The weather pattern had changed across Brazil. The feared El Niño and the high-pressure ridge that had been funneling dry air into the Amazon were gone, replaced by a steady flow from the north, which pumped massive quantities of moisture from the Caribbean out over the heart of the rainforest, bringing clouds and rain that stretched unbroken from central Brazil to the coast. At the clearing where the temple stood, it would rain without end for nine solid days.

Amid the sheets of pouring rain, the Chollokwan began the somber after-tasks of war. As they swept their dead from the field, they came upon the body of Pik Verhoven and carried it off without a word. In time they would place his body beside the other warriors, and the cremation ceremony would begin. Around the great fires there would be sorrow, but also chanting and singing as the smoke carried brave spirits to the sky.

The NRI team’s survivors would not witness the ceremony, as they remained in the clearing with a group of Chollokwan warriors.

Under partially reconstructed tents they waited out the rains. On the second day the Chollokwan brought them food. With game in short supply, it was a powerful gesture.

As he finished a small bite of some type of fish, Hawker turned to Danielle and McCarter. “How long do you think it will take them to cut a new stone for the temple’s roof?”

“They said it would be done,” McCarter replied. “But I didn’t see any stonework at their village. Truthfully, I doubt they have the skills.”

“That’s what I thought,” Hawker said. He put down his plate, slipped out of the makeshift tent and hiked toward the temple through the misty rain. McCarter and Danielle followed him, crossing the clearing, climbing up the stairs of the temple and then down into its interior.

Cautiously, Hawker disconnected the trip-wired explosives and removed them. A moment later he was raising a sledgehammer and smashing it into the curved wall around the well. The rock cracked and split and shards flew in all directions. Another blow sent huge chunks over the edge, crashing down into the water below.

Alerted by the noise, several of the Chollokwan came into the temple. At first, they appeared surprised by the commotion, but they quickly realized what was being done. They grouped together to assist, turning their attention to the massive chunks of rock lying about, pieces of the stone that had once sealed the building. They slid the jagged sections toward the well, lifting them up and dumping them into the pit one by one.

As they worked Hawker continued his assault on the well’s surrounding wall, and when that was finished, he turned his attention to the altar. The natives shouted to their brethren up the stairs, and soon a daisy chain of sorts had begun, with the Chollokwan bringing in baskets full of rock and wood and even small boulders, all to be poured into the well.

Exhausted, Hawker relinquished the hammer to McCarter, and after a few minutes he turned it over to Danielle, as they took turns destroying the altar. In thirty minutes the job was all but finished, the bulk of the Mayan altar broken up and shoved over the edge, a massive pile of stone jamming up the hollow well.

The Chollokwan continued to add to the pile, promising to fill the well right up to the top. The plug of rubble would weigh ten tons or more, making it impossible for any more Zipacna to escape from the underworld.

As the Chollokwan men left to get more stone, Danielle rested against the wall, the sledgehammer heavy in her hands. Her gaze drifted around the room and then back to the ruined altar, where a trace of light caught her eye.

“What is that?” she said, gazing at a soft glow amid the debris.

As Hawker and McCarter looked on, she leaned the sledgehammer against the wall and stepped toward the object. Crouching amid the dust and pulverized rock, she cleared some of debris aside and the glow brightened marginally. She reached down and pulled a glowing object from the mess. It was a triangular-shaped stone, the size of a large dictionary.

She gazed at it, wiping the dirt and dust from its surface, running her fingers over its smoothed corners and beveled edges. It seemed to be made of a clear substance, and it felt like some type of heavy acrylic.

“It’s warm,” she said, carefully feeling the object.

“What is it?” Hawker asked.

She shook her head. “I have no idea. Unless it’s from …” She considered the fact that the Martin’s crystals and the small radioactive cubes had sat in revered positions on the altar. It made her wonder if she might have found what she was looking for after all.

Upon rescuing Susan and finding the cave to be barren, she’d concluded there was nothing there to be found. But after Kaufman’s explanation of the electromagnetic radiation, she’d begun to doubt that assessment. The electro-magnetic pulse had to come from somewhere.

“Remember the Tulan Zuyua story,” McCarter said. “The parsing out of the gods, their essence given in special stones.”

Danielle nodded and as she stared at the stone once again, a presence appeared in the foyer to the altar room. She turned to see the Old One standing there, another native supporting him. He looked as frail as ever, but his eyes were bright. He walked slowly toward Danielle, regarding the glowing stone as he went. He did not seem to be surprised.

“Garon Zipacna,” he said.

Without Devers there to translate, they did not understand him.

“Garon Zipacna,” he repeated, thumping lightly on the center of his chest.

“I think he says it’s the heart of Zipacna,” McCarter guessed.

She looked down at the stone and then tried to hand it to the Old One, but he refused, holding a hand out and pushing it gently back toward her. He looked into the pit, logjammed by the growing pile of rubble. Seeming pleased, he turned and walked over to McCarter. He opened the palm of his hand and displayed a small object.

McCarter looked closely. It was a compass, one that looked to be a hundred years old. It had to have been Blackjack Martin’s.

McCarter took it almost reverently.

“For the journey,” the Old One said, with words McCarter recalled from the meeting in the village.

Next, he went to Hawker, presenting him with an obsidian spear tip, before touching the latest of Hawker’s wounds and speaking the Chollokwan word for warrior.

Hawker bowed in thanks and the Old One turned back to Danielle, placing his hands together like a yoga master once again. Looking her in the eyes, he spoke the word “Ualon,” nodding at her.

McCarter recognized that word too. “He’s calling you the Old One,” McCarter explained. “But it doesn’t mean old, it means Chief.”

Danielle nodded, surprised by the compliment. She mimicked the Old One’s actions with her hands and smiled at him. He smiled back, then turned and, with the help of his assistant, began to walk away.

The next day, with several Chollokwan warriors as escorts, the NRI group left the clearing, in the midst of what had become a variable but near-constant rain. What had been a four-day hike in dry weather became two weeks of slogging through the mud. And even as they reached the river beside the Wall of Skulls, the skies darkened and the rain poured down upon them once again.

Danielle shivered in the cold, but her eyes caught sight of things she hadn’t noticed before: fine mist spread on a fern like beads of liquid silver, fuchsia-colored orchids among the trees and a brilliant yellow flower closing up suddenly just as the downpour began.

She’d been in the rainforest for over a month and, until now, hadn’t noticed any of it. She almost wished they would encounter another line of industrious ants for McCarter to point out and marvel over.

From the Wall of Skulls they turned south and hiked back toward the Negro. Five days later they hailed a passing vessel—a diesel-powered barge loaded down with mahogany and trailing a second bundle of logs in the river behind it. As they clambered aboard, Danielle looked back for their Chollokwan escort, but the natives had already gone.

Aboard the vessel, the NRI team thanked their new hosts, politely deflecting questions about their battered and grungy appearance, until eventually they were left alone to ponder their own unanswered thoughts.

McCarter found himself spending a great deal of energy thinking about the temple they had left behind. Despite what they’d learned, it remained in the greater sense a mystery. One that left him to guess, mostly, with big gaps in what they could prove or even grasp—much like the study of archaeology itself. Still, in a private discussion, he offered a theory of the temple they’d found. He looked at Danielle. “I admit to having a hard time accepting what you suggested, about the cave and the body. But like you, I can’t explain it any other way. Especially considering what we found,” he said, referring to the stone in her pack.

“If you’re right, the deformed body we found was probably one member of a group. A team of people or perhaps even test subjects in an experiment who came back in time. When they got here they found a world that did not agree with them, sun and rain that burned their skin. With few other options to choose from, they forced the natives who lived here to build that temple as a cap over the cave, training the natives to use rope and tackle and stone. Imposing themselves as demigods in the process, perhaps even over the nascent beliefs these people had begun to develop. In the Popul Vuh we see this as the ascent and self-magnification of Seven Macaw.”

Susan sat next to McCarter. “I’ve been thinking about the heroes who vanquished Zipacna,” she said. “They were shown to have trapped him. But he’s never described as being killed, just subdued beneath the mountain of stone. I wonder if that was supposed to be some kind of warning, if the original tellers of the story knew the Zipacna could get out again if the temple was opened.”

“A warning, hidden in plain sight,” Danielle said. She looked at the water gliding past. “Like the floating body we found.”

McCarter nodded, guessing the Chollokwan had dumped the man in the river as a warning to the Nuree tribe, but also, knowing what the water did to the Zipacna, they could be sure the larva growing inside him would not survive.

“Honestly,” McCarter said, “I could see this place influencing many of the Mayan legends. The evil beings of the underworld: the Xibalbans, the wooden people, Seven Macaw and Zipacna. We tend to think linearly in the Western world, one answer for one question. But in many older cultures, things were not as black and white. Oral tradition meant constant changes to the story. Groups intermingled, often borrowing from one another and repeating themselves with different variations. From the same base come different versions of the truth.”

Danielle looked his way. “I can understand that. I came here looking for the source of those crystals, thinking they were part of some machine, a creation from a more advanced time. They were parts to us, really—like spark plugs or fuel injectors—and we wanted the whole engine. But to the Chollokwan they were sacred objects that could help bring the rain. Relics from the original Black Rain. And who’s to say they’re wrong? We returned them to the tribe and the rains came. Two versions of the truth, both correct in the eyes of the respective beholders.”

McCarter listened and nodded, then looked over to Hawker, who had been quiet since they had left the clearing. McCarter wondered what Hawker was thinking. While his own mind tended to concentrate on what they could figure out, he’d noticed that Hawker tended to focus on things more remote than the question at hand.

“Any thoughts?”

Hawker smiled, as if he’d been caught at something. “It just makes me wonder,” he said. “I’ve been on a few journeys in my life. Seven days across unpaved desert in a truck, two months on a freighter that seemed to find one storm after another. I wouldn’t have made those without something important to do on the other end. But this, traveling through time. It had to be horrendous. Why even try it? And why go back to such a primitive era when you did? It didn’t seem to work out all that great for them.”

Susan offered an answer. “Maybe the process is not very precise. Maybe they didn’t mean to go that far back.”

Danielle seemed to agree. “An experiment of some kind,” she said. “Like Columbus trying to find a new route to India. Sometimes you get lost and bump into things, places you never meant to go.”

“Maybe,” Hawker said, looking away, “but it feels like there should be something more.”

McCarter found himself silently agreeing, though what that something might have been he couldn’t guess. In some ways, what they’d found was enough for him. It seemed as if they’d discovered one source of what would go on to become the Mayan religion, a religion that eventually took root on another continent, growing into the greatest civilization of the preindustrial Americas, flourishing for a thousand years before collapsing back into a less ostentatious but more personal set of beliefs. All unbeknownst to its earliest members, who still existed: the Chollokwan tribe of the Amazon.

The journey downriver continued slowly, the dark waters of the Negro bringing them back to Manaus. As they grew closer, the lush banks of the river widened, and they began to notice huge plumes of smoke at various points on the horizon.

The smoke came from the plantations lining the river. With the rainy season finally at hand, the plantation keepers were burning off the standing foliage to prepare the ground for crops: the slash and burn that marked the beginning of each planting season. Seeing this, McCarter had one more thought.

“We expected the rains to kill the Zipacna, like the canteen water did to the grub. But the air of today is filled with pollution, including sulfur from coal and other sources. It may not be like acid that can strip paint, but it’s far more acidic than the rain of three thousand years ago.”

“You think that’s why the Zipacna didn’t die from it so quickly,” Hawker guessed.

McCarter nodded, then turned back toward the smoke. “These fires create a little pollution,” he said. “But all across America, Europe and Asia, coal-fired power plants are pumping billions of tons of sulfur into the air. Not to mention carbon and other poisons.” He looked at Danielle; in some ways he now understood her quest. “Seems like we’re making a world more fit for other life than for our own.”

Several hours later, they reached the outskirts of Manaus, a sight most of them never thought they would see again.

During this last leg of the journey, Danielle found herself drawn to the prow of the barge. They were almost home, and she’d begun to wonder what awaited them there. An hour from their arrival, the captain of the vessel came to find her. “You are Americans?”

Danielle nodded.

“Yes, well, someone is looking for you,” the captain told her. “They fear you are lost.”

“Who?” she asked, suspiciously.

“On the docks,” the captain said. “Another American. He radioed us. Looking for a lost group, with a pretty, dark-haired woman named Danielle. That’s you, no?”

“Yes,” she admitted. “I guess that’s me. Do you know who this other American is?”

The captain shook his head. “A friend of yours,” he said, excited, as the bearer of good news should be. “He say they look for you everywhere, checking every boat that comes back from upriver. That’s an amigo, then. For sure.”

Hawker came up as the captain walked away. “What was that all about?”

She looked at him unenthusiastically. “We have an amigo waiting for us on the docks.”

Hawker’s brow wrinkled. “I thought we were all out of amigos.”

She nodded. “We are.”

An hour later they approached a crowded wooden dock, quite near the spot where Hawker and Danielle had been shot at. After some deft maneuvering around smaller boats, the barge had come close enough for Danielle to see three men standing among the locals who crowded the dock. Two wore dark sunglasses and seemed to be armed; the third wore an open-collared linen shirt, with his arm in a sling. She recognized him instantly. “Arnold!”

He smiled at her from the dock. “You’re a sight for sore eyes,” he told her.

The boat touched the dock and Danielle jumped off. She hugged him carefully. “I was told you’d been killed.”

“Yes, well. As I’ve said before: never confuse the official version of reality with the truth.”

“What happened?” she asked, looking at his arm.

“Fractured it when I fell, the only thing twenty-four layers of Kevlar couldn’t prevent.”

Moore explained how Gibbs had betrayed him and how he’d survived the bullet and the fall, only to shatter his arm on the bridge’s caisson and nearly freeze to death clinging to the pylon underneath it. He hadn’t suspected Gibbs’ actions, but believing he was meeting the men who’d killed Blundin, he wasn’t taking any chances.

Danielle relayed the short version of events while the others began to come ashore.

Susan Briggs came first, with the two surviving German shepherds on their leashes at her side. Behind them McCarter helped Brazos hobble onto the dock, and finally Hawker emerged, dragging a disoriented William Devers, whom Danielle had sedated as they approached Manaus to prevent him from escape. Last out was Eric.

Moore’s guards moved toward him, but Hawker stopped them. “This man goes free.”

“He’s coming with us,” Moore said. “He has information.”

Hawker pointed to Devers. “You’ll have to get it from him.”

“He won’t have what I’m looking for,” Moore said.

Hawker stood his ground. “Then you’ll have to guess at it.”

Moore exhaled loudly and the two men stared at each other. But Hawker would not move aside; if not for the man’s accuracy with the Barrett rifle, Hawker would have been dead.

“Let him go,” Danielle said, firmly. “It wouldn’t be right. Not after everything that went down out there.”

Moore huffed in exasperation. “Very well,” he said, smiling and seeming to approve of the change he sensed in her. He turned to the mercenary. “You’re free to go, young man. You’ve been given a gift today—your life back—use it wisely.”

The blond-haired man looked at Moore and Danielle and then Hawker. He seemed unsure. “Get out of here,” Hawker said. “Go back home, if you can.”

With halting steps, the former mercenary began to walk down the dock, glancing backward several times, before disappearing into the crowd.

Moore turned to Hawker again. “Speaking of going home,” he said, “I understand that a deal has been made. And though the expedition has failed, you seem to have held up your end of the bargain. This is not unappreciated. However, in our current situation, we appear to have lost any ability to reciprocate. Our director of operations has disappeared and is under investigation for a wide range of crimes, including embezzlement, forgery and murder. Young Ms. Laidlaw here is listed as missing and is considered to be a suspect as well. And I … well, officially I’m dead.”

Moore shook his head softly. “Be that as it may, we are in your debt, and if we don’t end up in prison ourselves, we will do what we can for you.”

Hawker knew the situation. He turned to Danielle. “You could always stay here,” he said. “I know a certain nightclub owner who might be willing to hire you on.”

She smiled at him; it was tempting. “Maybe next time,” she said. “I have some things I have to straighten out first.”

Black Rain