The long road south
All thoughts of heading to Japan, Korea, the Indian subcontinent, and on to the Sumerian hub in Iraq where now instantly forgotten as they began heading back to Nicolai’s home in the Ukraine. The perilous journey took over three months under Ithis’ expert guidance across country. Often, she had to leave them hidden as she scouted out the terrain ahead. Once they were relatively safe back across the border with the Russia Confederation, she left them in a small hunter’s lodge, deep within the wooded hills of the Siberian Taiga while she contacted Nicolai, who sent his Mil-Mi24 gunship to pick them up.
On their return, Miles was waiting for them. He had gone to north Norfolk to seek out the author of the disturbing report. “So what happened,” David asked, as they all sat apprehensively, eager to discover if Simpkins’ report was true or not.
“He was understandably nervous when I sought him out. But when I explained that his report was being taken extremely seriously by a think tank set up to investigate similar occurrences worldwide, he finally relaxed and agreed to take me to the sinkhole,” Miles began.
“Don’t stop, go on!” Nick demanded impatiently.
“We went out across the marshland to the sinkhole, armed with a ladder and a couple of torches. After lowering the ladder, James and I climbed down to explore. It was fairly dark down there. I was about to turn on my torch when I spied a narrow shaft of sunlight.”
“From above you?” Kolya suggested, now wide eyed, eagerly leaning forward like a child listening to a bedtime story.
“No. It was coming from one wall of the hole, just below a massive tap root. I got down on my belly and looked beneath it. James definitely wasn’t making the whole thing up! About twenty feet away on the other side of the hole, I swear I saw a young Neanderthal male sitting in a cave mouth, bathed in sunlight.”
“So the whole time phenomenon really is slowly coming apart after all,” Nick replied gloomily, sitting back in his chair with his head hung low.
“Remember your contact in Peru – Thomaso?” Miles continued.
“What about him?” Nick replied as his mind began racing.
“He sent you an email a few days ago via his nephew in Puno. Thomaso swears he saw Inca warriors roaming around on Isla Del Sol near the artefact that you and he went to investigate originally Nick. You know him better than any of us. Would he simply make up something like that, merely to please you?”
Nick shook his head in silent answer to Miles question. One crack in time could be put down to an aberration in time’s fabric, but two? “Ok Miles get going,” Nick began, shrugging his shoulders at this latest inevitable symptom of time breaking down. “Head to Peru and find Thomaso, you have his address. He is one of the most level headed and honest people I’ve ever met. Meantime, use my home as your base of operations for the duration. Forget about your job on the Times. Keep in touch via email with Nicolai. David, give Miles administrative access to your website. Miles, put feelers out everywhere. Use your contacts. Ask – no demand, all information about any further incidents like these. We need to know how many more are occurring. Not only that but their locations across the planet,” Nick said finally, as he rose from his seat at Nicolai’s table and walked to the staircase that leads up to the roof above the apartment. He desperately needed to think. Above all he needed to be on his own for a while, away from the frenetic discussion going on among his friends. He stopped briefly at the foot of the stairs before finally adding with a half-hearted smile, “by the way Miles, watch out for my cat Dragon, he doesn’t take kindly to strangers. Tread carefully around him. If you want to survive his claws, buy a fish head and throw it on the floor beside him as you enter.”
Ithis appeared on the roof and sat quietly as he mulled over the now growing time crack phenomena. “My love, I know where we need to go next,” she murmured. Nick felt frustrated that their hard won successful reactivations, so far seemed to be having no effect. He turned to look into her beautiful eyes. Out of all this mess, she was the one thing in his life that made sense. She felt his deep frustration as she reached inside his mind tenderly massaging his soul, demonstrating yet again the unconditional love she felt for him. Her eyes’ emerald pupils darkened their hue as she lost herself, however briefly, in their shared moment of tender cerebral love.
“So where is it?” he asked.
“A monument field in southern Turkey called Göbekli Tepe,” Ithis replied, “You have a friend who is in charge of the massive excavation happening there.”
“Oh? Who is it?” he asked, still distracted by the latest news, seemingly disinterested by whatever her answer may be. In truth his mind was struggling with the immense task that still lay ahead of them in their race to stop the disastrous apocalyptic event soon to engulf the entire solar system.
“Hakan Ozan,” she replied, while smiling tenderly as she looked deep into her surface-occupier’s troubled eyes, so desperately wanting to hold and kiss him. Nick and Hakan were fellow archaeology postdoctoral students back at the University of East Anglia in England, when Professor Randle had declared the academic equivalent of war with Nick. He was the only one who openly stood by him during those early days, defending him and his controversial theory on time to the hilt. After graduation, and his stint as a postdoctoral researcher, Hakan returned home to Turkey to take up a junior position within the archaeology section of the Turkish government, mainly working in the field. Unlike Nick, he preferred getting his hands dirty instead of boring paper work.
“Göbekli Tepe is the key to the Middle Eastern chain within the system my darling. Your friend Hakan will make a welcome addition to our little band don’t you think?” Ithis suggested, as she saw a brief spark of hope gradually return to Nick’s eyes.
“He may have changed over the years. The last time I heard from him he was newly promoted to chief field archaeologist, based in Ankara,” he replied, as his mood turned once more to gloom, when grave doubts pushed aside any brief positive thoughts he may have had in his mind. “There is something that I have wanted to ask you for a very long time my love,” Nick began quietly, trying desperately to change the subject for the moment. “How did you ever recruit Ricardo to our cause? He is a deeply religious man, and the fervent champion of the Vatican’s fight against evil and ungodliness?”
Ithis sat in silence for a brief moment, gathering her thoughts before she began her explanation. “When Ricardo was a small boy growing up in the favelas surrounding Rio de Janeiro, he often liked to explore and play in the thickly wooded hills above the shanties with his childhood friends. On one particular day they were playing a game of hide and seek in an old cave when its roof collapsed suddenly, sealing him in and cutting off his retreat. By pure chance I was close by, trying to locate the whereabouts of one of my people’s many underground refuges, which we set up during those terrible times when your kind drove us underground thousands of years in the past. We had many of these refuges, storing essential items we deemed necessary for our defence and wellbeing, should we need to fight off anyone foolish enough to follow us beneath the surface. My sudden appearance beside him made poor little Ricardo scream with terror. He thought I was a demon of some kind come to kill him, or to take him to hell. Your foolish religions have much to answer for my darling…
Once I had reassured him that I was not a demon and that I could get him out of there and back to his friends, he slowly calmed down. In thanks for returning him safely to the outside world, he gave me his solemn promise never to reveal my presence, and that if I should ever want his help someday, I only had to seek him out and ask – a child’s promise I know, but one I took seriously. The reason I asked for his solemn promise was simply because at that time, bizarre claims about sightings of strange and frightening creatures in the poorer districts of Rio were being made. The newspapers of the day were full of reports of chimera living in the hills, stealing children from the favelas, ripping them apart and eating them. The last thing I needed was to be hunted down by a mob of frightened surface-occupiers, bent on destroying devils. When Asima reared his head once more, I found Ricardo, and the rest you know,” she sighed, remembering those troubling times in her existence.
Nick smiled to himself as she recalled the tale, imagining how he would have felt had he been in Ricardo’s place when a demon suddenly appeared beside him. He would dearly have loved to be a fly on the wall of Ricardo’s private office on the day when Ithis reappeared in his life once again. Nick followed her back downstairs to Nicolai’s apartment to begin making plans for the long trip south to Göbekli Tepe. Kolya had taken Miles to the airport for his long journey back to England, and on to Nick’s old cottage, to begin his search for more clues to the time cracks. Nicolai was busy in his office cajoling and threatening violent retribution among the other mafia families, should they refuse to help achieve his goal to gain protection for Nick, David, Kolya and Victor on their journey south. He finally came back into the large living room smiling coldly. He had just organized the safest transportation route through the entire Ukraine – via the Dnieper River by gunboat. They all poured over the large map of the Ukraine laid out on the table, paying particular attention to the mighty river flowing south to the Black Sea. Nicolai had already secured an old Black Sea freighter, courtesy of the southern Ukrainian mafia, complete with a captain and crew for the crossing to the northern Turkish shore, which currently lay disused alongside a wharf at Odessa, where she was now being made seaworthy for the crossing. Kolya and Victor would take charge of the gunboat, while extra men would be provided by the lesser mafia families for the long trip down the Dnieper, acting as both armed guards and crew. Whatever Nicolai decreed as the head of the Ukrainian mafia simply happened. No matter how inconvenient it may appear to be to the minor mafia bosses, who saw no profit in acting as bodyguards for a bunch of archaeologists, no one ever refused Nicolai unless they had a death wish.
Their trip began the following evening, following the Desna River to where it joined the Dnieper as it flowed south through the Ukrainian capital of Kiev. Nick and David remained hidden below deck for the duration of the six hundred and eighty mile trip to the southernmost Ukrainian town of Kherson, at the northern extremity of the river’s large delta, on the shores of the Black Sea. The journey was governed by the speed of the shipping travelling north and south along the river, via the chain of large reservoirs and locks used by sea going vessels to take their cargos to and from Kiev.
Kolya considered it his duty to give his captive audience a potted history of the Dnieper and its importance both in the past and now, whether they liked it or not. His head was full of useless facts such as the old Ukrainian name for the river – Chorne More. At one point David flippantly informed him that he would be brilliant at Trivial Pursuits, much to Kolya’s great annoyance. He was proud of his homeland and his people’s struggle down the centuries. One fact he pointed out after David had apologized for his poor joke, made all aboard greatly concerned. Sooner or later they would have to run the gauntlet through the river territory controlled by the Zaporozhian Cossacks, who long ago abandoned their horses, trading them in for high speed boats they now used in their new venture, highly profitable river piracy.
The gunboat entered the first of two large reservoirs close to Cherkassy and tied up to temporary moorings on the bank, hidden by thick reeds and by a camouflage net spread over its superstructure, awaiting nightfall. All along the length and breadth of the massive manmade reservoir as far as the eye could see, large sea going vessels lay at anchor awaiting their turn to navigate the locks at the southern end of the reservoir. Victor and the armed crew stood guard, hidden beneath the net, watching for anyone approaching by land or by water. Once the backed up river traffic began moving again they would join the flotilla. Until then they had no choice but to wait. Navigating the lock system was not a problem by night, but during the hours of daylight, being noticed by the Ukrainian armed forces was an entirely different matter. The old gunboat had been relieved of its firepower long ago when it was eventually retired from active service. But should its thinly disguised profile be noticed by alert military personnel, they could expect to be boarded for inspection, and be subjected to a barrage of extremely awkward questions.
Despite the recent help proffered by the Russian military chiefs to silence Asima, those within the Ukrainian military who knew nothing of the operation, would consider anyone using such a vessel either to be smugglers or Russian drug traffickers. Should they also find westerners aboard, alarm bells would be sounded throughout the ranks of the Ukrainian military and their political masters? At best Nick and David would be deported as undesirables. More than likely though, they would be found guilty of espionage and executed. Under the circumstances they could expect no further cooperation from the senior military chiefs who had helped them previously. To openly admit they had committed military personnel to a politically unauthorized, non-military operation, would spell the end to their careers, and quite possibly they would join Nick and David in front of a firing squad.
By midnight the following night they were once again on the move, heading for the inland port of Kremenchuck under cover of darkness. Nicolai had arranged safe passage for Nick and David by road down to Marganec on the western shores of the southernmost reservoir, south of the Ukrainian city of Dnepropetrovsk, bypassing the headquarters of the Zaporozhian Cossack clans, and the area of the river under their control. Victor would remain on board with his armed crew while Kolya accompanied Nick and David for the overland part of their journey to Marganec, where they would re-join the gunboat for the remainder of the trip. After slipping ashore via inflatable dinghy, Kolya led the way through the dilapidated buildings that stood on the wharf. He signalled them to stop and remain where they were while he found their transport. Twenty minutes later they were once more heading south, hidden from view in the back of a battered Kamaz four wheel drive vehicle driven by Katya, glad once more to be involved in protecting her lover.
She had finally persuaded her uncle to be allowed to help her man, wearing him down by crying, pleading, screaming, sulking and nagging, until Nicolai could stand it no longer and gladly allowed his niece to set off in hot pursuit, if only to be rid of her for a while. As they drove south, Victor and his armed crew aboard the old gunboat had a brief encounter with the river pirates. It ended abruptly when he deliberately rammed one of the two high-speed powerboats that chased them, constantly trying to board. As the craft sank beneath the surface of the busy waterway above the northern locks for the reservoir, the bodies of the dead pirate crew floated in the churned up water like rag dolls while the other powerboat rapidly disappeared back upriver. The following night everyone, including Katya, was safely aboard the old gunboat heading south along the length of the remaining reservoir, picking their way carefully through the mass of anchored shipping by night, heading for Kherson and the delta, towards their destination – Odessa.