Tony stood on the cliff top above a tiny rocky inlet on Gozo’s northern shore watching a fishing boat plough its way steadily to the northwest. Nick waved farewell from its stern as the old boat’s diesel engine throbbed, tirelessly pushing its way through the choppy seas on its long two day voyage to the shores of southern France. Nick would be handed on to David’s contact in Marseilles for the perilous overland journey to Brittany. By the time he arrived, the next artefact’s location hopefully would be revealed.
In the moonlit late evening of the second day of the voyage, Nick could begin to see the orange glow of street lights that identified old Marseilles on the dark horizon. From his vantage point inside the fishing boat’s cramped wheelhouse, he watched the silhouette of the shore ahead slowly take shape. Finally the boat dropped anchor roughly half a mile offshore. The fishing boat’s skipper rowed him towards a signalling flashlight, landing him directly under its intermittent beam. Shaking the fisherman’s calloused hand in thanks, Nick silently followed his temporary new protector up the beach before quickly climbing into the back of a nondescript grey Citroen delivery van.
The van wound its weary way through Marseilles’ busy back streets and on into the hills that surround the town. Nick instantly fell asleep, suddenly overcome by nervous exhaustion as the tiny van continued climbing steadily. Its long journey through the night, to a secluded farmhouse somewhere in the Languedoc region where it would finally come to rest inside an old barn as dawn broke, would take a few more hours.
“It’s time to wake up mon ami – Nick wake up!” David’s contact Philippe roughly shook him awake and beckoned him to follow him into the old farmhouse. “You will be safe here for a few hours while I make some arrangements for the next leg of our journey,” Philippe assured him with a smile. Thrusting a freshly baked baguette and a bottle of wine into Nick’s grateful hands, he beckoned him to follow once more. This time they descended through a trapdoor in the old farmhouse’s stone flagged kitchen floor, down a steep flight of slippery wooden steps into the dank cellar below. Standing against the cold outside wall, was an old rough sawn wooden framed single bed with a laced string support for the bed’s damp straw filled mattress to rest on. Nick judged that the bed had probably been constructed during Napoleonic times. Beside it on a dilapidated wooden crate, bearing a faded blue stamped emblem of a cheese wheel, stood a simple white enamelled candle holder with a couple of cheap candles lying beside it. In addition, a box of matches and a plain white porcelain pitcher, filled with ice cold water, seated inside an enamel bowl completed the ensemble. Under the bed he could see a cracked equally ancient earthenware chamber pot. Above the bed’s greasy headboard, bearing silent sticky witness to the countless heads of the previous occupants, was a small barred window barely large enough to let any light enter. “Stay here until I return my friend. I shall have to lock you in for the duration. You cannot afford to be seen by any curious visitors to the farm. The Order’s spies are everywhere these days. You have enough to eat and drink for now. I shall bring you more tomorrow along with a change of clothes and some cologne.” When Nick gave him a questioning look, Phillipe pinched his nose and said, “Merde, you stink!” He laughed at his parting words to his charge as he disappeared back up the steps and closed the heavy trapdoor, securely bolting it before replacing the carpet and kitchen table over it.
Ithis watched her precious surface-occupier’s chest rise and fall as he slept fitfully. She wanted so desperately to experience the sensation of touching his face, or the pleasure of stroking his hair, perhaps to even steal a tender kiss. But to do so, would leave the merest hint of her DNA behind, reminding herself that if the Solar Defence System detected even a micron sized particle of her on him, then everything they were attempting to do, by using him to restore the system before the end of its countdown to destruction, sometime in the latter part of 2012, would all be for nothing.
Nick’s unique minutely altered DNA was the one and only tool across the entire planet that was capable of halting the countdown and reactivating the solar system’s defence network. So for now her growing physical desire for this human that lay on the bed so tantalizingly close that she could feel the gentle touch of his breath on her face as she knelt on the floor beside the bed ready to defend him to the death, would for the moment have to be pushed deep into the recesses of her mind.
Philippe returned the following day with some good news. David’s network of informants had passed on the news that Nick’s next objective lay hidden somewhere in the ruins of a megalithic tomb, not far from the small town of Erdeven in Brittany, close to David’s makeshift headquarters. After Nick had washed and changed into the simple clothes of a French peasant farmer he followed Philippe along a narrow twisting mountain track that led towards a small hamlet nearby. They quickly climbed aboard an old truck that stood waiting for them, laden with farm produce, and hid themselves behind boxes of fruit and vegetables for the next stage of their long overland journey. The truck’s gearbox noisily complained as it began its low geared journey up through the foot hills of the Massif Central. The old truck continued across the Massif’s vast plateau until at last it began its equally tortuous descent, heading towards medieval Limoges, where several hours later it finally stopped in the central square of the old town amidst the many stalls of the weekly market.
Philippe and Nick silently disappeared into the crowd unnoticed by the many townsfolk and tourists who were too busy buying the fresh produce on display in the market’s many gaudily painted stalls, to pay any attention. Exiting the market place they walked through the narrow side streets, heading west. Soon they reached a stone cross marking an old roadside pilgrimage place of prayer with its tiny statue of the Virgin Mary, where it sat beside the junction in the road on the town’s outskirts, almost obscured from view by countless devotional offerings. Philippe motioned Nick to stop. A beat-up Peugeot pickup stopped, and the driver beckoned them to get in the back underneath a tarpaulin for the duration of the next leg of their journey to the port of La Rochelle on France’s Atlantic coast.
Later that evening the pair was safe from prying eyes aboard another fishing boat, this time heading north along the Bay of Biscay towards the old seaport of Vannes, tucked inside the south-western edge of the French administrative region of Brittany.
David stood in the shadow of an old fishing shed, watching as the boat tied up alongside the stone inner wall of the small moonlit harbour. Philippe climbed up the rusty iron ladder fixed to the wall and momentarily disappeared from view before giving Nick a low whistle to follow. Reunited with David once more, Nick bid adieu to his French minder who quickly returned to the boat for the journey home. On the way to David’s new temporary headquarters in the gloriously beautiful Brittany countryside, he related in great detail, the next artefact’s location and design at Mane Braz, barely two kilometres southeast of Erdeven. In turn, Nick told him about what had happened days before beneath Ġigantija back on Gozo, when the Order’s goons had launched their first abortive attack, and how he had witnessed Ithis’ mind bogglingly chilling response. After several hours driving through the moonlit narrow twisting lanes lined with thick hedgerows, they arrived at a small chateau set deep in a wooded valley.
“Malcolm Davies and your old chum Professor Randle have been busy while you have been activating the defence system’s links Nick,” David began. Nick nodded his head, but said nothing as he relaxed in a high backed leather settle, beside the roaring fire of the chateau’s living quarters. He was glad for the effect of its external warmth, mixed with the fiery warmth inside him generated by the half consumed glass of cognac in his hand, the remainder sloshed silently as he absentmindedly rotated the glass before swallowing it.
“What has been going on David? Are we safe here?” Nick enquired as the effects of the alcohol and the fire gradually forced his tired body to relax.
“For now – yes,” David replied, throwing another log into the flames. “But once you have activated this artefact Nick, the following one presents us with a major problem. It is located back across the channel in dear old Blighty I’m afraid, somewhere below the Severn-Cotswold tombs in Oxfordshire. The one after that is not such a problem however, but getting there may prove to be,” he added.
“Where is it?” Nick yawned.
“Borger-Odoorn in the Netherlands,” David replied. “The Order has all coastal ports and airports in the UK under constant surveillance I’m afraid. It won’t be easy to get past them. Davies has placed two of his goons to watch your cottage. Plus he has managed to get your name red flagged on an Interpol stop and apprehend list, thanks to his sympathetic contacts in MI5 and the senior ranks within the UK police. Randle has also managed to convince most of the universities across the planet that you are now a dangerous subversive who should be reported immediately to the appropriate authorities. But first things first eh, let’s concentrate on Mane Braz after you’ve had something to eat and a good night’s sleep that is,” he said finally with a smile as Nick’s tired eyes began to droop.
Nick woke the following afternoon, bathed in the warm sunshine that illuminated his bedroom, more tired from oversleeping than if he had been woken in time for breakfast. After having a long luxurious soak in the generously proportioned bath that practically filled the bedroom’s en suite, he dressed in the clothes left for him over the back of the chair next to the bed and went downstairs to find David. As he made his way down the circular stone stairwell in the eastern tower of the chateau that linked the bedrooms on the upper floor to the main living area on the first floor, he could hear a heated conversation going on between David and a soft melodic voice that Nick had never heard before.
“After he has reactivated Mane Braz, he has to cross the channel to go to the link beneath Wayland’s Smithy in Oxfordshire Ithis, it’s all arranged. I have his new identity papers, bank account, you name it I’ve done it for Christ sake!”
“No David, I won’t allow it. Davies and the Order are waiting to pounce. Besides, Wayland’s Smithy is a secondary link. Far better that Nick goes to Borger-Odoorn. At least that is a primary link in the network like Mane Braz. But you know this already David. If I didn’t know better I would swear that you are deliberately trying to place him in danger. I warn you; do not cross me when it comes to my precious Nick’s safety. He is the key to saving the solar system. Nothing and no one else matters but him, and that includes you and me!”
“You’re Nick? You’re not even a human being for god’s sake! Are you telling me that you have intimate feelings for him now?” Nick heard a door slam in anger. So, his unseen protector had a name and was definitely female. He smiled to himself as he walked past the living room trying to imagine what his unseen female admirer and protector looked like. He made his way to the terrace doors where he found David pacing up and down along the length of the gravel surfaced terrace, muttering angrily to himself. “You heard that I presume?” he declared, still annoyed with Ithis’ damnably logical way of thinking as Nick drew near.
“I think the whole of Brittany heard the pair of you,” Nick replied with a grin on his face. “I take it that my protector is some kind of female being who goes by the name of Ithis,” Nick continued. David sullenly nodded. “Is she right about the artefact in the Netherlands?” Nick inquired, in a desperate attempt to cool David’s anger, already realizing that as a member of the race who had constructed the solar planetary defence system, she would know full well which part to reinstate next.
“Of course she is damn her eyes!” David replied curtly. “She just makes me so mad sometimes. She forgets that it is me who organizes everything behind the scenes. And know she has blurted out that she has feelings for you, which is a bloody impossibility! For a start her DNA and yours are entirely incompatible. You and I are carbon based life forms. Ithis and her kind are crystalline based. Impossible I tell you, bloody impossible…”
“Then after Mane Braz, we head for Borger-Odoorn as she suggests. I have no intention of just simply walking up to that bastard Davies with my hands in the air. Nor do I have any desire to give Randle the deep satisfaction of seeing me in chains in some dark cellar being worked over by the Order’s goons, or anyone else come to that,” Nick declared finally as he placed a reassuring arm round David’s shoulders.
David led the way silently through the trees that surrounded the small valley towards a gentle rise behind the chateau. Across the field was the unmistakable pile of massive stone slabs of Mane Braz, surrounded by scrubby undergrowth and mature trees. He kept watch from beneath the thickly needled branches of a pine tree while Nick entered the ancient tomb’s tiny entrance. According to David’s notes, the entrance to the subterranean chamber was located immediately to the left of a large flat stone placed deliberately at the centre of the back wall, where offerings had been made thousands of years in the past to celebrate the bones of ancestors placed there in reverent remembrance. Using a torch Nick began exploring the tight confines of the stone structure for some kind of doorway. Ithis watched as he felt along the entire length of each massive stone slab, wishing that she could just simply appear beside him and open the entrance herself. David entered silently behind him. “Found it yet?” he whispered, making Nick jump. “It’s just to the lower left of that split stone, beneath the large one you’re touching.”
Nick looked where David was pointing and studied it closely. Almost hidden from sight, partially covered with moss and lichen, was a tiny piece of yellow jasper set into the base of the split rock. He felt all around its edges and then gently pushed it. He sensed movement as the rock it was set into retreated slowly backwards, revealing a small crawlspace barely large enough for a man to enter. With a struggle, aided by David pushing his feet, Nick was able to get through the short tunnel and found himself in a now familiar domed roof rock chamber. A similar booster power station to the one on Gozo stood before him in the beam of his torch as he began to search the chamber’s ancient interior. Like the Gozo station, this one had shielded metal rods feeding into it from far below. As Nick was about to reactivate it simply by his touch, he heard a scuffle outside in the old tomb. David was fighting for his life! Ithis once again used her unworldly powers to take charge of the situation as she efficiently dispatched David’s attackers one by one. “David, are you alright?” Nick enquired through the connecting passage after the sound of the fight had ceased.
All he heard was a pained murmur before David eventually answered. “Reactivate the damned thing and let’s get the hell out of here Nick. God my head hurts. I’m seeing stars. Now hurry!” The lifeless bodies of David’s attackers were pushed one by one through the connecting passage before the door was returned back to its closed position. Both David and Nick made a mental note never to anger Ithis in the future. Security had clearly been breached again by someone. That was the only explanation for the latest attack by the Order. Twice now Nick’s life and his mission had been put in danger at a specific artefact location. Someone in David’s chain of operatives was clearly working for the opposition, but just who it was escaped him for the moment. Maybe Ithis could seek out the informant and dispose of them, after all, she was good at that David briefly thought to himself, not realizing for a split second that he was the source of the leaks. Ithis angrily decided to eliminate him if he ever again placed Nick in danger by telling any of his contacts the whereabouts of the artefacts in the future.