It took three tries, but Susan Briggs finally found a mask that fit her face. Kaufman then introduced her to Norman Lang, his chief scientist, explaining that she was to help him in whatever way he asked.
Lang seemed nervous. Only a few inches taller than her and probably no more than 140 pounds soaking wet, he certainly wasn’t cut from the same cloth as the mercenaries, but there was an edge to him that made her uncomfortable. He was constantly licking his lips and flexing the muscles in his jaw, as if he were clenching and unclenching his teeth. He must have cleaned the lenses on his black-plastic-framed glasses five times in the ten minutes they stood together waiting for Kaufman.
The three of them entered the temple together, along with two of Kaufman’s hired guns, all of them breathing heavily through the charcoal-filter masks.
They descended the steps carefully, with Lang videotaping the journey on a digital camcorder. The walls were tinted in places, painted long ago in some reddish hue, but they were also scarred and discolored, with bright yellow stains and splotches. Where the stone was bare it glistened in the light, dripping with condensation.
Lang zoomed in for a close-up on what appeared to be some yellowish form of rust. “Sulfur,” he said. “Eating away at the granite.”
They walked into the first chamber. Susan stared at the piles of skulls. Professor McCarter’s description had not done the sight justice.
Lang ordered all the lights off and switched on a black light in their stead. The UV light illuminated their eyes and teeth and the laces on Lang’s tennis shoes, all glowing purple-white as if they were lit from within. It turned the skulls into a ghostly sight and brought out a million speckles hidden within the stone of the floor and walls. But whatever Lang was searching for, he didn’t see it. He switched back to normal light and the group continued, through a doorway into a second room.
They examined this room as they had the foyer, regular light first, ultraviolet second. Again nothing of interest was found.
Lang turned to her. “What’s next?”
She was navigating from McCarter’s descriptions.
“It should be the altar room,” she said.
The next room was indeed the altar room, but to enter it they had to pass through the falling beam of light.
Lang held his hand in the stream. It was wide but less then a centimeter thick, a long, narrow slit allowing the sunlight in from somewhere up above. He seemed suspicious.
“Are there any traps here?” Lang asked.
She blinked though the mask. “You’re kidding me, right?”
Lang did not look as if he were.
“You’ve seen too many movies,” she said.
Looking no more comfortable, Lang set himself to go forward and edged through the beam of light. The altar room lay on the other side.
Susan watched as Lang wandered about, probing this section and that, looking through the viewfinder and recording things he saw. Several times he used the black light and occasionally he looked at other instruments he’d brought along. He seemed mostly underwhelmed. Finally, he made his way to the platform, where he switched off the lights once again.
This time something appeared in the presence of the ultraviolet rays: geometric markings hidden within the stone face of the altar.
Susan stared at them.
Kaufman noticed her gaze. “Do you recognize these?”
She didn’t. “They don’t look like glyphs.”
Lang aimed his camera at the top surface of the altar, and another set of marks appeared: two elongated grooves embedded within the stone, running from the front of the altar to the back. Widely spaced at first, the grooves narrowed near the middle, forming parallel lines for several inches before bending outward again. As they neared the back edge, the lines diverged completely, until they ran away from each other, in opposite directions, spreading across the top of the design in flowing, rolling swirls. At various points on the altar there were carved depressions in the stone, all of them within the boundaries created by the two lines.
Susan stood on her tiptoes to peek and Kaufman waved her up. “Does this look familiar to you?”
She studied the pattern. “No, they’re not glyphs either.”
“No,” Kaufman agreed.
She cocked her head. “But it almost looks like …”
She turned to Kaufman. “Like a tree.”
Kaufman examined the lines again. He seemed unable to visualize it.
She tried to assist. “Here are the roots,” she said, pointing to the closest part of the markings. “The bottom of the tree. And this would be the trunk,” she said, as her finger traced the lines to the top. “And these swirls are the branches and the leaves.” She turned to Kaufman. “A tree.”
Kaufman and Lang stared at the design. The lines were thin, little more than scratches. It was hard to see the pattern as a tree.
Susan realized their hesitance. “I mean it doesn’t look like those other marks,” she said. “They were angled and straight. These are all curves.”
Kaufman looked again. “Why is it you see a tree, when we don’t?” He turned to face her. “You’re expecting a tree, maybe?”
“No,” she said. “Not expecting one. But you do see it repeatedly in Mayan art. It’s called the World Tree. It connects the three zones of existence, the underworld at its roots, the middle world that we live in at the trunk and the realm of the gods at the top in the branches. That’s what I see here,” she said, certain of it now. “This is art. Not writing.”
Kaufman took one more look and then tapped Lang, who switched back to normal light. It took their eyes a second to adjust.
“Ms. Briggs, do you know what an electro-graphic ground scan is?”
She nodded. “It checks electrical resistance to determine the mineral makeup of the underground layers. We use them sometimes before we excavate.”
“It can be used like an ultrasound,” Kaufman said. “We’ve run several of them this morning, along with a series of ultrasounds, and we think this place is built over the top of a large cavern. Would that surprise you?”
She and McCarter had guessed there was a cave, but she didn’t want to give that away. “Not really. The sulfur fumes have to come from somewhere, either volcanic vents or a sulfur cave. We poked around a bit but we couldn’t find an entrance.”
Kaufman smiled. “That’s because the temple was built right on top of it. The water proves it. The temple is the entrance to the cave.”
Kaufman pointed to the well and the three of them peered into the darkness of that circular abyss. “Poe would be proud.”
Susan gazed into the well again.
Kaufman signaled one of his men. “Take her back to the others,” he said. “And make sure they have proper food and water.” He looked at Susan. “You see? I keep my promises.”
“Not at all,” Kaufman said. “Feel free to discuss it. Perhaps your Professor McCarter will have some thoughts on what you’ve seen. If he does, I’d like to hear them.”
Susan nodded, confused and surprised, but much calmer than she’d been before.
As she was led out, she glanced back at Kaufman. He was pulling something from his pocket, but before she could see what it was, the guard pushed her forward and she ascended the stairs.
Standing in the altar room, Kaufman turned to Lang. “This is where Dixon found the stones,” he said. “And the fifth crystal.”
Lang seemed unhappy with that conclusion. “That guy was out of his mind, I don’t know about trusting anything he said. If these crystals are what you think they are, then they came from some type of machinery. Not …” He waved his hand toward the altar. “This.”
“The natives found them,” Kaufman said with certainty. “Idolizing what they found, they used the crystals as some type of holy object. Worshipping it for what they knew it could do.”
“The NRI’s theory,” Lang noted.
“It got them—and us—this far,” Kaufman reminded him. “It’s kind of late to start questioning it.”
Lang backed down and turned to the altar, switching the black light back on, illuminating the marks in the stone: the tree that Susan had seen. There were four small depressions in the bottom of the design, one in the central trunk portion and four more at the top. “I’d just like some proof.”
Kaufman nodded and opened the small box in his hand. A jeweler’s case, it contained the gray metallic stones and the crystal Dixon had found.
He placed them in the depressions, the cubes at the bottom and the crystal at the top. The cubes fit snugly, but the crystal did not. He moved it to the center slot, where it slid into place with a soft click.
From deeper in the same pocket Kaufman pulled a second case, one he’d taken from Danielle after her capture. Lined up inside like darts were the Martin’s crystals. He placed the crystals in various spots at the top of the design, moving them around until all three fit snugly. Nothing happened.
One of the mercenaries commented, “No magic,” he said, making a whooshing sound as he finished.
“We’re not looking for magic,” Kaufman said, aggravated.
“Still,” Lang noted. “We are one short.”
“Yes,” Kaufman said, remembering that the NRI had dissected one of the crystals. There were five slots but only four complete crystals. “Although, I don’t think it matters here,” he said, looking at Lang. “This isn’t anything, is it?”
Lang shook his head. “I don’t see any way this could generate energy. The girl’s right: this is just art. Ancient, primitive art.”
Kaufman looked around. “Yes,” he said. “Just art. Like any church, the shiny things go up front, but the real truths are kept hidden in a vault somewhere.”
Kaufman didn’t respond. He was staring at the design on the altar. “Do you see a tree here?” he asked.
Lang studied the markings once again. “Yeah, I guess I can. Like the girl said, ‘the path connecting the three zones of existence.’”
“What about a tunnel?” Kaufman asked. “The crystal goes between the lines. That suggests a hollow structure to me. A hollow tree is a tunnel.” He looked over the edge and into the pit. “Or perhaps a well.”
Lang glanced at Kaufman, then at the design, and the well beyond the altar. “I know what you’re thinking,” he said. “Let me get the ultrasound done first.”
Several minutes later, while Lang readied the equipment for the ultrasound, Kaufman had his other mercenaries begin to move the stone that still blocked half the entrance. He wanted more space to get things in, and was certain they would need the space to bring out what he expected to find. But his men failed to use the caution that the NRI team had shown and the granite slab cracked deeply along a pre-existing fissure. After quick words and a cursory exam, another attempt to move it proved too much and the stone cracked in half, with much of its bulk crashing through the opening and onto the stairs below, where it shattered into rubble.
Kaufman looked at the mess. “Clear it up,” he said with disgust.
The mercenaries sprung into action, dropping their equipment and beginning a cleanup job on the stairs.
Kaufman thought of it philosophically. “Not their finest moment, but if we couldn’t move it we would have had to break it anyway.”