Joan and Dale moved closer.
“Did you do that?” Dale asked.
Henry glanced at the man as if he were mad. He pointed to its sealed stopper. “Are you kidding?”
As they all watched, the cross seemed to lose some of its detail. The edges became less sharp, and the figure slid from the cross to pool at the bottom of the beaker. Still, the cross itself persisted in its general shape.
Henry tried to explain, “I was just thinking about it when—”
A sharp chime rang from nearby, loud in the small room.
They all turned to see the monitors waver, then blink into greyscale images.
“Maybe we’re one step closer to an answer,” Dale announced tacitly. He stepped back toward the bank of monitors.
Henry and Joan followed. Their eyes met briefly. Henry could see the consternation and something that looked like fear in her eyes. Before he knew what he was doing, he reached out and gave her hand a quick reassuring squeeze. She acknowledged the gesture by moving a few inches closer to Henry’s side.
With a final worried glance toward the cross in the jar, Henry joined the others at the monitors.
Dale stood bent over the keyboard, one finger tracing along the screen. Upon the monitor was an unearthly landscape, a rough terrain of oddly shaped peaks and valleys, as if someone had taken a black-and-white photo of the surface of Mars. “This is impossible,” Dale said. He pointed to a section of screen that magnified a corner of the landscape. “Look. The metal is actually an aggregation of tiny particles. See how they’re latched and interlinked.”
On the screen, the cross-sectional view revealed tiny octagonal structures hooked to one another by six articulated legs. Each miniscule structure was joined to its surrounding neighbors in a dense tetrahedral pattern.
Joan reached to touch one of the grey particles displayed on the monitor. “They appear almost organic, like viral phages, or something.”
The metallurgist grumbled, one hand indicating the general landscape across the rest of the screens. “No, definitely not viral. From the fracturing and internal matrix, the substance is distinctly inorganic. I’d almost say crystalline in structure.”
“Then what the hell is it?” Henry finally asked, growing irritated with the man. “Metal, crystal, viral, vegetable, mineral?”
Kirkpatrick’s gaze flicked toward the cross in the beaker, then he shook his head. “I don’t know. But if I had to guess, I’d pick all of the above.”
From the edge of the communication tent, Philip Sykes watched the sun begin to sink toward the mountains. This was the second day of his vigil by the collapsed ruins. What once had been a jungle-shrouded hill that hid the buried temple was now a cratered and broken ruin. Edges of toppled granite boulders and slabs from the temple jutted from the churned dark soil like exposed broken teeth.
If Philip had not gotten that call from Sam, informing him of the students’ discovery of a natural cavern system, he would have thought them all dead. For the past half day, the mound no longer shifted or sagged. The noise from grinding rocks no longer groaned up from the earth. The dig site lay as silent as a grave. The temple had collapsed fully.
But Sam had called.
Philip clenched a fist. A part of him wished the arrogant Texan hadn’t. It would have been easier to call them all dead; then Philip would be free to abandon the site, leave these cursed Indians to their black jungle. Every hour that Philip remained there he risked an attack from Guillermo Sala. Philip clutched his arms around himself as a chill breeze blew down from the mountaintop. Who would get there first—the rescue party called in by the pair of Indians or Gil’s henchmen returning to finish their work?
The tension ground at Philip’s nerves. “If only I could leave…” But he knew he couldn’t, not before the rescue tunnel was completed. Philip stared toward the jungle’s edge.
Nearby, the calls and low singing from the Quechan workers echoed up from the obscured work site on the far side of the mound. The looters’ tunnel had been excavated a full fifteen yards that day. Though the Indians still shot him dark looks and muttered sharp words, Philip could not fault their hard work. The crew had split into three shifts and dug with pickax and shovel all night long and into the day.
It was even possible that Philip’s estimation of two days to dig the others free might not turn out to be too far off the mark.
But would that be soon enough?
A sudden commotion rose from farther back in the jungle, where a few of the Indians were taking a break in the shade of the trees. Philip stood straighter, as if an extra inch of height would pierce the shadows of the forest. He held his breath.
An Indian, one of the workers, burst from the tree line. He waved an arm at Philip in the universal gesture to come. Philip refused to move; he even took a step back. As he hesitated, the Indians’ voices grew more distinct as other workers gathered beyond the forest’s edge. From the happy and relieved noises, Philip gathered that whatever new discovery had been made must not be a threat.
Philip girded himself with a firm breath, then stomped down from the height of the campsite toward the forest. Even the short exertion of crossing the clearing soon had Philip sucking for breath through his teeth. Tension and exhaustion had weakened his ability to handle the thin air. A seed of a headache bloomed behind his right temple by the time he neared the forest’s edge.
Before he reached the eaves, a flow of excited Indians flocked into the clearing from the trees. They roiled around, grinning wide, teeth bright in the late afternoon sunshine. Soon the press of workers broke around Philip, like a rock in a stream. The way finally parted enough for Philip to see who the Indians were leading into camp.
Six figures, robed in mud brown attire and leather sandals, stepped from the trees, faces warm and open as they threw back the cowls from their heads. They too wore smiles upon their faces, but not the toothy grins of the crude Indians, only simple, kind countenances.
One of the robed men was clearly the leader. He stood a bit taller than the others and was the only one with a prominent silver pectoral cross.
“Monks…” Philip muttered in amazement.
Some of the Indians dropped to their knees at the feet of these religious men and bowed for a blessing. While the other monks placed palms atop heads and whispered prayers in Spanish, the head of this group approached Philip.
The man shrugged back his own cowl to reveal a strong handsome face framed by black hair. “We have heard of your time of need, my son,” he said simply. “My name is Friar Dominic Otera, and we’ve come to offer what aid we can.”
Philip blinked. English! The man had spoken English! He suppressed an urge to step over and hug the friar. Instead, he tried to compose himself enough to speak. “How… how did you—?”
The monk held up a hand. “On our journey among the small nearby villages, we came upon the Indians you sent for help. I’ve sent them on to Villacuacha to alert the authorities, but in the meantime, we’ve come to offer prayers and consolation in the tragedy here.”
Philip felt himself sag as his burden was finally eased. There were now others—others who spoke English—who could share his anxiety. Philip found himself blathering, unable to form a clear thought, blurting out a mixture of heartfelt thanks interspersed with his own worries. None of it made sense.
Friar Otera crossed to Philip and placed a cool palm upon his cheek. “Calm yourself, my son.”
His touch centered Philip. “Yes… yes… where are my manners? You’ve all traveled far and must be thirsty and famished.”
The monk lowered his face. “The Lord is all the sustenance we need, but as travelers we would be remiss in refusing your hospitality.”
Philip bobbed his head like a fool; he could not help himself, so giddy with relief was he. “Then, please, come to my tent. I have juice, water, and can put together some quick sandwiches.”
“That is most gracious. Then perhaps, out of the harsh sun, you can tell me what has befallen your group.”
Philip led the monks toward the cluster of tents, though he noticed that three lagged behind, continuing their ministrations among the workers.
The friar noticed that Philip had paused. “They will join us later. The Lord’s work must always come first.”
Swinging back around, Philip nodded. “Of course.” In short order, Philip and the friar were ensconced in his personal tent upon camp chairs. Resting between them was a platter of hard cheeses and sliced meats. The other two monks had shyly accepted glasses of fresh guava juice and had retired outside in the shadow of the tent, leaving Friar Otera and Philip in peace.
After sampling what Philip offered, the friar leaned back in the canvas chair with a sigh of gratitude. “Most delicious and kind.” He placed both palms upon his knees, studying Philip. “Now tell me, my son, what has happened here? How can we help?”
Philip sipped his juice and collected himself. The simple duties as host had calmed his nerves, but he found himself unable to meet the friar’s gaze. In the dim tent, the man’s eyes were dark, penetrating shadows, wells that seemed to see into his soul. Philip had been raised Presbyterian but had never been particularly religious. Yet, he could sense power in this quiet figure who sat opposite him, and his initial relief had slowly changed to a mild trepidation in the presence of the man. He knew he could not lie to him; the monk would know his true heart.
Setting down his glass, Philip began his story of Gil’s betrayal and subsequent sabotage. “… and after the explosion, the temple continued to collapse in on itself, driving those trapped deeper and deeper. There was nothing I could do to help them.”
Friar Otera nodded his head, once, like a benediction. “Be at peace, Philip. You’ve done all you could.”
Philip drew strength from these words. He had done all he could. He sat up straighter as he continued relating how the Indians were attempting to dig a rescue shaft, and how Sam and the others had discovered a secret tunnel behind a golden idol. He found himself going on and on. He even described Sam’s discovery of the statue’s key. “A gold knife that somehow transformed.”