Authors: Christopher Forrest
Tags: #Fiction, #Thrillers, #Historical, #Science Fiction, #Genetic Engineering, #General
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and for my parents,
Betty and Jim
Since I entered politics, I have chiefly had men’s views confided to me privately. Some of the biggest men in the U.S., in the field of commerce and manufacturing, are afraid of somebody, are afraid of something. They know that there is a power somewhere so organized, so subtle, so watchful, so interlocked, so complete, so pervasive, that they had better not speak above their breath when they speak in condemnation of it.
The important thing is not to stop questioning. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality.
May 23, 1983
Belize, Central America
16.12° N, 88.76° W
Sometimes stealing is the best way to make a living. After all, reasoned eleven-year-old Pakal, the dead no longer had any need for their earthly possessions. So he didn’t really feel guilty.
The average annual income of Mayan Indian families in Central America is about six hundred dollars. In the tropical jungles of western Belize, Pakal’s family was slightly below average. Poverty provided a strong incentive to overlook any moral ambiguities inherent in grave robbing.
Pakal’s mother and grandparents definitely would not agree. But he was young, and therefore secure in the knowledge that he knew better that they did. So at the age of eleven, Pakal Q’eqchi began looting the tombs and temples of his ancestors. Many unexplored Mayan ruins lay hidden deep within the jungles of Belize. For the enterprising grave robber, discovering a Mayan ruin is like finding an unlocked bank vault. Local antiquities dealers in Belize will pay as much as $1,000 for a single polychrome plate, for which a gallery in New York or Brussels will offer $20,000 to $30,000.
After several months of exploration in the foothills of the Maya Mountains, Pakal discovered a crumbling Mayan pyramid built over a network of caverns. The ruin yielded only broken pottery and shattered human remains. But in the caverns beneath, Pakal unearthed three polychrome plates, an ornate bowl decorated with a bas-relief jaguar, a handful of obsidian figurines, and a human skull. The skull’s teeth were inlaid with jade.
Fortified by his success, Pakal recruited an assistant, his seventeen-year-old sister Aluna. With tropical green eyes and long black hair, Aluna possessed a surprisingly languid beauty. She resisted at first, but warmed to the idea after Pakal displayed a stack of Belizean twenties he received in exchange for the Mayan relics from the cave. The antiquities dealer had refused to buy the skull and cautioned Pakal against disturbing human remains.
“Bad business,” he said. “Leave the dead lie where they lay.”
Pakal didn’t tell Aluna about the tarantulas. Dozens of tarantulas inhabited the cave Pakal had looted, prompting him to name it Labertinto de las Tarantulas. Maybe they were avoiding the sweltering summer heat, or perhaps they were feasting on the hundreds of assassin beetles lurking about. Pakal shivered as he remembered the assassin beetles hunting in the cool caverns, impaling their insect victims with stout beaks and injecting a toxin that liquefied their prey.
Pakal and Aluna rose at dawn and hiked all morning, stopping only once to dine on heart-of-palm soup and rest on the
reed mats they carried slung from their backs. The tropical jungle was filled with colorful birds perched in towering trees covered with orchids and bromeliads. The broad, irregular crowns of the trees formed a tight, continuous canopy sixty feet above the ground. The foliage above was wet and dripped constantly like a continuous light rain.
On the jungle floor, Pakal and Aluna walked amid a bright green carpet of broad ferns on a thin layer of fallen leaves, seeds, and branches. Very little sunlight filtered through the dense canopy. The howls of monkeys and screeches of macaws echoed through the dense humid air.
the traditional Mayan blouse, was wet with perspiration. The fabric of the poncholike garment, covered with colorful embroidered geometric patterns, clung to her skin. She tied back her long hair in a loose ponytail and fanned her face with a woven reed fan.
By early afternoon, Aluna and Pakal reached the ruin in the foothills of the Maya Mountains.
“Look, there it is,” whispered Pakal as he pointed.
In the distance, Aluna saw the moss-covered rocks of a large stone wall, barely visible under dense jungle foliage. Behind it, the entrance to a cave yawned like a black hole in the jungle.
Far beyond the wall, a terraced stone pyramid covered with lianas and strangler vines was shrouded in mist. Small plants and vines covered a broad stone plaza, infiltrating through cracks between large stone slabs. Lichens and moss covered almost every surface. Several mahogany trees grew straight up through the middle of the plaza, standing like sentries guarding the temple.
“Let’s start with the cave. It will be cool inside,” said Pakal.
A pause. “Okay, but you go first.”
As they descended into the winding network of subterranean passages, a mysterious world took shape. Stalactites of blood-red limestone seemed to ooze from the dripping ceiling. Above strange pools of green iridescent water, hundreds of sinewy tree roots penetrated the ceiling and dropped fifty feet into the water below. A piercing beam of sunlight streamed in through a small fissure in the ceiling, illuminating the eerie underground forest. The air was damp and stale.
Pakal withdrew a butane lighter from his pocket and lit two torches. He handed one to Aluna.
The narrow passageway descended for several yards before it broadened into an expansive subterranean chamber. Glistening stalactites hung from the ceiling. The terrain was rocky and potsherds littered the ground. Their torches threw ominous shadows against the cavern walls.
Pakal and Aluna walked carefully across the underground chamber through a forest of stalagmites. Towering rock formations formed slender fingers that dipped into the cool waters of an underground stream.
“Pakal, I see something,” said Aluna.
She pointed off to the left where a small ledge jutted out from the cavern wall at shoulder height. They cautiously approached. Peering over the edge, Pakal and Aluna could see the skeletal remains of a small child lying face down in a dry limestone pool. Aluna stifled a gasp.
“Don’t touch it,” warned Pakal. “And don’t worry, it’s been here a really long time.”
Aluna averted her eyes.
Near the child was a stone hearth that contained the charred remains of ears of corn and other botanical detritus. Carbonized husks, stems, and leaves covered several pieces of pottery. Aluna plucked a small vessel from the hearth and examined it.
“Look, it’s painted. Here’s a man with the head of a jaguar. And there’s some writing around the top.”
The ceramic cup was decorated with hieroglyphic writing around the circumference of its top edge. Slip paint, a mixture of finely ground pigment, clay, and water, decorated the vessel with a rendering of the Jaguar God who inhabited the underworld, home of the dead.
“Mr. Q’axaca told me about him,” said Pakal. “The ancients believed that each morning, the Jaguar God became the Sun God, traveling across the sky to the west, where he fell back into the underworld. To make sure that the Jaguar God rose each day, Mayan kings performed rituals to appease the gods.”
“Now there are no kings left to perform the rituals,” said Aluna.
Pakal laughed. “Maybe the Jaguar God is still stuck in the underworld!”
Pakal spotted a bowl off to one side of the hearth. It was a wide, flared bowl decorated with intricate carvings and pigments.
“Look at this one. Two intertwined snakes that wrap around the bowl and slither under this band of writing.”
“I hate snakes,” said Aluna. “Why couldn’t they paint butterflies and birds?”
Aluna spied a peculiar-looking formation in the recessed shadows ahead. Three cave formations called draperies flowed from a ledge twenty feet overhead and cascaded down onto the cavern floor. The solid rock looked as if it had been poured down the cavern wall. In the center drapery, the Maya had carved a doorway-sized hole and fitted it with a stout wooden door.
Around the door were handprints stamped onto the rock in bright pigments. Mayan petroglyphs conveyed a message, but neither Pakal nor Aluna could read it.
“I’ve never heard of anything like this,” said Pakal.
Aluna pursed her lips.
“I don’t know. Maybe we should just leave it alone. There must be lots of things we can find without opening that door.”
“But think of what could be on the other side. Enough treasures to move us away from here. We could move into Belize City, buy a house and maybe a car,” said Pakal.
He hesitated for a moment.
“I’m going to open it,” he said.
“Please be careful.”
Pakal grasped the ornate copper handle and pulled. The door was stuck fast, its edges swelled by moisture against the stone frame. Pakal tried again, planting his foot against the cavern wall for leverage. He strained and cursed. Finally, the door came free with a loud splintering noise.
The half-open doorway exhaled a breath of dry, foul-smelling air. Pakal and Aluna’s torches were snuffed out. There was a loud thump and a grunt of pain. In the blackness, Aluna reached out blindly, fighting the terror rising from the pit of her stomach.
“Pakal!” she screamed. “Pakal, where are you?”
A quick scratching sound. A whiff of sulfur.
In the dancing light of a small match, Aluna saw the strained face of her brother as he relit his torch. Blood streamed from a large gash on his forehead.
“Calm down. I’m okay. I just stumbled.”
He reached up and felt his forehead. There was blood on his fingertips. “I must have hit my head.”
“Hold out your torch.” Pakal relit his sister’s torch. It sputtered and crackled in the rank air.
“Come on. It’s okay. Don’t worry.”
He took Aluna’s hand and led her through the open doorway. The darkness inside was pitch-black and stifling. The light from their struggling torches seemed to smother out after only a few feet. Slowly, they crept forward into the chamber.
In the dim illumination, Aluna could barely discern the outline of an ancient sarcophagus. Its massive stone lid rested on the cavern floor.
“Pakal, I think this is a tomb. I don’t like being in here.”
“Don’t worry,” Pakal replied. “We’ll just look around and then go.”
The chamber was at least fifty feet long and twenty feet wide. At the opposite end, a dark opening led farther into the caverns. The floor was covered with dead leaves, cohune nuts, and heart-of-palm seeds.
Pakal dropped to one knee and began clearing away the organic sediment, revealing a pile of human bones and polychrome ceramic vessels.
“Look. Lots of pottery. And it’s in good condition.”
Aluna paused and listened intently.
“Pakal, do you hear that?”
There was a soft, wet wheezing noise.
Aluna looked frightened. “What is that?”
“It’s probably nothing. Just wind coming through a crack in the ceiling or something.” But he didn’t sound very confident.
The wet wheezing noise grew louder, echoing off the stone walls.
“Pakal, I don’t like this. Let’s go. Please.”
“Okay, but put a few of those pieces of pottery into your bag. And the jade jewelry too. Then we’ll go.”
Pakal turned and hurriedly began to collect artifacts that would command a decent price from the dealer in Punta Gorda. As he reached for a small piece of sculpted jade, Pakal accidentally knocked over one of the female skulls. A large tarantula scurried from the recesses of the skull and disappeared into the pile of bones.
Aluna was already heading for the door. Her torchlight cast long shadows on the stone drapery. “Come on, let’s get out of here!”
“Okay, I’m coming.”
Pakal stood and turned toward the door.
Aluna had reached the doorway and looked over her shoulder toward her brother. His torch cast a small circle of light in the black void around him. The air in the tomb was warm and smelled foul.
The wheezing sound grew louder.
Then, behind Pakal, barely discernible against the black void of the tomb, Aluna saw the faint outline of something large.
As Pakal turned in fright to see what had terrified his sister, his torch suddenly went out, casting the tomb back into darkness. Aluna’s torch, still lit, was too weak to shed enough light to illuminate her brother.
Pakal cried out, a high-pitched wailing scream. The muffled whispering noise grew frantic.
There was a ripping, tearing sound. Aluna was splattered with something warm and wet. She looked down at her
in the flickering torchlight. A fine mist of dark red blood and bits of pale flesh covered her clothing and bare arms. Unreasoning terror took hold.
Aluna turned and ran, screaming.
A wet wheezing sound pursued her into the blackness.