A Lost Chronicle
By Kate Thornton
Nightwatch created by Jeff Williams
I. The Sound of One Hand Clapping
The sound of the water slapping rhythmically against the wooden sides of the small boat was about to drive Diego Carson nuts. He put on his earpiece and cranked up the music, trying to drown out the watery distraction as his fingers flew across the keyboard of the tiny laptop computer. Okay, it was more of a PDA than a real computer, but that didn’t matter. What mattered was finding the underwater device before it sensed him and blew him to Kingdom Come, and then finding the living things that would change the world, hidden somewhere in this labyrinth of caves in more than 400 miles of aquifer. Oh, and leaving a record of what had happened - Simon Litchfield was gonna hear about this, assuming he survived. Or read about it, if he didn't.
And damn, it was hot.
“Okay, Tom,” Stephanie said as they hurried out of the
They took a secluded table in the corner by the window and Tom helped Stephanie out of her London Fog. He noticed her new clothes and her glossy hair pulled back into a neat ponytail. She had been dressing better these past few weeks. He marveled at how the cargo pants and ubiquitous tee shirts had been replaced by well-fitting dress slacks and silk blouses. There was something up, but he didn’t mention it. They had work to discuss.
Tom waited as a young man took their order. The Cannon Moon was busy, too busy for the owner, Gillian Eckelberry, a particular friend of Simon Litchfield’s, to pass any pleasantries. She waved and smiled on her way to the kitchen.
“Well, I guess Simon should be telling this story,” Tom began, “but as he isn’t here and as we won’t be seeing him until this afternoon, I figured you should know a few of the details up front. Besides,” he added with a grin, “any excuse to get you out to lunch is a good one.”
Stephanie laughed, a delightful and rare sound. "Tom, you know you never need an excuse." She held his gaze for a second, then blushed and stared at her wine glass.
Was Stephanie flirting? The thought unnerved Tom, but he didn't pursue it.
Their drinks arrived and they busied themselves as the luncheon order of lobster bisque followed immediately.
Tom shot a surreptitious and concerned look at Stephanie. She was not herself, not herself at all. And I mean that in a good way, he thought. If she was starting to thaw out a bit, get over the traumas in her life, then that could only be a good thing. But it was unusual, and with Stephanie, that would be both intriguing and unsettling.
"I want to hear your story, Tom," she said. "But I have a confession to make. I already know a Dr. Diego Carson, and I can't imagine there are two of them. You tell me about yours and I'll tell you about mine."
"When was the last time you saw your Diego Carson?" Tom asked, not meeting her eyes.
"Oh, about a week ago," Stephanie replied. "But we have been emailing each other regularly, well, up until a couple of days ago." Stephanie looked down at her plate and grinned. They had really clicked - Diego was every bit the gadget whiz she was. A chance meeting at the Institute in one of the upper computer labs had led to several marathon sessions of Junkyard Wars online and a mutual attraction. He had summoned the nerve to ask her out to dinner and she had somehow summoned the nerve to accept. Only they hadn't been able to find a time when they weren't both working, and then the emails had come to a stop.
"Okay, same Diego Carson," Tom admitted. "But I'm afraid I have some bad news."
Stephanie's smile froze and melted away.
"He's disappeared, Steph," Tom said softly, "on Institute business."
The fine lobster bisque grew cold as Tom told her the sketchy details. Dr. Carson had failed to report in from the field. Last contact had been via email three days ago. Simon had asked Tom to let Stephanie know, and promised to try to find out more.
"Simon told me you knew him," Tom said. But Simon didn't tell me you had formed a bond with him, Tom thought. It explained the clothes and hair and perky good humor. Tom felt terrible. How could he have known?
"Well," Stephanie said brightly, "maybe Simon will have some news for us later."
"The problem is that we aren't quite sure what he was working on just before his disappearance. We know he was doing a few mundane things from the Institute labs, SETI, that sort of thing."
"SETI? The extraterrestrial searchers?" Stephanie looked skeptical. She had heard of the people who watched for life *out there*.
"Well, Nightwatch does a lot of stuff," Tom conceded. "But SETI is not exactly a lunatic-fringe endeavor. The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute is a real place with real science. "
Stephanie whipped out a tiny palm computer and pulled up the SETI website. "Okay," she said, "I take it all back."
The website showed a non-profit institute dedicated to scientific research, education and public outreach. Projects had been sponsored by NASA, JPL, the National Science Foundation and a slew of respected foundations. A Dr. Jill Tarter lead the Center for SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Research as Bernard M. Oliver Chair for SETI, while a Dr. Christopher Chyba held the Carl Sagan Chair, and directed the Center for the Study of Life in the Universe. Their credentials were solid.
"I see Nightwatch on the list of project sponsors," Stephanie noted.
"Yes, that part of the good doctor's research - whatever it was - was certainly above board. But Nightwatch wants to know exactly what he was doing. And since he stored his information the old fashioned way..."
"You mean on Bernoulli Drives?"
Tom laughed. "No, even more primitive. He wrote things down in notebooks, but the notebooks seem to be missing."
Stephanie looked puzzled.
The Diego Carson she knew did everything on a palm-held device and
probably hadn't even seen a pen or pencil since high school.
"That doesn't compute," she said. "Are you sure? Maybe electronic notebooks of some sort."
"Well, whatever they were, they're gone." And so is he.
The Popular Culture Section of the Nightwatch Institute's Library was quiet in the evenings. Dr. Simon Litchfield sat at a polished table and folded his hands primly. It wasn't like Callow to be late. The annoying man insisted on using the library as a sort of clandestine meeting place for handing out Lower Echelon assignments, and was usually already there, pacing with a cat's impatience.
"Good evening, Dr. Litchfield," the familiar voice had an uncharacteristic richness to it.
Simon frowned. "Good evening." It took Simon a moment to realize that Callow was actually smiling, and his voice had taken on an unusual affability.
"I have an interesting bit of a puzzle for you to take
a look at, if you are not too busy," Callow never inquired, never gave an
alternative. Something was up. "How
would you like a week or so in
Simon's mouth hung open and he quickly closed it. Callow
was offering a vacation? To
"Uh, yes, that sounds..."
"Good, good, knew I could count on you." Callow went on briskly. "Take your usual
cronies, if you like – I'll have Nightbird One take
you out to
Simon smiled. Ah, there was a catch. Nightbird One was for important, time sensitive missions, not vacations. "Yes, tonight will be fine." He waited for Callow to give the formal briefing.
"There's a bit of a glitch you could look into," Callow said. "We have a monitoring station just outside a National Park. Our operator there turned up missing so we sent out an investigator, chap name of Diego Carson. Now it seems he's missing as well. I was hoping you'd drop by for a looksee. The, uh, mission at that location is a bit sensitive." Callow slid a manila envelope across the table. "All the details are here. Try to enjoy yourself, Litchfield."
Callow turned abruptly and strode out of the alcove. Simon scooped up the envelope and went to his office for a private view of the contents. Vacation indeed. Callow was sending them on another mission. He sighed and phoned Tom.
Tom Weldon missed the crisp fall weather in
He stood in what little shade a tamarisk tree afforded and sweltered in the hot breeze. The thermometer attached to the zipper pull of his sleeping bag had registered seventy-five degrees Fahrenheit before six that morning. It was close to eight, and Tom was betting that the ambient temperature was more like ninety to ninety-five.
But it was a dry heat.
Stephanie Keel emerged from her popup tent, the pockets of her lightweight cargo pants stuffed with soap and toothbrush and maybe even a full survival kit – you never knew what was in those pockets. Instead of her usual tee shirt, she had on a skimpy tank top in bright coral. It showed off her well-toned body and the tan she had acquired so easily over the summer. She finished winding an elastic band into her glossy black hair to form a ponytail. Not exactly a Vogue fashion plate, but cheerier than her former utilitarian outfits.
"Hey, Tom!" she said cheerily. "Sleep well?" The circles under her eyes belied her perky mood. It was obvious that she had not slept well for some time. She didn't wait for an answer, but started off toward the ladies' room at the far side of the Furnace Creek Campground. Even her lug-soled hiking boots looked somehow cheery, the tops of her bright red hiking socks showing above the leather.
Tom made a low growling noise. How Stephanie could manage to look cool and
even pretty in
He wondered why he had ever come on this trip and if he
could get out of it somehow. It wasn't the first time he had considered bowing
out of the Nightwatch adventures to stay in
He pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket and mopped his face. His ambivalence was bred out of strong and loyal feelings toward Stephanie Keel and Dr. Simon Litchfield and the many interesting and dangerous missions they had shared. But it was also bred out of the discomfort and the nagging feeling that he was neglecting his patients every time he agreed to participate. He thought wistfully of the patient who was at that moment carefully writing down everything he could translate from the voices he heard in elevators. Auditory delusions were a specialty of Tom's.
But it didn't matter – he had signed on for this tour, so he had to stick it out. After all, Stephanie and Simon were counting on him.
Simon had taken their Land Rover into Furnace Creek to the
general store to gas it up and lay in some provisions. They had driven it in
Simon's work at the Nightwatch Institute for Strategic and Economic Studies had taken him to some very unusual places, and in spite of his rather mundane-seeming profession of civil engineer, it hadn't been all dams, irrigation and power stations. Well, officially maybe it had, but on a politically grand scale.
The Institute was privately funded, and provided the kinds of services the government could not. In addition to extensive global analyses and situation assessments, the Institute also provided hands-on recovery for war-torn areas, agricultural technology, and other engineering projects. But there was another side to the Institute – a less public side. The covert side of the Institute – the Lower Echelon - had sent Simon on more dirty, dangerous and fascinating assignments than he cared to remember. Okay, some of them were best forgotten anyway, but all of them were important and used his unique skills. It wasn't exaggerating to say he had saved the world once or twice, and not just by surveying dirt and building pipelines.
He had once heard someone in the hallowed Nightwatch halls joking about it in very hushed tones – referring to the Lower Echelon as the International X Files of the Institute. It had seemed funny and apt at the time, but this assignment was different.
For one thing, the team hadn't been sent to Outer Baloney
this time, picking up phrases in the local dialect and missing the comforts of
hot food and indoor plumbing. There were
quite a few envious folks back in
For another, instead of the looming catastrophes of arcane
weapons, time travel or runaway computers, this assignment seemed fairly
tame. Simon and Stephanie had been sent
Simon could understand the need for Stephanie. She was better than anyone he had ever known with computers and gadgets, and would be able to tell at a glance if the station had been disturbed in any way. And she was personally acquainted with one of the missing persons, the investigator, Diego Carson. And Tom – well, Tom was so useful on their adventures that Simon wouldn't have felt right not inviting him, although he did wonder why the poor guy had accepted this time. Simon felt a pang of guilt that the temperature was higher than predicted and Tom was suffering from the heat.
What puzzled Simon was why he had been asked to look into this thing at all. He might be knowledgeable about everything from underground time machines to the Brown Mountain Lights, but he didn't know anything about finding missing persons. He had killed defensively, but had left criminal pursuits to the professionals. This domestic assignment was unusual, and it disturbed him. He generally let others at the Institute play politics and jostle for places at the high tables. He counted on his demonstrated usefulness to protect his position and allow him to continue to do the job he loved better than anything else in the world. But an unusual domestic assignment might mean that he was being groomed for retirement. The thought bothered him. He wanted to die in harness, not with a tube up his nose in a nursing home.
Or maybe there was more to this than just a station monitor in the middle of nowhere.
Simon pulled up in the campground next to the three little personal tents and the National Park Service picnic table. It was too warm for much of a crowd and midweek at that, so the weekend campers and hikers were absent. There were a few hardy – and die hard – German tourists down the way, but the spaces around their site were still vacant.
In addition to a four-star luxury hotel, a village of rustic cabins, a gas station, general store, restaurant, and bar, Furnace Creek sported a nice campground, with trees and restrooms and picnic tables and a small ranger amphitheatre for nature presentations and evening campfire sing-a-longs. The air was clear and so crisply clean – even in the heat – that Simon's lungs ached for the first hour he breathed it. Birds chittered, a lizard or two sped around underfoot and he had seen a roadrunner dart across several campsites early that morning.
"Tom, give me hand with all this." There were several grocery bags in the back, and a tray holding three large cups of coffee.
Tom opened the back of the vehicle and unloaded the paper bags onto the picnic table.
"I brought you something," Simon said, pawing
through one of the bags. "Not
black, but might be a bit cooler."
He pulled out an extra large tee shirt.
It was olive drab and had a map of
"Thanks," Tom said. "What about you?"
"Oh, I got us each something," Simon assured him. There was a cotton bandana for Stephanie, also printed with a map, although hers was a topo map of the area. Simon pinned a fancy compass thermometer gadget to the lapel of his impeccable khakis. For once, his sharply creased khaki ensemble looked perfectly in place. It was the ideal desert outfit.
Tom put the perishables into the coolers and pulled out a package of pastries, a plastic bowl of sliced fruit and a couple of bottles of cold water. He tossed a bottle to Simon and sat at the picnic table. "Stephanie just went up to the restrooms," he said. He separated the cups of coffee and arranged the food on a paper tablecloth. A bird hopped around at a safe distance, cocking its head and looking for morsels.
Usually Simon briefed the team while in the air, but this
time he saved the details until they were settled. It had been evening when Nightbird
One landed at
"We'll talk tomorrow over breakfast," Simon assured them. He was tired enough to sleep well in a NASA mummy bag on a luxury Thermarest.
When he awoke, the sun was just climbing the clear sky and he dressed quickly for a short trip up the road to the Death Valley Visitor's Center and the amenities of Furnace Creek.
Stephanie returned from the restroom and slid onto the picnic bench next to Tom. She looked better, her eyes sparkling and her face freshly scrubbed. The dark circles had diminished a bit. She grabbed a cup of the hot coffee and a pastry. "So, what's the plan?" She pulled a palm computer out of a pocket and began typing into it.
Simon eyed Stephanie appreciatively. The morning sun and clear blue sky complemented her healthy glow and the bright coral of her tank top. Her hair was shining and although pulled back into a ponytail, looked silky. He was unnerved to find his thoughts straying to more intimate details.
He blinked and opened the manila envelope Callow had given him, spreading the papers out on the table. There was a detailed map of Death Valley and the areas around it, including Las Vegas to the southeast, Ft. Irwin to the south, China Lake and the Owens Valley to the southwest and a lot of nothing in between. The Saline Valley, once outside the Park's boundaries back before the Death Valley National Monument became Death Valley National Park, was now partly inside the western boundary.
An official Nightwatch Institute Inquiry Form had been
filled in sketchily, requesting a team to investigate the disappearance of Dr.
Harry Grant and Dr. Diego Garcia and secure the Institute's holdings. Grant was
described as a "researcher" but there was very little detail.
A hand written note from Callow emphasized that they were to conduct this investigation in a very low key manner, passing as tourists whenever possible.
"Happy campers, huh?" Stephanie asked. She
enjoyed camping and had never been to
"Er, yes, quite," Simon replied with a small shake of his head. "Happy campers indeed."
"So what is so important out at this research station?" Tom asked. "I take it this Dr. Grant must have had something very valuable out there."
"I'm not quite sure," Simon admitted. "But
this location is such a strategic spot. We are only over the hills from the
Owens Valley Radio Telescope arrays, and right between three major military
installations. Four if you count Nellis Air Force Base in
"And Area 51," Stephanie said. "It's right next door." Stephanie pointed to a spot on the map outside the Park's northeast boundary. She pulled up some more map information on her hand-held device.
"Do you think this might be connected to a military project?" Tom asked.
"I think we would have been briefed if that were the case," Simon said. "But that's not to say there's no military component or interest in this. We must keep all possibilities open until we know more. Even the Area 51 stuff."
They all knew that Area 51 - aside from a tourist trap gift shop and bar - was no longer used for anything other than odd experimental aircraft testing.
"What's Nightwatch doing out here anyway?" Stephanie asked. "With all that local high power research going on, why would the Institute need a presence here?"
"Good question, my dear," Simon replied. "One to which I do not yet have an answer." He looked up at the clear sky. Maybe there was something out there, something that would make sense of their little puzzle. Or maybe this was just an unfortunate incident in a remote and oddly sensitive location.
"So we act like tourists here for a while and just check out the site?" Stephanie sounded disappointed. She wanted to do something, to look for Diego at least. She kept typing into her palm computer and picking at the fresh fruit from time to time. Her pastry had already disappeared.
Tom was relieved, though. The thought of having to be too active in the heat made him tired. Already he just wanted to find a cool and shady spot and lie down for a while. He took another slug of the coffee. A hot drink was supposed to combat the heat, and he certainly needed a jolt from the caffeine.
"Look, there must be a lot more to this than the Institute is telling," Simon said. "I can't imagine Callow sending us out here on a wild goose chase. Besides, there is a great deal here to attract tourists. We may not be the only ones here with a business agenda. Not everything is what it seems in the desert."
Breakfast finished and the camp tidied up, everyone zipped up their tent against the invading sands and put their valuables into the back of the vehicle. Most of Stephanie's valuable items fit into her cargo pants pockets, but Tom and Simon both slung canvas bags into the Land Rover with the two big coolers. As in most National Parks, the campsites were for the most part secure against casual thieves and were patrolled regularly by the rangers. Camp stoves, lanterns, sleeping bags and the like were generally safe during the day when most campers were out hiking or sightseeing, but no one wanted to risk anything really valuable – or sensitive – to prying eyes and sticky fingers.
Simon drove, with Tom riding shotgun and Stephanie in the back typing on her laptop. Once the air conditioning kicked in, Tom became alert and comfortable. He was wearing his new tee shirt, and Simon was pleased to see that Stephanie had knotted her new scarf onto her vest zipper pull. If they got lost, it wouldn't be for lack of a map.
Tom pulled out a brochure and read aloud.
"Encompassing the lowest point in the
"The valley is also a land of striking
beauties: The eroded badlands of Zabriskie Point, the setting sun and
lengthening shadows on the Sand Dunes at Stovepipe Wells, and the colors of
myriad wildflowers on the golden hills above Harmony Borax. Attractions such as the vast Ubehebe Crater,
Tom stopped reading and looked out of the window. Simon was headed northwest on Highway 190,
one of only three major roads in the park.
The road made a left turn to head due west through the Devil's Cornfield
and Stovepipe Wells. Stovepipe Wells, a
smaller outpost than Furnace Creek, boasted a motel, a general store and a gas
station. Before exiting the park at its
western boundary, the road wound through Emigrant and Panamint Springs. Staying
on Highway 190 would eventually lead out of the park and along the south edge
The Nightwatch station was technically outside the park's border, near the junctions of Highways 190 and 136, about 35 miles from the Park's western entrance. The drive from Furnace Creek to the Nightwatch station was approximately one hundred miles of scenery so unusual that Tom was put in mind of a lunar – or perhaps Martian – landscape. The roads were well-maintained state highways, and there were a few other cars, trucks and a couple of bright silver Airstream trailers passing in both directions.
For all the limitless desertscape, there were many signs that this was neither an empty wasteland nor a useless piece of really dry dirt. It began to feel like a National Park to Tom. There were little signs indicating off-highway points of interest and scenic drives, rest stops and water. National Park service SUVs in that peculiar shade of green zipped by with rangers in Smokey Bear hats. Families were parked along the side of the highway to photograph the scenery and themselves.
The view across the Valley floor was breathtaking, and the mountains to the south seemed the perfect backdrop to the roiling clouds that covered the southern sky with dark and foreboding nimbo-cumulous shapes. The sky directly above and to the north was absolutely clear, and a bright even blue. The dash temperature gauge which measured the air around the hood of the Land Rover read ninety-one, hot but not dangerously so. The interior temperature was about sixty-eight – cool and comfortable.
They passed Stovepipe Wells and headed up and out of the park. Simon kept an eye out for the poorly-marked turnoff that signaled the start of a twenty-mile dirt road to the Institute's facility. Near the south edge of the dry Owens lakebed, Simon spotted a small wooden sign, its letters weathered away, and turned onto what looked like a mere suggestion of a road. A plume of dust rose behind the Land Rover as they clipped steadily over the gravel and dirt trail.
Nineteen choking miles later the ragged road took a sudden dip into a natural canyon and they began to descend below the flat surface of the hard pan desert, the unrelenting sun blinding down on the top of the vehicle as it drove the sloping - and narrowing - trail. Simon flipped on the windshield wipers to clear the dust.
Tom was fascinated by the strata of the earth passing his window. He could clearly see layers of rocks and different colored earth, and could imagine the fossilized bodies of small creatures dead these long millennia poking out from the eroded edges of the canyon.
Stephanie felt uncomfortable as the road narrowed further until there was no room for another vehicle - nor even an animal - to pass them. She slowed her breathing and drew the cold air from the vehicle's air conditioner in through her nose, quelling her rising panic.
The canyon sides were at least ten feet above the top of the vehicle when the narrow roadway gave into a very large flat area. Simon admired the approach. There would be no turning back on that last quarter of a mile, and he had no doubt there was surveillance equipment along the route. On the other hand, it would be a little too easy to trap someone at the end of the road by simply blocking the route. And with the unpredictable flash floods of the desert, he wondered how they kept it free of rocks and debris.
Simon pulled the car around to face the exit road and cut the engine. The rear of the vehicle now pointed toward a no-nonsense set of double steel doors set right into the cliff face.
No markings indicated the site as a Nightwatch property, but a small bit of bright yellow tape tied to one of the door handles fluttered in the hot breeze. This must be the place, Stephanie thought. She opened her door and hopped out into the hot, dry air.
"Wait!" Simon cautioned. "We don't know what's in there."
But the concern was unnecessary. Stephanie stretched and took a small folding tripod from one of her capacious cargo pockets. She set it up on the hardscrabble dirt and attached a tiny probe to one end of it and a tiny umbra dish to the top. She pushed the probe into the dirt and activated the device with her hand held PC. The tiny dish began to rotate on the tripod and the whole thing emitted a low humming noise.
"What is it?" Tom asked.
Stephanie grinned. "I don't know - I'm just using it to check for signs of unfriendly life." She checked her hand held pc. "Diego invented it. It measures a lot of things at once and translates the signatures into probabilities."
A few minutes went by, punctuated only by the low hum.
"This place is probably deserted," she announced. "Nothing larger than a cat for about half a mile." And no time machines around, either. "C'mon," she said with another bright smile. "Let's check it out." She folded the gadget back into her pants pockets and waved to Simon in the car.
Tom closed his eyes. Why did he always end up going into places he would rather not – like anything enclosed, underground, too small or too confined? He would do as Simon asked of him, and whatever his claustrophobia would permit. He took a deep breath.
Simon's immaculate khakis were nearly the same color as the dirt, giving his face a ruddy color which belied his apprehension. He eyed the stark dry cliff face and the unwelcoming steel doors. Why did they always seem to spend so much damned time underground? He felt a twinge of sympathy for poor Tom.
He got out of the car and strapped on a formidable-looking sidearm, a nine millimeter Glock. "We aren't allowed firearms in the Park," he said, "but I expect us all to exercise proper care out here."
Simon rattled a handle of the double steel doors and they swung open. The bit of yellow caution tape fluttered in the eddying breezes, left over from the Sheriff's Department's perfunctory search. Several large gouges and a bend in the center locking joint attested to a forcible break-in.
The doors opened to yawning darkness and Tom switched on a flashlight. The air was cool and smelled of dry rot and animals. Stephanie found the switch for the overhead lights and a large room was bathed in fluorescent brilliance.
The room was vast and low-ceilinged, with a half dozen old government-issue gray steel desks piled with papers and junk. A couple of incongruous state-of-the-art mini computers with large flat panel monitors blinked in readiness at two of the desks. One wall was a warren of steel utility shelving and wire cages while another held a row of junior high school metal lockers. A narrow hallway stretched out into darkness. Although the room was large, it gave off an air of improvised research and hasty departure. Nothing about it marked it as a Nightwatch area.
"Not your average high-budget operation," Tom dryly observed.
"I don't know about that," Stephanie replied. "These babies are the real thing." She inspected the computers without touching them. They were expensive and brand new, and they both appeared to be running. "I wonder what they're doing," she said, anxious to get her hands on them. She knew right away which one had been Diego's - a web photo of her own smiling face was taped to the edge of the outsized monitor.
"Maybe they are searching the heavens," Simon said. "SETI uses the down time of over four million personal computers to search for signals. It's called SETI@home."
"I've heard of it," Tom said. "The SETI@home
receiver scans the skies from the
"To distinguish a signal coming from space, from one
based on earth, the SETI@home program looks for a unique characteristic: a
signal that will appear, grow stronger and then fade away in the span of 12
seconds. This is because it takes 12 seconds for the
"But what if the signals are not a continuous beam but a long series of pulses? To look for these, the SETI@home program runs a test called a "fast folding algorithm" which searches for pulsed patterns, and an additional test looking for three equally spaced pulses, or "triplets."
"Results are sent back to the
Stephanie shook her head. "I had no idea you were into this stuff," she said to Tom. "How did you find out about it?"
"Oh, I just stumbled onto it a while back," he said modestly, a scarlet flush creeping up his face. He had done a lot more research into extra terrestrial subjects than he wanted known, and the SETI stuff - most of it courtesy of the Planetary Society - had been fed to him recently. But he didn't want to talk about that.
He changed the subject. "Stephanie, what was Diego Carson working on?" He looked pointedly at the twin computers.
Stephanie looked inquiringly at Simon who nodded. "Yes, Stephanie, find out what he was working on. Go into his computer and search everything. And see what Dr. Harry Grant had on his computer, too. There doesn't seem to be a reason for anyone to disappear - or for the break-in, either. Let's see what we can find."
Stephanie emptied one of her capacious pockets out onto the
desk and sat down at Diego Carson's computer. She picked through the small pile
of gadgetry and pulled a palm-sized device toward her. With a slim cable, she attached it to
Simon opened a couple of the steel lockers along the wall. They held an eclectic assortment of clothing, cookware, provisions, bottled water, flashlights, tarps and other camping or emergency gear. One locker held several small gas fired torches of the sort one might use in small metals fabrication or jewelry making. Another held several dozen pressurized cans of aerosol expandable foam, the kind that hardens upon exposure to the air.
Tom inspected the wire cages along the other wall opposite the computers. Too small for dogs or cats, the mesh was fine enough to contain mice, but the cages contained neither bedding nor litter of any sort, and there was no physical evidence of mice or rats in the any of them. The doors to several hung open on their hinges. Each still contained a small dish of water, indicating that something had been kept there.
A pile of jumbled three ring binders and shoe boxes on a nearby shelf caught Tom's attention and he opened one of the binders. It was full of loose-leafed pages and school lined paper. The first page was a cut-and-paste excerpt from a technical manual of some sort.
"Male desert tarantulas (Aphonopelma chalcodes) are most visible at dawn or dusk, particularly in the late fall and spring when temperatures are most suitable for them to travel in pursuit of females. Otherwise, they are typically nocturnal and stay close to their burrows. They feed on insects, mice, lizards, and other small animals that they hunt mostly by feel in the dark. Males have longer legs than females after their fist molt. Females can live for 20 years or more. These tarantulas are reluctant to attack humans, and the venom in their bite is no more toxic than bees or wasps."
Next to this text was a hand-written entry in red: "The mutation is highly venomous and constantly active, bordering on aggressive"
There followed dozens of pages of hand-written data, dates, figures, and drawings. The pictures looked like spiders to Tom and he suppressed an involuntary shudder. He did not like spiders.
He picked up another binder and it was full of similar notations and drawings. A business card was fastened to the blue cover with cracked and yellowed scotch tape. Dr. Harry Grant, Field Observer. It had a quaint sound to it, like something from another time. By his card, Dr. Harry Grant might have been an Edwardian naturalist. Tom realized he knew nothing of the missing Nightwatch observer, neither who he was nor anything of what he might have been observing. Doctor of what, Tom thought idly.
Stephanie's fingers flew over Diego's keyboard then came to a sudden halt.
"Oh my God," she said quietly.
"What is it?" Tom asked.
Simon strode over to the monitor and peered at it. He screwed up his face into an expression of disgust.
"What?" Tom repeated. He too walked over to the screen and took a look. His stomach turned.
The monitor held a screenshot from a webcam, presumably the same one now mounted above the monitor. The photo was of a man with an expression of surprise on his face. On his shoulder, with two legs reaching up onto his head, was a very large and very black spider, its furred body the size of a coffee cup, the hairy legs reaching out nine or ten inches.
"I think it's a spider," Simon said. He did not like spiders either
"Who's the guy?" Tom asked.
"It might be Grant," Stephanie replied. "It's not Diego." Stephanie pulled up another picture. This one showed the lab behind her, in the same jumbled disarray she would have seen if she had swiveled around in her chair, or rather, Diego Carson's chair. It would have been the same picture except for one thing. The cages along the wall were not empty in this picture.
"Steph, can you enlarge a portion of the photo and show what's in the little cages?" Simon asked.
But Stephanie was already pounding the keys and zooming in.
"I don't like the looks of this," she said. "This place is beginning to creep me out."
The cages contained very large black spiders, similar to the one in the previous picture.
"I don't like the pictures," Simon admitted, "but I like the empty, open cages even less. Where are the damned things?" He glanced nervously at the floor, and Stephanie drew her legs from under the desk. There was no sign of arachnid life on the floor, however.
"Okay," Stephanie said. "That's it. Either we find out where the creepy crawlies went or I sit out in the car and work. Start looking, gentlemen."
"Why are we all afraid of - or at least disgusted by - spiders?" Simon mused as he searched the rest of the lockers for evidence of spider life. Stephanie grimaced, pulled her legs up into the swivel chair and continued to type.
Tom, who was down on all fours looking across the floor and under the desks and racks, replied.
is the scientific name for the fear of arthropods, including spiders and
scorpions. It is the most common example of an animal phobia. In a recent study in the
Tom got up from the floor and dusted off his hands. "As to why we are afraid, there is speculation, but no hard scientific reason. Recurrent evolutionary threat is often given as a reason for the fear of snakes and spiders," he added.
"Well, they don't seem to be around anymore," Simon said. "It's okay, Stephanie, I think we're safe in here now. Maybe the photos are old, or something."
"They were taken five days ago," she admitted. "I guess a lot can happen in five days." She had grown fond of Diego Carson in less time than that.
But there was really no more time for sentimentality as a spider the size of a bouquet of daisies fell onto her desk.
Stephanie screamed and was out of her chair before either Simon or Tom could react. She grabbed the portable antenna rig from her pocket and began swatting at the confused creature as it reared up on four legs and waggled the other four at her. Sharp-looking mandibles worked and shiny blank eyes stared from short stalks.
"No!" shouted Tom, who grabbed a shoebox from the shelf, dumped its contents of index cards on the floor and advanced toward the desk. "I want to catch it."
He used the lid as a scoop and swept the wriggling hairy thing into the box. It barely fit and made a weird high pitched noise as it struggled, its legs scratching at the cardboard with an insistent dry sound.
He bound the lid down with scotch tape and placed the box on the desk furthest from Stephanie's work station. It continued to rattle and scratch as the spider tried to get out.
"Let's put it back in its cage," Simon suggested, pointing to the rack of open cages.
Tom nodded and picked up the box. He could feel the strength of the spider within.
He placed the box at the edge of a cage, then tore a corner off the top and pushed it further in. The spider's legs, eight inches at least, pulled it out of the box and into the wire cage. Tom closed the door as the enraged spider raced around the wire. "Uh oh," he said, "no lock! Hand me a pen or something!"
Stephanie pulled a pen out of her cargo pants and handed it to Tom from as far away as possible. He grabbed it and shoved it through the hasp of the cage door. It held.
Tom jumped back as the spider attempted to bite his fingers.
"That's one ugly looking spider." Simon observed. "I've never see one this big before."
"Then you might want to look up," Stephanie said. pointing to the ceiling as she backed toward the door.
The fluorescent lighting fixtures hung about three feet from the true ceiling on thin metal rods. Several large black furry bodies, bristly legs waving, sat precariously on top of the lights. As she spoke another fell from its perch and landed on the worn floor. Stunned momentarily, it righted itself and began to scurry with great speed toward the darkened hallway. Tom raced for the shoebox, scooped the thing up in it and dashed to the wire cages. He threw it in, shoebox and all, and called for another pen. Simon threw his silver Cross pen to him and Tom jammed the door closed.
"I think we need to catch them all," Simon said. "We're going to need them where we can see them. I for one do not wish to be surprised again."
Stephanie was already out the door and headed for the vehicle. Simon couldn't blame her, but he was going to need her help in capturing the remaining tarantulas.
He needn't have worried. Stephanie returned with a cargo net from the back of the Land Rover. She and Tom held the ends of it while Simon used the Stephanie's telescoping antenna to knock the spiders down. Soon the net was full of a mass of agitated, angry, oversized tarantulas, their legs caught in the netting, emitting high pitched noises of frustration and rage.
Tom and Stephanie dragged the writhing net to the wire cages as Simon grabbed another shoebox, emptied it, and began scooping the spiders into the cages. He jammed a miscellaneous lot of pens and old pencil stubs from the researchers' desks into the hasps, retrieving his own sterling Cross pen and replacing it with a Bic.
"There. That should hold the little bastards." Tom pulled the net from Stephanie's hands and began rolling it up. "Not so bad," he said, "only took us about three minutes."
But Stephanie did not reply. She stood absolutely still, pale and staring. A tear ran down one side of her face, or possibly a drop of perspiration.
"Steph?" Tom asked. "Steph, is something...?" But then he saw it. One of the spiders had escaped the net and was crawling slowly up Stephanie's cargo pants.
She was paralyzed with terror as it made its way up her leg, its weight dragging at the ripstop pants fabric.
Simon turned his back to the cages as hairy black legs shot out to hook him in a harsh bristly grip. He moved away to avoid them, the battered shoebox in his hand.
Tom picked up a handful of the index cards littering the floor and fanned them out in his hands. As Simon brought the box up, Tom swept the spider into it with the cards and they both sprang to the cages to imprison the creature. The silver Cross pen once again doubled as a lock.
"Did we get them all?" Simon surveyed the ceiling and then the floor with a worried look as Tom gave Stephanie a hug.
"I think so," Tom said, "but let's be careful. What is with the spiders anyway? Steph? You feel like looking into the computers a bit more?" He kept an arm around her.
"Yeah, I'm okay," she said. "I just really don't like spiders." She took a deep breath and sat back down at Diego Carson's terminal. Her own photo smiled at her as she blacked out the photos of the spiders and began systematically checking directories.
few minutes yielded gold - Drs. Carson and Grant were methodical and
meticulous, and apparently complete records of all research at the station were
"Lookee here, boys," Stephanie said, motioning them to view the computer screen. "Looks like they were working on a bunch of projects."
Simon peered over Stephanie's shoulder. Main directories labeled Venom, Contact, Language, Security, and Previous Research - Grant led to dozens of subdirectories and hundreds of files. The Grant directory was massive. It was just like Diego, Stephanie thought, to digitize all of Grant's stuff, probably the same stuff in the yellowing notebooks.
"Stephanie, will you go through as many of those files as you can?" Simon asked. "I want to see where that hallway leads to, but I think Tom should accompany me in case of, uh, more unexpected tenants on the loose." He pointed to the darkened hallway that they had seen when they first opened the doors.
Tom found a light switch on the wall at the mouth of the hallway, but flicking it back and forth several times produced no results.
"Burned out, maybe. Or disabled." He picked up a couple of flashlights leaning against the wall and tossed one to Simon. The air was close and there were small pieces of debris on the floor which made an uncomfortable crunching noise underfoot. He really didn't want to go down a dark hallway after his encounters with the giant tarantulas.
"Whoever broke in here must have had quite a shock when they found the spiders," Tom mused, sweeping his light over everything thoroughly, including ceiling and light fixtures.
"Right," Simon agreed. "Unless that's what they came for. Odd, no one mentioned any spiders to us, neither in our briefing nor in any of the law enforcement paperwork. And it looks as if they were an important part of whatever was going on here."
"Maybe they were hiding," Tom said, his neck prickling with the thought.
Simon turned his collar up and swept his flashlight into the darkness. He didn't want to shudder, but it was involuntary.
IV. Cybernetic Water Witch
Like most computer geeks, Stephanie read William Gibson.
She had been hooked with Neuromancer, Count Zero, Mona Lisa Overdrive and Burning Chrome. She went on to Virtual Light, Idoru and Pattern Recognition. She was still searching for a rare copy of All Tomorrow's Parties, and it was just her bad luck that Diego Carson disappeared before he could loan her his copy. Gibson's genius view of the digital society caught her imagination, fed her intelligence, and piqued her natural curiosities.
The inventor of cyberpunk fiction had also been electrically attractive in his day, and Stephanie had been smitten with him in her girlhood. It didn't matter that he hadn't been a prophet or that he had physically deteriorated into a regular middle-aged and then elderly guy as her tastes changed. He had been a damned good writer who understood the digital world and communicated his visions of it better than anyone else. He had started her on the road that led finally to the Nightwatch Institute.
The main character in Idoru, Laney, appealed to her in a very personal way.
"He was an intuitive fisher of patterns of information: of the sort of signature a particular individual inadvertently created in the net as he or she went about the mundane yet endlessly multiplex business of life in a digital society. Laney's concentration deficit, too slight to register on some scales, made him a natural channel-zapper, shifting from program to program, from database to database... in a way that was, well, intuitive.
And that was the catch, really, when it came to finding employment: Laney was the equivalent of a dowser, a cybernetic water witch. He couldn't explain how he did what he did. He just didn't know." -- Idoru, William Gibson, 1996
Anytime she was deep in a project for Nightwatch, she thought of herself as a cybernetic water witch, and this assignment was particularly exciting. She knew Diego had set up the files, and she knew him well enough to get a feel for his methodology. She zapped from file to file, looking for the titles that would form a pattern or lead to a conclusion that she could follow down the rabbit holes of information. Her skin felt alive and her breathing was rapid. She loved this part of the work. She clicked - and the information clicked back.
The dark hallway took a sharp left turn about ten feet in and the air became noticeably less dry. With the Glock in one hand and the flashlight in the other, Simon advanced as Tom swept his light around in a constant illumination. Their feet clacked on the old linoleum which seemed to be banking downward very slightly.
"I think we're descending," Tom remarked. "I'd like this whole thing better if we weren't going underground." Previous adventures had taught him to dislike the interior of mountains, cliffs, and other assorted holes in the ground. Not to mention a terrible case of claustrophobia that only his sense of duty was managing to conquer.
Simon agreed. Bad things happened underground. But it was getting a bit cooler.
After about twenty feet, the hallway made another turn and the descent was much more noticeable. It was a corridor now, seemingly endless, and still without light.
Tom's flashlight caught it first, then Simon shone his bright light on the wall ahead. The smooth wallboard abruptly ended ahead and the corridor narrowed into a tunnel with rough stone walls and a curving overhead carved out of the desert rock. The linoleum ended and the path was hard packed dirt. The temperature dropped again and the stones glistened with moisture.
In spite of the cool, damp air Tom began to sweat. His claustrophobia wasn't acute enough to keep him out of a fairly large tunnel, but if it narrowed much more in the darkness, he would feel the breath being sucked out of him and panic rise in his constricted chest.
Then there was a breeze and every indication of a large open space. A soft and gentle rhythmic sound was both familiar and alien in this dark landscape. The flashlights revealed shining stalagmites and stalactites, physical evidence of water and minerals, and if Tom hadn't stopped suddenly, he would have stepped into the squishy beginnings of a lake lapping at his boots. The water appeared deep only a few feet from the edge, and there was a rudimentary dock made of sticks and a rusted-out file cabinet.
"Let's go back," he suggested. "We can't go too much further in here without a boat. Maybe there's an inflatable in all that junk in the cupboards."
"Good idea," Simon agreed. "I don't like leaving Stephanie alone too long in that office. There may be one or two more little friends roaming about."
"I think Stephanie can handle herself," Tom said, turning back toward the corridor.
"Oh, it's not Steph I am worried about. I would like all of those poor spiders alive until we can examine them." Simon's grin was lost in the darkness, but Tom laughed aloud.
"Good point," he agreed, leading the way back to the office.
Stephanie, still clacking away with her nose inches from the computer screen, looked flushed and hot, although the dry air in the office area was cool. Simon paid special attention to the differences in air temperature and humidity. They hadn't traveled more than a quarter of a mile outward, nor more than several hundred feet down, and yet the differences were drastic. That meant either expensive or extensive air handling equipment or - more probably - openings to other geological formations and areas.
Openings could mean anything, of course. But mostly they could mean trouble. It was like having hidden back doors all over the place, and anything or anyone could get out - or in.
"I have something for you," Stephanie said, her voice breathless with the excitement of the information chase.
The patterns had indeed emerged.
Diego Carson had never been an idle search topic for her. Not only was she kept busy at the Institute, but she had long ago made it a rule not to cybercheck her friends. She had kept clear of looking up Simon's ex-wives or Tom's academic credentials, preferring instead to form her opinions, reactions, and interactions by the very real human contact she maintained with them. Similarly, she had avoided checking up on Dr. Diego Carson, other than a quick verification that he did indeed work for the Institute and wasn't wanted by the FBI.
Breaking her rule and mining the data on someone she knew was exhilarating, but could also lead to the most profound disappointment. Everyone had things about themselves they wished to remain hidden, and they had a right to their privacy. Everyone had things they were ashamed of, things they would change, things they would do over in a heart beat. Everyone changed and evolved, became more than the sum of their data. Everyone had a right to present their best human face, to improve, to put the past behind them. But the data past was immutable, the unchanging record of what you were, what you had been. The patterns emerged from this immutable past, forecasting on the most recent data to extrapolate a future which, depending on the quixotic choices of the next second, might mutate suddenly. The beginning never changed, but the millions of constantly evolving possibilities caused the most recent patterns to flash kaleidoscopically.
Now, hypnotized by the very recent past of Dr. Diego Carson, Stephanie's heart beat as fast as her fingers flying over the keyboard, and just as irregularly.
"Here," she said, handing Simon a page right off the little printer next to her. "Here's what they have been doing."
read the page with interest, Tom looking over his shoulder. According to
Steph's research, Dr. Harry Grant had been simultaneously working on a
SETI-like project for Nightwatch and a desert tarantula breeding study for a
Nightwatch client in
"Do you know what synergy is?" Simon asked.
"Yes, a mutually advantageous conjunction of distinct elements," Stephanie answered, still mining the data fields.
"That's what we have here, although I am not yet sure what it means. We are still missing a piece." Simon frowned. "We have one more bit to add to this equation, but what? Or who?"
"The aliens?" Tom suggested. "Or is there a sinister force here, you know, drug dealers, or criminal activity or something?" He didn't want to say the dreaded Celinde Gryphius out loud. Her malignant existence was both disputed and feared, and Tom didn't want to upset Stephanie by mentioning the name of the woman who had caused her so much trauma.
Maybe it was the force of thought. Or maybe it was the synergy of their activities. Or maybe it was just bad luck in the middle of the desert.
The keyboard shook under Stephanie's hands and Simon felt a tremor under his boots. Stephanie grabbed her tiny computer and stuffed it into a cargo pocket. Tom shouted "Earthquake!" They scrambled toward the door as the sounds of a muffled explosion reverberated somewhere deep underground.
Outside, the dry heat hit them like a hot slap in the face. "That was no earthquake," Simon said. "I know explosions when I hear them."
"Huh?" Tom said. His ears were ringing.
Stephanie was already headed back in, and she shook Simon's restraining hand off her shoulder. "C'mon," she said. "We've got see if anyone is still..."
A wave of water gushed out onto the earth through the steel doorway to the offices. Stephanie jumped back to avoid being soaked. The wave subsided and was instantly absorbed into the parched desert dirt, leaving nothing but a wet sandy place and a trio of astonished onlookers.
"We can't go back in there," Simon said. He envisioned the electrical equipment sparking and spitting, a puddle of conductivity on the wet floor waiting to fry them.
"We have to," Stephanie replied. "There wasn't that much water and it's gone now." And anyway, she figured her hiking boots would insulate her for a couple of inches.
"It was a tsunami," Tom said, shaking his head. "Something must have exploded in that underground lake and it sloshed right up and out."
"We do have to find out what happened," Simon conceded. He could hear a weird high-pitched keening sound coming from inside the office.
"Tell me that's not what I think it is," Stephanie said. "And what lake are you talking about?"
"Oh, I'm sure it's what you think. The water must have disturbed the spiders," Simon said, "and they are letting us know about it. There is – or rather was – a lake in there Steph."
Tom just shivered as they gingerly made their way back through the metal door in the dirt face of the arroyo. There was darkness beyond, but both Tom and Simon had kept tight grips on their flashlights.
"Okay, spiders first," Simon announced. "And watch where you step."
The spiders were still in their cages, up high enough to have escaped more than a quick drenching. They were agitated, however, and noisy, but nothing seemed to be amiss with the improvised cage locks.
That was not the situation with the computers, though. Stephanie's keening rivaled the tarantulas' when she saw the desks with their litter of non-functioning junk. She picked through the blown data machines looking for something, anything that could still be used. She pulled out her tiny pocket computer and plugged it in, trying several different jacks until something registered. The main electricity was out – a good thing considering the water - but the air was rapidly becoming dank and warm.
"We need to explore further in," Simon said. "Tom, help me put some of this gear together. Is there anything we can use for a boat?"
Stephanie's stylus clicked a thousand little beats as she continued to mine whatever she could from the ruined computers. "Over there," she gestured with her free hand. "There's something that looks like a canoe." Her face was a mask of concentration – she had been so close to whatever it was.
The boat was small and not quite canoe-shaped, but it would hold the two of them and looked like it could float. There was also a long heavy rod and a pair of racquets which would do for paddles and steering.
"Stay here, Steph," Simon ordered. Stephanie wouldn't fit in the little boat with the two of them anyway.
"No way, Boss," she replied. "I'm going with you guys. I am not staying here with a bunch of crazed spiders and useless wet computers. Besides," she said, disconnecting her handheld computer, "I have a lot of information you are going to need. Our researching friends aren't all they seem."
"What do you mean?" Simon asked sharply.
"That synergy stuff – haven't you figured it out? One of them has made some kind of contact with an alien entity. And the other one has done everything possible to prevent Nightwatch from getting the information." Stephanie's lively face took on an expression of hurt and confusion. "I just can't seem to figure which one it is." She looked down at her computer again. "And I don't think either of them is still alive." She turned her grave eyes to Simon. "Whatever we need to know is down here somewhere – out beyond that water."
The Gates to
The air smelled wet and rancid in the cave, and was getting warmer by the minute. The lake, although disturbed, was still where they had left it, rimmed with the eerie shapes of mineral deposits from the floor and ceiling. The waterline seemed to be in about the same place, leading Simon to conclude that the lake was connected to a larger waterway underground. That could be good news – or very bad news.
Simon and Tom carried the boat to the water's edge and floated it near the sticks and partially-submerged filing cabinet used for a dock. Tom's breathing became labored the further underground he went, and the sight of the lake nearly choked him.
"Stephanie and I will take the boat, Tom," Simon announced. "I need you to stay here, closer to the entrance. We'll stay in touch with these," he tossed a small device to Tom. "And let's keep Nightwatch out of the loop for just a bit longer. Tom, if anything unusual happens, or if we lose contact, call in the Marines."
Tom nodded. Sometimes the best way to help was to cover the rear. Or he might be needed at the front door, you never could tell. Either way, he would call down heaven and earth if Simon and Stephanie needed him to. And he breathed easier knowing he would not have to go further underground.
Simon poled the little craft out into the water as Stephanie, perched in the bow, continued to work her hand held computer. Simon's Glock, visible on his belt, didn't disturb her – for the first time, she found it comforting.
The water wasn't deep – only about eight feet, and Simon could feel the bottom. He hugged the left hand shore, steering clear of mineral formations. The water was even more shallow at the edges, only a couple of feet or so. The lake stretched beyond his line of sight, into the dimness, and slight fog rose eerily from the obscure far side. The temperature was about 90 degrees Fahrenheit, just hot enough to be suffocatingly uncomfortable. A soft glow seemed to shimmer in the distance.
"Radio check, Tom," Simon said into his communications device.
"Right here," Tom answered, his voice clear and crisp on the small device. He didn't need to be told to maintain radio silence except for an emergency. Simon left the frequency open so Tom could hear and clipped the little transmitter to his shoulder loop. It was about time his now not-so-crisp khakis came in handy.
The steamy fog of the lake seemed to cool a bit as Simon poled their makeshift craft further toward the faint glow. The place was not as silent as it looked, with water slapping the boat and the shore, Stephanie's clicking sounds, and a sort of creaking noise Simon thought might be the instability of the mineral formations. There was also a faint rushing sound, as if the lake might be fed by a steam. The entire cave seemed to be lit up with a chemical luminescence.
Stephanie reached over the side of the boat and dropped the end of a tiny probe into the water. Simon saw the little umbra dish and smiled as she checked the probabilities.
"Okay, Simon, according to Diego's device, this water is probably fed by a freshwater stream, probably has life of some sort in it and will probably get cooler." She frowned. "I can't tell what kind of life," she said. "Could be anything from plants to porpoises."
"Not porpoises," Simon said absently. "They are salt water creatures."
"Odd that some mammals would be salt– or fresh-water animals," Stephanie mused. "Mammals must need fresh water to drink."
"Some sea mammals, like
seals and sea lions and the like will drink salt seawater if necessary,"
Simon said. "But they are able to
excrete the additional salt through their urine. Normally,
though, fish-eating marine animals have no extra salt to eliminate since the
fish salt content of their diet is the same as their own blood.
Stephanie shot an amused glance at Simon. "Thanks for the biology lesson, Professor," she said with a grin. "They don't need fresh water – but can they live in it?"
"Only for a short time, my dear. Their skin sloughs in fresh water. Whales will do this deliberately, but it can
lead to death in smaller sea mammals. But do you know for sure we are in fresh
"Well, we are in fresh water and there's life here, Dr. Litchfield. Maybe something a bit more out of the ordinary than seals and porpoises."
Stephanie kept the little umbra dish pointed ahead as Simon poled the boat forward along the cavern edge, avoiding mineral spears and hot water dripping from the ceiling. The rushing noise grew louder and the temperature dropped a few degrees from damned hot to merely sweaty. The water churned up a bit and the steamy fog lifted enough for Simon to make out an odd-shaped mass directly in front of them.
"What is it, Steph?" he asked as they drew nearer to a large, dark protrusion.
She frowned at her handheld device. "It's a life form. Try not to run into it."
Simon pushed hard on the pole to avoid a collision and gasped as the behemoth shape took a crisper outline in the thinning steam.
Simon's deft poling kept them from a collision with a very large porpoise.
"Diego!" Stephanie cried out.
The creature looked directly at Simon, something odd lodged in its mouth.
Stephanie was out of the boat and sloshing toward the thing in the shallow water as Simon grabbed her arm. "Wait!"
She tried to shake him off, but fear and confusion
strengthened his grip. "What are you talking about?" he
demanded. "I don't see
"A porpoise? Simon, are you crazy? It's Diego and he's trying to say something to you!"
"Stephanie! Look at me!"
Stephanie tore her eyes from Diego Carson and looked at Simon.
"Tell me exactly what you see."
"I see Diego Carson in the water trying to say something." She said flatly. "What do you see?"
"I see a giant porpoise with something in its mouth," Simon replied. "I think we are both hallucinating. Do you hear anything?"
"Hear? Uh, no. Just the rushing water." She stood still in the warm shallow water. She looked back at the shape. It didn't look quite like Diego anymore. It was blurry and sort of looked like Simon now.
Simon looked at it again. It didn't quite so much resemble a porpoise now as it did Tom Weldon, just a bit around the edges.
"Whatever it is, we are seeing it differently and our minds are making the shapes. Stephanie, this is serious. Either something is wrong with us or something is very wrong indeed with *that*," he gestured toward the shape, "and I fear it may be us – this steam may be poisonous." The thought sickened him and he began to feel slightly faint.
"Wait, Simon," Stephanie checked her hand held device again. "There is something there or it wouldn't register on the computer. And it's alive, whatever it is. Even if we are hallucinating, there's no arguing that this thing exists."
Stephanie's rational reliance on her technology brought Simon to full alert.
"You're right, of course, Steph," he said. "It's not us, it's *that*, whatever it is." The thought relieved him immeasurably.
The water nearer to the thing was very shallow. Stephanie appeared to be walking up and out of the water as she sloshed slowly toward it, the little umbra dish pointed directly at the thing. Simon followed her, the Glock in one hand and a short piece of rope tied to the boat in the other.
The animal – or plant, they couldn't really tell – changed shapes rapidly as they neared it, appearing as a tree and as a distortion of their own boat. It didn't move from the spot where they had first seen it, though.
"Look!" Stephanie pointed to a waterfall behind the thing. "There's the stream. And it looks like there's a tunnel or something in there too."
The tunnel was also a stream, although it was calmer than the waterfall, which cascaded from a ledge so high it was almost completely obscured by mist, steam and spray, forming a curtain of clear water.
Simon dragged the boat up onto the mineral shore to one side of the thing and tied it to an outcropping of stone.
"I think I know what Flipper is," Simon said, nodding toward the thing which at that moment resembled a cow grazing. Stephanie looked at it and saw the porpoise that Simon had first seen. "I think it's a gate keeper. The hallucinations are meant to keep intruders out. We can get in because we know what it is."
Simon watched the thing as it morphed into a charming tower complete with crenellated turret. "I'd like to go in further, but I think the stream current is flowing out toward us – what do you see in there?"
Stephanie adjusted the umbra dish and checked her hand held device. "Well, there are a lot of life readings, could be fish or something – or more of these – and the temperature is considerably cooler. I can't tell how deep the water is, though. We could try poling in – I'm pretty strong." She grinned at Simon.
"I'm perfectly able to continue propelling us, my dear," he replied rather stiffly. His shoulder was a bit sore, but he wasn't going to admit that. Besides, Stephanie was more than welcomed to take a turn poling if she wished.
Simon went back for the boat and pulled it around in the shallows, then they both sloshed through the warm water, climbed into the boat and pushed off into the deeper swirling lake. Stephanie took the pole and steered toward the roaring waterfall.
"Watch out!" she yelled, "we're gonna get soaked!"
Simon was wrong. The current in the stream behind the waterfall flowed inward and after a complete soaking, Simon baled water out of the tiny craft as Stephanie pushed them in. The walls of the tunnel, like those of the underground cave containing the lake, were damp and sparkling with minerals. It was a short tunnel and they were both surprised to see bright light at the other end of it.
Something bushy and green moved at the end of the tunnel and Stephanie slowed their approach.
The air was fresher – and cooler – and Simon felt a shiver that could have been from wet clothes. Or it could have been from the sight of the sky – an impossibility considering they were underground. A short fan palm swayed in the breeze and the stream wound through a lush tropical setting of islands.
"What is this?" Stephanie asked. "Are we hallucinating for real this time?"
"I don't think so," Simon replied. "Look – what we think is a sky is really brightly colored mist. There is no real sun."
Stephanie grinned in exasperation. "Simon, I didn't mean the sky. I meant *that*!" She pointed to a large lizard-like creature calmly munching a mouthful of leaves. It swung its head around to look at them, then turned back to the tender and apparently succulent shrub.
"I'll be damned!" Simon said in surprise. "It looks like a Komodo dragon. Uh, Stephanie, do you see the same thing?"
"Yes! But what is it, and what is it doing here?" She took a small digital camera out of a sandwich bag in one of her capacious cargo pockets and took several pictures before returning the camera to its little plastic bag and hanging the whole thing around her neck with an attached cord.
"I'm more interested in the common species of homo sapiens," Stephanie replied. "But maybe this is the wrong way. Maybe we should be above ground, Simon, looking for something useful. This place is giving me the creeps."
Simon looked hard at her. Stephanie was not prone to the creeps, but this trip seemed to be getting on her nerves.
"Just a bit further, my dear," he soothed. "What's that clicking noise?"
VI. The Death in
"I think you've gone far enough, folks."
Simon recognized the clicking as he heard the unfamiliar masculine voice. It was the sound of an automatic pistol slide. He slipped the Glock silently back into a pocket and turned toward the voice.
"Well, well, Dr. Grant," Simon said. "I thought we might come across you or perhaps your Brazilian bosses down here. The climate is just a bit too similar."
"Out of the boat," Grant ordered, "both of you. Another Nightwatch contingent, I assume?"
"Indeed," Simon replied. "Nightwatch doesn't take too kindly to their people disappearing and their resources being misused. That is what you have been doing, isn't it, Grant? Misusing Nightwatch resources?"
"What do they care about a little side research?" Grant laughed. "If that was all, I could have easily hid it in the SETI research."
Stephanie's face clouded. "The spiders – it was the spiders…"
Grant turned his pistol toward her, surveying her with interest. "Pretty and smart – but the Brazilian grant is legit Nightwatch business. Only it turns out there's a lot more to that spider venom than pharmaceuticals, Missy. Maybe you figured it out? It doesn't matter as neither of you is leaving here."
"Oh, don't be a fool, Grant," Simon said. "There are plenty more where we came from – and some of them are topside now, just waiting for a signal to descend. So you may as well surrender the pistol and come back with us."
"And tell us what you did with Dr. Carson," Stephanie interjected.
Grant eyed her with a grin. "Sweet on the little runt, huh? No matter. I'll show you a good time before you join him, honey. He's somewhere on the bottom of the lake. I bet the crocs, or whatever they are, have had him by now. That little explosion was him going down to the bottom. Dr. Nosy got a little too close to the truth." Grant's face was covered in a fine sheen and his eyes were wild. He pointed the pistol back at Simon.
Stephanie's jaw tightened with anger. Crazy or not this bastard was going to pay. Simon caught her eye and shook his head slightly.
"Why don't you explain your scheme to those of us who haven't figured it out?" Simon asked. He knew Tom could hear everything and was probably calling for Nightwatch assistance. But he also knew no one could reach them in time if Grant decided to kill them on the spot. The most he could hope for was that Grant would be exposed and eventually brought to justice.
great Simon Litchfield is too stupid to see it?" Grant cackled a mirthless laugh. "Okay,
genius. The spiders are a mutation
"You can't sell it," Stephanie hissed through gritted teeth.
"Oh, yes I can, cutie," Grant said smugly. "In fact, I am going to auction it off to the highest bidder. Imagine what the world will pay for something like this. At last, a drug to induce telepathy, hallucinations, and who knows what else. Real mind control in a bottle."
"Telepathy!" Simon snorted. "Get real, Grant."
"Mental communication, telepathy, call it what you will. A dose of the venom and you can communicate with anything, even plants. If you're strong enough, you can even project images. It wears off after a while, but the spiders could be farmed."
that was the synergy link," Simon mused. "
I don't know about that, Litchfield – I'm not interested in any little green
Grant didn't get to finish his little speech. A monster rose out of the steamy water behind him and crashed a dripping log down on his head.
Grant sank into the water with a burbling sound.
"Diego?" Stephanie knew she couldn't trust her senses. Maybe what she saw was another lizard creature. It was sludge-covered and stinking of rotting vegetation.
Simon pulled out his Glock and stepped in front of Stephanie. "Get back!" he ordered the thing.
"Okay, okay, don't get your panties in a twist, Simon." Dr. Diego Carson raised his swampy arms and took a step backward. "Should I pull him out or let him drown?" he asked.
Stephanie grinned. "Let him drown!" she said.
"Can't do that, Steph. C'mon, he's slime but I didn't intend to kill him." Diego looked down at himself. "Okay, looks like I'm slime too, but mine will wash off." He reached down into the water and hauled Grant's inert form out and onto the shallow bank. A trickle of blood oozed from a gash on the side of his head, but he appeared to be breathing.
Simon put the Glock back in his pocket – within easy reach if necessary. "Dr. Diego Carson, I presume?" he asked.
Stephanie was not so particular. She flung herself out of the little boat, sloshing through the shallow water and into Diego Carson's arms. "Is it really you?"
He held her tightly for a moment. "C'mon, we've got to get out of here. There are more things in this aquifer than the spiders, and Grant may have another depth charge set."
It was clear that the little boat would not hold all three of them. "Take her back safely, Simon," Diego ordered. "And send someone back for me."
"No!" Stephanie said. "I'm not leaving without you!"
shoulder crackled and sputtered as Tom Weldon's voice came through the
transmitter. "Come on back, Steph.
I've got the cavalry on the way – we'll pick up Dr. Carson and
whatever's left of Grant. But hurry –
Stephanie sloshed back to the boat and clambered in. "See you back at the lab," she called as Simon began poling them toward the waterfall.
Dr. Diego Carson, looking more like Swamp Thing than a Nightwatch research scientist, waved until they were out of sight.
Simon chattered to Tom as they made their way back. Tom had called out the local park rangers for assistance and two of them had shown up. They were sworn to national secrecy, briefed on the possibility of large spiders, and told to bring a small boat. National security and giant spiders didn't faze them, but anything inside the park boundaries requiring a boat caused some interest. They arrived with an inflatable 4 person Zodiac complete with miniature outboard motor.
As Simon and Stephanie poled within sight of the makeshift dock, they could see Tom and the rangers setting up the boat.
"I'll go back with one of the rangers," Simon said. "Stephanie, you and Tom make sure the spiders are well cared for. I think we all know how important they are."
Simon got into the boat with a ranger whose tag identified him as "Gibford" and they set off into the steaming mists.
The other ranger, a wiry woman whose tag read "Marquart," helped Stephanie into the shallows. "Uh, I think I'll just rinse off a bit here," Stephanie said. The imprint of Diego Carson was all over the front of her, and it smelled like a stagnant pond. Marquart grinned.
Soon they were all in the outer office area. Stephanie surveyed the computer damage and tried to collect a few CD’s. Marquart and Tom checked on the spiders and were relieved to find them calm and secure.
Tom and Simon were still communication on the transmitters when the sound of the outboard echoed in through the dark hallway. Stephanie jumped up and ran down to the makeshift dock. Diego Carson had taken a dip in the clean water and smelled better, and Simon held the semi-conscious Grant prisoner. Gibford maneuvered the little boat expertly and brought it to rest against the old file cabinet.
thunderous explosion rocked the cavern and capsized the boat. Stephanie screamed and reached for
A wall of water roared out of the steel double doors with enough force to rip one right off its hinges. The water sloshed over the dry ground and then subsided almost immediately.
"Jeeze Louise!" Gibford exclaimed. "I ain't never seen water come out of the ground like that!"
Stephanie stood still with shock. Diego had not been with them.
Tom put an arm around her. "It's okay, Steph, just stay right here for a minute." He didn't want her to find the battered bodies of Carson and Grant in the office, twisted into some grotesque travesty by the force of the water.
But he needn't have worried. The indefatigable and apparently indestructible Dr. Carson called, "Hey! Wait for me!" and limped out into the parking lot clutching a bleeding thigh.
There was no sign of Grant. The spider cages were all open and there was no sign of the spiders, either.
VII. Back at the Ranch
golden crisp autumn had gone decidedly cold, the sky dark with snow clouds and
the wind a chilling reminder that another picturesque
It was warm, bustling and cozy in the Cannon Moon. Gillian roved from table to table, taking orders, picking up dishes and depositing warm drinks and hot soup.
Weldon stared out the window but didn't see the view. He was thinking about
"A penny for your thoughts, Tom." Stephanie's voice sounded so close he almost turned, but he knew it was just his imagination. He hadn't seen Stephanie for weeks.
"He's holding out for more money, Steph. Offer him a fiver."
Tom turned sharply to see Stephanie and Diego Carson grinning at him above bright mufflers and down jackets. They sat down at his table and shrugged out of their coats.
"Well, Tom," Diego began. "I never did thank you for your part in rescuing me."
Tom held up his hand. "No need, Doctor," he said.
"Doctor yourself!" Diego said. "I thought you might want to know what happened, you know, to the project and all."
Tom nodded. It was exactly what he wanted. He even managed a smile at Stephanie. Gosh, she looked good, color in her cheeks, a sparkle in her eye.
"After the rangers took me to the clinic," Diego said, "Nightwatch sent a plane and spirited me back here. I spent some time getting patched up, then I was sent to the debriefers for about a hundred years. Then I got assigned to putting everything I knew about Grant's research into archives. Worked me night and day, and it would have been pure hell if I hadn't had Steph to help me."
blushed. "While you were at the clinic we searched for the spiders and
Grant, and then we drove the car back to
Tom nodded. "Then what?"
"Well, we worked and worked," Stephanie said. "But they're not telling us anything."
Tom looked up sharply. "What do you mean?"
Diego and Steph looked at each other and seemed embarrassed. "Nightwatch has put a veil of secrecy over the whole thing," Diego said. "I don't know anything more about what they're going to do with the spiders, the aquifer, or Grant than you do."
"What about the spiders?" Tom asked. "Did you find them? And Grant?"
know they didn't recover Grant's body," Stephanie said. "He may still
be alive for all we know. And the
information about the spiders and the venom has gone into the super secret
files where even I can't go. They closed the
"They didn't even want me and Steph to work together," Diego admitted. "But we refused to work at all if we couldn't see each other. Only now I'm being sent to some rat hole on a frontier somewhere, so we only have another week together." Diego put a hand on Tom's arm. "Please look out for her while I'm gone, Tom. I know she doesn't need it, but…"
"Don't worry," Tom said with a grin. "It’s what I do."
"Well, Dr. Litchfield, I'm sure you understand. We can't have any of this getting out. It would cause worldwide panic. I know, I know, the benefits to mankind, et cetera, et cetera. But it has to stay buried until we can sort it out properly."
tall, thin man clasped his hands behind his back and looked out the window
"Yes, Mr. President," Simon replied.