Read an Excerpt
January 16, 1:15 p.m
The valley that had no name ran between barren hills, a long mottled floor of gray and green covered with soldier moss, lichens, and carpha grasses. It was mid-January-the height of summer-and the crevasses between the patches of broken rock were mortared with tiny pinguicula flowers. To the east, the wall of a snowfield gleamed a bottomless blue. Blackflies and mosquitoes droned in the air, and the summer fogs that shrouded Isla Desolación had temporarily broken apart, allowing a watery sunlight to speckle the valley floor.
A man walked slowly across the island's graveled flats, stopping, moving, then stopping again. He was not following a trail-in the Cape Horn islands, at the nethermost tip of South America, there were none.
Nestor Masangkay was dressed in worn oilskins and a greasy leather hat. His wispy beard was so thick with sea salt that it had divided itself into forked tips. It waggled like a snake's tongue as he led two heavily burdened mules across the flats. There was no one to hear his voice commenting unfavorably on the mules' parentage, character, and right to existence. Once in a while the complaints were punctuated with the thwack of a sucker rod that he carried in one brown hand. He had never met a mule, especially a rented mule, that he liked.
But Masangkay's voice held no anger, and the thwacks of his sucker rod held little force. Excitement was rising within him. His eyes roamed over the landscape, taking in every detail: the columnar basaltic escarpment a mile away, the double-throated volcanic plug, the unusual outcropping of sedimentary rock. The geology was promising. Very promising.
He walked across the valley floor, eyes on the ground. Once in a while a hobnailed boot would lash out and kick a rock loose. The beard waggled; Masangkay grunted; and the curious pack train would move on once again.
In the center of the valley, Masangkay's boot dislodged a rock from the flat. But this time he stopped to pick it up. The man examined the soft rock, rubbing it with his thumb, abrading small granules that clung to his skin. He brought it to his face and peered at the grit with a jeweler's loupe.
He recognized this specimen-a friable, greenish material with white inclusions-as a mineral known as coesite. It was this ugly, worthless rock that he had traveled twelve thousand miles to find.
His face broke into a broad grin, and he opened his arms to heaven and let out a terrific whoop of joy, the hills trading echoes of his voice, back and forth, back and forth, until at last it died away.
He fell silent and looked around at the hills, gauging the alluvial pattern of erosion. His gaze lingered again on the sedimentary outcrop, its layers clearly delineated. Then his eyes returned to the ground. He led the mules another ten yards and pried a second stone loose from the valley floor with his foot, turning it over. Then he kicked loose a third stone, and a fourth. It was all coesite-the valley floor was practically paved with it.
Near the edge of the snowfield, a boulder-a glacial erratic-lay atop the tundra. Masangkay led his mules over to the boulder and tied them to it. Then, keeping his movements as slow and deliberate as possible, he walked back across the flats, picking up rocks, scuffing the ground with his boot, drawing a mental map of the coesite distribution. It was incredible, exceeding even his most optimistic assumptions.
He had come to this island with realistic hopes. He knew from personal experience that local legends rarely panned out. He recalled the dusty museum library where he had first come across the legend of Hanuxa: the smell of the crumbling anthropological monograph, the faded pictures of artifacts and long-dead Indians. He almost hadn't bothered; Cape Horn was a hell of a long way from New York City. And his instincts had often been wrong in the past. But here he was.
And he had found the prize of a lifetime.
Masangkay took a deep breath. He was getting ahead of himself. Walking back to the boulder, he reached beneath the belly of the lead packmule. Working swiftly, he unraveled the diamond hitch, pulled the hemp rope from the pack, and unbuckled the wooden box panniers. Unlatching the lid of one pannier, he pulled out a long drysack and laid it on the ground. From it he extracted six aluminum cylinders, a small computer keyboard and screen, a leather strap, two metal spheres, and a nicad battery. Sitting cross-legged on the ground, he assembled the equipment into an aluminum rod fifteen feet long, with spherical projections at either end. He fitted the computer to its center, clipped on the leather strap, and slapped the battery into a slot on one side. He stood up, examining the high-tech object with satisfaction: a shiny anachronism among the grubby pack gear. It was an electromagnetic tomographic sounder, and it was worth over fifty thousand dollars-a ten-thousand down payment and financing for the rest, which was proving to be a struggle to pay off atop all his other debts. Of course, when this project paid off, he could settle with everyone-even his old partner.
Masangkay flicked the power switch and waited for the machine to warm up. He raised the screen into position, grasped a handle at the center of the rod, and let the weight settle around his neck, balancing the sounder the way a high-wire artist balances his pole. With his free hand he checked the settings, calibrated and zeroed the instrument, and then began walking steadily across the long flat, staring fixedly at the screen. As he walked, fog drifted in and the sky grew dark. Near the center of the flat, he suddenly stopped.
Masangkay stared at the screen in surprise. Then he adjusted some settings and took another step. Once again he paused, brow furrowed. With a curse he switched the machine off, returned to the edge of the flat, rezeroed the machine, and walked at right angles to his previous path. Again he paused, surprise giving way to disbelief. He marked the spot with two rocks, one atop the other. Then he walked to the far side of the flat, turned, and came back, more quickly now. A soft rain was beading on his face and shoulders, but he ignored it. He pressed a button, and a narrow line of paper began spooling out of the computer. He examined it closely, ink bleeding down the paper in the mist. His breath came faster. At first he thought the data was wrong: but there it was, three passes, all perfectly consistent. He made yet another pass, more reckless than the last, tearing off another spool of paper, examining it quickly, then balling it into his jacket pocket.
After the fourth pass, he began talking to himself in a low, rapid monotone. Veering back toward the mules, he dropped the tomographic sounder on the drysack and untied the second mule's pack with trembling hands. In his haste, one of the panniers fell to the ground and split open, spilling picks, shovels, rock hammers, an auger, and a bundle of dynamite. Masangkay scooped up a pick and shovel and jogged back to the center of the flat. Flinging the shovel to the ground, he began feverishly swinging the pick, breaking up the rough surface. Then he scooped out the loosened gravel with the shovel, throwing it well to the side. He continued in this fashion, alternating pick and shovel. The mules watched him with complete impassivity, heads drooping, eyes half-lidded.
Masangkay worked as the rain began to stiffen. Shallow pools collected at the lowest points of the graveled flat. A cold smell of ice drifted inland from Franklin Channel, to the north. There was a distant roll of thunder. Gulls came winging over his head, circling in curiosity, uttering forlorn cries.
The hole deepened to a foot, then two. Below the hard layer of gravel, the alluvial sand was soft and easily dug. The hills disappeared behind shifting curtains of rain and mist. Masangkay worked on, heedless, stripping off his coat, then his shirt, and eventually his undershirt, flinging them out of the hole. Mud and water mingled with the sweat that ran across his back and chest, defining the ripples and hollows of his musculature, while the points of his beard hung with water.
Then, with a cry, he stopped. He crouched in the hole, scooping the sand and mud away from a hard surface beneath his feet. He let the rain wash the last bit of mud from the surface.
Suddenly, he started in shock and bewilderment. Then he knelt as if praying, spreading his sweaty hands reverently on the surface. His breath came in gasps, eyes wild with astonishment, sweat and rain streaming together off his forehead, his heart pounding from exertion, excitement, and inexpressible joy.
At that moment, a shock wave of brilliant light burst out of the hole, followed by a prodigious boom that rolled off across the valley, echoing and dying among the far hills. The two mules raised their heads in the direction of the noise. They saw a small body of mist, which became crablike, broke apart, and drifted off into the rain.
The tethered mules looked away from the scene with indifference as night settled upon Isla Desolación.
(c) 2000 by Splendide Mendax, Inc., and Lincoln Child"