Excavation

20,023
04.03.2019

Joan heard his footsteps retreat, then leaned against the door with a long sigh, smoke trailing from her lips. She held back a wracking cough. She had done it. After allowing herself a few moments to savor her victory, she pushed off the door and set to work. The missing samples might be discovered.

She crossed to the small desk and sat down. Removing the cigarette from her lips, she carefully rested it on the edge of the table. Suddenly fearing hidden cameras, Joan hunched over her desk and slipped out the few abstracts and articles on nanotechnology that the young monk had sent her. She planned on reading more about the young monk’s theory. As she scooted the papers aside, a highlighted sentence from a personal paper caught her eye:

We have come to believe that each particulate structure of the metal may actually be a type of microscopic manufacturing device. But this raises two questions. To what purpose was it designed? And who programmed it?

Joan straightened slightly, pondering these last two questions. Nanotechnology? She again pictured the nanobot’s crystalline shape and hooked appendage arms. If the young researcher was correct, what the hell was the purpose of this strange metal? Had Friar de Almagro long ago discovered the answer? Was this what terrified him?

Leaning over the desk to cover her subterfuge, Joan slipped out one of the two gold droplets. Regardless of the answer, she knew one thing for sure. The metal had terrified the mummified friar, and he had possibly hinted at a way to destroy it.

Joan rolled the gold tear across the oak tabletop. Now warmed, the metal was like a piece of soft putty. She had to handle it carefully. Using her pen, she scooped a tiny bit onto the pen’s tip and wiped it on the desktop. She had to be frugal. The test sample was about the size of a small ant.

Once done, she retrieved her cigarette, knocked off the ash, and lowered its glowing tip toward the metal. “Okay, Friar de Almagro. Let’s see if Prometheus is our salvation.”

Licking her lips, she touched the gold.

The reaction was not loud, no more than a firm cough, but the result was fierce. Joan’s arm was thrown back. The cigarette flew from her fingers. Woodsmoke curled into the air. Her own gasp of surprise was louder than the explosion. She waved a hand through the smoke. A hole had been blown clear through the oak desktop.

“My God,” she said, thanking her stars that she hadn’t used the entire teardrop of metal. It would have taken out the entire desk and probably the wall behind it.

She glanced to the door, listening for footsteps. No one had heard.

Grimly, she stood and stepped to the door. She touched the lock, a plan coming to mind. She fingered the remaining golden samples, weighing them, calculating. She must get word out—especially to Henry.

But did she have enough of the volatile metal to blast her way to freedom? Probably not… She stepped away from the door. She would bide her time until the right moment.

She must wait, be as patient as Friar de Almagro. It had taken him five hundred years to get his message out. Joan stared at the smoldering hole in the desk—but someone had finally heard him.

As the sun set, Henry waited while the large helicopter refueled at the jungle-fringed landing strip. The abbot’s crew of six men worked to load the final supplies into the cargo bay. Henry stood off to the side, at the edge of the dilapidated runway. Rotorwash scattered empty oil cans and trash across the hard-packed dirt strip. Nearby, in the shadow of a wooden shack, Abbot Ruiz, who had discarded his robes and stood dressed in a khaki safari outfit, argued with the pinched-face Chilean mechanic. It seemed the price of petrol was a heated debate.

Henry turned his back on them. Off to his left, two of the abbot’s armed acolytes stood guard over him, ensuring that he, a sixty-year-old professor, did not make a break for the jungle. But the guards were unnecessary. Even if he could disarm the guards and bolt, Henry knew he would not survive ten steps into that jungle.

Beyond the edge of the forest, Henry had caught flashes of sunlight on metal, guerrillas hidden from sight, protecting their investment. This weed-choked strip was clearly a base for drug and gun smugglers. Henry also noted the crates of Russian vodka stacked by the side of the shack. Black-market central, he judged.

He resigned himself to his fate. They had traveled all afternoon from Cuzco to this unmarked landing strip. From there, he estimated it would be a four-hour hop to another secret refueling stop near Machu Picchu, then another three to four hours to reach the ruins. They should arrive just as the sun rose tomorrow.

He had until then to devise a way to thwart the abbot’s group.

Henry recalled his brief contact with Philip Sykes. The student had clearly sounded relieved, but fear also traced his voice. Henry cursed himself for getting not only his own nephew into this jam, but all the other students, too. He had to find some way to protect them. But how?

A voice called out from near the helicopter. The tanks were topped and ready for the next leg of the journey.

“Finish loading!” Ruiz yelled back over the growl of the rotors. The abbot passed a fistful of bills to the tight-lipped Chilean. It seemed a price had been set.

Beside the helicopter, the last crates of excavation and demolition equipment still waited to be loaded. Among the gear, Henry noted four boxes with Cyrillic lettering burned into the wooden side planks. Clearly Russian contraband: grenades, AK-47 assault rifles, plastique. Lots of armament for an archaeological team, Henry thought sourly.

The abbot waved for Henry’s guards to herd him back toward the pair of helicopters. Henry was under no delusions. He was just one more piece of equipment, another tool to be used, then discarded. Once the abbot had what he wanted, Henry suspected he would end up like Dr. Kirkpatrick back at Johns Hopkins, lying facedown, a bullet in the back—as would Joan, Sam, and the other students.

Henry was led back to the helicopter. He knew better than to resist. As long as Joan was captive, he had to wait, alert for any opportunity that might arise. As Henry crossed the hard dirt runway, he thought back to their last moment together. He remembered the scent of her hair, the brush of her skin as she whispered in his ear, the heat of her breath on his neck. His hands grew clammy thinking about the danger she faced. No harm must come to her. Not now, not later. He would find a way to free her.

Abbot Ruiz was all smiles when Henry reached the waiting helicopter. “We’re off, Professor Conklin,” he hollered, and climbed into the cabin. “Up to your ruins.”

Frowning at the man’s jovial manner, Henry was nudged by a guard to follow. Once inside, Henry strapped himself into the seat beside the abbot.

Leaning his large bulk forward, Ruiz talked to the pilot, their heads together so they could hear each other. The pilot pointed to his radio headpiece. When Ruiz turned back to Henry, his smile had faded away. “There seems to be more trouble up there,” he said.

Henry’s heart beat harder in his chest. “What are you talking about?”

“Your nephew had brief contact with the student at the ruins. It seems that the National Geographic photographer has got himself into a bit of a bind.”

Henry remembered Philip’s description of Norman’s injury. He had not been allowed to talk long enough to get any details, other than that the photographer was hurt and needed medical attention. “What’s the matter?”

The abbot was climbing back out of the helicopter. “Change in plans,” he said with a deep frown. “I need to haggle for more fuel, enough to take us directly to the ruins. No more stops.”

Henry grabbed Ruiz’s arm. “What’s happening?”

One of his guards knocked Henry’s hand away, freeing the abbot. But Ruiz answered, “Your nephew seems to think the Incas are going to sacrifice the photographer.”

Henry looked startled.

Abbot Ruiz patted Henry’s knee. “Don’t worry, Professor Conklin. We might not be able to rescue the photographer. But we’ll get up there before the others are killed.” Then the large man ducked under the idling rotors, holding his safari hat atop his head.

Henry leaned back into his seat, clenching his fists. Bloodrites. He had not even imagined that possibility but, considering the Incan religious ceremonies, he should have! Sam and the others were now trapped between two bloodthirsty enemies—the disciples of the Spanish Inquisition and a lost tribe of Incan warriors.

From outside the window, Henry saw the abbot give the pilot a thumbs-up as lackeys of the guerrillas rolled two spare fuel tanks toward the waiting helicopter.

Narrowing his eyes, Henry suspected it was not altruism on the abbot’s part that motivated this change in plans. It was not to save the other students’ lives, but to protect Ruiz’s stake in what might lie up there. If Sam and the others were killed, the site of the Sangre mother lode might be lost, possibly for centuries again. Abbot Ruiz was not taking any chances. Another two fistfuls of bills passed to the now-smiling Chilean.

Under the carriage of the helicopter, Henry felt the bump and scrape as the spare fuel tanks were loaded in place. The abbot crossed back toward the helicopter, hurrying.

Henry leaned his head back, a soft groan escaping his throat.

Time was running out—for all of them.

Maggie watched Sam stalk back and forth across the stone room, like a prodded bull awaiting the ring. He held his Stetson in a white-knuckled grip, slapping it repeatedly against his thigh. With their own clothes clean and dry, he had changed back into his Wrangler jeans and vest. Maggie suspected his change in dress was a reflection of Sam’s anger and frustration with the Incas.

Though she understood Sam’s attitude, she and Denal still wore the loose Incan wear, not wanting to offend their hosts.

Sam had tried all afternoon to get the shaman to allow them access to the temple or to bring Norman back. Kamapak’s answer was always the same; Sam could translate it himself by now: “It is forbidden.” And with no way of knowing where this sacred temple was hidden, they could not plot any rescue. The forested valley easily covered a thousand acres. They were at the mercy of the Incas.

“I contacted Philip and let him know the situation,” Sam said, speaking rapidly, breathless, “but he’s no help!”