“Dr. Olivia, come quick!” Andre yells into the subterranean chamber.
Dr. Olivia Seaton studies a recent find of carvings—beasts never known to have lived in this high region of Peru called the Marcahuasi plateau, an intriguing and mysterious land—odd and eerie at times—especially when tumescent clouds tumble in to cover the village a few kilometers below.
“It almost makes the legends about inner-Earth beings seem believable,” she says out loud to herself.
Olivia shivers. There isn’t a draft but warmth floats behind her—thick invisible arms that offer an unexpected embrace. She melts into the feeling, a smile tugging at her lips, before she stiffens and turns into the dark.
She looks in both directions.
Whatever she felt, this fleeting romantic air, is gone, leaving her perplexed, slightly nervous. Refocused, she lightly sweeps a small archeological brush across cave drawings of people, mixtures of races, made thousands of years ago, showing Negroes, Caucasians, Native Americans and a rather tall blue-skinned tribe she doesn’t recognize standing in a circle with…
“I’m busy Andre!” She yells.
The echo of her voice ascends the chamber and the power of it makes her chuckle. She’s thrilled to be here—a site predating the Inca Empire—worlds away from London and a still too recent divorce.
What is this? She squints into the rock wall before her. Just a few more flicks of the brush.
Thank goodness for the generous grant from Oxford University’s Institute of Archaeology. It’s been good for Ellie too, she thinks, to get away from the doctors, in-fighting, and smog. Sometimes Olivia feels as if it’s always been just the two of them, she and her daughter, against the world. And how could anyone label Ellie a bit ‘touched’ anyway? The girl has imagination, yes, but she’s twelve for cripes sake—and an advanced student to boot.
Wings flap. A flash seizes her periphery, which she assumes is another disturbed native bat—until she swings the lantern in its direction to spotlight a bright red Northern Cardinal clutched to a rock wall further in the cave. It’s two parted whistle ends in a slow twill that sounds like he says, “we meet, we meet, we meet…”
“You are way out of your territory,” Olivia says to the cardinal. “What storm blew you so off course and to here of all places?” She steps a little closer. The bird flits further into the darkness of the cave and disappears. She refuses to follow. Olivia shrugs and returns to examine the bizarre cave paintings. Strange place this plateau.
Since arriving in San Pedro de Casta, in the Andes mountain range, Ellie has been more at peace than Olivia’s ever seen her. The girl loves the outdoors. Who knew? Surprisingly, her daughter seems to breathe easier at 12,000 feet and no longer requires an inhaler. Wait until Olivia tells her about the cardinal. Ellie loves birds—but she especially loves her telescope.
After dinner each evening, Ellie spreads a blanket outdoors and lays her head in Olivia’s lap, pointing out constellations in the Solar System as easily as pushing buttons on a smart phone. Ellie claims to know and name a few constellations beyond the Milky Way Galaxy; which Olivia finds amusing. They’ll talk as Olivia sweeps the child’s wavy russet tresses with her long fingers, studies the freckles on Ellie’s arms, each like their own little solar systems, until Ellie falls asleep and Olivia’s legs go numb—but Olivia doesn’t care.
Ellie also made up a language when she was three, which continues to expand almost a decade later. Olivia thought she’d outgrow it, the way Ellie outgrew her imaginary friends, the ones she said came to visit her while mummy and daddy slept—and sometimes when they were awake too, but nobody could see them except Ellie. She said their names were Shotu and Palden, that they were signaling the Great Return, when some outer planet circling a far-flung orbit would make its way back, along with its long-lived, much advanced inhabitants.
Ellie’s make-believe language fascinates the Peruvian children, unlike her schoolmates in London, who weren’t impressed and bullied her. Andre, a local boy, also twelve, helps Ellie draw symbols for her language—which remind Olivia of Sumerian hieroglyphs but sound a lot like dolphin chatter. Kids. They have the best imaginations. Maybe Ellie will grow up to be an archeologist like her mom. Screw what the doctors say!
Sometimes, when Olivia is overly tired or thinking too much, Ellie’s ‘language’ seems eerily advanced and somehow familiar—but isn’t that what every mother hopes of her child—that they’re extra special and destined for something greater than slinging chips?
Olivia’s daughter claims each symbol of her made-up language contains an entire encyclopedia of information about the cosmos and isn’t invented at all. Hence the problem with Ellie’s teachers, doctors, and classmates—and even her dad who tells her to shush. Everyone thinks Ellie needs medicine. Olivia thinks everyone else could use a lobotomy. They tried the medicine. It made Ellie seizure and drool and her grades plummeted. Ellie begged her mother to, ‘not take the pills that flat-lined her horizon’.
Olivia feels the vibration of bare footsteps coming toward her in the chamber. She places her small work brush on a rock ledge and holds up the lantern.
“Andre, this better be important, I’m working,” she says—but then realizes with a sense of dread that it must be important because Peruvians believe these chambers are haunted and won’t enter.
It’s rumored that if someone is drunk enough to brave a cave, they rarely come out, and if they do emerge, it’s usually months later, but the person is never the same. In fact, they’re often judged insane and stumble out babbling incomprehensibly—that’s how the legends about inner-Earth beings got started.
“What’s wrong?” Olivia asks, thinking that maybe her assistant Richard, ran into tequila-infused trouble again at the village.
“It’s Ellie,” he says, out of breathe, “they took her.”
Dr. Olivia pushes past Andre, dragging him with her by his clean white shirt sleeve as she instinctively rises in grizzly-like ‘mother-mode’ from the bowels of the chamber.
The late afternoon sun blinds her for a moment, despair cascading over her heart, joined by confusion, and a small feeling of hope mixed with denial. She sucks in the blast of fresh air, oxygen, and ozone, so different from the rich clinging odor of earth, rock, and millennia trapped in the chambers now under their feet.
“What? Who took her? Traffickers?”
Andre shakes his head. Dr. Olivia wonders if her ex-husband might have had some of his MI-6 chums pull a bloody custody theft—but he wouldn’t. She rubs her neck. Fatherhood would interfere with his missions and mistresses too much, and he always said that unlike her, he found the mundane tasks of childrearing about as tedious as standing in line at the grocery. Besides, despite their differences, mainly on married males being able to fully engage in ‘recreational sex’ as if it were nothing more than a fishing trip, he was mostly honorable.
“Bandits? Who took her Andre?”
Olivia shakes him harder than she realizes and he begins to cry. “I’m sorry. Where were you when she was taken?”
There must be an explanation, she thinks. It wouldn’t be unlike Ellie to prank Andre and hide. If so, Olivia didn’t have time for this, and Ellie would have to be punished. This couldn’t be happening again, Olivia thinks, hoping for the best but fearing the worst.
She’s already lost one daughter, Ellie’s older sister, to still birth a years ago. Olivia never got to see the baby, hold her, say goodbye—the doctors said it would be too difficult—but of course, they weren’t the ones who’d lost a child. Sometimes Olivia has dreams of the girl she named Samantha—dreams of a red headed teen running through the woods with a fox.
“We were playing—there—by the statue,” Andre says. “Ellie told me they were coming for her.”
“She didn’t say,” Andre says. “She just—she just…”
“She just, what? Spit it out for God’s sake!” Olivia’s patience snaps like a new rubber band against her skin.
“She just faded away in—pieces, smiling and waving, like parts of her went black or something—like she folded in on herself, a geometric puzzle in reverse, until she was gone. She said to tell you that she loves you more and will see you soon.”
Dr. Olivia slaps Andre harder than she’s ever slapped anyone because the dread rolling over her heart leaves an indescribable emptiness that only a parent can feel. The slap echoes down the plateau causing a flock of caracara birds to squawk and scramble away from their hard-caught dinner. “You’re lying! What did you do to her! Did you push her off a ridge? Was there a fight? Did she fall into one of the crevices or go into a cave?”
She yanks Andre around a boulder, where a small crowd of villagers gather by the “Face of Humanity”, a ninety-foot tall carving that reminds Dr. Olivia of an Egyptian Sphinx with an African Queen’s head.
The villagers grip rosary beads, mumbling quietly, while others raise their hands to the sky—missionary converted Roman Catholics who pray for the sweet strawberry blonde girl, Ellie, to return to her mother unharmed. A low wind whispers through the canyon, a soft echo that ambles its way around large rocks and back to the sky as the sun slowly sinks behind the range to make way for the coming night.
Dr. Olivia’s assistant Richard, and the summer students they brought along on this excursion, trot to meet her.
“What the bloody hell is that?” Dr. Olivia asks staring up at the silent suspended ball of white light hovering over their heads.
“We have no idea,” Richard says. “It showed up twenty minutes ago and hasn’t moved. It just sits there watching us.” Her students videotape the phenomena with their smart phones. “What’s wrong with you?”
Tears unfold down Dr. Olivia’s cheeks.
Someone lightly wraps long leathery fingers around Dr. Olivia’s pale forearm. “Andre didn’t harm your child. Let him go. I saw her leave too,” the medicine woman, the curandera named Naysha says.
Andre swipes his tears from his eyes but doesn’t run from Dr. Olivia, which tells her he has nothing to hide. He looks frightened and confused. Olivia always did think of Andre as brave and smart, a good physical and intellectual match for her daughter.
“I’m sorry Andre. What happened?” Dr. Olivia asks. “What the bloody hell is going on? Where is my daughter?”
Richard and the other students’ ricochet slightly panicked glances around the plateau that seem to bounce off canyon rocks and pummel Dr. Olivia’s heart. Her absence of cool collectiveness is foreign to them and causes everyone to feel awkward.
“Your daughter Ellie, she is a ‘Chosen Child’,” Naysha says, her voice slightly thick, like slow burning incense smoke set in sand. “I never thought I would live long enough to witness such a day.”
“Witness what?” Olivia asks, her voice cracking through what’s left of the narrow pinch of pipe in her throat. “What is this light?”
“The return of the Sky watchers, the Masma. Your daughter may be born of you, but she is not of you.”
“What the…” Richard says. The smart phones go dead. The students shake them and push buttons, trying to get a signal. “Damn it!”
Grumbles and murmurs ripple through the students while skies darken in the West.
Peru has always been peacefully divided between Catholic converts and nature worshipping Apu mountain Pagans, or some combination of the two. The Roman Catholic villagers raise the volume on their prayers, the hem of their primary-colored clothing ruffled by approaching puffs of wind as they struggle to keep straw hats or scarves on their heads. The non-roman catholic villagers gather around Naysha to listen, palms up, forefingers touching thumbs, eyes on the ball of suspended light.
Dr. Olivia surveys this surreal cast and feels for a moment that she’s the butt of sinister joke. The placid faces of the villagers and the panic firing along her nerves consumes her calm. “NO! I won’t accept this! Are you telling me that light in the sky has my daughter?”
Dr. Olivia yanks her arm away from Naysha, picks up a grapefruit-like rock and throws it at the tractor-tire-sized light. “Give me back my Ellie you pricks!”
The rock melts into the glow —until it’s hurled back and smacks Dr. Olivia between the eyes. It knocks her to the ground. The Catholic crowd leans back en masse, a flock of frightened birds, before they drop their rosaries and stumble run down the only path back to the village.
Low clouds temporarily break before they zip up again to shield the plateau from the rest of the world. The few villagers who stay are mostly Apu—pagans.
“Oh my GOD!” A girl screams. “Is she dead? Is Dr. Olivia dead?”
Richard and Andre help Dr. Olivia to her feet. A small pinkish red knot and a throb sprout between her eyes. She rubs the sore spot, staggers a bit, but feels mostly unharmed.
Olivia’s heart is gone—her Ellie, the only person she’s ever really connected with—soul of her soul—the child she loved completely with every cell of her body—vanished—the cord cut—leaving Olivia, the doctor, to float suspended in dead space—lost without answers or a goodbye.
“That’s your ‘eye opener’,” Naysha says. “The Light has your daughter, but not that one—Ellie is in Alinas.”
“Alinas? How long will it take me to get there? If I leave now, maybe I can make it by dark?”
“I’ll go with you,” Richard says. He motions for the others to grab their backpacks.
Naysha laughs. “It’s higher than the Himalayas, near the Tibetan border.”
“You’re lying,” Dr. Olivia says. “I’ve been to Tibet. There’s no such place. On the other side of the Himalayas, opposite Tibet is Dharamshala. Ellie couldn’t possibly be in Tibet or the Himalayas. She wouldn’t have time to get there.”
The Oxford students shake their heads and shrug. No one has heard of Alinas.
“Do you mean Shambhala?” Richard asks. “Are you talking about the alleged Buddhist mythical kingdom where only the most highly developed humans live.”
Naysha reveals a grin packed with perfectly aligned fresh-snow-like teeth that would make celebrities jealous. “Shambhala is the gatekeeper to Alinas. It’s as far as a human may physically go—if they even find the place in their lifetime. But it takes many lifetimes to find Shambhala and most do not.”
“Why?” Richard asks.
“The blind cannot see and the dead do not feel,” Naysha says. “The force field in Marcahausi attracts cosmic energy—but in Alinas? The boundary between Earth and the Cosmos does not exist. In Shambhala it is but a silk thread to guard Alinas.”
“How would you know about that mountain range anyway?” Dr. Olivia asks. “You didn’t even go to school. You haven’t left Pedro de Casta your entire life.”
“Silly woman. You cannot get to Alinas with your maps,” Naysha says. “Your conscious horizon is limited. I’ve traveled much farther than the Himalayas. You must go the back way to get to Alinas.”
“What is the back way?” Dr. Olivia asks, sleeves rolled up, cave dust littered on her forearms, as she clenches her fists on her hips, trying to keep fear and anger from causing her to faint.
“You’re too stupid, too stubborn, and too Western to discipline,” Naysha says. “The Cosmos is my teacher, just as it was Ellie’s teacher, but you—you dig—but not deep. You learn but you forget the lessons. You brush trinkets yet only see the surface of everything you touch. Air in a vase works best when the vase is broken. You are blind—asleep in the illusion.” Naysha walks away, small shells on her purple geometric headband jiggling just above her knowing eyes—a faded embroidered pouch filled with local herbs bangs against her hip.
“Wait. Please. I want to learn the back way to Alinas,” Olivia says, and thinks, what choice does she have?
Olivia studies the strange soundless light in the sky and can’t tell if it’s manmade. Her daughter seems to have disappeared from the planet and nobody has an answer that doesn’t require a strait jacket. There must be a logical explanation, Olivia thinks. Perhaps Ellie is lost in a subterranean cave?
“Your daughter is not lost in a cave, but if you want to waste time soothing your front brain, please do so,” Naysha says.
“I—I, how did you…”
Naysha softly smiles and places her date-crumpled-parchment paper hands over Olivia’s. A zap of electricity slightly zips up Olivia’s forearms and she jumps. The old woman stands firm, looks deeply into Olivia’s eyes. “When the sun falls behind Tawaret meet me by the turtle mound near the Chulpa.” She points to Andre. “You bring the bullet ants.”
“You’re going to give her Yage?” Andre asks. “But she’ll need a huge dose to feel the effects and it could kill her!”
“A fast way to close the mind and open her eye,” Naysha says. “The lump she got should hurry things along.”
Back in Washington, D.C. Captain Brock Stone can’t sleep. Again. His work in Naval Intelligence has him sitting Monday through Thursday in a dark room at the Stanford Research Institute with a few other officers, reviving a languishing CIA “remote viewing” project from the 1980’s, where subjects can describe, with uncanny accuracy, events taking place at particular GPS coordinates—in the future. He’d thought this was all a bunch of hocus-pocus—until he started getting the coordinates and events correct as an observer, without even trying.
But what frightens Brock more are his vivid dreams—the ones that could land his pension in the trash or hand him a demotion. What was happening to him? He’d always been stoic—a man’s man—a no nonsense realist who runs on logic—hyperbole and superstition be damned! None of this pansy ass new age, ‘I’ve got a special gift’ shit was his style. Was it Wendy’s death? Cancer took his wife three years ago. The marriage had been good—just good, not great. He did his duty and so did she. Twenty years together. He never cheated—wasn’t the type. He’d escorted too many enlisted men to the clinic in Algiers, after weekends spent at the Four Floors of Whores, when he was assigned to guard the oil rig workers. Watching puss ooze from a soldier’s dick while he screamed for his mom was enough to teach him that lust is fleeting and almost everyone carries a disease, whether it requires an antibiotic or an anti-depressant.
He ambles into the living room of his apartment, a well-earned GS-15-step-ten-pay-grade space filled with everything he thinks a man nest should have, except a good woman’s touch and some warmth. He pours himself another whiskey, one ice cube—looks out over the Potomac and replays his dream.
He’s in a cave. There’s a drawing etched in the rock, a mixture of races, made thousands of years ago, showing Negroes, Caucasians, Native Americans and a rather tall Blue-Skinned tribe he doesn’t recognize, standing in a circle with a beautiful blonde woman holding the hand of a little girl with light red hair and freckles.
Captain Brock Stone, Naval Intelligence Officer, is in love with a woman in a cave painting. He smiles briefly at the absurdity. Not his style. He drains his glass. Instead of fighting sleep when he goes back to bed—he’ll see where this dream takes him.
The phone rings.
“You want to get out of that liberal hell hole they stuffed you in at Stanford and get back to what you do best?”
“What now Jack? You going to tell me I got orders to guard the garbage cans of the Russian Embassy?” Brandon waits for the deep laughter to subside.
“Okay so the Stanford gig isn’t high excitement but there’s merit. This is some serious shit. Saddle up your boots. You’re leaving town ASAP.”
“Go secure,” Jack says.
The two men hang up.
Brandon pushes the screen on his wall. Jack steps into the living room holding a scotch, a hologram of a man who’s really somewhere else.
“Your Scotch looks good,” Jack says. “Oban?”
“Angel’s Envy Rye,” Brandon says shaking his head. “I’d share some if you could really hold the glass. That’s the problem with this new technology—everybody virtually checks in and it’s supposed to replace a handshake and a toast.”
“It’s convenient,” Jack says.
“Yeah, for hackers, frauds, and spies,” Brandon says. “I don’t care how convenient it seems; it will never replace human intelligence—get to the point.”
Jack uses his free hand to draw a map in the air with his finger.
“Ever been to Peru?” Jack asks.
“Peru? No. Why? Did some dictator find oil again and we’re going to take it away under the black ops budget? Now there’s an area of study that could use some new technology.”
“Funny guy. No. We got a missing kid.”
“A missing kid? You know I don’t do that political shit, Jack. Get somebody else to find the ambassador’s kid.”
“It’s not his kid, Stone,” Jack says, his lips turning down. “We got a whole missing crew of archeological students from Oxford University, along with their professor, one Peruvian medicine woman, and a little British girl.”
“So? It’s out of our jurisdiction. British SAS should be all over that by now,” Brandon says.
“It’s not that simple,” Jack says. “We’ve been asked by MI-6 to help. Seems this professor and the little girl are the wife and daughter of one of their most effective captains.” He waves both open palms in the air to bring up pictures of a British family on vacation standing in front of Stonehenge.
“Wait,” Brandon says. “Go back—to the girl’s file.”
Jack electronically zips through the family’s history on Brandon’s living room wall as if he’s thumbing a deck of cards.
“It says here that the little girl, Ellie, is autistic and maybe even schizophrenic—what sort of experiments was her old man subjected to at MI-6?”
“Same as you,” Jack says. “You know, a little LSD trial here and there like you partook with the CIA.”
“She’s also on the global government registry as having ‘golden blood’,” Brandon says. “Has anyone looked into that yet? She’d be a prime candidate for clandestine government testing.”
“It was the first thing we checked. Unless our Intel is way off, or she’s deep underground, she’s not showing up anywhere on the planet—no facial recon cameras or satellites pick up her image or that of her mother or any of the missing students, dead or alive. We can’t even get an infrared underground read on recently deceased and decaying bodies that might be lying like fresh meat in a cavern. There’s more,” Jack says. “The orders come straight from Septum Oculi. They’ve asked the Pentagon for you to personally handle this with a team.”
Brandon feels as if he’s been punched in the gut but he can’t let it show. He places his whiskey, his aptly named Angel’s Envy, on the gun magazine covered coffee table and stares at the blonde headed woman in the photograph. So. She really exists. It wasn’t ‘just a dream’. And she’s married—to a man much like him. That’s a code of honor he can’t and won’t violate—and it wounds him more deeply than any bullet he’s ever taken and goes beyond all the reason.
“Septum Oculi? Why me?” Brandon asks.
“They said I didn’t have a ‘need-to-know,” Jack says. “They just sent down the order and Pentagon Black jumped. But you can bet your ass if they’re involved, its serious, and this will likely be your last mission. If you make it back alive, you’ll be set for life.”
“You sound excited for me,” Brandon says rolling his eyes. “When do I leave?”
“We have Cardinal X2 waiting for you on the tarmac at Naval Observatory,” Jack says.
“CX2 for short but it’s now the fastest and stealthiest plane we’ve ever built. It’ll get you 10-51 to Peru at the Marcahausi Plateau in under an hour. You’ll get a couple of days to yourself on the ground and with the MI-6 crew before your team gets dropped.”
“What happened to CX1?” Brock asks.
“It had some glitches.”