While the rest of the team packed up and readied themselves for the journey across land, Danielle sat on the deck of the Ocana, using the satlink to report their progress.
To her great joy, Gibbs was unavailable and she’d been connected with the only other person cleared for communication with her: Arnold Moore.
She explained their discovery to him and made a request. “I want to send the rest of the team home. I’ll go on with Verhoven’s group, but we need to get the civilians out of here.”
“Professor McCarter and Ms. Briggs?”
“Yes,” she said. “Along with the porters and Devers and Polaski,” she said, reminding him that they were part of Research Division, not Operations, and didn’t really belong out in the field on an operation of this magnitude.
“Why now?” Moore asked. “Has something happened?”
“I don’t think we need them anymore,” she said. “And yes, there was a small incident the other night with a pair of natives,” she said, referring to the incursion that had led Hawker and Verhoven into the pit.
“No,” she said. “But I have a bad feeling that it won’t be the last we see of them. Besides, we have our trail now. We can follow it and get assistance remotely if we need it for translation or interpretation.”
“Gibbs will never go for that,” he said, telling her something she already knew. “You can’t imagine the paranoia back here. He wants you to stop reporting completely now. Only verbal communication with him or me from here on out. No record.”
They’d been sending bogus “filler” reports for the past month, but now Gibbs didn’t even want that. He seemed to be coming unglued.
“Why?” she asked.
“He’s become convinced that someone took out Dixon’s team and he’s on a mole hunt to find out how the info got out. He’s worried that any type of disclosure could endanger you.”
“All the more reason to get these people out of here,” she said, exasperated.
Silence followed for a moment.
“You know I agree with you,” Moore said finally. “But it’s not going to happen, so we have to stop talking about it.”
Danielle listened to the meaning behind the words. Even in the somewhat distorted pitch that the satellite and the encryption technology caused, Moore’s point was clear: Worry about what you can control, not what you can’t.
In her heart she knew that. She’d hoped the trail would be enough, but things often worked backward in Gibbs’ mind. The closer they got to success, the more he would push the boundaries, and the more he would risk to close the deal. She would go forward and one of two things would happen. They would find something strong enough to make Gibbs pull the civilians. Or the overdue rains would finally come back to the Amazon and the whole group would have to leave as torrential downpours flooded the forest.
“Fine,” she said. “Then tell him we’re moving. I’ll contact you in twenty-four hours.”
“Affirmed,” he said, then added, “And Danielle, watch your back. And your front and both sides. Gibbs is paranoid, but it doesn’t mean he’s wrong. So be careful. I don’t want you disappearing on me.”
She smiled at his concern, and out of the corner of her eye she saw Hawker approaching. “Don’t worry,” she said. “I’ll be fine.”
She terminated the link and began to shut down and pack up the system as Hawker walked up.
“Everyone’s ready,” he said.
They’d come to a temporary parting of the ways. Hawker would reboard the Ocana and sail downriver back to Manaus, while the rest of the group moved westward on foot in the direction indicated by the glyphs they’d found. Upon discovering any sign of the expected Mayan outpost, they would contact Hawker and cut a landing zone out of the forest so that he could fly in the heavier equipment and bulk supplies that were too cumbersome to carry.
He studied her. “You seem a little upset. You’re going to miss me, aren’t you?”
She laughed. “That’s debatable,” she said. “But I am worried about being extended this far out. You’re our only link back now. So don’t fall in a hole or anything.”
As he laughed, she broke into a broad grin. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d joked with someone so easily. “I’ll contact you as soon as we’ve found the site. Be ready to bring in the equipment I listed.”
“Your defense system,” he said.
“And the dogs Verhoven wants,” she replied, pulling her pack on.
“Right,” he said. “I’m really looking forward to a helicopter filled with barking mutts.”
Behind them the Ocana’s big diesel rumbled to life. The captain whistled to Hawker, who nodded and then turned back to Danielle. He reached out and straightened her pack, adjusting one of the straps like a parent sending a child off to school. She slapped his hand away and then stepped down the makeshift gangplank to join the rest of the group.
Ten minutes later the Ocana was out of sight and Danielle and her people were moving deeper into the forest. As they left the river behind, any semblance of a fresh breeze vanished and the air took on the feeling of a sauna, stifling and motionless and growing hotter with each passing hour.
The rains had held off so far, with the weather pattern influenced by the forming El Niño. For the most part that had been a blessing, but after two weeks without a hint of shade, a quick, cool shower would have been welcome relief.
Despite the conditions, the group made good time, traveling through the twilight beneath the canopy, surrounded by towering shapes of impossibly large trees. McCarter in particular seemed to have a new spring in his step, and Danielle watched as he pointed out things on the way, particular plants and bright orchids, and trees dying in the twisted embrace of the strangler fig.
Danielle tried to ignore him. She was thinking of the bigger picture, prodded on by Moore’s faith in her, the desire to prove herself to Gibbs and her own need to finish what she started. But there was more to it than that. If she was right, they were closing in on the source of the crystals Martin had found years ago, crystals that seemed to be capable of creating energy from cold fusion.
It was bigger than her, she knew that, bigger than them all, but she was the one carrying the knowledge and it left her feeling very alone, isolated, back out on that island that Hawker had so accurately described. And though Hawker was still in the dark, he had a sense of what she was going through and in some way had begun to share that weight. It had given them a bond and she had even begun to trust him.
At the moment though, her attention returned to the march and the latest delay in their progress. McCarter had stopped the procession for another Discovery Channel moment, showing the others a huge rubber tree with its smooth, plasterlike wood and a trunk that spread apart like a group of massive vertical blades. A thin black line of ants were crawling along the bark, hundreds of them in single file with little leaves in their mouths.
Ants! He’d stopped the hike to watch some ants!
“Look at them,” he said. “Don’t they remind you of us, carrying their little packs?”
She shook her head. “Not unless you can show me one who keeps stopping the group and holding everyone up.”
His face wrinkled, he’d been as giddy as a schoolboy since the discovery of the Wall, with a demeanor to match. “No,” he said. “But see this little one over here bossing the others around. He reminds me of—”
She gave him the look and he stopped midsentence. With a smile he turned from the ants and reengaged in the trek, launching into a whistling chorus of “High Hopes” as he went. This time she couldn’t help but laugh.
By the fifth day, they came across evidence of a small structure. It wasn’t much more than a loose pile of stone covered with plant growth and moss, but it was enough to tell them they were in the right area. A few hours later they stumbled upon a sight Danielle could not explain, even as she gazed at it in wonder.
She stepped from the shadows of the rainforest into a large, circular clearing populated by nothing more than scrubby weeds and pale, dry grasses. The darkness they’d hiked through for the past five days cowered behind her, while the blinding sunlight poured in unchallenged. Here, the forest surrendered a dominion that held sway for hundreds of miles in every direction. But that was the smaller surprise.
Danielle squinted against the sudden brightness, using a hand to shield her eyes. At the center of the clearing a gray stone pyramid towered above the flat, open ground. Its steep walls were smooth and unmarked on three sides, while a single stairway ran up its face to a small, square roof, fifteen stories above the forest floor.
A structure of unmistakably Mayan design, as perfect as could be—and yet, for reasons Danielle, and later McCarter, found hard to explain, it seemed out of place and foreign. Not only shouldn’t it have been there in the greater sense of all they knew about the Mayan race, but it shouldn’t have appeared as it did. It should have been buried in a tangled web of living trees, vines and soil, just as McCarter had been telling the group since day one. It should have been crumbling under the weight of its own stonework, failing and dilapidated as it drowned in the thickening rainforest and its ever-constricting grip.
But it was none of these things. It stood unencumbered and menacing, defiantly unbowed. It unnerved her in a way she could not explain.
At the mere sight of it, the other members of the team began shouting, whooping and hollering in celebration and congratulating one another. Several of them began running toward the pyramid, racing to the foot of the temple as if the first to touch it would win some unspoken prize.
They sprinted past, pausing briefly to congratulate her, before corralling McCarter and dragging him off with them, victorious.
Danielle let them go, preferring to savor the moment. As she walked farther into the clearing and its blissful daylight, she felt a great sense of accomplishment. At long last, she had something concrete to point to. The temple could not disappear like the other leads had. It could not turn out to be a sham or a hoax or a mistake in translation. It was tangible, concrete and irrefutable. She would find what they were looking for and she would return to Washington a hero.