“My God,” Norman said, “it’s a huge subterranean village.”


As Maggie crossed to Sam’s side, the mustiness of the chamber suddenly caught her attention, and she knew Norman’s assessment was wrong. She recognized this smell—dusty decay mixed with the spiced scent of mummification herbs. “It’s not a village,” she corrected Norman, “but a necropolis. One of the Incas’ underground cities of the dead.”

Rubbing his arms and stamping his cold feet, Sam agreed. “A burial tomb… but I’ve never heard of one this extensive or elaborate.”

Norman’s flash exploded as the photographer snapped a series of rapid pictures. The added light froze the city in stark relief. “Maybe we can hole up in one of those houses and get warm. Pool our body heat like the Aleuts do in their igloos.”

Maggie again noticed the deep ache from her cold limbs. “It’s worth a try.” She led the way toward the town’s outskirts, following the gold path that ended at the city’s edge.

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Sam trailed behind. “I may have a better idea.” But he did not elaborate when Maggie glanced over her shoulder. He just waved her ahead.

Maggie turned back, but not before noticing the purplish tinge to the Texan’s lips. Behind Sam, the others fared no better. Ralph’s limbs quaked and trembled as he followed. The big man seemed to fare the worst of all of them. He had swallowed a lot of icy water while traveling the stream and did not look well.

Hurrying, Maggie led the group quickly down the series of golden switchbacks to the cavern floor. She reached the town’s edge, and the smell of earthy decay, like aged compost, filled her nostrils. She stared down the streets of this city of the dead. The tombs of the necropolis had been built like homes to keep the spirits of the deceased happy, reminding them of their prior lives, surrounding them with the familiar. Doorways bore sculpted lintels depicting various fanciful creatures, both mythological and zoomorphic—a mix of man and animal.

Just like the pillars that had marked the path.

Maggie touched one, a cross between a panther and a woman. “They depict the gods of uca pacha, protectors of the dead.”

Across the avenue, Sam studied a brightly painted fresco on the side of a two-story building. He pointed. “And here are various mallaqui… spirits of the underworld.”

Norman moved up to them. “I hate to interrupt your art history lecture, but Ralph is not looking so good.”

Maggie glanced back. Ralph leaned against one of the doorways, head hanging. Even supported, his huge frame swayed slightly. “We need to find shelter. Get him warm.”

Sam turned to Denal. “Are your matches still dry?”

The boy nodded. He pulled out a plastic-wrapped bundle from within his armful of damp clothes. It was the boy’s extra box of cigarettes wrapped with a small box of matches. He passed the matches to Sam.

Maggie moved to Sam’s side. “A fire? But what about kindling?”

As answer, Sam swung away and ducked into one of the neighboring abodes. From within, she heard shifting and sliding and realized in horror what Sam was planning. Sam backed out through the doorway, dragging something with him. With a grunt, he swung around, tossing his burden into the street. Bones cracked and clattered, and dust billowed up. It was a linen-wrapped mummy.

“They make good kindling,” Sam said simply.

“Ugh!” Norman responded with disgust, and covered his mouth.

Having caught his breath, Sam crossed to the mummy and pulled free Denal’s box of matches. Sam struck a match and soon had the linen wrap smoldering. Small flames grew as the old bones and leather inside fueled the fire. Orange flames spat higher and higher.

Maggie, while aghast at the source of kindling, still drew nearer the welcoming heat.

Sam, leaning on a wall now, jerked his arm at the surrounding necropolis. “If nothing else, we’ll never have to worry about running out of wood.”

Ralph sat as near to the flames as possible. After an hour, the heat had finally reached his cold bones. As he sat, he tried to ignore the source of the combustion. A mummified hand sprawled from the flames, quivering slightly from the heat. He glanced away.

Across the fire, Sam had taken apart both rifles and carefully cleaned and dry-fired them. Maggie half dozed in the warmth nearby, one arm around Denal. The Quechan boy stared into the flames, eyes wide and glazed. The day had taken its toll on all of them. Norman stood a few paces off. He had taken a couple of photographs, but Ralph could tell the photographer, as tired as he was, was itching to move deeper into the underground city. But not alone. The blackness, even with the fire, was like a physical presence, a dark stranger at their shoulders.

Norman seemed to catch Ralph studying him. He moved nearer. “How’re you feeling?” Norman asked.

Ralph glanced away. “Better.”

Norman settled on the stone floor beside him.

Before he could restrain himself, Ralph scooted an inch away.

Norman noticed the subtle shift. “Don’t worry, big fella, I’m not making a move on you.”

Ralph inwardly kicked himself. Old patterns were hard to erase. “Sorry…” he said softly. “I didn’t mean anything.”

“Yeah, right. Can’t be caught sittin’ next to the faggot.”

“It’s not that.”

“Then what is it?”

Ralph hung his head. “Okay, maybe it was. I was raised strict Southern Baptist. My uncle Gerald was even a minister with the Church. We get that sort of thinkin’ drilled into us.”

“So what else is new? My parents were Mormon. They weren’t too thrilled to learn I was gay either.” Norman snorted. “Neither did the army for that matter. I was kicked out of both families.”

Ralph could not face Norman. While he had experienced prejudice during his life, Ralph at least had his family around him for support.

Norman stood up, camera in hand.

Ralph suddenly reached out and gripped Norman’s hand. The thin photographer flinched. “Thanks. For back at the river.”

Norman pulled his hand free, suddenly and uncharacteristically awkward. “No problem. Just don’t try and kiss me. I’m not that type of girl.”

“That’s not what I heard,” Ralph said.

Norman turned away. “Oh, man, Ralph, the comedian. I miss the bigoted jock already.”

By the early evening, Henry felt even more out of place. He now trailed behind Joan and Dale as they marched through the deserted halls of Johns Hopkins. At this point in the evening, they were the last ones around. After the endless battery of tests in Joan’s lab, they were retiring to her office to plan the next day’s experiments.

As they walked, the two researchers were still deep in conversation about the mysterious material. “We’ll need a complete crystallography assay of Substance Z,” the gangly metallurgist said in an excited rush, using his new name for the strange element.

Henry sensed the man was already planning in which research journals to publish his findings.

“And I’d like to see how the material reacts in the presence of other radiation, especially gamma rays.”

Joan nodded. “I’ll check with the nuclear lab. I’m sure something can be arranged.”

As Henry followed behind them, he lifted the beaker of the material and studied the crude replica of the Dominican cross. Substance Z. The other two scientists weren’t seeing the forest through the trees. Here was the bigger mystery. The chemical and molecular attributes of the material, though intriguing, were nothing compared to the fact that the material had transformed on its own.

Neither of the other two seemed to place much weight on that fact. The metallurgist had attributed the transformation to the proximity of the material to the gold cross itself, theorizing some transfer of energy or electrons that made the material churn into its new form. “All metal gives off a unique energy signature,” Dale had explained. “With the sample’s acute sensitivity to various radiation, the material must have responded to the gold, changing its crystalline matrix to match the signature. It’s amazing!”

Henry had disagreed, but had remained silent. He knew the answer lay elsewhere. He remembered how he had been pondering the code on the crucifix when the transformation had occurred. It was not the proximity to the cross that had changed Substance Z, but the proximity to Henry. Something had happened, but Henry was not ready to voice any wild speculations aloud—at least not yet. It was not his way, not until he had more information. One of the first lessons he taught his students—proceed with knowledge, not speculation. To Henry, the only thing certain about Substance Z was that it should not be dabbled with lightly. But the other two scientists were deaf to his rumblings of caution.

His right hand fingered the Dominican crucifix resting in the pocket of his sports jacket. Friar Francisco de Almagro knew something, something he had wanted to tell the outside world, his final testament. Henry suspected that the answers to the mysteries of Substance Z would not be found in nuclear labs or research facilities, but instead, in the crude scratches on the back of the friar’s cross. Yet, before Henry dared to voice his own opinions or conduct his own experiments, he first planned to decipher this ancient code. And Henry knew exactly where to start. Tomorrow he would again consult the archbishop. Perhaps some old records might mention a code among the Dominican friars.

“Here we are,” Joan announced. She jingled her keys from a pocket and went to open the door. Grabbing the knob, the door gave way under her touch. “That’s odd. It’s unlocked. Maybe I forgot—”

She began to push the door open when Henry suddenly stopped her. “No!” He grabbed the pathologist by the elbow. Remembering that Joan had locked the door earlier, he yanked her away from the open doorway, tripping over a janitor’s bucket behind him. He barely kept his balance.

“Henry!” she yelled in shock.

Dale scowled at him as if the archaeologist had gone mad. “What are you doing?”

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