaches a certain level”—Maggie waved a hand in the air—“my body rebels. It sends my mind spinning away.”

“I don’t understand. Isn’t that a war-trauma thing?”

“Not always… besides there are many forms of war.”

Sam didn’t want to press her any further, but his heart would not let him stay silent. “What happened?”

She studied Sam for a long breath, her eyes judging him, weighing his sincerity. Finally, she glanced away, her voice dull. “When I was twelve years old, I saw a schoolyard friend, Patrick Dugan, shot by a stray bullet from an IRA sniper. He collapsed in my arms as I hid in a roadside ditch.”

“God, how awful…”

“Bullets kept flying. Men and women were screamin’, cryin’. I didn’t know what to do. So I hid under Patrick’s body.” Maggie began to tremble as she continued the story. “His… his blood soaked over me. It was hot, like warm syrup. The smell of a slaughterhouse…”

Sam slid closer to Maggie, pulling her to him. “You don’t have to do this…”

She did not withdraw from him but neither did she respond to his touch. She gazed without blinking toward the darkness, lost in a familiar nightmare. “But Patrick was still alive. As I hid under him, he moaned, too low for others to hear. He begged me to help him. He cried for his mama. But I just hid there, using his body as a shield, his blood soaking through my clothes.” She turned to Sam, her voice catching. “It was warm, safe. Nothin’ could make me move from my hiding place. God forgive me, I forced my ears not to hear Patrick’s moans for help.” A sob escaped her throat.

“Maggie, you were only a child.”

“I could have done something.”

“And you could’ve been killed just as well. What good would that have done Patrick Dugan?”

“I’ll never know,” she said with the heat of self-loathing tears on her cheek. She struggled away from Sam’s arm and turned angry, hurt eyes toward him. “Will I?”

Sam had no answer. “I’m sorry,” he offered feebly.

She wiped brusquely at her face. “Ever since then, the goddamn attacks occur. Years of pills and therapy did nothing. So I stopped them all.” She swallowed hard. “It’s my problem, something I must live with… alone. It’s my burden.”

And your self-imposed punishment for Patrick’s death, Sam thought, but he kept silent. Who was he to judge? Images of his parents’ crumpled forms being yanked like sides of beef from the smashed car while he sat strapped in the backseat, watching it all, tumbled through his mind. Survivor’s guilt. It was a feeling with which he was well acquainted. He still often woke with his bedsheets clinging to his damp skin, cold sweat soaking his body.

Maggie’s next words drew him back to the black cavern. “In the future, Sam, don’t risk yourself for me. Okay?”

“I… I can’t promise that.”

She stared angrily at him, tears brightening her eyes.


They were interrupted by the appearance of Norman. “Sorry, folks, but I must talk to a man about a horse,” the photographer grumbled, hair sticking up in all directions. He crossed over the gold path and headed for a nearby boulder, seemingly oblivious to the tension between the pair.

Sam turned to Maggie, but she would not meet his eyes. She pushed to her feet. “Just… just don’t risk your life…” As she stepped away, Sam heard her mumble something else. The words had been meant only for herself but the cavern acoustics carried the words to him. “I don’t want another death on my hands.”

Leaning forward, ready to follow and console her, Sam paused, then relaxed back down to his seat. There was nothing he could say. He himself had heard all the platitudes before, after his parents had died. Don’t blame yourself. There was nothing you could do. Accidents happen. No words had helped him then either. But at least Sam had had his Uncle Henry. Having just lost his own wife, Uncle Hank had seemed to sense that some things had to be faced alone, worked out in silence, rather than probed and prodded for an answer. It was this silence more than grief that had bound nephew to uncle, like two raw-edged wounds healing and scarring together.

Sam watched Maggie walk away, shoulders slumped. She had been right. It was her burden. Still, Sam could not suppress the urge to rush over to her, to take her in his arms and protect her.

Before he could act, a shriek drew him around. He flew to his feet, pulling out the dagger. He stepped to where his grandfather’s Winchester leaned against a rock.

Norman came running around the boulder’s edge, zipping up his fly, and glancing in panic behind him.

“What’s wrong?” Sam asked as Norman stumbled to his side.

The photographer could not catch his breath for a moment. One arm kept gesturing back at the boulder as he gasped and choked. “B… Behind…”

Ralph drew beside them, bleary from his sudden awakening. He rubbed sleep from his eyes, Gil’s lever-action rifle held in his other hand. “Goddammit, Norman. You scream like a girl.”

Norman ignored Ralph’s jibe, too panicked to care. “I… I thought they were just… just patches of lichen or spots of lighter rock. But something moved out there!”

“Who? What are you talking about?” Sam asked.

Norman shuddered, then finally seemed to collect himself. He waved them all back toward the boulder. By then, Maggie and Denal hovered a few steps away. “I’m not sure.” He led them back, but this time stayed well away from the rock and whatever lurked behind it.

Sam remained at the photographer’s side. The dark stone on the far side of the rock lay in shadows. Streaks of quartz or white gypsum ran in streams up the nearby cavern wall. “I don’t see anything.”

Norman reached a hand back toward the others. “Gimme one of the lights.”

Denal moved up and passed the second flashlight to the photographer. Norman clicked it on; light speared the inky gloom.

Sam twitched back in shock. It was not veins of quartz or gypsum that ran down the walls. These pale streaks flowed, streaming down the walls to pool at its foot. Even now, rivulets started spreading across the floor toward the gathered party. Sam shifted his own lantern. “Spiders…” Each was as pale as the belly of a slug and had to be a hand-spread wide. There had to be hundreds… no thousands of them.

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