As soon as he made it back to the camp, McCarter began searching for the things that had been taken from them, his notebook and drawings in particular. He dug through piles of Kaufman’s supplies and equipment, violently slinging aside anything that wasn’t what he was looking for. And feeling triumphantly empowered as he did so.
A cough from behind him put a stop to it. “Professor?”
He turned to see Susan, dirty-faced, her rifle slung over her shoulder.
“Shouldn’t you be resting?” he asked.
“I can’t sleep,” she said. “Every sound makes me jump, and I’d rather not sleep than keep waking up like that.”
He could understand that, he’d found sleep hard to come by himself.
“What are you doing?” she asked. “I mean, it looks like fun but—”
“Ah yes, I’m looking for something,” he said. “Trying to take back what’s ours, actually.”
McCarter could almost feel his eyes welling up with tears. She was just a kid. He couldn’t imagine how she was dealing with what she’d been through. What they were all going through. “And your family didn’t think you could hack it out here,” he said.
“Can you believe it?” she said, tears welling up in her eyes just a bit. “I turned down Paris for this.”
McCarter took the notebooks from her and sat down. “We’ll get you there,” he said. “In the meantime, you want to help me with what’s basically a pointless academic question?”
She unshouldered her rifle. “Sure, maybe it’ll help me feel normal again.” She sat down next to him. “What are we trying to figure out?”
“Hawker asked me a question about this place,” he said.
“He’s quite smart,” McCarter said. “Despite what he’d have us think. He notices things. And of all people, he noticed that the Chollokwan have an unexplainably strong interest in an abandoned temple that has nothing to do with them. Any thoughts?”
She took a moment, looking around at their surroundings. “Only that he’s right,” she said.
They discussed the question for a while, talking the subject around and bouncing thoughts off of each other, but no real progress was made, until they considered a different question, one that had been with them from the beginning: Was this temple or city Tulan Zuyua?
“It all starts there,” McCarter noted.
“No,” he agreed. “But it does seem possible. Seven Caves, the Place of Bitter Water, glyphs that reference things that occurred before the original Maya left Tulan Zuyua.” He scratched his head. “If we were to assume it to be true, would that help us? I mean, what do we know about Tulan Zuyua that might tell us something?”
“Humans were given their gods there,” she said. “And they left in an exodus, of sorts.”
“Right,” McCarter said. “And from what we’ve found—or rather, what we haven’t found—it doesn’t seem like this place was occupied for very long.” He was referring to the lack of everyday items that formed the bulk of any excavation: the pottery for cooking and carrying water, the tools, the bones of animals consumed for food, all of which piled up in ancient garbage dumps. Nor had they found extensive writing.
“We saw glyphs on and inside the temple, as well as one of the smaller structures—the beginning of something, but not a body of work like the gardens of stone at the classical Mayan cities. And in certain places, the work seems to have been cut short, like half-finished sentences. All of which suggests a sudden exodus to me.”
“You think they fled,” she guessed.
“Abandoned the place,” McCarter said. “A little different than the orderly departure described in the Popul Vuh, but even there the imagery of them trudging through the darkness and rain evokes the look of refugees.”
She seemed to agree. “What else do we know?”
McCarter rubbed the sandpaper stubble on the side of his face and then reached for his notes. He began to flip through the pages once again, going backward this time, starting from the most recent and moving toward the beginning of the expedition. It was a trick he’d learned long ago, one that forced him to review the written pages, to study the words, instead of just scanning what he knew to be coming next.
Page after page moved through his hands—drawings he’d made, notes he’d scribbled that seemed almost indecipherable now. He squinted at the chicken scratch and racked his brain and then continued to backtrack. The pages flew by one at a time, until finally he stopped and held his place.
His fingers rubbed at the paper, the tactile sense of its fiber familiar to him, the half-circle stain from a coffee mug reminding him of the day he’d written on that particular page.
He stared at his own writing and the glyph he’d transcribed, one that he’d copied not in the clearing or at the temple but back at the Wall of Skulls. His eyes scanned it repeatedly as his mind made a leap it would not have been capable of just days before. He’d found his key.
He marked the spot in his notes, and began to riffle through the rest of them in search of a drawing he’d made at the base of the altar inside the temple.
He told Susan what he was searching for. She produced a printout of a photo she had taken with her digital camera, before it and the printer had succumbed to the electromagnetic degradation.
“This set of glyphs,” he said, pointing to the left side of a photo that had been taken inside the temple. “Do you remember what we decided about them?”
Susan examined the picture briefly, mumbling to herself as she translated. “The offering to the one for whom the temple was built. Which would be the Ahau: the king.”
“Correct. And this is the point of all that deference,” he said, moving his finger to the right side of the photo and pointing out another more opulent, yet unreadable glyph—unreadable because it was damaged, smashed as if by a hammer or a stone. It wasn’t the only glyph that appeared to have been damaged in that way but it was the only one on that particular section. It had left McCarter with the distinct impression of vandalism. The fact that it was probably the Ahau’s name only made the feeling stronger. He thought of the Pharaohs erasing the name of Moses from all the obelisks in Egypt.
Susan examined the photo again and sighed.
“Unknown,” she said. “The glyph clearly represents a name, but being damaged and this far from the rest of Mayan civilization, we might never find a matching symbol, in which case we would have to assign it a name ourselves.”
As always, McCarter thought, a textbook explanation. “That’s what we assumed at the time. But in fact, we already know who this is, though the answer will surprise you.”
She looked at him with suspicion.
McCarter folded the page of his notebook over and handed it to her. On the page in front of her was the drawing he’d made at the Wall of Skulls. The undamaged portions in the photo were identical to his markings. Next to it McCarter had scribbled a name, an English translation: Seven Macaw.
“That’s impossible,” she said. “Seven Macaw was one of the wooden people. Part of their pre-history, their pre-human mythology.”
He arched his brows. “Think about the description of the wooden people,” he said. “With no muscle development in their arms or their legs. No fat to speak of. With masklike faces and deformed bodies.”
“The body in the temple,” she said.
“Exactly,” he replied. “At the time of the wooden people, we have Seven Macaw holding himself out as a god, right? The leader, at the very least. But the authors of the Popul Vuh have him painted more as a usurper. He’s repugnant to the gods, something just wrong, foreign and unnatural.”
“Subhuman,” she said.
He nodded. “But in a place of power he becomes something more. Instead of a pitiable creature, he becomes an abomination: Seven Macaw.”
She glanced at the photo of the vandalized glyphs as he went on.
“Here’s the thing,” he said. “Seven Macaw was described as having a nest made of metal, and possessions that could create light. In fact, he claimed to be the Sun and the Moon and that he could light up the whole of the world, but even the writers of the Popul Vuh knew this claim was false. They knew the light he created could only reach a short distance out into the night.”
He nodded toward the temple. “If Danielle is right and that body down there is indeed the remains of a person who traveled here from the future, I’m guessing they would have come in some type of vessel; something ancient people might have described as a nest made of metal. I mean, what would they say if a plane crashed here, or a space capsule like Mercury or Apollo? Even our spotlights illuminated a large swath of ground before they were destroyed, who knows what type of lighting someone from the future might have.”
“But not enough to light up the world,” Susan noted.
“No,” McCarter agreed, “whatever they might boast.”
“That would fit,” she said, excitedly. “I mean, if they did have such things, primitive people would have a hard time describing them.”
McCarter nodded, but remained quiet for the moment. He was thinking of the skull in the cave and the golden filaments that ran from the eye sockets back across the top of it. He thought about his uncle, who had a titanium knee, a pacemaker in his chest and an artificial lens in his eye where a cataract had been removed. He guessed that the filaments they’d seen were something similar, a prosthetic or part of one, designed to aid sight in some way.
“Remember when Seven Macaw was shot with the blow dart,” he said. “The heroes took the metal from his eyes.”
“It’s probably a stretch,” he said, “but I suppose it’s even possible that the body you found down there, that actual body, could have made it into legend as Seven Macaw.”
More likely she was right—legends had a way of being embellished and expanded in the aftermath, and almost all tales of woe tended to derive their pain from a specific villain as opposed to a group, even if that had not been the case.
“Either way,” he said. “I have to believe there is some connection here. And if that’s the case, then I think perhaps it can help us understand these animals we’ve been fighting a little bit better.”
He watched as she worked it out, coming around to the same conclusion he’d now reached. “You think those animals are the Zipacna,” she said, guessing his thoughts. “The son, or apparently sons of Seven Macaw.”
“That’d be my guess,” he said. “Sons of his, but not in the biological sense. After all, George Washington is the father of our country and Ben Franklin is called the father of electricity, but they didn’t give birth to those things.”
“‘Father’ could mean patron or protector … or creator,” she said.
He looked toward the temple. “So if that body in the cave is Seven Macaw, either in fact or in general, then he could be Zipacna’s creator, his father in that sense. Growing the Zipacna in those pools, cloning them perhaps.”
“But whoever that is down there, he’s dead,” she noted. “Why are the animals still here?”
“Or when we walked through the curtain of light,” she said.
“Booby traps do have a habit of sticking around,” he said. “Just look at all the minefields strewn across the world, littering the ground long after the wars have moved on. And if that’s the case here, then perhaps these wooden people or deformed humans—or whatever we’re calling them—set up a system like that here. It’s all guesswork, but …”
“Maybe not,” she said. “I didn’t remember to show you this when we were down in the cave. We were talking about the body and everything, and I just wanted to get out of there. But before you came down I had nothing to do but try to reach Kaufman on that radio and pray that those things wouldn’t reach me first. To take my mind off it, I studied those glyphs and the other marks as well. Among the geometric drawings, I’m quite sure there was a double-helix design. It could mean anything, it could be the infinity sign turned on its side, but it looked like a stylized drawing of DNA. Kind of like what you might see on a drug company’s logo.”
“And among the Maya writing,” she added, “I recognized glyphs referencing the children, unlearned, or they will not learn, and then violence. The last glyphs indicate retribution or destruction.”
McCarter took a breath, thinking. “In that order?”
She nodded. “I took it to mean the children would not learn,” she said, “and so were punished. I’m guessing the children were the locals, and they were punished by releasing the animals, the Zipacna.”
He looked over at the bandaged dogs, resting near the foxholes. “We have our loyal friends. Perhaps they have their own service animals.”
“But why?” she asked. “What’s the point? Why build the pyramid at all? Why would anyone want to live down in that cave?”
“Ahh,” McCarter said. He’d been waiting for that. “An important question. And I think a most important answer. That temple seems to be a deliberate cap on the cave, keeping the sulfur and the acid on the inside, increasing the concentration in the air. The environment down there is completely different. After we brought you out, you had to wash off with fresh water because your skin was burning, remember?”
“Of course,” she said, rubbing a hand over her forearm. “It still itches.”
“The water was extremely acidic. It killed the soldier you saw jump in and yet the animals lived in it without any problem. Danielle thinks it’s because they secrete an oily base substance to counteract the acid. From that alone I’m guessing they’re used to it, designed for it even. On the body you found, we saw similar pores in the bony plates. That leads me to believe an acidic environment was their natural habitat.”
“Acid rain in our future after all,” she said, sadly.
“So they capped the cave deliberately,” she said. “Trying their best to create an artificial environment down there, one that would keep them comfortable, or at least alive.”
“Their version of a bubble on the moon,” he said.
She seemed to be thinking it over, confirming it in her own mind, only to realize that they still hadn’t answered the original question. “Okay,” she said, “based on what we’ve seen, I can buy into what you’re saying. The wooden people and the Zipacna as real. I can even see them forcing these early Maya to build the temple as a cap to the cave because they need the acidic environment to survive in, but I still don’t see what that has to do with the Chollokwan.”
McCarter answered her question with one of his own, ready at last to link the two ideas together. “What happened to the wooden people when they ignored the call of the gods, when they exalted themselves and failed to keep the days?”
“They were killed off,” she said. “Hurricane and the other gods destroyed them. Turning their own animals against them.”
“Right,” McCarter said. “Their own animals, including beasts that attacked and ripped them apart, something that quite accurately describes what the Zipacna do. They raced for the trees and they raced for the caves,” he added, quoting the Popul Vuh again. “But the trees could not bear them and the caves were sealed shut.”
He nodded. “If I was to take it all the way, and try to match it up with the legend, I would suppose that the Mayan people rebelled, injured Seven Macaw and sent him fleeing to that temple. And then they sealed him in. With a storm coming, and nowhere to hide, any Zipacna that may have been out here went crazy, attacking everyone and everything, including the other wooden people—if there were any. And then the storm hit, drowning one and all with burning rain.”
“It rained all day and all through the night,” she said.
“And the earth was blackened beneath it,” he added, quoting the ancient Mayan text one last time. As he finished, McCarter watched Susan’s face light up. He was certain that she’d made the connection, certain that she knew his next question and the answer to it as well. He asked it anyway.
“And what were the Chollokwan doing with those crystals when our friend Blackjack Martin so casually took them away?”
“They were praying,” she said. “Praying for rain.”
“Damn right,” McCarter said, slamming his notebook shut. “The Chollokwan care about this place, because they’re descendants of the Mayan tribe who built it. And they were praying for the rain, not to make the crops grow or the river flood or for any of the other reasons normally associated with such a request, but because their salvation, or at least that of their ancestors, once depended on it.”